From an English Major: Reflections on Two Undergrad Classroom Experiences

PALS Note: We are super excited to interrupt your summer break for a post by Christna Stubbs. Stubbs is a recent graduate of the University of The Bahamas and will be attending Acadia University for graduate school in the fall. In this post, she writes about some of the classroom activities that stood out to her the most as an undergrad. This is a new perspective for the blog, and we welcome the commentary from our students. 

As I sat, thinking about the thousands of things I could write about regarding this topic, I was forced to reminisce on my past classroom experiences. I literally mulled over in my mind the very first class I took as a fresh-faced freshman, to the last one I took as seasoned senior. Thinking back on that period of my life as an undergrad, I find myself remembering my “AHA” moments…You know those moments, right? The moments in class when you become excited about the text you’re studying. It’s like a lightbulb goes off in your head after days, or sometimes weeks of feeling like you’re sitting in class with a highly decorated dunce cap on your head, or “I don’t understand” tattooed across your forehead.

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After these “AHA” moments, you FINALLY understand why the lecturer was so excited when she introduced the text on the first day, and why she looked so disappointed when the class didn’t seem to share her initial excitement. The text somehow becomes more than just another text that you have to read or write about, or pretend to like in order to appease your lecturer (you students know what I’m talking about); it resonates with you, it becomes one of those texts that you know you will always remember.

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It’s those “AHA” moments that reminded me of why I love literature in the first place. When I think about the classes I took in the past that allowed for those experiences to occur, in contrast to the classes that made me want to die of boredom, I realized a few really noticeable differences. So, I decided, (after days of brainstorming!) why not take you through two of my experiences as an undergrad student? I want to talk to you guys about what took place in the classroom that influenced one of my “AHA” moments, and what occurred in another classroom that simply didn’t make the cut.

So, without further ado…let’s dive in!

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CLASSROOM #1

Before I say anything else, let me assure you that I really do love British Literature, and I appreciate all that I learned in this particular course. However, I just don’t recall ever having any “AHA” moments in this class, and here’s why:

As a class, we were never given any tools/exercises that encouraged us to engage with the texts.

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Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that all lecturers are obligated to come up with clever ways to make the literature more appealing to their students, but I must say that it can make the world of difference. (Take it from a student.) At the time, I really could not fathom why I always felt disconnected from the lectures or discussions. I somehow always felt out of the loop, and it took a toll on my confidence as a student. As a sophomore, I began to rethink my decision to study English because of my inability to fully understand or connect with the material that we studied in this particular class. When I think back on that experience, I honestly believe that I felt this way because as a class we were never really given any tools that would encourage us to engage with the readings. Class time often consisted of the lecturer beginning with a detailed biography of the author, moving onto a lecture on the reading. We usually wrapped up with the lecturer asking everyone about their thoughts on the lecture (which many of us never had)…it was all very methodical. Rigid even.

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Apart from this routine, we were never really given a chance to engage closely with the text. It may have been different if our lecturer might have begun class-time by asking everyone how they felt that the reading could possibly connect to their lives? For instance, our class consisted largely of black, postcolonial students, and up to that point, many of us had taken at least two levels of West Indian Literature, in which we were to read at least five postcolonial texts per semester. Because of our rich background in postcolonial literature, and also being products of a postcolonial society, it would have been nice if we were given the freedom to discuss how reading British Literature made us feel, since it was a huge colonizing force. Did we come to class with any preconceived notions about some of the authors because of our exposure to postcolonialism? Did we feel disdain when we read it? Were we able to appreciate it in any way? Did we want to cringe when we found out that Wordsworth would be on the reading list for the semester? Simple questions like these would have been really great exercises that compelled us to engage more with a lot of the readings that we were assigned. I think if we were given tools like these, or similar to these, class-time would have been a lot less anxiety-ridden, and drawn-out.

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Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy most of the readings, but they were just that…readings that I enjoyed. I was never able to engage with the texts apart from the usual themes that are usually explored or explained. Now, I do think that it’s wonderful to enjoy the texts that you read in class, but I believe that it is even more wonderful to learn something from the texts that you read. I think a text should teach you something– about life, about the people around you, or about yourself; a text should challenge you, and make you look at the world in a way that you never would have thought about looking at it before. Because we were not allowed the opportunity to do more than just enjoy the readings in this class, most of the class-time felt like a race against the clock. I think I spent more time looking at my watch and thinking about what I would be eating for lunch than trying to understand the material. While I did always appreciate the lectures and discussions (the parts I were able to fathom, at least), I believe that if we were given exercises that compelled us to engage with the text, or think about it in a way that different from the usual, maybe class-time would have been a bit more enthusing. Who knows, I may have had an “AHA” moment?

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CLASSROOM #2

The very first day that we opened Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy in my Caribbean Women Writers class, I was honestly unimpressed.

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I couldn’t get why everyone kept runnin’ on bout dis Lucy book. Translation from Bahamian English: “I could not understand why everyone kept praising the Lucy book”. I felt like Lucy covered the same old themes that we discussed about Kincaid’s work in previous classes. Nothing new or original stood out to me about the text. My lecturer, however, who so graciously wanted us to appreciate the book as much as she did, began class by eagerly asking each person what they thought of the text. I bit my tongue, not wanting to disappoint her or sound like a killjoy, but chose to speak up after a few gruelling minutes,“It honestly didn’t do much for me.” And that was the truth at the time.

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Some of the other students seemed to think otherwise, but it’s safe to say that most of us shared the same sentiments. Thankfully, my lecturer did not look the least bit disappointed, but continued to discuss various themes that we would cover throughout the semester. I honestly left class that day eager to move on to the other texts that were scheduled on the syllabus.

Little did I know, my lecturer was cooking up ways to force us to really engage with the text, and by the next class, she didn’t care to ask us if we had a change of heart overnight, but instead instructed everyone to take out a copy of the text. This is one of the first things that made this classroom experience amazing—a simple exercise that my lecturer introduced to the class. This exercise not only changed the way we all engaged with the text, but it inspired discussions that simply could not end, even after the semester was over.

Our lecturer had us read through the very first chapter of Lucy quietly, making us highlight whatever colour that we noticed. My first reaction was…Huh? Colours? What does that have to do with anything?…. but I did it anyway, and the results were mind-boggling. After highlighting the colours that stood out, she asked us to look at the colours pointed out in chapter one, and think about the moments in the text where these colours reappeared. Can they represent something more than what we see at first glance?

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I remember looking down at the words that I highlighted, “pale yellow,” and I thought long and hard about the moments in the text where this colour yellow resurfaced—half listening to the array of colours that my classmates pointed out and explained.

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I can still recall sitting there, fighting with myself, trying hard to remember that one moment…then something clicked to me, and guess what guys? I became excited, like super excited. This was the beginning of my “AHA” moment. I could not remember the last time I was so excited to discuss a revelation that I had in the classroom. I eagerly raised my hand, and explained (with giddy pride) that Kincaid used pale-yellow to describe the appearance of the sun in America on Lucy’s first day as an au pair. She described it as being “pale-yellow, as if the sun had grown weak from trying too hard to shine; but still sunny” (5). I vigorously turned to middle of the book where this pale-yellow colour emerged again, describing what seemed to be an aura of sunlight that enveloped the character Mariah, the mother of the children that Lucy cared for. Now guys, at this point, I had disregarded the character of Mariah…I mean like completely wrote her off, simply because I didn’t think her character had any depth worth exploring.

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However, after I thought about the re-appearance of the pale-yellow colour, and connected it to the character. I realized that just like that pale-yellow sun tried hard to shine, Mariah tried hard to live a perfect life, although it really was not perfect. I knew, even after giving that answer that I was barely scraping the surface, and I wanted to know more. This pale-yellow colour could mean something so much deeper than I thought. I don’t think I would have ever begun to understand the character of Mariah without my lecturer compelling us to think about what the colours meant. I became so engrossed with this pale-yellow colour and its connection to Mariah that I wrote my first paper of that semester on the topic.

Now, while this colour exercise initiated my “AHA” moment, I think that my classmates polished it off for me. Because we were all so excited about our revelations after the colour exercise, we became eager to discuss other aspects of the text, like Lucy’s actions towards her friends and Mariah. Some of my classmates thought that Lucy was just a messed up, angry person; however, after sharing our own experiences and attempting to place ourselves in Lucy’s shoes, most, if not everyone in the class felt as though they could relate to Lucy’s experience as not only a black individual, but one whose actions were a result of her disdain for colonialist ideology. As products of a postcolonial society, many of us, like Lucy were bombarded with colonial ideals. Like Lucy, we were taught to adore flowers that never once bloomed in our native land, and like Lucy, we were praised when we spoke “proper” English, because our native tongue, Bahamian English “implied ignorance”. Because of this, we understood Lucy’s decision to leave home at the beginning of the text. We didn’t see it as her being selfish, or disobedient to her mother—we saw it as her desire for autonomy—to define herself on her own terms, not on the terms that her mother (who constantly imposed on Lucy colonial ideologies and ideals), sought to define for her. Living in a society where colonial ideologies are still pervasive, we all agreed that it somehow made sense for Lucy to leave home. We knew that the longer she stayed, the easier it would be for her to conform to the colonial ideals that she sought to flee. We were even better able to understand the somewhat cold, and indifferent life that she lived. We could almost empathize with Lucy, despite these personality flaws, because we knew that her actions were a result of her desire to reject everything that her colonial counterparts sought to impose upon her. We no longer looked at Lucy as an angry, promiscuous character; she became more of a comrade, someone who we could understand, despite some of the bizarre things that she did. Like Lucy, we refuse to be mentally enslaved to the ideals that our forefathers fought to free us from. Like Lucy, we wished not to be controlled by the oppressive ideologies of our colonial pasts. Because we became so connected to Lucy as a character, many days, we left the classroom feeling inspired and united—all with a similar purpose, to refuse to be controlled by ideologies that permeated our society (like Lucy) and live life to the fullest. This here was the polishing off my “AHA” moment—being able to discuss the text with classmates that just got it. They understood my struggles, and we were all able to connect with Lucy because she too shared a lot of those struggles.

Now, when I see my copy of Lucy sitting on my book-shelf, I smile. I think about my role as a postcolonial individual, I think about the fact that I could see a small glimpse myself in Lucy. Most importantly, I think about the simple colour exercise that my passionate lecturer thought of, and my amazing classmates—both of which made my smile possible.

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I can probably talk about my classroom experiences for about 100 pages, but I’m on a word limit here guys. So, I guess I’ll just wrap up by saying that although they may seem trivial, utilizing simple exercises in a classroom to encourage students to engage with a text can make a break a student. This couldn’t be more true for me. When I thought about the “AHA” moments that I experienced during my undergrad career, I realized that they almost always occurred because of simple exercises that my lecturers thought of. These exercises changed the way that I not only viewed the literature that I studied but fostered a class environment that allowed myself and my fellow classmates to feel comfortable enough to both express ourselves and connect with the texts that we read and each other.

As I transition into my graduate career this fall, I truly hope that these exercises aren’t forgotten, because I believe that it is these very same simple exercises that pave the way for many of our “AHA” moments.

Contributor Bio:

11076246_10155439349135397_5313472970728128444_n (1)I recently graduated from the University of The Bahamas with a Bachelor of Arts in English. I will be attending Acadia University in the Fall to pursue my Master of Arts in English. I am an avid blogger, and I’m interested in Postcolonial and Children’s Literature, as well as literature that explores themes regarding Gender and Sexuality.

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Group Papers to Balance the Teaching of Writing and Literature: Featuring Philip Freneau’s “Occasioned by General Washington’s Arrival in Philadelphia, On His Way to His Residence in Virginia”

I value writing as a learning tool, perhaps one of the most important learning tools. Whether short reflective assignments or responses to prompts or papers that carry an argument, my goal is to help students write their way through understandings of texts. However, having students do a lot of formal writing in non-writing intensive courses can be challenging, depending on the varying class sizes and course loads of different institutions. And, of course it is not assigning the writing or having students complete it or even grading it that is challenging, but giving substantive feedback on each assignment.

My literature classes, as is the case with many literature classes, spend quite a bit of time close reading texts. I work with my students to make them better close readers, but students struggle with the transition from verbal close reading discussions to the close reading that takes place in literary analysis papers. These practices are not different regarding the development of ideas or the ways we use the text. It is the linear organization, clear articulation of ideas and an argument, and how to reference the text while avoiding excessive summary that becomes the real challenge as students move from the verbal to the written.

In literature classes, if the purpose of the writing assignment is to make sure students are reading and/or thinking about the reading, then brief feedback is completely adequate. When I ask my students to write a paper, on the other hand, my personal expectations are that I will spend time responding to their writing and help them become better writers. This is where group papers come in handy.

In my Introduction to American literature course, we devote an entire week twice during the semester to in class group papers, once for writing about verse and once for writing about prose. These papers are short, two-page close readings. It took me a while to work out the specifics of this process—some trial and error in a few different settings, including group papers in writing classes—and I now have something I am very confident with.

While the novel changes from semester to semester, I continue to use Philip Freneau’s poem “Occasioned by General Washington’s Arrival in Philadelphia, On His Way to His Residence in Virginia.” This specific poem seems to be more easily accessible to students for their first formal close reading paper. In my experience, students’ knowledge of history is uneven, but they share a solid knowledge base when it comes to the American Revolution and George Washington. This enables students to move more quickly past the “what’s happening in the poem” into the “how’s it being described.”

Day 1

Before we start the group papers, I like to give students some context for understanding the poem because we do not discuss it as a class before they write about it. I choose not to discuss it beforehand because I don’t want to lead students to forced readings of the poem and I do not want them all trying to fit every stanza of the poem into some agreed upon class interpretation. I

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do, however, want them to understand Freneau as a poet. So, we read and briefly discuss another of his poems, “A Political Litany.” I set the two poems up as pre-Revolutionary War and post-Revolutionary War. I find that this initial introduction to Freneau, through his satirical poem that targets the British Monarchy, prepares students to better interpret the way the British are framed in “Occasioned by General Washington’s Arrival in Philadelphia, On His Way to His Residence in Virginia.” At this point in the semester, students have already been introduced to occasional poetry, but I also provide them with a brief reminder of its purposes.

After our short intro to Freneau and discussion, I break the students up into groups of three or four students, depending on the size of the class. For the prose paper, I give each group a different page to choose a passage from the novel we are reading; for the verse paper, I assign each group one or two stanzas from Freneau’s poem.

Although the groups have their individual piece of text to focus on, we move as a class through this process.

  • First, I have them annotate the text. Out come laptops and smart phones as students start looking up words and debating which meaning best applies to the context. My students aren’t magical; more often than not, they do not look words up when doing the assigned readings at home, but give them some class time and watch the magic.
  • Second, I ask them to identify the pieces of their annotations that stand out the most to them, whether it is patterns or ideas. From this, they decide which elements they want to focus on in their papers and start writing. If someone in the group has a laptop, then she/he is the typist; if not, one will student will write it out for the group and another will take it home and type it up.

While students are annotating, discussing, and writing these group papers, I move from group to group, checking in with them. I ask them questions about their stanzas and then about their annotations and eventually about the direction of their writing. For instance, students tend to be comfortable identifying the personification of “Freedom” (ln 8) and “Fame” (ln 14), so I really push them to explore what that does to the poem from its delivery to the content associated with them. Or, in stanza 5, I ask that group to identify who the speaker’s “their,” “thy,” and “thine” are referring to, the British or George Washington.  Having the time and ability to work with students as they are in the wonderful throes of writing allows me to explain elements of writing about literature much more directly and within the context of that writing taking place.

Day 2

I have students email me their group papers before class. I pull the papers up on the projector, turn on Word’s track changes, and we work on feedback together. In a class of 30, I have roughly 7-8 papers. So, we spend 7-8 minutes on each paper. Students get to see and participate in this feedback on their own and their classmates papers, which helps them in several ways. First, the repetition of giving similar types of feedback across the papers reinforces certain writing expectations. Next, the moments where each group did something distinct opens up possibilities or different ways of approaching the poem that they had not thought about in their groups. Finally, they are able to add to the other groups’ interpretations, continuing the collaborative process from the previous class period and showing how much further the close readings can be taken.

We, ultimately, have more time for this piece in a MWF class, than in the TR classes because we can spend the entire class period going over their papers. However, I typically scale back or cut day 3 from my TR version of the course, instead of day 2. If we do not make it through all the papers during the class period, I will finish them afterwards and add some additional comments to the ones we did discuss before emailing them back to their groups.

These first two days in the group paper writing process provide the one-on-one conference experience with the workshop writing model. Students have support from each other as they work through how to write about literature in the group setting. I am able to keep them on track with their writing and help them avoid the pitfall of too much summary. I give extensive feedback on 8 drafts, instead of 30, and I do much of it with the students themselves. And, by the end of it all, we have still discussed and worked our way through the poem.

Day 3 (aka bonus day for MWF sections)

Once we have shared the papers, we look for overlapping or related concepts. As a class, we develop possible thesis statements for longer literary analysis papers that might include a few of those close reading papers as evidence, and we consider the best organization of that evidence. For example, some group papers supported a larger argument about the poem foreshadowing George Washington’s future, others focused on the response to the British in the poem, and still others discussed an emerging critique of slavery.

We also spend time talking about the group papers that appear to be in direct contrast with one another. This is also very valuable for students in terms of developing ideas through writing and in showing why there isn’t necessarily a right answer.  We also critique which paper appears to be better supported and what it would other sections of the poem might strengthen the weaker argument.

I do find this piece to be valuable, and in the TR version, I try to save 10-20 minutes for it just to get students’ minds headed in this direction. I would like to reiterate that the activities from the first two days are the most important for students in the group paper process, even though day 3 is probably the most interesting for us as teachers and lovers of arguments.

This collaborative process enables me to coach students on their writing, while working with the class to model how students might develop their own individual papers for the class and future assignments that ask them to write about literature. If we are going to expect a specific type of writing out of our students, then we need to make the time to help them succeed with that writing.