Human, Animal, HUMANIMAL… and making lit crit count.

This post is a report from the field, and the report is that I’ve reached a stumbling block in my semester. Students wrestled productively with Michael Lundblad’s “Animality Studies” article a few weeks back, but the conversation derailed when they tried to dig in to Josephine Donovan’s “Animal-Standpoint Criticism” more recently. This raises a broad question in the instruction of literature – when and how to include (or omit) scholarly criticism alongside study of primary texts? It also raises practical questions of reviewing, returning, correcting, or re-teaching material when the semester is in mid-swing.

One of my course goals this semester is for students to learn the major concepts and questions driving Animal Studies. Another is to apply these concepts and questions as interpretive tools. That being said, scholarly discourse is not our central focus – literary texts are the heart of this course. Here’s an overview: my students and I are asking how, and for what purpose, do certain literary works construct a human/animal division? Indeed, some traditions elevate humans above animals, opposing “man” from “beast” (yes! Animal Studies is a great way to interrogate the heteronormative patriarchy!). But others see a reciprocal relationship between humans and animals, portraying animals as deities, messengers, magicians, or as complex participants in a larger-than-human social fabric. While some texts might reinforce a conceptual human/animal division, how do other texts set forth a “zone of indiscernibility” in which humans and animals converge?

The criticism we work with is designed to grow students’ bag of analytic tools. My idea, in designing a “Human, Animal, Humanimal” literature course, was to include a very small selection of articles to create a progression of concepts that would build on one another. Pretty standard, right? But in practice, there’s a tension between goals: how small of a “small selection” will still build a “progression”? Perhaps the time is right to discuss dosage. How much lit crit is valuable in an English course? For English majors? For non-English majors? How much is enough to give students firm ground from which to enter and participate in larger conversations? And how much is too much: how much lit crit starts to send the message that the higher calling is scholarship, and not the literary arts?

My questions above are a bit clumsy: of course it is more a question of how we frame criticism in our classes, rather than simply “how much” we include.

In any case, here’s how I’ve framed the semester’s critical articles: students have a “Co-Teaching Assignment” in which groups of 3-4 are responsible for reading one article. They must decide what its most important concept(s) is/are and teach that/those concept(s) to the class. Co-Teaching groups need to leave a lot out; they cannot teach the article’s whole intricate argument. They must glean the big ideas, teach the class those big ideas, and devise activities in which their classmates find applications for those big ideas.

Co-Teaching group one taught Michael Lundblad’s article, “From Animal to Animality Studies.” Lundblad’s project is to set aside territory for inquiry that does something other than animal rights advocacy. The “Animality Studies” Lundblad describes is an analytic approach directing readers to ask, “what does the animal character tell us about human thought? And what can a text’s animal character reveal to a reader about their (or society’s) prejudices, blind spots, and assumptions?”

Co-Teaching group two taught Josephine Donovan’s article, “Tolstoy’s Animals,” in which Donovan describes an approach called “Animal-Standpoint Criticism.” This analytic approach is concerned with the uniqueness of animal characters and directs readers to ask, “how is the animal character’s individual experience of reality portrayed? Is the text’s constructed perspective of the animal character ‘true’ to the particularities of that kind of animal?”

Students took Animality Studies in the spirit Lundblad intended: as guidance toward a particular kind of interaction with a text – specifically, an interaction unconcerned with animal rights or the treatment of real-world animals, focusing instead on how texts use animal characters to reveal human social limitations. But students took Animal-Standpoint Criticism as a normative prescription. What they saw, in Donovan’s article, was an argument about how writers “should” write, rather than an argument about how readers should (or could) read.

Why the disjunction? The jury’s still out.

Well, what to do about it?

I’ve had good luck in the past with structures and scaffolds. So I’ve worked out a STRUCTURAL INTERVENTION. It takes the form of a handout, and it’ll involve a conversational introduction from my end followed by some sessions focused on student retrospection.

The handout is called “What’s in an Article?” It’s got two columns. Here are the headings:

Screenshot 2017-09-17 10.37.27.png

A simple grid appears below, separating the page into two columns (one beneath each heading), and into five rows (one for each of the critical articles we’ll draw from this semester). I’ve typed out notes from our first two Co-Teaching class periods.

Here is my summary of the first Co-Teaching class period:

Screenshot 2017-09-17 10.42.54.png

I’ve done very little revision, here. It’s essentially a record of class discussion.

Here is my summary of the second Co-Teaching class period:

Screenshot 2017-09-17 10.43.08.png

Here, I’ve done some revision of the class’s conversation. In the “Broader Contemplation” (righthand) column, I’ve synthesized important questions instead of recording conversational highlights (because many comments were along the reductive lines of, “Donovan wants people to write from the animal’s perspective, but humans can’t know animal perspectives.”) I’ve tried to identify what’s at stake in this objection to Donovan’s article, rather than simply recording the objection.

The idea here is to sort out two conversation students recently had. My purpose is not exactly to “correct” their thinking, but instead to organize it in such a way as to keep questions open.

My immediate hope is for students to reflect back and see that their conversations have wrestled with two distinct uses for each given concept – an analytic use in the study of literature, and a general thinking use in the world of lived experience. My other immediate hope is for students to re-center on literary analysis as a crucial aspect of their work in this course. In other words, if they can’t fill in the left-hand column on a subsequent Co-Teaching day, they’re missing something important. Connections to the outside world are valuable, but we don’t, in this field of study, make those connections at the expense of a rigorous, text-based analytic practice.

These columns may be visually separated, but there is a crucial sense in which they go hand-in-hand. My next plan is to have students work retrospectively on framing the content from class discussions themselves. Next week, Co-Teaching Group Three will teach. Then, we’ll return to this handout in the following class meeting for a meta-class. Here, my hope is that student reflection will take over, that they will organize the highlights of their conversation into “Literary Analysis” and “Broader Contemplation.” If this reduces angst about what to study for the exam, all the better. But if this also demonstrates that conversation is valuable in part because it generates insights on several levels at a time, all the better.

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