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Today's featured guest blogger is Howard Cox, Instructor at Angelina College.

 

 

My epiphany came one day when I was teaching Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in a sophomore literature course.  In Chapter VIII of the novel, Jake and his friend Bill are taking a stroll along the river Seine.  Bill, who evidently has decided to avoid hangovers by never sobering up, had previously suggested that they stop almost every ten feet for a drink.  After looking down the river at Notre Dame, the bridges over the river, and the islands covered with trees in the river, Bill remarks, “It’s pretty grand,” and “God, I love to get back.”

 

A few moments later, Jake, being considerate of his friend asks, “Want to have a drink?”  Bill says, “No, I don’t need it.”

 

The point I make about this exchange is that the beauty of the cathedral at night, the river, and the scenery is intoxicating enough in and of itself.  Alcohol isn’t necessary.

 

My students, many of whom already have extensive experience with alcohol, don’t get this.  My aha moment came when a student asked about part of the description that says, “Down the river was Notre Dame squatting against the night sky.”  “Why does it say squatting?” she asked. “How can a church squat?”

 

I explained that Notre Dame was a Gothic cathedral built in the Middle Ages with flying buttresses.  “Viewed from the right angle,” I said, “it looks like a giant toad squatting on the river bank.”  Blank looks were on every face.  “It’s a kind of awe-inspiring sight,” I offered.  “Have you ever seen something so amazing that you just kept staring at it?”  Crickets chirped in response.

 

I was a getting a little exasperated when inspiration struck, and I happened to be in a classroom with a computer hooked to a projector.  A couple of minutes later I had a southern view of Notre Dame, about four feet tall, up on the screen.  Comprehension began to creep into students’ faces.

           

“Yeah,” one said, “it does kind of look like a frog.”

           

“Definitely squatting,” said another.

           

I had learned an important lesson.  Our students, who have smart phones with more computing power than the spacecraft that went to the moon, often don’t bother to Google images of things they are unfamiliar with, any more than they look up new words on Dictionary.com.  Seeing something, though, is often key to understanding the point an author is making.  Incorporating this into a lecture yields surprisingly positive results.

           

The following week I was teaching Wordsworth in a British Literature course.  This time I was ready and was able to quickly reference online photos of Tintern Abbey and the River Wye.  It may not have helped any students to understand the themes in the poems we were discussing, but it definitely helped them to understand the inspiration for the poems and the places being described.

           

In recent semesters I have added props to the online visuals I have been using.  When discussing fiction dealing the American Civil War, I pass around a replica revolver, a Minie ball, and a kepi cap.  There is something about touching and holding an artifact that brings the literature to life for many students.  For a British Literature class on the Medieval Period I recently acquired a broadsword replica.  When I discuss how medieval swords were purposefully made to look like crosses, it is much easier to make the point when you have one to display and for the students to touch.  After a serious intellectual discussion about swords in that class, we took ours outside and sliced a watermelon with it.

           

My experience with using props and visuals has been overwhelmingly positive, but there are some legitimate concerns that some instructors may have:

 

  1. Cost: You can find anything for sale online these days, but I was surprised to find good quality replicas were available for not much money at all. The most expensive prop I have is a revolver replica that was $80.00. 
  2. Time constraints: It does take time to display visuals, and to have students interact with props.  Some advance planning is always involved, but I don’t find this to be any more burdensome than planning, say, a group activity, for example.  I often arrive a little early to pull up online visuals on a classroom computer, and to make sure the projector is working.
  3. Safety: Replica firearms are impossible to fire, but some states do have regulations concerning their display and use. Sword replicas are sold without sharpened edges. The only danger from either of these props is dropping one on your foot. 

My fiction students came to a unanimous conclusion this semester: writing scenes without abstract language is hard. How are we supposed to make sure the reader understands what the characters are thinking and feeling without explaining everything?

 

“Trust yourself,” I told them. “Trust yourself to show your characters embodying those emotions. Then trust your reader to know those actions and to know how to interpret those actions.”

 

I acknowledged with my students there are some instances in writing where abstract language is necessary. However, my students often over-explain the feelings and emotions that their characters are experiencing; or alternatively, my students use an emotion to describe a character’s state of being, but it is unclear how the character acts upon that feeling.

 

I’ve challenged my students this semester to “show a lot, tell a little, and never explain,” a course concept borrowed from nonfiction writer Phillip Lopate. By this, I ask students to write in action, with clear details and careful observations, as much as possible and to insert external information and backstory only when necessary. If students show and tell well, then they’ll never need to explain how a character is feeling or why a character takes the actions she does. Both will be obvious from the scene.

 

To help my students practice writing without abstract language, I developed an in-class exercise that asks them to pair emotions with clear, concrete actions. I made a deck of cards with common phrases centered around an emotion that I frequently see in student writing: she felt anxious, he was confused, they were in love, and so on.

 

We first did an example together as a class with the phrase they were uncomfortable. At the board, my students and I sketched out a scene of a Thanksgiving dinner and a small cast of characters—parents and two children. We decided on a reason for discomfort in the room: both children have announced they wouldn’t be coming home for Christmas.

 

Then, I asked my students to take on the roles of the characters and act out what their discomfort might look like. Several slouched in their chairs, some played with imaginary forks, or poured themselves an imaginary glass of wine. We discussed how each action reflected discomfort of the characters without ever using the phrase they were uncomfortable.

 

One student, a mother herself, even took on the role of the mother at the table, choosing to drop her shoulders, roll her eyes to the ceiling, and frown at her shoes. After laughing at her dramatic performance, we all agreed. She was disappointed.

 

Then it was time for the students to try on their own. I dealt each student a card with a different phrase, and I asked them to put the emotion into a paragraph or two of action and dialogue on the backside of their card. Once the students had completed their writing, I collected the cards and read the action pieces out loud.

 

Students then shared the emotions they heard in the pieces I read. Some were exactly right in identifying the phrase, such as he was self-conscious. Other peers saw anxiety, worry, and nervousness—all appropriate interpretations of the moment. Together, we discussed the possibility of readers interpreting actions slightly differently and how the creation of a full scene could provide enough context so that readers would understand what was happening. At the conclusion of the exercise, my students expressed their desire to incorporate movement as part of their writing to get the actions of their characters just right.

 

I was impressed that in such a short time so many of my students successfully captured different emotions and ideas in action without any explanation. When their peers correctly identified the corresponding ideas, they saw concrete ways of showing and telling without explaining, and the power of trusting their readers.

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Cristina BaptistaAmerican Literature Teacher at Sacred Heart School in Greenwich, CT

 

The day after the 60th Grammy Awards, no fewer than six students were excited to tell me that “The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus’ 1883 sonnet that has graced the base of the Statue of Liberty for well over 130 years, was quoted at the music awards ceremony. We had studied the poem in class, comparing the idealistic image of America to the dirty (in more ways than one) society of frauds, drunks, murderers, and rapscallions in the America of a novel published just one year later: Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. While it took some time to help students make a focused claim about what a comparison between the two contemporaneous, diverse works reveals, they soon realized both authors share a desire for achieving the best America possible—albeit Lazarus’ rhetoric is one of pride and patriotism while Twain’s satire catalyzes change via shame.

 

But I daresay the effect of U2 standing on a barge before Lady Liberty, insisting, in the voice of that “mighty woman with a torch,” “‘Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses,’” offered more of an impression than reading Lazarus’ original words on a classroom handout.

 

Afterward, a colleague joked, “It’s part of pop culture. ‘The New Colossus’ has been legitimized to students.”

 

How do we, as educators, make literature relevant and vital to young, media-motivated minds? How can literature—a type of media itself—become more of a social currency, even a lifeline to purposeful living, that is standard rather than exception? How do we make students appreciate literature as a living manifesto of their own lives and not just flat words on a page?

 

It may seem obvious: find common footing. But it’s one thing to tell students, after reading a piece, “see how much human nature hasn’t changed?” and quite another to inspire them to find out for themselves. Even more, as teachers, we often have to fool them into believing that they’re having an epiphany about a text—even if that message or view is, all along, what we’ve been hoping they’ll discover.

 

Based upon the response to the U2 / Lazarus match-up, young people are still invested in music. I have been an American Literature educator at both the high school and college level, and one of my favorite eras to teach is Modernism. It is a textured time—war and celebration; expatriates in Paris and the Harlem Renaissance at home; surrealism and cubism, imagism and objectivism. And the music—the throbbing pulse of that era is certainly its jazz-age sounds and dances. It is an era of syncopations in every way.

 

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby lends itself well to interrogation through a musical lens, especially for restless high schoolers. Five years ago, instead of reducing Gatsby to yet another academic essay; instead of watching a film version and comparing it to the novel; instead of assessing students’ level of critical reading via pop quizzes after each reading assignment; I found it time to hack traditional modes of literary reading, discussion, and assessment.

 

The Great Gatsby Playlist Project was born. Essentially, it is as follows:

 

  1. Students read and annotate one chapter at a time, charting themes, characters, topics, motifs, symbols, and surprising passages.
  2. Next, students find a song with lyrics, from any era, that best reflects the chapter.
  3. Then, students write 1-2 paragraphs responding to what, in juxtaposing that chapter with the lyrics, they recognize about human nature and why it matters.
  4. Students repeat the processes above for each of Gatsby’s nine chapters.
  5. Finally, as a tenth entry, students select a “theme song” best reflecting what they feel is the overarching theme of The Great Gatsby.

 

By project’s end, students have read deeply, sometimes obsessively, about literature and lyrics. They have written 10-20 literary paragraphs, each beginning with a claim. They have made connections between the lives of the Lost Generation members and those of people today.

 

What do students gain, personally? Aside from practicing time-management (the project takes longer than they realize), and finding a multi-media approach to Gatsby via original ideas, academic writing, and close-listening, they inevitably recognize, “hey, we’re still a lost generation.” Each year, students conclude music is perpetually loaded with sadness, despair, anger, greed, and unrequited love. Though it can get quite depressing, that is what Fitzgerald’s novel is: a cautionary tale about the danger of nostalgia, overactive imaginations, immorality, and hollow, “meretricious beauty,” to use Fitzgerald’s words.

 

So, when I assign The Great Gatsby Playlist Project, I am reminding students that they need to close-read life as they do books and song lyrics. I am reminding them to peel back the layers of reality and separate the chaff of fake news from the wheat of truth. I tell them that songs are a literature, and literature is their lives; so, listen well.

As an English professor at a small school, I teach a wide range of courses including, of course, composition. And like most places, my department expects regular conferences with students in those writing courses. I’ve always liked them, because they give me a chance to get to know my students better and because they allow for that individualized attention that’s so necessary in the teaching of writing.

 

For my literature courses, though, I’ve not always had this opportunity. For some courses—particularly upper division literature courses—I’ll require a conference while a student is working on a research paper, but that doesn’t have the same feel as the conference in a WRI 101 course. By the time students are writing a research paper in a junior/senior level course, they likely have taken other courses with me or— at the very least— have been in class with me for 10 or more weeks. I have always liked the idea of introductory “getting to know you” type conferences, but I’ve always found those to be awkward and a bit directionless.

 

Last year, though, I hit on a way to meet with students individually that involves meetings early in the semester, but also gives those meetings some direction.

 

One caveat, before I explain: this takes up an enormous amount of time in the weeks that I do this. But, as I hope I can show here, I think it’s worth it.

 

When I teach a survey course, I have students keep commonplace books as part of a larger assignment that helps them prepare for class, review for exams, and make some sense of the larger trends of literary eras. This assignment comes in three parts: the commonplace book, where students record at least one interesting quotation each class session; the individual conference with me; and a written response that works to define the style and interests of an era. Because we divide our British Literature survey courses at 1798, we quite easily fall in line with the traditional demarcation, so I’ve got three sections of each survey course.

 

For the commonplace books, I create a template in a word processing program that I share with the students. It simply includes the following things for each day of class (thus, if we have 42 class sessions, I give them 42 entries):

 

Date:

Author:

Title:

Quotation:

 

Students are certainly encouraged to use this, but I also like to encourage them, if they prefer, to handwrite their commonplace books in a notebook of their choosing. That latter option is what most students take up, with many even customizing and decorating their books (a practice I strongly encourage).

 

When it’s time for conferences, I have students sign up for a meeting during the last week or so before an exam. They come to my office and I ask them a simple set of questions: What stuck out for you? What patterns are you seeing? Who was your favorite author? From those questions, we’re able to have a conversation about the things that interest the student, following whatever path they start us down. At the end of the conversation, I encourage them to bring it all together, asking them to identify some major characteristics of the era in terms of prominent themes and style.

 

After this conference, students write a paper that explains what they see as the defining characteristics of the time period. In grading these, I’m simply looking for whether or not the students seriously engage the work and show some recognition of patterns across a particular era.

 

I’ve found that this has been incredibly useful in getting to know my literature students. More importantly, though, I found that in doing this my students have become much more fluent with the literature itself. They’ve begun quoting on exams where I’m not necessarily requiring them to do so (that is, they’re quoting when answering questions that don’t ask for quotations, but where quotations are ultimately useful); they’ve become more adept at recognizing quotations; and they’ve become better at expressing the larger trends across an era, pointing out places where non-canonical writers break the mold of elite literary practice.

 

It is a lot of work in terms of time, but because I’ve created it as a relatively low-stakes assignment (do the work, get the points), I hope that I’ve developed a situation where students are becoming increasingly confident in their ability to participate in a conversation about literature and about literary history.

Allyson Hoffman

Digital Storytelling

Posted by Allyson Hoffman Expert Feb 7, 2018

In my writing classrooms I ask my students to challenge their idea of what makes a “good” story. I encourage them to imagine new and unfamiliar ways of experiencing a story, and then I support them in bringing these stories to life. One broad approach is digital storytelling, which I define as storytelling—whether fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or hybrid work—that is enhanced by digital tools. The enhancement may be adding visual or audio components, making the stories interactive, or adding other experiences for the audience.

 

There are so many directions students can take with digital storytelling it’s impossible to address all of them in a short post. Here, I outline my initial approach to introducing digital storytelling in the classroom, which I modify depending on student needs and interests.

 

I first begin with the reminder that the story itself is essential to digital storytelling. Without a strong story employing techniques of whatever genre they are writing in, the effects of digital tools will be limited. I encourage students to focus on story selection and composition first before selecting the tool or tools they’d like to use.

 

Then, I provide my students with examples to show the possibilities of digital storytelling and to inspire their own work. Here are a few:

 

  • Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Jennifer Egan (the print version is in her book A Visit from the Goon Squad)
    • This story demonstrates how digital tools do not have to be complicated or unwieldy. Simple tools, such as PowerPoint, can be effective in storytelling.
  • Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge by Dinty Moore
    • This essay, built with Google Maps, shows how maps can help readers locate the place of a story.
  • Escape from the Man-Sized Closet by The Late Show Staff
    • Built with Twine, this funny choose-your-own adventure reflects the possibilities for inviting an audience to participate in a story. 
  • Welcome to Night Vale
    • As a popular podcast that now has associated books and other media, Welcome to Night Vale shows how audio stories can reach audiences in a long-lasting way. Simple audio stories can be developed in programs such as Audacity.

 

Next comes the exploration of digital tools. Importantly, I don’t teach a specific tool to students. I also don’t know how to use every digital storytelling tool available, and I strongly believe I don’t need to. This is for two reasons: 1) technology changes quickly, and much of the information I teach students will soon be outdated, and 2) I don’t want to limit students on the possibilities for creation by requiring them to use a tool I’ve taught in class.

 

Instead, I encourage students to teach themselves what they need to know. This type of learning is crucial since, as I just stated, technology evolves quickly, and students need to be able to adapt with technology changes. As instructors, we can foster student independence and problem solving with digital tools—skills which will be important to whatever work students do after graduation. I support students by helping them identify learning resources, from the FAQ or help pages on a digital tool’s website to YouTube instructional videos.

 

I find it helpful to set aside class time so students can explore digital tools, either by bringing in their own devices or by having work time in a computer lab. In these spaces students can also teach each other about the basic workings of whatever digital tools they discover.

 

A good place for students to start their research of tools is the DiRT directory, a directory of digital research tools, including story creation. I also introduce students to resources from Dr. John Barber, who is in the Creative Media & Digital Culture program at Washington State University Vancouver. (I had the opportunity to study under Dr. Barber at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute 2017—an excellent course and conference.) Finally, I remind students to investigate the tools used in the examples we read.

 

Since digital stories are designed to engage readers, I encourage students to share their pieces. There are many options for this—in-class presentations, department symposiums open to the campus community, and public “readings” for anyone to attend. By watching users engage with their stories, students can see the effects of their stories in the moment.

Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Happy Endings

Posted by Ayşe Papatya Bucak Expert Jan 31, 2018

One of the most common complaints I hear in my undergraduate courses is how depressing literature is. And in my creative writing classes this translates to: Why do we have to write literature that is so depressing? Doesn’t anybody get a happy ending? 

 

The challenge, most of the time, is that the writing we’re doing—essays, short stories, poems—is, by definition, short. And all, or almost all, of it has to start with conflict to get a reader’s attention. So how, in a short space, do you believably get from conflict to happiness?

 

In my classes, I like to use “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin as an example. The short story follows two brothers, an unnamed narrator and his younger brother Sonny, who are in conflict most of their lives, but in the last scene have a believable moment of connection. So how does Baldwin pull it off?

 

  1. Baldwin creates an achievable goal—not that the brothers get along generally, but that the narrator learn to listen to Sonny.
  2. He creates two characters capable of change—who want change.
  3. He covers a long period of time during which movement towards change can occur.
  4. He shows the brothers trying repeatedly—and failing—to change.
  5. He has each character first go through a major life event—the kind of thing that might trigger other changes.
  6. It’s not a huge change, and is, therefore, a plausible one.
  7. There is no happily ever after—there is merely a moment of understanding that bodes well for the future.

 

Now key to his success is Baldwin’s amazing manipulation of time (well documented in Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction), but still, at least we see it can be done.

 

So maybe literature doesn’t have to be so depressing after all?

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Colleen Kolba, Digital Teaching Fellow at University of South Florida 

 

Each semester, I teach an Introduction to Literature course for non-English majors. One of my goals in this course is to break down an idea they tend to bring with them from their high school English courses: there is one right way to interpret a text. We talk about our personal frame of reference for seeing and understanding the world and the role that this plays in how the meaning of a text is constructed. However, it’s easy for undergraduates to fall down the slippery slope of “we can each understand this work differently” to “literature means anything” or “any interpretation is correct.”

 

To reach a middle ground in the way my students understand interpretation, I turned to concept artist Sol LeWitt. Starting in the late Sixties, LeWitt created instruction-based Wall Drawings. He would write instructions for a piece of art and then a group of artists would execute the actual drawing. I’ve always found LeWitt’s Wall Drawings compelling since the instructions, while fairly simple and clear, can be interpreted differently, depending on the reader, and inevitably yield a different result reliant on the group executing the drawing. These drawings felt like a wonderful visual metaphor for literary interpretation.

 

On the second day of my literature class, I bring in a large roll of paper. I write the instructions for one of LeWitt’s Wall Drawings on the whiteboard. As students file in, I cut large squares from the paper. I usually get a few apprehensive glances. Class starts and I put students into groups of three or four. I ask them to:

  1. read the instructions on the board and write them down
  2. take one sheet of large paper for their group
  3. find a hard surface in the classroom or hallway to execute the instructions

 

Students disseminate with their groups and paper. On their way out of the classroom, some usually ask me to clarify a sentence or two in LeWitt’s instructions. I answer by telling them to give the instructions a close read, break them down part by part and examine the relationships between the sentences, and work together as a group to make sense of them.

 

I wander between my students. They chat happily, debating interpretations of the instructions and how to best execute their drawing. Students come alive when tasked at creating something in the classroom, especially creating in collaboration (which means the activity serves a secondary purpose as an ice breaker in the first week of school).

 

As each group presents me with their finished product, I tape them up in the classroom, side-by-side. Then, students free write in response to three discussion questions:

  1. What do you notice about the drawings in front of you?
  2. Who is the artist of the drawings? Who can claim ownership over the creation of these drawings?
  3. What does this activity have to do with literature?

 

The class discusses their answers to the three questions. Virtually all my students come to the consensus that there are many similarities between the drawings, due to the fact that parts of the instructions are more objectively understood. However, they point to differences in the way some more complex parts of the instructions are interpreted by each group. There are some facts we can agree on in the instructions, but other areas required interpretation. Thus, it’s not surprising that my students then slide into a discussion of the way that our interpretations of literature can be grounded in facts, but influenced by the way we read and construct meaning.

 

As a bonus, the second discussion question prompts my students to debate the roles of writer/artist and reader, raising questions about authorial intent, how much space a reader is given in co-constructing meaning, and how these dynamics impact our interpretation of a text.

 

Sol LeWitt not only serves as a way to introduce my students to the questions that literature raises and to think about interpretation, but it also gives the class a memorable touch-point for the rest of the semester. Students reference our “LeWitt activity” discussion as we interpret new works. And when my students start to say that “this poem can mean literally anything” I can remind my students of their drawings and the way they constructed their interpretations. 

Many students these days are Bio Med, Finance, Marketing, or Nursing majors to name a few. These students are accustomed to 200-person classrooms where watching long PowerPoints and taking notes for the upcoming exam are common pratices. 

 

Writing classes, however, are often hugely different. With a cap of 22 students per class, we, as writing instructors, are able to learn our students’ names, and create a more engaging classroom environment by utilizing participatory techniques.

 

I’m almost positively sure that my students do not want to hear me lecture every class for an hour and fifteen minutes. By 2 P.M., if I were to do this, they’d be falling asleep while sitting up.

 

Enter: The Think-Pair-Share—a teaching technique I learned in a previous practicum course where students are asked to think individually about a set of questions, then exchange ideas with their peers, all before coming back to discuss together as a class.

 

More specifically, it works like this: My students read a brief piece of writing in class and are then given a one page set of about five questions. They are given 10-15 minutes to quietly write their own answers before they pair up with a classmate sitting next to them to exchange each other’s ideas. When this happens, the classroom breaks from quiet study hall to nervous laughter, smiling, and the exchanging of names. This is often how they meet one another for the first time. Then, after discussing their answers with their peers, we come back together as a class and I ask different groups to answer the initial questions handed out.  

 

The Think-Pair-Share works well for many reasons.

 

  1. It puts the onus on the students to articulate responses to in-class texts and allows for an interesting way of using class time (versus a one hour and fifteen minute lecture).
  2. It allows students to think both individually about their answers and also allows them to collaborate or exchange ideas after they’ve answered questions on their own.
  3. Instead of cold-calling on students, this method allows students time and preparation to thoughtfully articulate well-developed answers and gain the confidence they need to answer in front of the whole class.
  4. It allows them to have fun. They meet their neighbors, talk to their classmates, and while they are engaging with the text, questions, and answers at hand, they are also forming classroom relationships and rapport with their peers, breaking the pattern of staring into phone glows and computer screens.

 

In addition to lecturing, Think-Pair-Shares have revitalized my classrooms, have given students agency, power, and room to speak, and have strengthened the rapport between my students, and with me, their instructor. Because of the many positive outcomes associated with Think-Pair-Shares, these exercises have become, and will remain, mainstays in my writing classrooms.

As I gear up for the new semester, I’m finalizing my course syllabus, and again, as before every semester, I find myself curious about the best strategies to balance my desires to convey important information to my students and to create an engaging document that students will read. This school year, I’ve focused on two components of the syllabus: the content/structure of the syllabus and the use of the syllabus after the first day of class.

 

Inspired by strategies David Gooblar presents in “Your Syllabus Doesn’t Have to Look Like a Contract,” I carefully consider the visual choices I make in presenting syllabus content. Depending on the course, I model the writing and structure of documents that I expect my students to create throughout the semester. Then, I provide other necessary course information.

 

In my fiction workshop I ask my students to write letters responding to their peers’ work as well as their own, and so my syllabus for the course begins with a letter from me to my students. In the brief letter, I outline the three units of the course, provide an overview of our workshop structure, and make the final portfolio requirement clear. On the other hand, in my professional writing course, my students create professional documents, from emails to grant proposals to memos, and so I open the syllabus with a memo to my students. The memo format models the genre conventions of memo writing, and it clearly and succinctly conveys introductory information, including course structure, contact information, and office hours.

 

Many of my students have been under the impression that the syllabus is a single-use document, forgotten or discarded after the first day of class. To counter this, I make clear, both verbally and in writing, my expectation that the syllabus be a guiding document—a road map—to follow throughout the semester. I ask my students to bring their copies of the syllabus to each class and each class I return to it.

 

Specifically, I speak to the course goals and student learning outcomes, sections I include in every syllabus I write, regardless of course. (Many instructors, I’m sure, are required to include similar sections.) I find each is useful in helping students see the expectations I have for their learning and the tangible work we will do to achieve those expectations.

 

For example, when introducing or reminding my fiction students of their reading responses, I’ll ask them to return to the syllabus with me and recall the established goal of “understand[ing] primary and advanced tools of engaging creative writing.” Then I guide them to the corresponding learning outcome: “craft thoughtful responses to assigned readings, identifying the tools used in each.” I find this practice useful near the end of the class when I ask students to review what they’ve learned and I remind them about their homework.

 

I find the regular use of the syllabus serves several purposes. When I encourage students to use the syllabus as a functioning, working document in class, I find they turn to the syllabus for questions they might have about the course—my office hours, major assignment deadlines, etc.—before asking me. Students also return to the letter and the memo when looking for examples of document structure and design. Finally, since we continue to use the syllabus and reiterate course goals throughout the semester, when I ask students to identify what they’ve learned at the end of the course, they are able to, with specific examples. With these approaches to the syllabus, it lives throughout the semester as useful and important as it was on the first day of class.

When I introduced the first peer review assignment of the semester to my professional writing students, there were clear groans and noises of frustration and reluctance. I pressed them for explanation. “What’s so bad about peer review?”

 

“It’s not helpful.”

 

“It feels like a waste of time.”

 

“I don’t know what to say when I peer review.”

 

In response to these frustrations, I suggested that perhaps peer reviewing in a different way might make the process more helpful to students in their revision. First, I reiterated our purposes for peer reviewing: students get time and space away from the pieces they’ve been working on; they receive feedback from multiple readers, rather than me alone; and they develop connections with other writers in the class, which can extend long after the course ends. Then, I reminded my students that they have authority in their writing and they can choose what changes to make based upon the feedback they receive. Finally, I introduced them to a method of response that encourages this authority over their work, a modified version of Liz Lerman’s “critical response process.”

 

Instead of commenting on whatever strikes them, reviewers respond to specific questions asked by the writer. The writer, then, is in control of the feedback they want to receive on their work. As a result, the writer shapes their peer review process so it supports their writing goals.

 

To facilitate this peer review, I ask students to prepare a list of specific, yet open-ended questions about their work, such as: How might I restructure my essay so my ideas are more clear? How does the document design affect the argument I’m making? Which statements are confusing to you, or need more evidence? This requirement of developing thoughtful questions helps students critically reflect on their own work prior to submitting it to their peers. Since students know their own work best, they usually have a sense of where they’d like to begin with feedback.

 

With the list of questions in hand, students respond to the work of their peers. When responding, I ask my students to be as specific and clear as possible. I encourage them to cite assignment guidelines, our course readings, or other sources. These detailed responses support not only the student who is being reviewed but also the reviewer since they can later turn their critical eyes and reflections to their own work.

 

Once reviewers have answered their peers’ questions, they then pose open-ended questions of their own, such as: Why did you choose to structure your essay this way? How might a different color scheme affect the design of the document? What response do you hope to receive from your audience? The purpose of these questions is to help the writer reflect on elements of their writing or documents they might not have considered, and as writers respond to the new questions they gain a stronger sense of elements they need to revise.

 

Following their first attempts at peer review using this process, I asked my students what was most useful. They unanimously agreed that being in control of the feedback they received made the peer reviews helpful. They discovered that their reviews helped them think about their own writing more carefully. They also asked if we could continue peer reviews this way for the rest of the semester, and we have, finding similar success each time.

 

This peer review process can extend to other writing classrooms, from professional writing to composition to creative writing. When students are control of the feedback they receive, they are more receptive to concerns from peers and confident in their ability to revise and strengthen their work.

 

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Colleen Kolba, Digital Teaching Fellow at University of South Florida 

 

I expected the worst during finals week my first year as a teacher: a huge stack of papers to grade, frustration over revision advice not taken, late nights to meet grade submission deadlines. While I certainly had a lot to grade, what I really struggled with was unexpected: boredom at the conformity of my students’ work. Their writing was polished and it was evident that their skills had improved over the semester. But the writing lacked energy, originality, and their own voices. I found myself wondering what they had really learned.

 

In preparation for the next semester, I re-examined how the course learning goals might still be met while allowing students to present their learning in a more individual and authentic way. If students could tell me how they would best be able to present their learning, then maybe they would engage with the final project with more investment. And when students are invested, they spend more time, produce higher quality work, and engage in the work more deeply.

 

Enter, the “pitch your own final” final exam. A final exam designed to give students agency over their own learning. What I’ve detailed below is how I present Pitch Your Own Final in my Introduction to Literature course (a writing-intensive general education class offered at my university), although different iterations of this same final can be applied to courses throughout the English discipline. How it works: 

 

A month before the end of the semester, I introduce the final exam. The guidelines are as frustratingly open-ended as they come: “Engage with at least one course concept in a new way to demonstrate what you’ve learned in this class.”

 

It’s important to note that I’ve scaffolded this kind of project into my course. Throughout the semester, my students have been given a little more agency over each assignment that they complete, in order to prepare for an almost instruction-less final.

 

The class is usually in a mild uproar at this final project. They ask question after question to try and get me to tell them what I want. I ask them to tell me what I want. This makes them furious. They beg for examples. I learned early with this kind of project to not give them examples (a practice I otherwise offer in my class) because what many produce will be a near copy of that example. I ask them to trust me, as they’ve done all semester, that they’ll get much more out of the project if they’re in control.

 

Students then develop pitches for their final projects. This is a critical step. It allows me the opportunity to give students feedback about their initial direction. I can jump in early to make sure students are either doing enough work for a final project or not too much work (I’ve had students pitch me ideas that would turn into a book if executed as they describe). What I usually receive is a mix of analytical and creative work, synthesized together to demonstrate the student’s evolved understanding of what literature is.

 

On the last day of the semester, students present a portion of their work to the class, and the results are diverse and astounding. I’ve had students examine literary translation through dance choreography, create video games, and one even live-coded music. They’re invested in the work because they’re allowed to take what they’ve learned and connect it to a mode that they already know (either in the form of their major, hobbies, or a medium they’re familiar with). Many, as they present, tell the class that they discovered that they knew much more about literature than they thought and that it relates to their own interests in relevant and unexpected ways. 

 

I step out of the classroom that day with arms full of large, weird textual/visual/analytical projects and an inbox full of links that will lead me to a new and surprising project and perspective. I’m looking forward to grading, at this point, because with each new project, I get insight into a completely new, non-conforming perspective.

 

Quick end note: As you can imagine, I’ve implemented this type of final in courses in which I’ve had the freedom and luxury to design the class myself. While I’ve used this final to meet departmental and university-level learning outcome requirements, I acknowledge that assigning a final exam like this is a luxury afforded to those with complete creative teaching control.

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Susan Dunn-Hensley, Visiting Assistant Professor at Wheaton College, IL

 

 

“Do you feel my pain, / This anguish like no other / From taming with the words of France / This heart that came to me from Senegal?” (Leon LeLeau; translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy). These are the final lines of Caribbean poet Leon LaLeau’s poem “Betrayal.” I teach this poem to my History of English Language (HEL) classes as part of the unit on world Englishes.  Although LaLeau is speaking specifically of the French language, his lament for the loss of his language and culture echoes the concerns of many English speaking postcolonial poets, novelists, and playwrights. Reading LaLeau’s poem and other postcolonial works as part of a unit on World Englishes allows students to explore the varieties of World English resulting from colonization and globalization. These works also reveal the evolution of the English language in these postcolonial contexts and help students understand political and cultural factors involved in the spread and development of language.

 

 A few years ago, as I was teaching the History of the English Language in the same semester that I was teaching freshman composition, it occurred to me that the material that we were covering in HEL would benefit the students in my English writing classes. In particular, I began to consider how learning about language – the tool that all writers use – could actually help English writing students become more careful, sensitive, and effective writers.

 

In Writing Analytically, David Rosenwasser argues that one of the great enemies of analytical reading and writing is the transparent theory of language, which presents words as if they were a clear window through which to view meaning, a meaning which can somehow be accessed without attention to language. As I thought about this assertion, I realized that many of our native English-speaking students grow up with the type of language privilege that makes it difficult for them to recognize the power of language to shape identity. As such, some students fail to appreciate the importance of gender nonspecific language and culturally sensitive language. Seeing the ways that reading about linguistic imperialism and post-colonial reassertion of identity helped my English majors better understand the power of language to both subordinate others and to assert and shape one’s own identity, I began to realize that this lesson could be particularly useful to non-English majors who may be headed for careers that would involve intercultural connections and the need for sensitivity to English language politics and privilege.

 

In order to help my freshman writers understand language in more complex ways, I decided to take components from my HEL class and modify them to fit an English writing class. Writing classes at the liberal arts college where I teach tend to have themes, so I decided to structure the class around the theme of Globalization and Language.

 

First, I began the semester not with my usual introduction to academic writing but with Brian Friel’s play Translations. The play, set in 1830s Ireland, dramatizes the replacement of Irish hedge schools with National Schools and the topological surveys of Thomas Frederick Colby and the royal Engineers that mapped and renamed Ireland, Anglicizing the landscape.

 

My students and I discussed the fact that language forms our identities and connects us to our own culture; however, language can also be a tool used to oppress, control, and redefine others. Beginning the course with a reminder of the power inherent in the tool that they were wielding gave many students a greater sense of the importance of their roles as writers.

 

Second, I focused our writing on language and global interconnections. One assignment asked the students to research the political and cultural ramifications of the English as a world language. The students selected a “variety” of English and researched the socio-political issues that accompany the use of English in that country or region. The variant could come from any number of places – Australia / New Zealand; South Africa; West and East Africa; India; Hong Kong; Jamaica; or Canada. The students simply had to select a variant and consider particular conversations and controversies pertaining to that variant. For the research paper, I allowed the students to select their own topics, but I required that the topics in some way address global interconnections.

 

Third, I incorporated Caribbean poetry into our lessons on analytical reading. Each poem that I selected dealt specifically with the complex interconnections between language and culture. Analyzing poems such as Grace Nichols’ “The Fat Black Woman goes Shopping,” Mutabaruka’s “Dis Poem,” and LaLeau’s “Betrayal” reinforced lessons about the connections between language and power structures. However, it also reminded the students that, although English writing classes do teach students to write in Standard English, non-standard dialects are not linguistically inferior - but are, instead, an expression of identity.

This semester I am teaching a graduate course on creative writing pedagogy, and I have a student who is quietly but persistently trying to shift the murderous and tortured language with which I, and so many other writers, talk about the writing process to something more positive.  Why, he asked last class, do we talk so often about how hard writing is rather than what a joy it is?

 

He has a good point.

 

Of course writing is hard. And often one of the first things a professor must teach a class of creative writers is to hold their writing to a higher standard. I often tell my graduate students that they must treat writing as a job. I often tell them that nothing—no job, no blank space of time, no amount of caffeine—makes writing easy. And I tell them—often—that they must make sacrifices—live cheaply, be open to jobs all over the country, get up early, stay home—if they are serious about their writing. From the outside it might seem as if I am not teaching students how to write so much as I am persuading them not to even try.  And I suppose there’s some truth to that—some dreamers need to be woken to realities, and creative writing programs are full of dreamers.

 

But still—I write because I love to write. Why don’t I talk more often about that?

 

I suspect to some extent the writer’s trumpeting of her own suffering is a defense against the world’s suspicion that she is getting away with something—being paid, however modestly, to play.

 

Once when I was visiting my parents during a winter break, I lay on their living room couch, decidedly doing nothing, and my father turned to my mother and said, “Do you think she is writing right now?”

 

They laughed so hard I departed the room for my childhood bed where I could lie around doing nothing uninterrupted.

 

I then heard my father say, “I don’t think she’s going to dedicate her prize-winning collection to us.” At which point, I may or may not have slammed my childhood door.

 

Because let’s face it, sometimes writing looks exactly like doing nothing. And this, I think, is one reason writers emphasize our struggles so much. Because writing looks easy when in fact it is hard. But what is the effect on ourselves when we do that? Wouldn’t joy and fun bring us more quickly to the desk? Wouldn’t a sense of play as Karen Russell described in her keynote address at the 2015 AWP conference benefit our writing?

 

My student really does have a point. And I’m going to make a much greater effort to shift my language toward the positive—and to introduce more playful exercises into my creative writing classrooms next semester.

 

This semester my creative writing pedagogy course meets in the music building, and as I walked its hallway last week, I heard one music student say to another, “I have a blister on my tongue.”  At least writers don’t have that, I thought to myself at the time. But maybe I wish we did—a mark of our own hard work might alleviate some of our need to prove it.  Maybe with blisters to show for our efforts, we’d feel free to boast about how much fun we’re having.

Every semester and every class is uniquely its own which means its students are, too. In my most recent course I’m teaching, Expository Writing—a Gordon Rule writing course that teaches students how to fine tune their description skills—many of my students have self-identified as not a writer. In fact, many of my students are biology majors, pre-med, or engineering students, and some of them, I’ve come to find, were not looking forward to flexing their pens. So, at the beginning of this semester, my challenge lay ahead of me.

 

Early on, because of this unique mix of students, I decided it was important to actively implement participatory design: an approach to design that attempts to involve users in the designing process to ensure best usability. It’s a broad term or approach that can be applied in any field, whether it be software design, architecture, or the university classroom.

 

Now, this doesn’t mean that I sit back and let my students run the show, but it does mean that I ask a lot of questions and place value in their answers. Some things I ask include: What’s been the most helpful text we’ve read so far in class? Which writing exercise was most useful to you as a student? Would you prefer to submit your first essay to only me, or to start with a paired workshop right off the bat? If you start the semester with participatory design in mind, it’s easy to remain flexible and adaptable, shaping your teaching to your unique students’ needs. And, new research has even found that designers, or in this case, instructors, create more innovative concepts and ideas when co-designing with a group, or in this case, our students.

 

The advantage to keeping participatory design in mind is that, by staying open-minded and malleable in your teaching decisions, you can best adapt to student needs, offering them, perhaps, a more valuable classroom experience. For example, when we hit mid-semester, I noticed that my students weren’t responding as well in classroom discussions, and that some were even dozing off while I was trying to engage them in a lively discussion. Some of this is normal, but I also asked myself what I could do to liven this classroom up? I took another brief survey and found that my students were wanting more in-class writing exercises, and this was something I could easily facilitate and incorporate into our time. After a few new lessons and in-class writing exercises, I saw the classroom energy instantly turn around and pick up speed again, gaining the momentum they were needing during that mid-semester slump.

 

The best thing, though, about participatory design is that it includes students in the process which:

 

  1. Removes a hard-lined authoritative teaching style
  2. Better assess and responds to student needs, and
  3. Empowers students, giving them agency and stake in the classroom

 

Ultimately, participatory design leads to these outcomes where students are more engaged, and where they are transforming from mere students-at-the-desk to the co-creators and colleagues they will soon become in their futures.

This post originally appeared on the blog on 9/14/11  

 

We are finally—I believe—past the time of the unexamined assumption that literary fiction is automatically high art (and therefore worthy of our imaginations and ink), while genre fiction is intrinsically lowbrow or mind-wasting (and therefore not worthy of those things. Or not for academic credit, anyway).

 

My sense is that the past decade has seen a growing acceptance of genre writing in the workshop, or at least a growing acceptance of work that flirts with genre. And I wonder if this is because more writers who teach these workshops are themselves flirting more with genre. (Kim Wright recently published this essay about the phenomenon of literary authors jumping into the genre pool.)

 

Still, potential arguments remain for emphasizing literary fiction, particularly literary realism, in the workshop:

 

  • Literary fiction is generally more “character-based” than genre fiction.
  • Instructors are more comfortable teaching their own area of expertise, which is usually literary fiction.
  • Each genre has its own conventions that don’t necessarily cross genres or apply to literary fiction, whereas (the thinking goes) the lessons of literary fiction more readily apply across all genres.

 

Maybe the most compelling argument is that conventions themselves—especially character types and clichéd plots—are precisely what we teach students to resist. In a “hard-boiled” detective story, the detective is, well, hard-boiled. He also solves the crime. Always. In the romance, the couple falls in love and gets together. The genre story, particularly its outcome, is largely determined by the conventions of the genre, rather than by the particular characters and their situations. When these conventions get substantially subverted, they are not generally considered genre stories any longer. Rather, they are something else: not a crime novel, but Lolita; not a science fiction novel, but Slaughterhouse-Five. Not a ghost story, but Beloved.

 

Yet there are also some persuasive reasons to allow, maybe even encourage, genre writing in a workshop:

 

  • Genre fiction is what many of our students are reading and is what inspires some of them to pursue creative writing in the first place.
  • If the workshop dwells only in the domain of literary realism, how can we in good faith assign stories by Márquez or Barthelme or Borges (or contemporary authors like George Saunders and Kevin Brockmeier)—or anyone at all who strays from the “real”?

 

Although I do promote literary realism, especially in the beginning workshop, ultimately I want—and ask—students to write what they’re most driven to write—provided they are careful not to make artistic decisions based on what “always happens” in a particular genre. If a story involves time travel, there needs to be a reason why it can’t simply involve flashbacks. If a troll is guarding a bridge, he’d better not be guarding it “because that’s what trolls do.” That troll needs a history and personality every bit as fleshed out as a character in a “literary” story. In this way, I try to help students develop the habits that stay with them for their next story, and their next, regardless of genre.

 

A final thought: This issue seems particularly salient now, I think, because we have a whole generation of creative writing instructors who grew up on Stephen King teaching a whole generation of students who grew up on J. K. Rowling. And this is a good thing, indeed—because Stephen King and J. K. Rowling happen to know a thing or two about writing compelling stories.

 

Your thoughts?