ENWR106

Position: Halftime Faculty
Institution/Department: Montclair State University, English Department, First-Year Writing Program
Term: Fall 2008, AY 2009-10, AY 2010-11
Student: Undergraduate
No. of Students: 17, 16 (Fall 2008); 15, 16 (Fall 2009); 18, 18 (Fall 2010); 15 (Spring 2011)

Full Course Title: College Writing I: Intellectual Prose, Expository Writing.
Designed and taught with the approval of Montclair State University English/FYW Department.
Syllabus available in PDF format in the image above.

COURSE DESCRIPTION:

As a literature course, the objective is to develop your abilities to respond to, interpret, and analyze complex literary works; to appreciate literature as both art and representation; and to understand the context in which we read and interpret literature.  In your written analyses, you will focus on the role literature plays in capturing a personal, cultural, or historical moment; its various purposes and social functions; its expression of different themes and emotions; how authors represent certain themes and emotions; and how our own perspectives influence our interpretation of a given work.  We will also examine the social, cultural, historical, and political contexts that influence the production—the process of writing, publishing, and disseminating—and reception of literary texts.

We will read a range of different genres of literature, from short stories, memoirs, poems, and plays to comics and graphic novel excerpts, written by a fairly diverse group of writers.  As a writing course, the primary class objective is to help you improve your abilities to write well and to develop focused, thoughtful, and analytic essays.  Our emphasis will be on the writing process itself—prewriting, drafting, and revising—and on the idea that writing does not exist in a vacuum; as such, you will also be required to attend one Live Literature! faculty reading given this semester (dates included below).

LEARNING OBJECTIVES:

As in ENWR105, the department asks for five essays, the fifth being the Documented (a.k.a. research) Essay.  This course, however, focuses on literature and literary analysis.  I divided the class between student presentations and discussions I moderated and contributed to.  Course readings ranged from material taken from the textbook to excerpts intended to diversify students’ reading experience and range of analyses.  Unit themes ranged from reflecting on family to fairy tales to justice and retribution to witnessing and collective memory to graphic novels (The Documented Essay).

I also used a Ning for this course, a social networking educational tool to which student presenters uploaded their teaching materials and other materials they found to help deepen their peers’ understanding of that day’s literature.  Given the broad assignment parameters and the digital space in which to experiment, students were surprisingly innovative in the material they posted, linking to YouTube videos or embedding relevant images or audio.

Example of Basso Ostinato, uploaded by students prior to discussion of Ida Fink’s “The Table: A Play for Four Voices and Basso Ostinato)

Trailer to the film Idiocracy, accompanying the lesson on Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron”

Students were expected to leave the course having further refined the writing abilities they acquired in ENWR105 and having developed a sense of interpretive methods, literary analysis techniques, and ways to conduct research when writing about a work of literature.

WHAT I LEARNED:

This was both my first time teaching a literature course and my first time utilizing a Ning, a social networking platform for businesses and educators.  With regards to the latter, I created the Ning site, now defunct, to supplement in-class discussion and provide students with a forum for group discussions in addition to the discussions held in class.  I used Ning in place of Blackboard, posting all the readings, handouts, essay guidelines, and my afterthoughts to the main page.

Ning allowed for status updates and the sharing of media, visible on the public user pages, in addition to private discussions in small pre-assigned groups.  Students could also redesign their member pages and write on each other’s “walls,” much like Facebook.  A few students utilized these functions in planning in-person study sessions and meetings, and a few others used the status function as they would on Facebook: sharing tidbits from their day-to-day lives, complaining about the work load, or making announcements pertaining to either the class, the university, or non-academic functions.  Students were asked to post their reading responses to the Ning and type up their workshop notes within their pre-assigned peer groups.  The work load was comparable to a conventional ENWR course; the only aspect that had changed was the submission format of student work.

As the site administrator, I was able to view and approve or veto any posted material, but for the most part I let the class experiment.  I was very pleased with the fact that students naturally gravitated to the Ning as a forum for inquiring about due dates, essay guidelines, and peer advice on an essay idea.  It’s perhaps also noteworthy that Ning had a “feature” function, in that star members could be featured or “stickied” to the home page for greater visibility.  I didn’t use this function, but if I used Ning in future courses I might feature student presenters the day before their presentations, to remind students to look at the presenters’ posted material.

This was also my first time designing and teaching a literature course, and I leaped at the opportunity to incorporate mixed-media and digital sources in addition to material from the textbook.

An excerpt from Neil Gaiman’s “The Doll House,” assigned as a supplement to a unit on fairy tales.

ABC’s “Look of Love,” screened in class silently and then with lyrics to illustrate the importance of artistic choices, details, and juxtapositions when analyzing a creative work.

TIME MACHINE:

I wish I had utilized the Ning a little differently, as more integrated into class time than as a supplement.  This may have lessened student resistance to writing on the blog and discussion groups as well.  In retrospect, it also would have been helpful to incorporate more storyboarding exercises and methods of reading and interpretation exercises earlier in the semester, instead of piling them together at the end.  In terms of smaller exercises, I had previously used the “Look of Love” interpretive exercise in the middle of the semester and achieved excellent results; on using it at the beginning of the semester, student involvement and understanding was noticeably diminished.

As a caveat to others interested in using music video interpretation as a model, a colleague of mine tried something similar with a U2 video and didn’t see the same pitch of interest, involvement, or learning as I did the first time I tried the exercise.  I’m inclined to think that more absurdist videos, full of non-sequiturs and material desperately in need of context or interpretation, would be more successful.  For instance, New Order’s “True Faith” was a close second to “Look of Love” when I initially created the exercise:

I also think that employing a version of the “seed text” method regarding the Documented Essay unit would have proved a beneficial model of research for students.  I had posted a few select essays for students to use in analyzing the graphic novels they selected, but this vastly limited their understanding of research, even as it heightened their experience of literary analysis and interpretation.  What I wound up with was a unit that touched on semiotics, eye-tracking and ways of seeing, while the students’ research became a largely guided process rather than an individual one of seeking, vetting, and selecting.  Not that that’s a bad thing, but I do think the unit could have been extended through use of the “seed text” or BEAM method to better illuminate the process of research: that is, beginning with one text and working outward, rather than wildly casting a net in all directions based on the same string of search terms in Google Scholar, JSTOR, and Project MUSE, which is what I suspect many of the students did.

Creative Commons License
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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