Making Room for BIG Books

Despite what some students might think, a semester is really short!

All instructors know the feeling of wanting to cover more material than a semester can actually hold. As a result, perhaps especially in survey or genre courses potentially covering centuries of literature, we often opt to teach shorter-length works or excerpts from longer works. While this gives us the satisfaction of “covering more ground” and the assurance that students will (hopefully) complete assigned readings, doesn’t a BIG part of literary study involve reading BIG books?

While I don’t have a rigid definition in mind of what constitutes “big” or “long,” I generally mean works, usually novels, of 400+ pages.  I know people have different educational experiences, but when I reflect on both my high school and college careers, I realize I didn’t read many “big” or “long” works at all. It wasn’t until graduate school that I was regularly assigned long novels in my classes.

Throughout college, I found that most of my long novel reading was non-assigned. If my instructors mentioned important canonical works in class, I often made a point to find them in the library and read them during my free time or during winter/summer breaks. BIG BOOKs

There are certainly still self-motivated students who read a lot on their own time, but they’re not necessarily reading “big” books. Also, many students, despite the desire to read more, really don’t have the time to do so between taking classes or working.

If experience and training in reading “big” books is essential to the development of English majors, and average English majors can’t fit “big” books in on their own time, then it’s important to make room for “big” books in our courses whenever we can. I try to incorporate at least one long novel into each of my literature classes.

Of course, making room for a 400+ page novel is easier said than done, and both instructors and students have their concerns. While I speak on behalf of common instructor concerns below, I interviewed several former students who read “long” novels in my classes to get a better idea of their perspectives (I paraphrase much of their commentary below for the sake of format).

Instructor Concerns about Course Objectives: I have a lot of historical ground to cover, so can I replace several shorter works with one longer work and still convey historical developments? It’s also important for my class to convey stylistic range and authorial diversity, so can I really afford to sacrifice any voices?

My Response: Meeting course objectives is generally non-negotiable. In survey courses or courses where diversity is an essential objective, including a “big” book may not be feasible.  However, I usually only include one long novel per applicable class, so there is still room to include shorter length works and diverse range of voices.

Instructor Concerns about Pacing: How much class time do I need to devote to a long novel? How much reading can I expect students to complete for each class? Will my students even read a long novel through to the end?

Student Concerns about Pacing: How long are we spending with this huge novel? Will I have enough time to read, or will I have to skim? Will the language and style be readable or difficult? Will the subject matter be hard to understand? If we’re only spending two weeks on it, how much of the material will we actually cover during class? Is it worth putting in all the time to read a huge novel if we’re only spending a couple weeks on it?

Response: Several semesters ago, I considered including Moby-Dick in a genre class on the novel. A seasoned colleague told me not to bother. He said, “It’s too long and too old. No one will read it.” I think it’s unfair to assume that students simply won’t complete an assigned work just because it’s too long or too old. We all know that students don’t always complete readings, even when they’re short and contemporary.

Moby Dick

Upon talking to students, I’m most compelled by a frustration they share. Many students are not, despite popular belief, frustrated by a large quantity of reading, but by the disproportional amount of class time devoted to discussing a large quantity of reading. Students are practical about their time, and I can’t blame them. When students invest a lot of time in reading, they want to see a return on that investment by discussing material comprehensively in class. It makes sense that students will invest more in a text that takes up a month of class time rather than a week.  As my students explain, regardless of length, it’s frustrating to read something that goes unaddressed during class.

The ability to complete readings successfully is dependent upon slow pacing, which prevents students from rushing or skimming through a narrative and feeling “mixed up” or “hazy” on points during discussion.  When more class time is devoted to a work, students are not only more likely to finish reading but also to have a stronger comprehension of what they read.

Additionally, the students I interviewed expressed enthusiasm about having extended class time to think “more deeply” about a work, cover “more territory,” and explore “diverse perspectives” during discussion. Even in advanced classes where strong students could reasonably be expected to complete 200-300 pages of reading in a week, it’s unlikely we could do more than scratch the surface of those 300 pages in a week’s worth of discussion.

In matters of pacing, instructors also need to consider the language, style, and density of the material. For example, I usually spend four to five weeks on John Steinbeck’s 600ish page novel East of Eden, but I usually spend six to seven weeks on an older work like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, even though it’s about 150ish pages shorter than Steinbeck’s novel.  While students find that Steinbeck’s narrative is written in readable and mostly conversational contemporary English, students find that Cooper’s long-winded language and convoluted writing style slow down the reading pace.

East of Edenlast of the mohicans

Instructor Concerns about Placement: Where should I position a “long” novel on my syllabus? Is it better to start or finish a class with a “long” novel?

Student Concerns about Placement: Will I have to read a “long” novel during the busiest parts of my semester? Will I feel overwhelmed with all the work I have to do?

Response: I have positioned long novels at the beginning (for reasons of historical chronology), middle, and end of courses, and my experiences have been most successful when placing long novels at the end of a semester. I discovered insight as to why through student interview. As I’ve already addressed, reading “big” books isn’t exactly common practice for most students, so seeing a “long” novel assigned in a class can be feel overwhelming and intimidating. Therefore, throwing students into the “deep end” of the “lengthy literature pool” at the start of the semester isn’t ideal.

Students also disclosed a preference for starting with shorter works, not only to build up reading “endurance” and confidence, but also to get comfortable with the dynamics of group discussion in a given class.  Students are usually comfortable with reading practices and class dynamics by mid-semester, but it’s best to wait until after the chaos of midterms to start a long work. Also, students noted that while they are busy at the end of the semester, most exams and papers are due after classes end. Slowly working through a long novel in the final weeks of a semester, therefore, can feel more “therapeutic” than “taxing.”

Instructor Concerns about Value: Will assigning a long novel be worth it? Will my students really gain anything from the experience?

Student Concerns about Value: Will reading a long novel be worth it? Will I really gain anything from the experience?

Response: When I asked students how they felt after completing a long novel, they agreed that the overall experience is rewarding.  One student noted, “I feel accomplished when I finish a long novel; there is some sort of pride rooted in the ability to complete a task that at first seemed daunting and almost overwhelming.” Another student noted, “After finishing a long novel, the initial feeling that follows is relief. Then, accomplishment–I actually completed something!…If a novel is special enough, something about me changes afterward.”

BIG BOOKS 3

A BIG part of making sure a BIG book is a BIG hit is generating enthusiasm about the experience throughout the semester. It’s important for students to think of a long novel at the end of the semester as a “grand finale,” not a “final punishment.” Additionally, it’s important to stress that the group will work through the text slowly and that, as the instructor, you’ll be there to walk them through it all. These kinds of consistent prefatory remarks will help students feel (at least) a little better about a task that for many will be a totally new experience.

Do you teach “big” books? If so, what “big” books do you include in your classes? Where do you position them, and how long do you spend with them? How do your students engage with “big” books?

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Mapping Don DeLillo’s White Noise

PALS is very happy to welcome Katie Fitzpatrick back to the blog. Her first post can be found here. Fitzpatrick currently works at the Coordinated Arts Program in the University of British Columbia. The following post describes a mapping classroom activity where students reacted to passages from Don DeLillo’s White Noise.


After reading
the first third of Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, my students asked me if there would ever be a plot, if anything would ever happen. While reading Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the class had worried about Offred’s fate in the Commander’s house. While reading Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, they had wondered about the dark mysteries underlying Hailsham’s idyllic appearance. Now, they were intrigued by the strange conversations in White Noise, but they couldn’t begin to guess where it was all headed. I explained that there would, eventually, be a plot (DeLillo observes that “all plots tend to move deathward” and a gun appears in the third act), but that I had chosen the book for a rather different reason.

White Noise is a novel that I like to teach in first-year literature courses because it addresses so many Big Ideas – from death and religion, to consumerism and the media – both explicitly and elliptically. It is clear from the get-go that DeLillo is trying to express something profound but it’s never immediately clear what. For this reason, the book provides ideal practice for first-year English students who are just learning how to trace a Big Idea across a text.

This year, I am teaching a 6-credit, full-year course (ASTU 100) in the University of British Columbia’s “Coordinated Arts Program.” The course (capped at 25) provides first-year students with 3 credits of university writing and 3 credits of introductory literary studies. At the point in the semester when I assigned DeLillo, my students were preparing to write a research essay that asked them to trace how an abstract concept is elaborated or challenged across a literary work (with the help of four scholarly sources). I told them that reading White Noise would help them to develop the skills necessary for that assignment; in reading DeLillo, I explained, I didn’t want them to follow a plot so much as an idea.

When reading Never Let Me Go and The Handmaid’s Tale, our class had focused both on very large issues (narrative style, plot, and character) and on very narrow close-readings of individual sentences and passages. Now, I explained, it was time to read between and across scenes – to note repeated themes or motifs, to consider how different passages echoed or contradicted one another. When I expressed that I wanted students to practice “tracing connections between passages” one asked (I’m paraphrasing): “Can we make a map like a conspiracy theorist with all the passages?” She used some hand gestures to paint the picture; she was imagining the chaotic walls of sticky notes and long-lens photos and red yarn and scrap paper often depicted in crime procedurals and conspiracy thrillers. This struck me as perfect. “Yes,” I said, “Let me think about it.”

The next week, I came to class prepared to run this activity. I selected and printed nine key passages from the first half of White Noise (we hadn’t finished reading it yet). Some were passages we had already discussed or close-read in class, others were new. I also brought nine magnets from home, so I could “pin” the passages to the magnetic whiteboard, which would serve as our “conspiracy map.” Next, I set out a number of supplies on tables near the whiteboard. I placed extra copies of each key passage around the tables, so students wouldn’t have to wait in line to read a passage on the whiteboard. I also put out whiteboard markers, pens, and sticky notes. I had purchased a multi-colored pack of sticky notes, and I assigned the colors to five key themes that I saw echoed in several of the passages: death, religion, consumerism, the crowd, and the simulacrum. Lastly, I displayed the instructions for the activity on a slide, projected at the opposite side of the room.

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When class began, I instructed students to move around the tables and the whiteboard, eventually reading all nine passages. I encouraged them to note their responses and observations in several ways: 1. If they noticed a particular theme in a passage (say, consumerism) they could simply post a sticky note of that color on or near that passage 2. They were encouraged to also write an annotation on the sticky note (in pen). These annotations could explain how/where they saw the theme in the passage, note other observations, pose questions, or answer questions previously posed by others. 3. If they noticed a theme or idea expressed across two passages, they were encouraged to use whiteboard markers to draw a connecting line/arrow and to describe the connections they saw.

Students spent about 30-35 minutes on the activity, and remained focused and engaged the entire time. At first, they were very quiet; they silently read passages and tentatively added sticky notes and comments. As the activity continued, they became more animated and confident, commenting on the increasingly chaotic appearance of the board and on their peers’ observations. When the board was completed, I allowed them to take notes or photos (in a reference to the novel’s “Most Photographed Barn,” they dubbed it the “Most Photographed Board”), and then reconvened class for a wrap-up discussion.

During the discussion, I asked students to share any connections they had found especially surprising or interesting. I also asked them how this activity had changed their understanding of the character of Murray (three of the nine key passages I selected were his speeches). Our “conspiracy map” had helped students to perceive some continuity in Murray’s seemingly random observations, particularly when counter-posed to quotes from the novel’s protagonist, Jack Gladney. Overall, they could now see that Jack tended to take a pessimistic attitude toward crowds and consumerism, while Murray tended to take an optimistic view. I asked them to consider whether DeLillo (or, if you prefer, the text) was giving more credence to one outlook or the other, if one was more obviously satirical or exaggerated. Lastly, I gave students a short homework activity: they had to write a paragraph about two of the passages and one idea connecting them, considering whether the two passages treated that idea in similar or different ways.

Because I teach two sections of the same course back-to-back, I was able to run this activity twice in a row. It was interesting to note how the “conspiracy maps” in the two classes differed. The color-coded sticky notes allowed me to quickly perceive the main themes each class had identified. For example, one class had marked a scene where Babette (Jack Gladney’s wife) appears on television with yellow sticky-notes (religion) and pink ones (the simulacrum), while several students in the other class had marked the same passage with blue sticky-notes (death). I also observed that one class tended to identify surprising new themes with a single word (“UFOS,” “disease,” “academia”), while the other class used the whiteboard markers to offer more elaborate responses to my pre-identified themes (“both Murray and Jack seem to be constantly thinking about death but Murray seems to have confidently accepted it because he can articulate it so well”).

Teaching the activity twice also allowed me to make changes from one group to the next. At first, I assumed the activity would take all of my 50 minute class. When students finished after 35 minutes, then, we were all a little unprepared for the wrap-up discussion, and it started off slow. By the time the second group arrived,  however, I was more prepared. I told that group I would later be asking them to share a connection they found especially interesting or surprising; thanks to that simple warning, they were ready for the discussion, which got going faster. Meanwhile, I had developed our conversation about Murray spontaneously with the first group, but posed questions about him more deliberately with the second. If you replicate this activity in your own class, I recommend planning out your wrap-up discussion more than I did (and I’d be curious to hear what you come up with!).

Overall, however, I would describe the activity as highly successful. It was fun, creative, and thought-provoking. It also got students interacting with the text, one another, and the classroom in new ways, thus echoing some of the “active learning” strategies I learned from Cathy Kim and Linda McGuire while teaching at Muhlenberg College last year. Moreover, because the idea was generated by a student, it demonstrated my willingness to adapt the course in response to their input. Most importantly, students practiced tracing connections between and across passages – both during the activity itself and in the related homework assignment. This is a skill that proved very useful when it came time to design and execute their final essays (which they are drafting as of is this writing). While not every student is writing on White Noise, those that are have developed their own twists on topics covered in the “conspiracy map,”  analyzing masculinity & consumerism, for example, or academic & popular ways of knowing.

Lastly, the “conspiracy map” helped students to see White Noise as a novel less concerned with the unfolding of a plot and more concerned with the working through of ideas. Eventually, Jack Gladney becomes embroiled in the plottiest plot – attempting to kill his wife’s lover – but by the time students reached that section, they saw it as embedded within a larger, more intricate network of ideas. As a result, we were all able to read Jack’s discussion with the disbelieving nuns as the novel’s true climax – the moment when the concepts we were tracing (religion, death, the simulacrum) achieved their most complex inter-articulation. Ultimately, the activity helped us all to perceive what “happens,” or fails to, in White Noise.

Bio:

Katie Fitzpatrick teaches in the Coordinated Arts Program at the University of British Columbia. Next year, she will be joining UBC’s “Arts Studies in Research & Writing” program as a Lecturer. Dr. Fitzpatrick also works as an Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and her writing has appeared in both public and scholarly venues, including The Nation, Aeon Magazine, The Chronicle Review, Twentieth-Century Literature, and Post45.