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.

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.