Category Archives: class recap

Overly Abstract in EN240?


This evening I met for the first time with EN240: Intro to Visual and Cultural Study, and I was a little off my mark, I think, with the first half of class. I wanted to stage an ice-breaker that would lead us in to a discussion of how we conventionally understand identity, community, and culture. I asked students to brainstorm defining features of their identity, as they saw it, and then to make a similar list of how other people viewed them–how do others (whom you don’t know) categorize you? That’s all well and good, but then I asked students to put themselves into communities with a common culture; that was a little too abstract, I think, and I need to reconsider the wording of the prompt as well as its purpose. The goal was to help students see that there are cultures and identities we select, and we may belong to more than one; those often compete with the identities others ascribe to us. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see how easily students picked up the point that how others define us is often flattening or uninformed, but also that we respond to that and work to define ourselves in relation to their perspectives and other contexts–one student, when I asked why no one identified themselves as students, made an excellent point to the effect of it being too obvious because we were in a classroom. At any rate, the goal was to make real the point that identity isn’t a static thing, but mobile and multiple–and not always wholly under our control. This was to have led into an introduction to semiotics, which we didn’t get to–that will be for next meeting.

But, we did have a good time extrapolating audience features and their values from a selection of magazines I brought in; I asked students to browse through the magazine, and make observations about the advertisements, the articles, the layout choices, and topics discussed–then, try to identify what we could about the target reader: age, race, class, occupation, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, level of education, taste preferences, and other values. Then, students were to select a representative ad and show how it addressed (we didn’t use the term “interpellation”!) or called into being that reader with specific observations about the ad. I think this would work very well as an ice breaker, in lieu of the more cerebral approach I took–they were talking, laughing, getting to know one another, and in the meantime, they seemed to grasp some of the stakes of cultural studies.

As with 203, we didn’t get to go over policies, but I did remember to share my plans on that score with them. In both classes, I’m not at all sure the students are into using twitter as a backchannel–only about 5 of a total of close to 40 students had ever used it!

Introducing the "Renaissance" in World Literature

I felt very good about the way EN203 went this afternoon–what a great way to start the new term! I’ve got a pretty full class, though a handful of folks were missing today, and about 7 or so students contributed something to the conversation. We discussed the syllabus, as per usual, and I went over the kinds of pieces we’d be reading, the kinds of projects and assignments on the docket, and some of the problems with the term “Renaissance” when dealing with world literature. Then we moved into the prezi I’d prepared–we only made it through a few frames, but I think the students were making sense of some of the central features of the period–we looked at a medieval Madonna and Child by Duccio, in comparison with Holbein’s The Ambassadors, to get a sense of how to identify some of the key shifts occurring during the early modern period: interiority, a focus on worldly matter and the details of the physical world, the struggle to define the relationship between the earthly and the spiritual, an attention to, why the arts were so visible. We also had an interesting tangent about sumptuary laws (and the beginnings of a discussion of Renaissance melancholy), so I’m eager to return to that next class period. Reminder: bring in a page image of sample sumptuary laws! We didn’t get to my planned experiment with crafting collaborative class policies, so I’ve got to email the class to ensure that they read and consider what’s on the table. Hopefully, next class we’ll be able to discuss and amend.

The Country Wife?

Our last discussion in Theater History was taking up the role of the thematics of theatricality in The Country Wife; I wanted to organize our thinking on the theatricality of court culture, the generic features and cultural significance of comedy during the period, and the purpose served by “the playhouse” in Wycherley’s drama. I started with a clip from The Last King, a tool to get a discussion going about court theatricals and innovations in the stage that derived from masque culture, and then I wanted to show another clip from the same film–a contrasting clip that shows Nell Gwyn on the public stage, in a comic performance. I had planned to spend most of the time after that highlighting and discussing the metatheatricality of The Country Wife, reading the play as a partial document of theatrical culture in the Restoration. Sadly, the computer kept hanging! So, I wasn’t able to show the clip that connected the three parts of the lesson plan, and that made me feel very discombobulated. Added to which, folks seemed a little less than invested in commenting on the features of the court masque and what that suggested about Restoration culture. Well, live and learn–I’m working on a collection of video clips that can be streamed over the web or drawn from a data disc, which should help avoid these problems in the future. And yet…

I am also not quite satisfied with the daily summary assignments; I feel they’re incredibly useful, especially in a world where summary skills and accurate observation are being waylaid by opinion and gut response. However, I am beginning to suspect that the class doesn’t quite approach the summary assignments in a fully effective way–making them not useful as study guides, for one. The level of completeness and accuracy I would like to see just isn’t consistently there, and so students don’t seem to be getting much out of the exercise. I’m considering having summaries of each play for the remainder of the term, rather than summaries of each reading assignment as it comes. Perhaps the holistic summary will be more useful for students.

Popular Fiction by Women

I’m so very much looking forward to EN426 this term! We had what I thought was an excellent first class last night, though the first portion was livelier than the second–of course, we were discussing Haywood at the beginning, and I modeled a sample presentation on Backscheider & Richetti’s Popular Fiction by Women in the second. I was struck by how observant my students were, and how able they seemed to be at keeping previous discussion points in mind to inflect and shape later ideas. We’ll be reading Defoe’s Moll Flanders next, and coupling that with either Trumbach or Stone as historical context. One of the things I’m going to have to keep in mind as the term progresses, however, is that very few in the class have encountered much early literature, and much less from the 18th century; this means that I’ll potentially have to rethink the secondary/supplementary readings. We’ll see what the first journal pages bring, though, and that will give me a better sense of how the second half of class registered.

Discussing Film Form

I was very impressed with my Discover 101 students today, who seemed really to get into the film analysis portion of our class–we watched the first ten minutes of Night of the Living Dead, and used it as a springboard for discussing some of the basic concepts of film analysis, locating patterns, key elements in the film, variations in the established patterns, and the four levels of meaning we’ll be working with throughout the term.

Almost everyone spoke, and had good things to say; a small handful were quiet, so I’ll have to draw them out next class! In general, there was an initial leap toward the grandly symbolic, so another thing we’ll have to continue to focus on is concreteness and specificity. Next class we’ll talk more about narrative development, plot patterns and segmentation, characterization, cause and effect.