What’s in a Composition?

PALS Note: We are delighted to have a guest post from Jacinta Yanders. Yanders is working her PhD in TV and Film Studies at The Ohio State University. Here Yanders explains how she incorporates student production of various digital media in her “Digital Media Composing” and “Documentary in the US Experience” writing courses.

Cliché as it may sound, I decided to become an educator when I was seven years old, courtesy of having a fantastic second grade teacher. I recognized the importance of what was happening in that classroom, and I wanted to be able to provide a similar learning experience to others. As such, my undergraduate degree is in English Education, and even now, though I am currently mired in the weeds of the dissertation, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about improving my teaching.

Given that I’m in an English Department, I often think about how, why, and where students are expected to compose. Part of my interest here has been spurred by my involvement with the Digital Media and Composition Institute (first, as an attendee, and later, as an employee) here at The Ohio State University. Each May, DMAC welcomes scholars from everywhere to come together for instruction on how and why educators can, and should, incorporate digital media in the classroom. After attending in 2015, my mind began pinging with possibilities of how I could incorporate what I was learning into my teaching.

I had my first chance to really focus on this last fall when I taught a course called “Digital Media Composing.” As the title suggests, this class requires students to primarily create digital compositions. Because one of my primary research areas is Television Studies, my students used Twitter, Storify, WordPress, Audacity, and iMovie to produce compositions that reflected the intertwining of television and digital media. For their most significant productions, they each composed their own podcasts and digital transmedia extensions. I don’t mean to retread the “The Essay is Dead/Fine” argument (though here are Exhibit A and Exhibit B if you’re interested), but I will say that challenging students to compose in these various formats, to analyze the formats, and to think rhetorically about how the different formats necessarily required them to engage with audiences differently was an invaluable experience.

This spring, I taught a special section of composition. The catalog title for the class is “Documentary in the U.S. Experience.” The following are a selection of the desired learning outcomes assigned to the course:

  1. Rhetorical Knowledge
  2. Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing
  3. Knowledge of Composing Processes
  4. Collaboration
  5. Knowledge of Conventions
  6. Composing in Electronic Environments

13thThroughout the semester, we watched several documentaries relating to my chosen course theme (“Documenting Crime, Justice, and Power”), such as The Thin Blue Line, 13th, Shenandoah, and The Hunting Ground. Students wrote analyses of readings, presented weekly on the viewings, took film quizzes, and completed what I called the Critical Analysis Project. This project required students to write a series of essays on a documentary of their choosing from the first half of the semester, with each essay approaching the film differently (scene analysis, thematic analysis, argument). Via these assignments, I feel confident that I could argue that students were provided with various opportunities to work toward the learning outcomes.

But I wanted to see if I could challenge students in addition in other ways. Since it was a documentary class, I decided the students would make short documentaries. I thought that there would be no better way to get sense of the extent to which students had grasped what we’d been working on throughout the semester. In a way, I was abiding by the evergreen directive to “Show. Don’t Tell.” I wanted them to show that they could apply what they’d learned in a concrete fashion. They would have to think like the documentary filmmakers we’d studied, bearing in mind the many facets of documentary rhetoric that would shape their compositions. Additionally, the documentary project would allow them to move toward all of the aforementioned learning outcomes in one assignment.

So how did we make this happen?

I will say upfront that if I could go back and change anything about this, I would start earlier. We started working on this project about a month and a half before the end of the semester, which break had seemed like plenty of time. I hadn’t wanted to start too early because I wanted the students have seen enough films and completed enough readings so that they had a solid foundation to build from. But upon reflection, I think that I would start the project a few weeks earlier to relieve some of the pressure going into the end of the semester.

Beyond that, I kept the specifics of the assignment fairly loose. In groups, students had to compose short documentaries (7-15 minutes) that related to our course theme. How they ultimately decided to make that connection was up to each group. The documentaries also had to have credits providing information about where their materials came from. In preparation for beginning, I spent one class session showing and discussing a selection of short documentaries so that they could get a sense of how they could structure their work, how much could be accomplished in a short span of time, etc. Then each group had to turn in a proposal, a rough draft, and have a group conference with me before finally turning in their final draft. We ended the semester with a showcase of their documentaries where people outside of the class were invited to view the documentaries because I wanted to find ways for students to think of their audience beyond just me.

What about the technical requirements?

In my department, we have what’s known as the Digital Media Project. Via the DMP, students are able to rent cameras, microphones, audio recorders, etc. Employees of the DMP also come to classes to put on workshops, which I had them do in this class for both Audacity and iMovie. Audacity is a free audio program, and it’s available to students regardless of what kind of computer they might be working on. iMovie is Mac-specific, but I chose to have it shown to students because it’s the video software that I’m most familiar with and because we have Mac labs in our department that the students can access for class work.

Importantly, I emphasized to the students that I was less concerned with their technical finesse than I was with their ability to display their understanding of documentary filmmaking. For example, we spent a significant portion of the class focusing on the subjectivity inherThe THin Blue Lineent in documentaries, even though they’re often broadly perceived to be objective. I wanted to see how they would grapple “truth” (or lack thereof) in their compositions. We also spent multiple weeks studying different styles of documentaries and the details of how they’re constructed, which allowed us to consider how specific choices influence reception. For example, how does Nick Broomfield’s constant on-screen presence shape our interpretation in his Aileen Wuornos documentaries? And what difference does it make that Errol Morris’ final interview with David Harris in The Thin Blue Line occurs via audio rather than video? Students would have to make similar choices in their compositions keeping in mind that their choices would necessarily influence the reception.

How did the students respond?

To me, this is probably the most important question. And my answer is that their responses were…mixed. There’s a lot of debate about what we Millennials (and the generation after us) know/don’t know about and can/can’t do with technology inherently. I will say that the typical structure of our education system is set in such way that prompting a student to compose something that’s not an essay, especially in an English class, can be jarring. Unlike the Digital Media Composing class, in which there was an explicit buy-in about the type of work we’d be doing from the start, the students in the documentary class were not necessarily as primed to complete that type of work.

They weren’t necessarily resistant, but there was some hesitancy at times. I tried to assuage those concerns and provided several resources. But I could tell that the nervousness remained for some students. Aside from starting to work on the project earlier, one additional thing I would do in the future is have an extended conversation about the project at the beginning of the semester, so that we can have the opportunity to think through some of those concerns earlier before they’re faced with starting the work.

The other difficulty about this assignment is that it’s a group project. Most groups seemed to get along fine, but there were a couple occasions in which issues arose. I’d tried to preempt this a bit by surveying students about the qualities they look for in group members before assigning them to groups, and they knew that in the end, they’d be required to evaluate their own performances as well as the performances of their fellow group members. I found that students were often quite honest in those evaluations. They admitted when they believed they hadn’t been contributing as much, and if one person in the group had gone above and beyond, I often saw that reflected in the evaluations from their group members. The tensions that arose were not to extent that there was an issue with a group actually finishing the project, but some of them definitely had a more difficult time than others. In the Digital Media Composing class, I gave students the option to work solo or in groups for the final transmedia project (they all chose the solo option). I’d thought that the documentary project would be too much work for a person to effectively handle on their own, but I might consider instituting the option in the future.

Final Products

Ultimately, my students put together thoughtful, rhetorically-engaging documentaries on subjects such as the conflict between Wendy’s and the Center for Immokalee Workers, off-campus crime, distrust of the media, and a violent incident that occurred on campus last year. In pursuit of these topics, students compiled various news articles and videos, shot their own footages, attended protests, conducted interviews, contacted administrators, and surveyed fellow students. On a fundamental level, they’d begun to understand how and why documentaries are made. As one student said on an end of the semester reflection, “I learned about how hard it is to make a documentary. I’ve learned to respect the process.” While they had written multiple essays about documentaries, I think it was this project that clarified their understanding the most. One thing that I’m thinking about now is if/how I can create and structure writing assignments that lead to the same clarity about written compositions.

This was not a perfect learning experience (I’m not sure those really exist), and there are definitely elements I would change going forward, but I think that if the resources are available and if you’re thinking of other ways to have students compose, then a project such as this could very well be worth your time.

Contributor Bio

jJacinta Yanders is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at The Ohio State University. Her primary areas of research are Television Studies, Film Studies, and Popular Culture. Jacinta is currently working on her dissertation, which analyzes the impact on narrative construction and audience reception that occurs when television remakes change key elements of characters’ identities. Her previous work addresses topics such as the intertwining of television and social media, representations of the Black Lives Matter Movement and police brutality on television, and the reconfiguration of the Syfy network as a potential space for progressive representations.  

Student-Centered, Collaborative Learning and “Literature Circles” in the American Literature Classroom

PALS Note: We welcome our second guest post this year from Randi Tanglen. Tanglen is an Associate Professor of English and director of the faculty development and teaching center at Austin College. In this post, she addresses how to encourage student-led work through literature circles. 

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Most instructors see the value in student-centered learning and small group discussions as means for students to develop, challenge, acquire, and check their ideas. The collaborative aspects of small group discussions allow students to create new knowledge about literature with each other, in ways that may not be possible in a class lecture or discussion. Yet we have all had classroom experiences in which breaking into small groups for discussion of a course text has led to student silence and even disengagement. I have found that the “literature circle” format leads to active small group discussion, greater student participation in group discussion, and deeper and collaborative student learning. In the literature circle format, students choose their own course text (from an instructor-provided list), read it with a fixed group of four other classmates over the course of a two-week unit, and facilitate their own small group discussions with short papers they bring to each class period.

What Are Literature Circles?
With literature circles, groups of five students meet for several class periods to discuss a work of literature in-depth. Some of my students describe literature circles as a “book club,” but with more structure and academic rigor. The literature circle format is a student-centered, collaborative approach to teaching literature originally developed for and primarily utilized in elementary and middle school classrooms. The objective of literature circles is to promote in-depth, student-driven discussion and higher order thinking skills in younger students. Because literature circles promote “collaborative classrooms where students take increasing responsibility for choosing, reading, and discussing books,” I have found that the literature circle class structure also can be successfully adapted to the college classroom as well (Harvey Daniels, Literature Circles 7). Harvey Daniels explains that literature circles usually exhibit several key characteristics, including students first choosing their own reading selection and then coming together in “small temporary groups…formed based on book choice” (Daniels 18).

One class of students might be separated into several small groups, with each group reading a different book. Another unique characteristic of this teaching strategy is that students use written responses to guide their reading and discussion; the fact that “discussion topics come from the students” means that the “[t]he teacher serves as a facilitator, not a group member or instructor” (Daniels, Literature Circles 18). When they go well, literature circles promote student-centered and student led small group discussion. The proponents of literature circles claim that as a result of students having choice in their reading materials and more autonomy in discussion, they are more likely to continue reading outside of class and to become life-long readers. I have found that the use of literature circles promotes intellectual autonomy with college students who far too often look to their professor for the “right” answers instead of learning to develop ideas for themselves. Indeed, some students even tell me that they read the books from other literature circles after the semester is over.

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Literature Circle Group Member Roles and Daily Writing
What distinguishes the literature circle format from other small-group discussion formats is that each member of the group has a specific group role and prepares an assignment before class period. The students assign themselves one of five roles and prepare a brief, one to two page paper based on that role to guide their group discussions. The idea behind the specific group roles is that “readers who approach a text with clear-cut, conscious purposes will comprehend more” (Daniels, Literature Circles 13).

Before we begin the first literature circle, I give students a handout that explains each role and my expectations for the short paper each group member will write:  

  1.  Summarizer: Prepares a brief and concise summary of the day’s reading assignment;
  2.  Question Asker: Develops about 10 higher-order discussion questions to promote critical and analytical thinking about the literature;
  3.  Connector: Finds connections between the book and other literature and literary movements studied in this class or other courses;
  4.  Close Reader: Locates significant passages and analyzes them in relation to the larger work, the unit theme, and the overall concerns of the course;
  5.  Researcher: Finds background information on the author or historical or cultural contexts that will enhance the group’s understanding and interpretation of the literature.

The students bring their papers to class and use them to guide their group discussion. When the group meets during each class session, the student re-assign and change roles, so by the end of the unit, each student will have performed each role at least once. The papers students bring to class based on their group member role are informal but structured; in my classes, the daily literature circle writing is a form of “low stakes” writing that cumulatively accounts for about 20 percent of the entire course grade. At the end of each literature circle unit, students are assigned a major, formal essay that integrates elements of their previous literature circle papers. Every instructor will develop their own grading criteria and method, but I assess the daily literature papers based on the following criteria:

Full credit Reasons to lose points
Content *Makes a substantial and meaningful contribution to the group’s topic/discussion

*Promotes deeper and more meaningful understanding of the literature

*Questions and close reading are analytical, not descriptive

*Writing has a clear focus and purpose

*Limited or partial discussion of the topic

*Does not promote a deeper or meaningful understanding of the literature

*Limited discussion and analysis

*Focus and purpose are not clear

Development *Fully treats topic; no areas in need of further discussion

*Connects research, questions, and ideas back to the literature

*Undeveloped ideas; expanded explanation or analysis needed

*Connection to the literature isn’t stated or is unclear

Details *MLA format

*Relevant and scholarly sources (for Researcher role)

*Sources cited correctly with Works Cited

*Few/no mechanical or usage errors

*Deviation for MLA format

*Questionable, non-scholarly, or irrelevant sources

*Uncited or dropped sources

*Errors that distract from meaning and clarity

How to Incorporate Literature Circles into American Literature Courses
The literature circle format has also solved a problem that I often have with teaching early American and nineteenth-century American literature courses—I don’t know what to cut from the syllabus due to the prolific and exciting recovery work that has been done in the field over the past few decades. With the literature circle format, one class of students can simultaneously read several different texts at the same time. For example, in a lower-division class I teach on the slave narrative literary tradition, the class together reads the narratives of Olaudah Equiano (1789), Frederick Douglass (1845), Harriet Jacobs (1861), and Solomon Northup (1853). At the end of the semester, my twenty-student class breaks into four different five-member groups to read different slave narratives such as those of Mary Prince (1831), Henry Bibb (1849), Henry Box Brown (1851), or William Wells Brown (1855).

In an early American survey course for non-majors, after reading several works of literature from an anthology, at the end of the semester the class forms literature circle groups to read several present day adaptions of the literature we have just read or contemporary historical fiction dealing with the social and political themes addressed in the earlier literature such as issues of slavery and race in the development of the United States, the role of women in the era of the New England Puritans, or the place of American Indians in early American society. In the past, students have had the choice of reading Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979); I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé (1986); A Mercy by Toni Morrison (2008);Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks (2011); or When She Woke by Hillary Jordan (2011).

I have previously written about how I have used the literature circle approach in a nineteenth-century American literature seminar for English majors called “Canons of Nineteenth-Century American Literature.” The entire course is based on several literature circle units that each expose students to a wide range of canonical, underrepresented, and popular nineteenth-century American literary traditions. For example, in the first unit, “The Indian Reform Novel,” students form literature circles around Hobomok (1824) by Lydia Maria Child, The Last of the Mohicans (1826) by James Fenimore Cooper, or Hope Leslie (1827) by Catherine Maria Sedgwick. While I have used the literature circle format in courses that emphasize the earlier periods of American literature, it would also work quite well in courses that focus on contemporary American literature as well.

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Advantages and Disadvantages of the Literature Circle Format
Literature circles promote the type of student-centered discussion that I valued as a feminist teacher and scholar. Often the students run the class sessions themselves and I fade into t0-he background as they explore and share their own ideas based on their literature circle papers. However, since I’m not leading discussions or preparing the daily discussion questions that students explore in class, I am not always sure if students are catching on to the key passages or nuances in plot and character that affect the cultural work and meaning of the text. But I can check for student comprehension by reading their daily responses and then supplementing gaps in student comprehension with facilitative comments on those daily papers and brief class lectures.

Structuring the class like this places the responsibility on the students, so that they end up doing most of the intellectual work of the course. Once I step back, I find that the students are usually capable of filling in the gaps and making the connections that I would usually make for them in a traditional lecture or professor-facilitated classroom format. And the near-daily writing, met by my constant feedback, improves student writing and promotes the development of sharper arguments in their final essays. Indeed, the five tasks—asking questions, summarizing, researching, making connections, and close reading—are all required of any strong literary analysis paper at the lower- and upper-divisions. With the literature circle format, students isolate and practice the specific intellectual skills they will use for longer writing assignments.

While most students hate “group work,” the collaborative benefit of literature circles should not be overlooked. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), a clearinghouse for liberal arts education research and advocacy, has identified 10 high-impact educational practices, including “Collaborative Projects and Assignments,” which promote students’ “learning to work and solve problems in the company of others, and sharpening one’s own understanding by listening seriously to the insights of others, especially those with different backgrounds and life experiences.” My students have told me they like being able to choose their own texts and come up with their own reading schedules with each other, and that they are more likely to do the class reading because they have to answer to their classmates and group members if they don’t. In my experience, students genuinely enjoy hearing and learn from the perspectives of their group member; in end-of-semester evaluations, students consistently comment that the literature circles provide opportunities to interact with the literature and their fellow students in deeper and more meaningful ways. Perhaps the strongest testament to student appreciation of literature circles is that many of my former students are now employing this collaborative learning method in their own K-12 language arts and English classrooms.

I teach at a liberal arts colleges with small class sizes of no more than 20-25 students, and I’m not sure how the format would work in larger classes, although I imagine the format could be adapted. The discussion-based nature of literature circles may create some limitations for online courses, but I think the different discussion roles could be applied and used to facilitate dynamic student interactions in online and hybrid courses as well. I would love to hear how other instructors use the literature circle format in their American literature courses.

Bio: 

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Randi Tanglen is associate professor of English and director of the Robert and Joyce Johnson Center for Faculty Development and Excellence in Teaching at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. She is currently co-editing a volume of essays on “Teaching Western American Literature.”