PALS warmly welcomes Nadhia Grewal to the site for a guest post on Moby-Dick. Grewal explains how she helped her students tackle reading the book through a digital annotation activity. Find other PALS Moby-Dick content here, here, and here.
In ‘Inventing the Nation: Mid-Nineteenth Century American Literature’, an undergraduate class in the English and Comparative Literature department, we examined nineteenth-century American literature from authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and Henry David Thoreau. Throughout the year, I incorporated digital activities in and outside of class in order to build community and provide a useful resource to catalogue the day-to-day learning. For example, when studying Thoreau’s Walden, students created personal photographic reflections that they posted to the class Padlet. This was coupled with an in-class activity that began with watching two videos of Walden Pond from Christina Katopodis’ The Walden Soundscape that led to think-pair-share where students could tie together their responses to both the photographs and the video before beginning discussion questions. These two activities were used to prompt students to think creatively by creating a personal and communal experience that then lead to dialogue and reflection during the seminar discussions. Because of the success of these activities, I decided to further explore using free digital tools when tackling Moby-Dick later in the year.
How to approach teaching Moby-Dick?
Having taken this class myself as an undergraduate, I remember the anxiety induced panic that came from not only getting through the weekly assignments and reading but also from the final exam which counts for 50% of the final grade. Reading Moby-Dick towards the end of the year means that the anxiety keeps building. From the first weeks of the class students were already asking, “We are going to be reading Moby-Dick, right? That’s like 800 pages.”
After the Thoreau class, I knew that I wanted to make some of the in-class learning interactive. I, also, considered that interactive group work might assuage some of their trepidation about the book. And I hoped that group work would make Moby-Dick a more enjoyable and fun (dare I say it) experience.
Taking cues from Jesse Stommel’s ‘Hybridity, PT.2: What is Hybrid Pedagogy’ and Mitchel Resnick’s ‘Sowing the Seeds for a More Creative Society’, my aim was to create interactive active learning opportunities in the seminar that could be continued virtually outside of class. So, for the final learning activity for Moby-Dick, I decided that the task would be to collaboratively digitally annotate a selection of critical extracts. I intended to broaden the conversations we were having by including critical texts for the students to analyze.
Because of the vast amount of material on Moby-Dick, I wanted to narrow the topics of the critical extracts for the students. In order to do this, I needed to know specifically what my students wanted to explore. So, I created an online poll using PollEverywhere where I was able to ask them to consider the following questions: what theme /character/chapter of Moby-Dick would you like to cover in greater detail? and what questions do you have? The results from the poll provided me the information that they wanted to explore the parallels between Ahab and the whale, homosexuality and male eroticism, individuality and nonconformity, and the question of whiteness. One student astutely posing the question: ‘Why is the whale called Moby Dick?’
Using these results, I went on to construct a google doc with a focused set of critical secondary material. Because the students were also giving presentations, I did not have them create or add to the google doc prior to class. Along with the data from the poll, I also added in excerpts from: ‘Red Blood, White Bones: The Native American Presence in Moby-Dick’and Birgit Brander Rasmussen’s Queequeg’s Coffin: Indigenous Literacies and Early American Literature to add some interpretations that took into account Indigenous imagery in the text.
The digital annotation task first began with a question guide from Robert Paul Lamb’s ‘Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish: Teaching Melville’s Moby-Dick in the College Classroom’. Lamb’s question guide visualizes thematic oppositions in the text and presented an opportunity for students to explore these tensions in Moby-Dick. Each student group was given a different color to highlight the chart with. They were also instructed to type in the color they were assigned. I first asked them to highlight three pairs of opposites that they thought were the most important in Moby-Dick. They were next instructed to highlight and annotate the pairs in response to these questions: Which ones does Melville deconstruct or uphold? and How is each set connected? They also were instructed to annotate by creating comments on the pairs they highlighted. Thus, they were pushed to explain why they highlighted a specific opposition.
See an example of a filled out question guide below. A sample blank question guide is at the end of the text.
The students were particularly motivated by the other students’ comments as they were added. They were very excited that they could see each other’s work in real-time. As I visited each group, the students were discussing what other students were highlighting and commenting upon the different perspectives.
After this part, students were prompted to choose a topic from the outline in the google doc. These were the topics that they brainstormed ahead of time that they might be interested in. The topics were matched to critical extracts which were posted after the question guide in the google doc. They were instructed to read through a critical extract in a similar manner as they did with the question guide. They annotated the extract comments and questions. I also sprinkled my own questions throughout the doc to further prompt them if discussion slowed.
What did students really think?
To get some idea of what the students really thought about the class I provided them with a survey where they could rate out of 5 if they were able to explore what they were interested in and whether the poll made them feel their learning needs were taken into account. Overall, the class gave a 4/5 to the experience. I, then, asked students to answer how the poll affected the class and if the tasks supported their learning. Despite one student declaring that it was difficult to answer since they did not like Moby-Dick, students commented that liked that they could revisit the google doc to re-read the comments and how it “lead me other interpretations and interests that in turn informed my own, allowing for a richer perspective overall”. They also felt that the poll, where they got to rate their interests, was helpful because it provided a structure to the session and encouraged preparation. This learning activity helped students see the novel in a different way and by making the activity interactive it also made the experience more fun.
As I continue to reflect on and respond to this experience, the impact these classes had was clearly valuable to myself as an educator and to my students. I was able to get an insight into my students critical responses and empower them with tools to enhance their learning, which made for a rewarding teaching experience. My advice: start with free tools and listen to the responses from your students. Perhaps studying Moby-Dick can be seen as an opportunity rather than a chore.
Nadhia Grewal is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Goldsmiths University of London. She has recently taught courses on nineteenth-century American literature. Her dissertation studies young adult perspectives on hunting, horror, and the environment in twenty-first century American and Native American literature.
Blank Question Guide
|humans/nature||cannibalism or capitalism/communalism|
|land (lee shore)/sea||meditation/action|
|individual/society||true Christianity/sham Christianity|
|religion/economics||commercial desires/spiritual desires|
|head (thought)/heart (feeling)||real nobility/social status|
|human society/the extra-human world||slavery/democracy|
|innocence/experience||owners (capitalists)/workers (producers)|
|isolation/community||the “Me”/the “not-Me”|
|civilized hypocrisies/Highest Truth||chance/necessity|