This Week in My Classes: Modelling the Process

We’re deep into the reading in all three of my courses now. On Monday we ‘wrapped’ The Moonstone in Mystery and Detective Fiction; we’re finishing up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in The Victorian ‘Woman Question’ tomorrow; and in 19th-Century Fiction we’ve moved on from Persuasion to Vanity Fair. Those hours spent in the classroom actually talking with students about these fabulous novels are my favorite hours of the day–better even than the hours spent rereading the novels.

In recent years, and this term especially, I’ve been trying especially hard to make explicit what I think I (we) are doing in our classroom time. In particular, I’ve been commenting explicitly during class discussions on ways I see those discussions as models for the kind of work I want the students to do on their own. I have always thought of my class time as “exemplary” in this way — that is, as providing examples. When I lecture, sometimes I am delivering information and context, but more often I am offering an example of literary interpretation, building observations from the text into an organized “reading” of the text. In class discussion, we go through this process together: I pose questions and solicit the students’ observations and ideas, collecting them in a loose way on the whiteboard, often in the form of lists of words or phrases–and circles and arrows and many lamentable attempts at drawing. Then I encourage them to look over what we’ve come up with and think about what it means. My role at this point is to help the students appreciate the significance of what they’ve noticed, and to lead them to make explicit things they are already more or less aware of. I try to do this is an open-minded and open-ended enough way that it builds their confidence: they are noticing important things, they can discover patterns and connections, they can develop their own interpretations based on careful reading and thinking. At the same time, especially early in a course, I don’t proceed entirely randomly! I ask about aspects of our readings that I know will prove interesting and fruitful to analyze, and in that way I try also to model the kinds of questions and approaches that are appropriate to the class.

But until fairly recently I had basically assumed that it was obvious what we were doing and why. It isn’t, of course, at least not for students who aren’t already somewhat experienced in the process of moving from reading and taking notes about what’s on the page to finding an interpretive framework that makes sense of what they’ve noticed. Gradually (and perhaps I was just obtuse in not having realized this much earlier on) it occurred to me that the mismatch between my expectations and students’ work could be attributed to a mismatch between what they thought I / we were doing and what I understood us to be doing. The more I thought about this, the more I noticed that, for instance, lots of students busily write things down when I’m talking but not the rest of the time–waiting for me to deliver the information, rather than engaging in the process of analysis. In their written work, they often weren’t transferring ideas or practices from the examples “covered” in class to other characters or situations or features of the novel. Often, they were reiterating plot summary in answer to questions about why things are significant, rather than making that move from observing the plot to thinking about what their observations meant. In other words, many of them were approaching our class time as the time when I would tell them what things meant, rather than showing them how to figure out meaning. Of course, sometimes I do tell them what things mean, but the purpose is to show them how it’s done (when I lecture more formally) and to show them how to do it (when I summarize and synthesize their observations during more open discussion).

One factor in making me more aware that it would help to talk more explicitly method and process was teaching a lot of non-majors in the Mystery and Detective Fiction class. I began to adapt for it some of the assignments but also some of the commentary I use in my first-year classes to orient students in the methods of literary criticism–not just addressing terminology but also things like how you identify what a theme is in a literary work, how you get from the literal words on the page to a reasonable idea about what else the book is about–and how you know when you’re going too far (not that there are strict rules for this, but I think all English professors are used to complaints that we are “reading too much into it,” so it’s helpful to be as clear as possible about how you legitimate an interpretation, about the kind of evidence as well as, frankly, the kind of experienced intuition that leads you to say that this, but not that, is a good “reading”).

I don’t know for sure whether my new meta-commentary is really that helpful, but I hope it is doing at least a little to clarify that literary criticism isn’t really that mysterious a process, and it’s certainly not something that I should do while they watch (and then write down the results). It’s what they are supposed to be learning and doing, as much as they are also learning what the contexts are for their readings and what the books are like as reading experiences.

5 Comments to This Week in My Classes: Modelling the Process

  1. September 29, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    This sounds like a really important shift. I think pre-university education is so focused on how they don’t know enough to make their own interpretations that many students think they aren’t allowed to do this work themselves.

    When I taught first year sociology, I would explicitly tell them (several times) that we considered them novice sociologists and expected them to do the same kinds of things in their essays as we do in our own research articles, albeit at a beginner level.

    This is a scary thing for students to do. Even (maybe especially) the students who are used to getting good grades may have a strategy for that that involves memorization. They are often risk-averse because of course trying out your own interpretation might not work and then you won’t get the A. If the A is important…

    This explicit focus on the skills of literary scholarship (or whatever discipline) is really important but too often left implicit. I look forward to hearing how this more explicit focus turns out.

  2. Don's Gravatar Don
    September 29, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Excellent post. I teach students who are preparing to become secondary school English teachers. I wish I could send them all to take your courses. They come to me when they’ve finished their undergraduate English degree and, while they’re usually competent readers and have a pretty good literary knowledge base, what they don’t know how to to do is think and talk about the process of reading and analysis. Because they think literary criticism is a mysterious business, they carry that into their work with teenagers–and the cycle starts all over again. Of course I do what I can to counteract that tendency, but I wish your kind of thinking was a more prominent part of the literature classes they take.

  3. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    September 29, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your comments, both of you.

    After I posted this I thought of something else I do a lot in class that I haven’t pointed out explicitly as a deliberate modelling strategy, and that is repeating back things students say to me in a slightly different form, rephrasing or focusing their observation to help it reach the kind of more analytical idea that follows from their first response. I am careful (I hope) not to make it sound as if I am correcting them, which is never (well, almost never) my intention, but to lead them where their observation can take them–to model the next step. Not every comment needs or gets this kind of response, of course! Often, a student’s comment furthers the discussion and interpretive work just fine on its own. But a lot of the time it’s a little bit like playing (if I may flatter myself for a moment) Sherlock Holmes to their Watson: they see, but they do not observe. (We’ve moved on to Sherlock Holmes in the mystery class, which is why this example springs to mind! Really, I have little in common, happily, with that “most perfect thinking and reasoning machine.”)

  4. Ali's Gravatar Ali
    October 2, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    Wow, I would have loved to have you as a college professor. I went to an ivy league college here in the states, and I do not remember much about my freshman seminar in English other than that we had to read Sister Carrie. Oh, and we had to write weekly papers. I always struggled with writing English papers, and I was never good at interpreting and analyzing the works I was reading. It was much easier for me to interpret and analyze history–and it was for that reason that I majored in history. I worked hard, but I did well in writing works of original scholarship in the field of history.

    Today in my leisure time, though, I would much prefer to read literature over history (but I still read some nonfiction). I just wish I had the kind of skills you mention in this post. That doesn’t stop me from reading or enjoying literature, but I sometimes wonder if I am missing out on some significant points.

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