by James Ramey, Comparative Literature
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2007
On the first day of teaching a Comparative Literature 1B class called “Sympathy for the Devil,” I was dismayed to find that we had been located in a small, windowless basement room in Haas Pavilion. Claustrophobia heightened my awareness of the need for the students to get along, which led me to wonder how I might structure my course, not only as an intellectual opportunity but also as a social one. Although literary discussion as a rewarding social practice has a rich and ancient genealogy, the experience of imaginative literature today is too often framed as a non-social exercise, the stuff of homework and obligatory in-class discussions. I therefore opted to experiment with a system designed to channel students’ social energy into their reading of literary texts.
The first step was to set up ongoing reading groups of four to six students who would work together and get to know each other throughout the semester. To sign up for groups, students filled out secret ballots with their choices for each of the main authors on the syllabus; students generally got to be in the reading group of their first- or second-choice author, and the group would thereafter be referred to by that author’s name: the “Shelley Group” or the “Camus Group.” The second step was to assign all the reading groups to meet separately outside of class for an hour, ideally a day or two before each of the main texts on the syllabus was to be discussed in class for the first time. I asked the reading groups to choose informal settings appropriate to social literary discussions, such as cafés or dormitory lounges. A corollary of this step was to front-load the reading assignments for works by the main authors so that students could discuss and form opinions about an entire text in advance of classroom discussion. A second corollary was that one group member was assigned, on a rotating basis, to take minutes during the reading group discussion and then e-mail the minutes to me soon afterward.
The third step was to leverage the social properties of the Internet by posting all the reading group minutes on the campus Blackboard system. I then asked students to post responses to minutes from other groups’ discussions, thus allowing everyone to read and respond to the various groups’ interpretations of a given text. This often sparked spontaneous online debates in which students posted far more than the minimum I requested (two brief responses). In several instances, students who were most shy in classroom discussions proved to be the most engaged online. The fourth and final step was to ask the reading group for each author to give a creative presentation during the first in-class discussion of that author’s work. In these presentations each group member had to contribute equally, dividing up research tasks to provide biographical information, historical background, interpretations of the work’s cultural or political contexts, close readings of selected passages, critical reception of the work, and analysis of narrative technique, stylistic innovation, etc. In these presentations, strong social bonds between group members were often extremely evident.
Some additional benefits of this system were: a) students tended to do the reading very consistently in order to participate socially in the off-campus discussions; b) front-loading the reading made it impossible to “spoil” the ending of a text in class discussions; c) front-loading allowed me to assign “re-reading” exercises, in which students identified passages that could be understood differently only after the whole text had been read; d) students came to the first day of class discussion for each book with strong opinions and ready for lively debate; e) when an in-class debate wore on too long, students often said to each other, “We’ll continue this online tonight!” Although this system asks students to do more off-campus work than most R&C classes do, I have used it for three semesters and haven’t gotten complaints. Instead, it has generated much positive feedback on course evaluations, and I have learned in person of many long-term friendships that have resulted from this approach, which frames literary discussion as something social and, therefore, fun.