poetry memorization

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Welp, I did it. At long, long last…I have completely memorized the class text: Dr. Suess’s ABC. How do I know this? Because I rattled it off to a very cranky eleven-month-old in the car this morning, on our way to pick up her dad from the auto repair shop, where he’d just dropped off the other car. I was a little stunned that I’d got the whole thing, though, the pictures and the rhyming really helps a lot.

It made me pause, though, to reflect on the things I’ve committed to memory. Sort of an out-of-fashion skill these days–numbers are all on our phones, events are all digitally photographed and posted online. Memorization is especially out of favor in academia–with good reason, too. Why bother using valuable brain space to memorize when you can look something up and save that space for critical thinking? Analysis? Is poetry memorization a waste of time? Sometimes, when I glance over my “still-to-read” part of my QE list, I wonder…

Yet, I cannot shed the habit of committing bits of text, usually a poem, or now the odd, well-worn children’s book, to memory. I suppose I come by it honestly: Poppa, my dad’s dad, was always puttering about the yard or house, muttering poetry under his breath. He favored nonsense poems, but also could recite “When the Frost is on the Pumpkin” on command–and I frequently commanded it as a child. When Poppa passed away, I claimed his well-worn poetry anthology for my own, and used it as my primary reference for my 11th grade poetry journal.

While my mom is the queen of the appropriate song lyric, my dad has always loved, and recited to me, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” So much so that excerpts of that poem were the first poetry I committed to memory myself. Along with his own poems, my husband would recite “The Litany Against Fear,” from his favorite book, Dune, to me when we were dating.

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I can mark my life by the poetry I was remembering at the time. Emily Dickenson’s “That I did always love,” for my wedding. In the early mornings and late nights of nursing my newborn baby, I went over the first stanza of Endymion and this e.e. cummings poem to pass the time. When I first started teaching, I taught, and learned Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B,” because, of course. Classic hymns or psalms are also poetry that have proven useful in key moments. The act of memorizing is like a slow absorption, or a dissolving. You work over the words until they break down and enter your porous brain, and become part of you.

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These days, I am committing Dr. Suess and his crew to memory. I’m not sad about it, either. So much children’s literature is tremendously satisfying and soul-filling in its silly, poignant way. I’m also working on getting all of this poem into my being–a sort of antidote for that post-baby body “shmeh” feeling, or just anything that might be getting me down–studying, scheduling, bill-paying, what-have-you.

I’ll always encourage my students in this endeavor–and some day, if I ever get to teach a poetry course, they’ll be assigned to it. Because it is so personally fulfilling, I wonder, sometimes, if it would be appropriate in a composition classroom? I suppose that depends very much on how one conceptualizes “composition” and “the classroom.” hm…

What can we give students credit for?

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In my reading this week, I’ve noticed various notions authors have of what students bring with them to the college writing classroom. Everyone acknowledges that students bring something…but just what that something is varies widely among pedagogical theorists. Prior knowledge, bad habits that need to be broken, a slew of ideas about how to “do school.”But, do they bring anything we can actually work with? Anything that doesn’t have to be “undone” in the acclimation to academia?

Reading David Bartholomae’s collection of essays, Writing on the Margins, is like following the brilliant career of man, very devoted to student learning, who doesn’t think so. And partly, I believe he is right. Students do not come into the university with much–if any–understanding of what writing at the college level, for academia, really means. In the essay, “Writing Assignments: Where Writing Begins” Bartholomae emphasizes this lack:

“To discover or to learn, the student must, by writing, become like us–English teachers, adults, intellectuals, academics. He must become someone he is not” (177).

This transformation is one of the goals (or for many, the main goal) of college writing instruction: to help students write in college genres for college instructors throughout their college careers (may they last not much more than four years!). There are several ways this way of thinking runs into trouble, in my view. First, students are very, very savvy, and they can sense when they are being instructed in “school-only” tasks. They are happy to do these tasks, however, if it means certainty of a particular grade. Second, if we are teaching students to acclimate to an environment for only four (or five, six, eight) years of their lives, where is the impetus for transfer of that knowledge to contexts outside the university…say, to their future careers? Or, dare I ask, to their civic lives?

Where Bartholomae fails to give much attention, I think, is to the knowledge that students DO bring with them to the First Year Writing classroom. Though they may not already be the savvy researchers possessed of the specialized discourse of academe, our students certainly know how to “do school.” Twelve years of training in the American education system has given them at least that (and sometimes, much more).

It is this kind of prior knowledge that Linda Bergmann and Janet Zepernick discovered as a result of their study written up as “Disciplinarity and transfer: students’ perceptions of learning to write.” In running several focus groups to listen in on how students talked about their experiences in composition courses, Bergmann and Zepernick noticed that students at their university drew a clear separation between the writing they did in English courses and the writing they were asked to do in courses in their majors:

Students, “failed to see any connection between what they [had] learned about writing in English classes and what they see as objective, fact-based, information-telling writing demanded elsewhere in their academic and professional lives” (5).

However, students had great clarity about the rhetorical situation of the classroom–though, this works out to be a kind of “negative transfer.” Being very savvy and privileging grades, students adapt to the culture of “school,” and learn very early on how to assess a particular instructor for the minimum amount of work they must do to acquire the grade they want. Many educators are aware of this attitude and bemoan it. Why can’t students value the learning process? Appropriate their education?? I actually think it is quite a smart strategy, in its way. Why “waste” time and energy achieving a goal when you can simply analyze the rhetorical situation and address it strategically? After the first few assignments, you can get a sense of what a particular instructor expects, and then produce it. Repeat with each new class/instructor. Simple. Effective. (…if what you want to achieve is a certain grade point average, or a certain piece of paper with your name and a school’s name on it.)

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This is a powerful rhetorical awareness, but one that needs to be harnessed if it is to first–break students out of their habits of merely “doing school” and second–help students transfer knowledge from our courses to other contexts. Far from coming in knowing nothing, most students know all about how to address the rhetorical situation of classroom and teacher in order to achieve their purposes. But, we as FYW instructors must explicitly address and extend this prior knowledge. Make use of it. Help students become aware of it and harness it. Maybe if we give students credit for what they already know–even though it’s not what we wish they knew–we could put them on the path we as “professional” academics have found so fruitful.

work-life balance, summer style

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Ah, summer. A time for sitting on the lawn while your baby discovers what grass feels like when she rips it up by the handful. Time to spend with friends, at last, after a long, hard winter where–nevermind the seventy tons of record-breaking snow–you were “snowed in” under piles of student papers and a teething baby. Time, at long last, to read that list of 100 texts for your Qualifying Exams.

I’ve never been one to support the myth that teachers, even at the university level, “get the summer off.” We’re either teaching, prepping, researching, or sitting in all the meetings we didn’t have time to schedule during the semester, since we were busy sitting in our offices waiting for students to come see us. But, this summer, I am not picking up any teaching, and it feels marvelous. Granted, I’m not teaching so that I can work on my exam list and work as the primary caregiver for my daughter, while her dad picks up an almost full teaching load himself…but, it sure feels like a lighter load. So, I’m going to go with it.

Still, this lighter load is a load, and it needs to be managed. Balanced. My goal this summer is to be all there, in whatever I’m doing. It may mean I take the baby for a walk, leaving all devices and books at home, so as not to be taunted by all the reading I’m not doing. It may mean that I ignore the laundry and hunker down for an hour of active reading while the baby naps. Whatever I do, I want to do it with all my heart.

I’ll try to keep you apprised of the situation, as I work through this tightrope-walk. Even as I write this, though, I’m aware that babies aren’t the only things vying for people’s time as we all strive to keep our homeostasis in tact. What do you do to keep yourself in balance? Or, do you just say “screw it”? What does “balance” look like for you?

Textbook Review

Colin Shanafelt’s Literary Analysis & Essay Writing Guide is exactly what its title claims: a guide. It is formatted in what appear to be two distinct sections, one guiding students through various literary terms seemingly intended to help with reading and analysis of texts, and another to guide students through the paper writing process. I say “appear” because (in the Kindle version at least) there is no table of contents, nor is there an introduction. The first “section” is set off with a series of four graphics: wheels, labeled “poetry,” “prose,” “rhetoric,” and “figures of speech,” respectively. Each wheel is divided into “spokes” that set off literary terms, such as “diction,” “imagery,” and “tone.” From there, Shanafelt proceeds to make his way around each wheel, listing a term, defining it briefly, providing examples, and supplying a list of “Questions to Ask.”

The second half of the book is similarly structured, with wheel-diagrams for “style,” “content,” “organization,” and “mechanics.” These wheels are also sub-divided and populated with terms that relate to each of the four aspects of “Essay Writing.” The biggest different between the two sections, aside from the content, is that the second half does not offer any “Questions to Ask.”

Shanafelt gives the impression throughout this text of crisply pointing out to students what to “Do” and “Do Not.” (These instructions appear multiple times in the writing section, followed by bulleted lists). He distinguishes this book by taking on “the basics” or perhaps, more accurately, the things English teachers often complain about in regard to student reading and writing.

Out of all the texts we’ve read this semester, perhaps the easiest, and most superficial, connection that can be made with Literary Analysis & Essay Writing Guide, is Wilder and Wolfe’s course centered on the special topoi of literary criticism. Indeed, the guide touches specifically on a few of the special topoi, and could be used, at least, to deploy the terms it defines as “a mixture of inventional tools and audience appeals” (Wilder and Wolfe 175).

When considering Showalter’s thoughtful inquiry into ways to teach fiction, Shanafelt could become useful. Showalter dwells mainly on teaching the reading, understanding and sometimes even the writing of fiction. However, there is not much (if any) attention given to writing ABOUT literature (Showalter 89). Here, Shanafelt enters with the second half of the guide, aimed at providing students with resources to do just that.

Shanafelt’s guide demonstrates clear strengths, especially in the realm of writing about literature. Impressively, over half of the guide is devoted to terms, definitions, and tips (the “Do” and “Do Not” lists) related to writing about literature. Much of the information is basic, however. For example, there are several pages devoted to end-text citation, a skill students must master. However, it is a skill one would expect students to be at least introduced to in pre-requisite composition courses, or even in some cases, high school. That is not the end of the problems I have with this guide. Not only is much of the information basic (to a degree that second-year students will have likely heard at least some of it multiple times in multiple courses), the way the information is presented is quite general. For example, one of the “Do” suggestions under the term “Topic Sentences” reads: “use topic sentences to support your thesis.”

While Shanafelt’s guide provides some intriguing possibilities for a lower-level literature course, I don’t think I would assign students to purchase this text. At best, I would poach examples, or definitions of some of the literary terms. The writing section, though helpful in covering basic terms, provides no actual exercises or opportunities for student practice with those terms. I would perhaps use this text most as a generative tool or starting place for invention exercises that I would need to develop myself. So, potentially useful for instructors, but probably not best for students.

 

Thinking about YA LIt some more…

As I continue to work toward a Writing-About-YA Lit-Course, I have some clear questions that I’m writing through…

1. How will I address Close Reading?

Teaching close reading is something that is a constant subject of conversation among my fellow instructors in the English Department. Everyone agrees that it is important–essential, even–but not everyone agrees on how to go about it. For a Literature course, I am leaning toward incorporating mini-lessons on Wilder’s special topoi for Literary Analysis. I think that list would make a good framework for students to keep returning to as we read a variety of texts. However, I never feel like one can go amiss with a mini-lesson and/or practice with just plain ol’ active reading skills–annotating, responding in the margins, etc. I think both lessons would be important in a writing-about-literature course.

2. How will I incorporate technology?

This has be perhaps the most fun to consider, as I plan this course. I’m playing around with a couple of digital assignment ideas:

Amazon Book Review: this is a real-world writing assignment that is rooted in genre analysis. It is medium-stakes, I’d say, because students are writing a relatively short amount of text, but for a “real” audience. It asks students to consider ways in which they engage with writing about literature in digital environments, and also asks them to face the new rhetorical challenges that writing online brings. The one thing I can’t decide about this is whether to put it at the beginning of the semester (as a warm-up activity) or at the end (as a bit higher-stakes activity).

Book Blog: this will be a class-collaboration, where each student will be asked to contribute a response to a book of their choice to add to our course texts. This also begins with genre analysis, as we will consider, as a class, what makes a “good” book blog. This could also incorporate elements of argument/persuasive writing, giving students the task of persuading readers to read their chosen text.

3. How about assessment?

Of course, the main vehicle for assessment in any writing course is student-generated text. However, I’m thinking more seriously about incorporating self-assessment into the mix. Not only is it a vehicle for reflection, but it also will help students think through the process of looking at their own writing and considering how or whether it met the desired criteria, which is a skill all writers must develop.

Ah, the planning continues…

thinking about a YA Lit class…

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I’m in the process of planning a writing-about-literature class. I want to focus on Young Adult Lit, for lots of reasons: I like to read it, it’s having a huge “moment” right now that would be interesting to interrogate in a scholarly way with students, and I see YA Lit as a kind of “literature gateway drug.” It can be a way in for students who “hate reading,” or who “just don’t read, man.” It can help them dip a toe into literary analysis and even just enjoyment of literature.

As I think about how to structure such a class, I have lots of ideas about assignments, and texts I want to introduce. Perhaps structuring the class around a question, such as: “What is YA Lit, anyway?” could be interesting and survey-ish, taking us through the history of YA Lit and some current conversations about it, but would also offer plenty of footholds for students to write their way in to the conversation.

A couple of things I’m musing on as I brainstorm:

1. Integrating multiple modalities: this semester, I’ve been thinking more theoretically about digital humanities and its place in my classrooms. I’ve always integrated “new technologies” in my pedagogy, just as a function of my generation and the era in which I went to grad school. However, I’m thinking more pointedly about it, lately. Having my students write in public digital genres is a feature I’m considering more seriously as I plan courses. (think, blogs, but also Wikipedia, Amazon reviews, etc.) Still not sure how this might play out in a specifically Lit class, but I’m excited to try it out.

2. Grading: I will tell anyone who cares to listen that grading is the LEAST great part of teaching. It honestly sucks. I hate it. We can’t get rid of it, though, for a million not-great reasons. (sigh) Grading is especially sucky, I think, in writing classes, because there is such a process to writing well, and grades just skew students’ focus. Reading this post on hybridpedagogy has got me considering grading contracts, like, more seriously than ever. A friend of mine is having great success with them in her composition classes, and it is something that I’m curious about. I wonder, though, how it might play out in a writing-about-literature class, as opposed to straight up comp. Hm.

The brainstorming continues…

assessment

It used to be the most boring word: assessment. In the beginning of my master’s program, I thought there could be nothing more mind-numbing. That was before. Before I became involved with assessment, and before I understood its power. In the first chapter of her book, Assessment Clear and Simple, Barbara Walvoord underscores this point when she declares that “the end of assessment is action” (4). Assessment, done correctly and by educators and stakeholders who are passionate about student learning and creative in their practices can bring about positive changes at the curricular, program and even institutional levels. In his article, “English Program Assessment and the Institutional Context,” John Ulrich describes two functions (or perhaps, motivations?) behind assessment: the first is that it is a very smart thing for any English department or writing program to engage in, purely for defense purposes. In an increasingly hostile academic environment, a strong assessment system can buffer against administrator ire. It can also perhaps be used as evidence to support an argument for, say, funding. The other function of assessment is to help teachers teach better. “What we want, after all,” Ulrich declares, “is to read and discuss our students’ written work in the context of program expectations, not analyze abstract sets of scores that allegedly ‘measure’ our program’s effectiveness” (4). The contrast here, is I think, between my original assumption of what assessment was (boring! abstract! lacking context!) and what I’ve come to realize it can be (extremely strategic! useful! helpful for teaching!).
Now, I’ve been involved in program assessment at two different universities, and both focused on Composition Program assessment. For this reason, it was fascinating to read through Wilder and Wolfe’s study, “Sharing the Tacit Rhetorical Knowledge of the Literary Scholar.” Thinking through what assessment means in a Literature context, I realize there are some key differences between comp. and lit. contexts. Yet, there are perhaps more similarities. Walvoord’s straightforward strategies for assessment can be applied to either corner of the English department writ. large. Just one more reason to acknowledge the importance of building in assessment across programs.