Sunday, September 11, 2005

Blogging with my students

As I think I've mentioned earlier, I decided to have my introduction to literary studies students use a course blog to keep public journals, to share resources, and for discussion. For a grade journal of B, I'm asking them to make two posts/week, one general entry and one snippet research entry. I got the idea for snippet research from Sharon Cogdill. It asks them to do spend some time each week doing some research related to the course and sharing what they learn with the class. The idea is to have the students help fill in the background and contextual information related to our readings. For instance, the novel Hogfather plays with and draws from myth, legend, and story, especially those related to Christmas, the Solstice, and the end of the year. Likewise, Yeats regularly draws from Celtic mythology in his poetry. Rather than have me fill in all this information, I've provided a number of potential resources and I ask the students to choose topics based upon the reading. The idea is that as they read, they should choose something that seems interesting and they want to learn more about (and I'll make some suggestions in class and on the blog too).

I told them that I'd do two entries a week with them and I've been enjoying it. Most of my posts these first two weeks have been "example" posts. Before turning to our first formal literary text, we're doing readings from Rob Pope's The English Studies Book to establish both some terminology, background, and theory. Our first day's readings focused on Pope's discussion of language, literature, and culture as the three main fields English studies (which Pope, explains, can also be thought of in terms of rhetoric, intertextuality, and discourse). My first journal post narrowed in on language, and I used Pope's idea of textual intervention to examine the first line of Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier": "If I should die, think only this of me," which they were also supposed to work with.

I rewrote that line five different ways and discussed what the changes in meaning helped reveal about the original line. For instance, one of my five rewrites was "If I should die, imagine only this of me" and I explained
By replacing “think” with “imagine,” this rewrite focuses on the action the addresser wants the addressed to do: to think about him in a particular way. Using "to think" rather than "to imagine" may mean that the poet is asking the addressed to remember something that is true rather than something that is not (i.e., while I could be a jerk at times, we had many good times too, so remember the good rather than the bad). Or, conversely, the addresser may be trying to shape a remembrance of him that isn't true. By using "think" rather than "imagine," the poet may be trying to deny something that is true (i.e., while I may have been a jerk, think of me as a responsible guy). Tied very much to this is the use of the word 'only.” The use of "think only this of me” suggests that there are things the addresser does not want the addressed to think about or remember about him.


Also during the first two reading assignments, I had the students read Pope's history of English studies and its origins, from English being used to "civilize" and "make British" colonized peoples, literature as a source of moral education, the origins of textual studies in Biblical hermeneutics, Classical studies, rhetoric and composition, literary history, philology, and literary appreciation. (We also discussed where English studies seems to be going (inclusion of theater, film, cultural, communication, and media studies.) A lot of stuff to throw at an introductory course of non-majors, but as I briefly touched on in class and elaborated in a journal entry, we live in a democracy in which the public has a powerful voice in shaping education. Being part of an educated electorate means, ideally, that they have some notion of the assumptions that drive our debates over education. While I'm not going to tell my students that they shouldn't believe in a traditional curriculum centered on dead white European males (Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Milton, and maybe a couple of others!) and I'm not going to tell my students they need to believe in a multi-cultural curriculum that embraces the non-Western, I want them to understand the assumptions and values that both positions (and the positions in-between) and the traditions they come from.

My third journal entry was a riff on a student's exploration of the word literature as "the body of written works of a language, period, or culture." The student's entry focused on literature as something written and on literature as a window to other cultures and times. My riff played with the notion of literature as something written and oral tradition. "Does this mean," I asked, "that Homer's poems, or Beowulf or a Xhosa praise poet's poem are 'non-literature' that only somehow magically become 'literature' once they're written down?" Of course, the answer is both yes and no. I explained the notion of oral tradition and oral performance and how they're different from a written text, and briefly noted that historically, people have used the lack of written texts that conform to modern notions of the literary as a sign that other cultures were primitive, and also noted that this applied not just to non-Western cultures but to Anglo-Saxon culture -- there are English departments which insist that English literature did not start before 1100 CE or with Chaucer).

Finally, my most recent journal post was an example of snippet research (we began those this second week). We started talking about New Criticism on Thursday, so I compared the definition of ambiguity offered in The English Studies Book to that in the Oxford English Dictionary and three literary dictionaries, glossaries, and encyclopedias in our library's reference collection. I summarized the various definitions, produced my own, and explained what a New Critic looks for when one works with ambiguity in a text. I then pointed out (again), in an announcement post, that The English Studies Book lists key terms for each section and that researching these terms along the lines of what I did with ambiguity is an ideal snippet research topic for those in need of one. Hopefully, some of them will follow that lead as they'll soon be applying these terms and theoretical approaches to the texts we're going to read.

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