This course was set up as an introduction to graduate study at Marymount, and given the diversity of our student body, it seemed useful to incorporate a web component as well. I teach in both the Humanities and the Literature graduate programs, and my students were about equally divided between the two–a few more in the Literature program. Some students came into the graduate program directly from undergraduate study, some students were international and found themselves struggling with a non-native language, and some students had already built substantial educational or corporate careers. My logic for incorporating the technologies I did was fourfold. First, several students were either returning to graduate study after a hiatus or drawing on the graduate program for career enhancement, and so needed an orientation to doing research in an electronic environment. Second, the diversity of skill sets brought to the forefront the need for a framework in which to conceptualize the systematic nature of writing, literary and cultural analysis, and research–hence the title of the course, “Building Textual Interpretation.” Third, because several students were interested in pursuing careers in education, it seemed incumbent upon me to sketch out a little of the terrain that their students would be increasingly familiar with. Finally, fourth–and perhaps most importantly–I believe that the kinds of skills needed to interact successfully and creatively with the many and varied platforms and technologies available to students, from library catalogs and primary source databases to blogs and web-based research tools, enhances the individual ability to put an idea together from its parts.
While this course was not set up as a radically non-traditional or web-based course (in fact, it was fairly traditional in its writing requirements), a few of the techniques for researching and writing in an electronic environment were in some cases perceived as radically non-traditional for my students. One, who describes herself as “a bit ‘shell schocked’ with my re-entry into school after almost twenty-five years, when we actually typed papers on a typewriter,” purchased her first laptop computer during the process of our class. Similarly, many of my students’ initial approach to research was built on the “research report” model–finding sources that discuss your topic and weaving them together into a new essay. This “research report” model ultimately stunts the critical and creative thinking essential to graduate students’ success in the program, because it neither fully addresses the question of originality nor models the fundamental skills of lateral thinking.
The course was divided into two broad sections: the first half of class was devoted to cultivating the skills of close reading and creative analysis required in graduate study, and we used Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as our primary text. This first half of class culminated in a 6-8 page thesis-driven essay in which students were restricted to using only Conrad’s novella. The goal here was to encourage sophisticated textual analysis, which requires attention to the details of the text and its language. The second half of class was devoted to cultivating the skills of creative research, and we used Pope’s The Rape of the Lock as our primary text. This second half of class culminated in a 15-page seminar essay that situated the poem in its material cultural context; the essays sought to answer the question, “How can a fuller knowledge of the material cultural context of the early 18th century help me understand some aspect of Pope’s poem more clearly?”
Happily, I’ll also be presenting the results of my pedagogical experiments in EN/HU501 this term at the 2010 ASECS conference in Albuquerque! Last night, we explored the basics of the Omeka resources database, and virtually the entire class has taken a look; everyone seems interested in participating in this experiment by contributing to it, so I’m going to revise the archive assignment to reflect this. It seems unecessary to have students turn in a hard copy of all their resources to me if they will be available in the archive.
I also introduced zotero to my students, and no one seems to have had much prior experience with it; additionally, no one seems inclined to bring personal laptops to class, so I think I’ll have to reconsider how the class library will work. I’ve altered the library settings to be open to everyone. Next class, we’ll browse through it and if students don’t have zotero accounts, I can walk them through the process. I’ll know more after our Wednesday meeting, and from any emails I receive in response to the archive assignment.
After four long weeks, we’re finally through with Conrad in EN/HU501! We spent quite a bit of time with the piece, using it as a tool to more fully explore the nature of literary analysis, close reading, generating good essay topics, brainstorming, and so on. One thing I’ve done differently in this iteration of the course is spending more time discussing how students read and take notes–literally–and I think it will prove helpful when we move on to the next portion of the class.
The first essay is in, and my students worked extraordinarily hard on their drafts–revising, revising again, meeting with me, commenting on peers’ work, revising, editing. In general, I’ve got a wide array of approaches and skills, which makes the class invigorating–but it can also be difficult to determine exactly where to pitch; the best meetings are the ones where I don’t have to lecture, but can let the discussion happen under supervision, a process that naturally bridges the spaces between skill levels and familiarity with the discipline. What I find wonderful about this group is their ease with one another, their energy and committment to discussing their work and giving feedback. At the beginning of the term, we had some meetings that somehow became dominated by my voice, but after workshopping the first essay, I think we’ll really be able to explore the joys of the seminar environment. And, of course, the delicious food is an unadulterated plus.
On to Pope!
Our first 501 course meets this evening, and I’m eager to get a sense of my student’s experience with literature, literary history, literary research, and literary analysis. I’ve asked everyone to read an essay from Falling into Theory on the history of the discipline, as well as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and a few other bits and bobs, including a fascinating and frightening documentary on the Belgian Congo.
We should have quite a bit to discuss, and I don’t want to over schedule the class, so I think we’ll start off by considering the history of the discipline–that should make for a good self-reflexive conversation about the class and its goals. I think a good segue from that into literary analysis will be the introduction to Conrad’s novella–it goes into some depth regarding the “Conrad Controversy,” voices of which we’ll be engaging later.
After the break, I want to model some of the technologies of analysis, like ManyEyes (perhaps also introduce them to a few other tools we’ll be learning over the term–Zotero, Omeka, and more), as a springboard for a discussion of the text and methods of approaching it. We will have to go over the literary terms assignment for next class, so I’ll model my illustration of irony. And of course: signing up for food/drink!
Finally, homework for next class, The Craft of Research, and things to look forward to in the next 14 weeks!