Literary Scholarship as Cocktail Party: Bringing Students into the Conversation

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Leila Mansouri, English

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2016

Engaging with scholarly criticism for the first time is daunting for undergraduates. Accustomed to thinking of academic books and articles as authoritative, students often struggle instead to point out what scholars have misunderstood or overlooked. Likewise, unsure who (aside from their instructor) might read their papers or care about their claims, students often cite criticism perfunctorily – without any sense that their insights could make a valuable contribution to an ongoing academic discussion. Apprehension and self-doubt can compound these challenges, especially among first-generation college students, transfer students, and non-native English speakers. Students who feel like they don’t “belong” at college or that academic knowledge is far removed from their personal experience frequently find it hard to believe that they might have anything interesting and original to say – or that anyone in the academy would want to hear it.

To combat such alienation, my R&C class on “Bad Writing” asked students to approach literary criticism not as a monolithic or authoritative body of knowledge but as an ongoing conversation that they, too, could join. Key was a class activity that asked students to imagine a cocktail party attended by the authors of three assigned academic articles on gender in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In groups, the students discussed how they thought each scholar would converse, behave, and dress. Then students role-played what they would say and do themselves if they entered the party. This social framing enabled students to generate strikingly insightful observations about where these scholars concurred, challenged one another’s claims, and built on one another’s arguments. Also, by encouraging students to picture the human being behind each essay’s scholarly voice, the exercise opened up a productive discussion about how a scholar’s ethos furthers his or her argument – students visualized one scholar, for example, as slightly underdressed “in a way that makes you feel silly for having dressed up.” Most importantly, though, the activity prompted students to articulate substantive disagreements with critics whose arguments they had had difficulty challenging when encountered in article form.

The notion of “critical conversation” fostered by the cocktail party activity structured students’ writing throughout the semester. The prompt for the paper on Huckleberry Finn asked students to make an argument that engaged with one of the assigned articles, and many chose to develop insights they first articulated off-handedly, even jokingly, during the cocktail party role-play. Later assignments on Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth returned to the cocktail party metaphor in order to build on students’ understanding of literary scholarship as an ongoing conversation. Specifically, an annotated bibliography asked students to identify the participants in the scholarly conversation about the novel and a “state of the conversation” exercise had students describe the main areas of consensus and debate among those participants. These prepared students for a final research paper in which they made their own complex scholarly interventions.

Both my students’ final papers and their own words testify to the effectiveness of teaching literary scholarship as conversation. In those papers, all of my students, many of whom were STEM and social science majors, made substantive and nuanced scholarly interventions — in many cases, ones that advanced English majors would envy. In addition, many students wrote in their final evaluations that thinking of themselves as in conversation with scholars transformed research from a frustrating and alienating exercise to an empowering means of self-expression. As one student put it, the course “taught me to have … original ideas,” and “I … built up enough confidence to challenge professional critics.” Two students even became invested enough in their contributions to scholarly debate that after the semester was over they revised their final papers for submission to undergraduate journals, a list of which I provided on the last day of class. This response demonstrates how teaching literary scholarship as conversation can serve undergraduates: It not only generates meaningful engagement with published academic writing but also — and even more importantly — provides the scaffolding necessary for undergraduates to feel included within the academy’s ongoing project of scholarship.