Saturday, April 20, 2013

CM Flashback. Two Years Ago Today.

"No Ghosts or Gays." Yona from Yellow Springs Taught American Lit Today!

I should take some time and work this letter out a little more carefully, but I cannot.

I've just come from a first year writing class. We spend the first dozen weeks reading articles and writing about them. And then, in this last unit, we explore poetry and fiction, as a way to get our first semester writers ready for the challenges of their intro to lit course, a required course in the humanities.

I won't bore you with the readings we covered today; they're just your typical freshman-level, big-ass-anthology sorts of things, the kind of short fiction and poetry that English teachers teach to students who don't want to read or think.

I assigned three poems and a story last week and today we sat down in our classroom to talk about them.


I asked some questions. "What about the main character? Why is he so tormented?"


"What about his fear of his friend, his inability to meet him face to face?"

I had already done the thing all English profs have to do when they teach lit, encourage students to use their creative and critical thinking abilities. After all, wasn't it Wordsworth who said the world is something we half perceive and half create? So I remind them, "Come on. Just try out some ideas. What do you think the story's about? What makes the main character want to avoid his friend?"

Quiet. That's okay. I'm patient.

Finally, one young man in the back raises his hand: "Maybe his friend's a vampire."

Now, I guess I should set this up better. The story is set in 1990s America. It takes place in a remarkably normal suburb, with people who have normal names, do normal things. It's a happy place. Any angst is sort of benign. It's a subdued and subtle piece that is probably just about loneliness.

Then another student raises his hand. "Or a ghost."

"Wait," I said. "What?"

"Maybe his friend's a vampire and he doesn't want to get killed."

"Or his friend is dead and a ghost, and that frightens him."

Heads begin to nod in the classroom. They're latching on to this.

"Well," I said. "What evidence do you have for these ideas? Remember when we talked about the claims we make earlier; you must have textual evidence to support any claim you make."

"Maybe his friend is gay," someone suddenly offers, and the heads nod again.

"Evidence?" I say. "Okay, you think the friend is gay. Why? Is there anything in the text that would support that, anything the author has done with language, any scene, any dialogue, any actions that would suggest the main character's friend is gay. Anything from the title?"

There's quiet for a minute. Some students flip pages. I look up at the clock. It seems to have stopped moving.

A girl in the back raises her hand. "Maybe the main character is a ghost."

Another girl beside her says, "Yeah, or maybe he realized he's gay."

The clock starts moving backwards.


  1. Maybe he's a gay vampire who is afraid of ghosts.

  2. I'm not really into gimmicky "lesson plans", but thanks to the suggestion of a colleague years ago, I manage to avoid this problem pretty successfully by means of "fishbowl" discussions(or "Socratic seminars" if you want to be pretentious and jargony about it).

    I lead the first few textual explications and explain how a good collaborative discussion should work. From then on when we discuss our readings, half the class goes in the "fishbowl" and the other half evaluates the discussion. Both parts of the assignment are graded, and the grades are weighty. I have a whole rubric for the discussion, yadda yadda, and I give them guidance on what to look for in the reading (though I wean them off this help as the year progresses.)

    I also have a high tolerance for silence. I absolutely do not jump in and help them run the discussion. When the fishbowl group finishes, me and the evaluators provide constructive but honest and sometimes harsh critiques of the discussion, both in terms of the quality of analysis and the level and effectiveness of individuals' participation.

    Granted I teach high-schoolers, so I have five days a week all year to work with them; your mileage may vary. But I finally realized years ago that if I want them to participate meaningfully, I have to show them what's expected of them and then make it really count towards their grade.

  3. Beginning with a question that involves a certain amount of interpretation is never going to work, unless your students have actually spent a good amount of time thinking about the story. Which they haven't.

    You start with the who/what/when/where and then you move to the "why?". You never just start with the "why?" right out of the gate.

    Who are the main characters?
    What do they do and what happens to them?
    When does the story take place?
    Where does the story take place?

    Once you get them talking about the main characters, and what they do, then you can ask about why they do it. You can't just ask, "Why do the people in 'The Lottery' kill one of their own every year?" You have to start with who they are and what they do.

    The "why?" is always the big question. Ease into it.

  4. It is jesus-h-fucking-christ-on-a-cracker amazing how many students believe in ghosts and vampires today.

  5. I don't think beginning with interpretation is too much to ask. Certainly none of my professors began a discussion asking us to name the main characters or the town in which the story took place. To be honest, I think most of my classmates would have been insulted if a professor opened the class with really basic questions like, "Who is the main character in 'Good Country People'? What appendage is she missing?"

    However, my professors usually did assign us a two-page response paper. That seemed a good way to ensure that people did something resembling interpretation before they walked in the room. Actually, it ensured that people did something resembling the reading. Students at most universities typically don't do the reading if there isn't some kind of incentive. Even if the story is really exciting, or Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games--they won't do it if they don't absolutely have to.

  6. Gone Grad, you obviously went to a far better institution than the one at which I teach.

    The incentive that my students have to read is that 25% of the grade is for participation, based on attendance and answering plot/character questions in class.

    Despite this, less than half of them do the reading. Sometimes, FAR less (as in 10 or 20%).

    1. I tackled the problem of students not reading the material several years ago by often giving them a pop quiz at the beginning of class. I read the questions (easy multiple-choice) & they write down the answer. No quizzes can be made up, but I drop the lowest three grades.

  7. I think we'll be down to discussing only sonnets, haiku, and flash fiction soon -- or maybe tweets. Getting them to read, whatever tactics one uses, seems to be becoming more and more difficult.

    And they'll still think the answer is ghosts, vampires, zombies, and/or closeted homosexuality. I suspect we're partly to blame, since literary criticism over the past few decades has more than occasionally erred on the side of suggesting that all literature is really about something rather reductionist: phalluses (phalli?) or class or gender, or whatever (not that these things aren't interesting, and worth teasing out; they're just rarely the only interesting thing in a work). One colleague, whom I otherwise very much respect, let loose with a rant that boiled down to "bodies! why can't I get them to talk about bodies!" one day (and no, she wasn't talking about zombies, but about embodiment, and how it connects to race/class/gender/etc.). I decided it was wiser not to suggest, at least not at that particular moment, that there were a number of other themes in, and interpretive lenses through which one could view, the work in question.

    But mostly the problem is getting them to read, so they can then close-read. I may soon be using a technique I remember from fifth grade: everybody reads a page aloud (I was always lost when called on, because I'd been reading ahead).