Sunday, March 12, 2006
We interrupt the high theory to bring you a question of pedagogy. I am currently up to my ears in a stack of papers (which, given my height, is not as altitudinous as it might otherwise be), and my students are telling me, with remarkable frequency and thoroughness, that Petrarchan sonnets have an octave and a sestet. Also that Shakespearean sonnets have three quatrains and a couplet. And that both generally consist of fourteen lines. (If, of course, you are either John Hollander or George Meredith, your sonnets may not consist of fourteen lines. Be that as it may.) Now, I am not complaining that my students can now recognize the difference between the two types of sonnet, given that the question “Shakespearean or Petrarchan?” frequently reduces whole classes to dazed silence. (Needless to say, that’s before one points out the existence of terza rima sonnets or Spenserian sonnets.) Similarly, I’m genuinely pleased that they know that sonnets are conventionally written in iambic pentameter; better still, the students even recognize iambic pentameter when it crosses their path.
However. There’s no reason for the students to unload any of this information in their papers. Quite the contrary, in fact. Certainly, they need to define the sonnet’s type, but they don’t need to tell me that sonnets have fourteen lines, that Shakespearean sonnets end with a couplet, and so forth. Similarly, the imagined reader (a.k.a. the real instructor) rarely needs to be told that Great Expectations is a “novel,” that “My Last Duchess” is a “poem,” etc., etc., etc. (Even less does the IR need to be told that Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy is a “poem” or that “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a “novel.")
As yet, I’ve found no reliable tactic for helping students evaluate what basic information needs to be in their papers, especially since those very same students might find themselves asked to do one thing on an exam and another thing in their essays. I’ve raised the question of common knowledge, for example, and pointed out that we (by which I mean the students and their IR, who is really yours truly) already know what a metaphor is, what a Horatian ode is, what a symbol is, and so on. Ergo, the student can get on with the business of writing the paper. But I suspect that many students may have been trained to presume that there’s no common knowledge out there at all.
Do you tell them that you are the IR? I’ve always told them that it’s their fellow students. If it’s the teacher, then it’s too easy to give in to the urge to give us exactly what is imagined that we want at the expense of the paper itself (perhaps this might be a cause of the reference information you mention). Of course, I think that it’s very hard to get students to imagine an IR that’s not the teacher.
Also, there hasn’t been any ‘high theory’ on the Valve since like, ever.
Yes, the students know that I’m the IR (and an IR who has read whatever text they’re discussing, to boot).
I think it’s better idea to tell them otherwise, as per above. Long periods of “DARK SARCASM IN THE CLASSROOM” and lack of ready access to puddings has generally left them prone to construe the IR too narrowly, I think.
I always tell my first year philosophy students that their ideal reader is not me but a smart fellow student who skipped lecture and skipped the readings but can be counted to pick up on stuff if stated or implied clearly. Their job is to write something that would inform this person (on the assumption that this fabulous creature has turned over a new leave and now wants to learn.)
First, the obvious: describing the general attributes of sonnets is an easy way to fill space in a paper. It shows that they’ve read something and presumably you aren’t going to mark them down for it.
Next the possibly non-obvious: you can almsot never go wrong with a low estimation of the store of common knowledge among American students. In my limited teaching experience as Astronomy 101 TA, I found that a good chunk of university freshmen didn’t know that the Earth went around the Sun. So yes, they’d mention it when answering essay questions—new information and all, Copernicus evergreen. If that’s the worst problem you have pedagogically, I think you should consider yourself lucky.
The only time I ever tried to write a poem—an epithalamion—I settled on terza rima.
Not a good idea.
Count your blessings. I recently read a student essay in which Civilization and its Discontents was referred to as a novel. Granted, it was a freshman essay, but still. Actuallym now that I think about it, Freud was a genius at constructing fictions.
I think learning to write in the correct “register” is one of the hardest things for anyone to learn when entering a new field. It’s good for us to step out of our own fields from time to time into areas about which we know nothing, so we remember this. I was just reading an academic text that used the abbreviation “NNM” like I should know what it meant; I didn’t and had to hunt around to find out. An important difference between our experience of an assignment and theirs is that we read 10 (or 20, or 30) versions and the variation stands out; they see only their own, and so may not have an opportunity to gauge how their register aligns with others.
One thing I’ve tried in class is to suggest to students that they imagine they are writing to a foreigner; such a person is intelligent, but may be ignorant of many of our commonplaces. This encourages them to *define in passing*, often in a phrase, but not explain elementary things at length. A good example of this in practice is the BBC Radio. They rarely just name a person, but always give an identifier: not “George Bush” but “US president George Bush.” When students are tempted to devote a paragraph to explaining that a sonnet has 14 lines, they can satisfy themselves (since they may have just learned that) and you at the same time by writing, “this is a typical sonnet of fourteen lines, ....”
I recently read a student essay in which Civilization and its Discontents was referred to as a novel.
I had always thought Freud *was* fiction....
But more seriously, I have often required students in my science classes to memorize the final paragraph of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Quite a few times I have heard students refer to it as the “poem” they had to memorize. It finally dawned on me that “something-the-teacher-makes-you-memorize” was the definition of “poem” as far as they were concerned.
At my school we are taught to write essays as if the reader has never read the book. I don’t think anyone ever really writes with that in mind, but that’s what we are taught. And as for adding that *insert title here* is a novel; I’ve actually been marked down for not including stuff like that.
In my experience, students do much less padding of this kind once they begin to feel that they know how to read closely.
When they do, observations of the kind you describe quite naturally metamorphose into more complex ones: it has the rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet, but the syntax of the sentences cuts across the rhyme scheme and divides the sonnet into four units, each of which concerns a different etc.
To help with the low levels of core knowledge, what we need is for literature departments to have all their graduating seniors take a low-stakes, anonymous test in the basics of literary terms and literary history.
How much “padding” is really occurring in these essays? How much space does the identification of a sonnet’s structure and scansion take? One may argue this, but the identification of form is a foundation of literary knowledge. Now, if your students are simply identifying form in their essays, and then tangenting off to some other thesis, that might be a problem. However, if they identify the form and then posit WHY the author used the form, then they are on their way to a legitimate essay.
Mark, we have that already in the form of the GRE Subject test. The only theoretical question on that, by the way, when I took it, was
Who wrote “The Death of the Author”
D) Cleanth Brooks
Matt Greenfield, your email server is rejecting messages from both John and me.
This is one of my pet peeves, too. I’m about to begin grading a set of exam questions on poetry, so I don’t know how I did this time.
That gives me the perfect platform from which to pontificate--or at least chime in… (joking...)
And this comment is a longwinded way of agreeing with Matt’s comment above: confidence helps the information dump wane.
However, in teaching poetry, I really toned down the prosody this time. I focused only on iambs--only mentioning other meters in passing, not putting them on the test. I was even a little anti-intellectual in my presentation of this information: telling my students that I was an amateur at scansion and spending lots of time making references to musical analogies in poetry.
Throughout, I was aiming to convey the idea that scansion/prosody only becomes interesting when the form is broken or emphasized in some useful way. That not all enjambments are interesting but that, when the enjambment is significant to the point you’re tyring to make about how your idea plays out in the poem, then you’ve got something really rich and persuasive to add.
Beyond messages about the intended reader (whom I prefer them to imagine as a smart classmate, not me--and we do trade drafts), I try to continually enforce the notion that their idea about the poem controls their paper.
I also prohibit “form” paragraphs.
The GRE in literature, with a little more basic theory, would be okay by me, Jonathan. What would be nice is if we could have all the graduates take it and then come up with overall numbers for different schools and departments. Furthermore, it would be quite illuminating to have the GRE scores of graduating seniors, and see how those scores correlate with those students’ gpa. The closest analogy to that right now is the NAEP test, in which we see some drastic discrepancies between NAEP scores and local-test scores and grades.
I have often required students in my science classes to memorize the final paragraph of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Quite a few times I have heard students refer to it as the “poem” they had to memorize. It finally dawned on me that “something-the-teacher-makes-you-memorize” was the definition of “poem” as far as they were concerned.
I’m a poet & that paragraph qualifies as a poem for real. Like any good poem, its language both enlightens & confounds, inviting the reader to enter into the pleasures of interpretation.
A high score on the GRE subject test is directly correlated with a traditionalist curriculum, as it was a deeply traditionalist test when I took it. Therefore, you can generally guess that the average undergraduate from a university with a doctoral program in English is going to have had a less traditional curriculum and probably would not do as well on the test, unless they’re motivated to cram for grad school admissions reasons (and this test carries little weight in those, from what I understand). Now does the traditionalist curriculum represented in the GRE Subject test correspond to what an English department should be teaching its undergraduates?
This is a very cool discussion. Anne, I hope you don’t mind, I’m going to borrow a lot of your techniques. OK all of them. But what is a GRE test?
Perhaps it’s worthwhile explaining what infodumping is and why it doesn’t have much value, sespecially when served up disconnected from critical practice. OTOH I too get quite a lot of essays about the novel Romeo and Juliet and am thus grateful when essay writers show signs of enjoying their new knowledge. I can picture how intimations that this stuff that’s new to the student is common knowledge to everyone else could become highly counterproductive.
I kind of think those who are going to get nonintimidating value out of the notion of common knowledge in a field as arcane as literary theory will find their own way there, more or less, and there’s little to be gained from having the others form a picture of literary study as a closed professional activity. I’m exaggerating a bit. But I don’t teach people who want to become profesisonal literary scholars.
How edenic Australia must be.
The Graduate Record Exam has a general part, composed of some bullshit vocabulary test, figuring and counting, and some logic puzzles (that’s how it was in my day; I hear they’ve added something else now). There’s also a specific subject test. The English literature one has about three hundred multiple choice questions like the one I quote above.
Thanks. It sounds [censored]
Yeah, the sections are Verbal, Quantitative, and Analytical. Best I can tell, the GRE is only taken by undergraduates or recent college graduates for the purpose of getting into graduate school. Almost all graduate programs require applicants to take the GRE, but I don’t think all that many English departments require the subject exam. Seems like University of Georgia did back in the late 1990s, but I may not be remembering that correctly.
The company that administered the GRE and distributed the results, Educational Testing Services (ETS), had terrible customer service. They charged a lot of money to take the tests, and they would send the results to a few places for no charge, but if you wanted to send the results to more than four schools, there was a fee for each additional school. And you had to call ETS to get them to do it; they didn’t have a convenient online form to fill out. Mind you, this wasn’t a toll-free number (and before the ubiquity of cell phones), and you had to call between 8 and 5, so the long distance rates soared (they’d put me on hold for 15 minutes).
All of which is to say that while a low-stakes required exit exam for seniors is not necessarily a bad idea despite the “teach to the test” implications, funding the test would cost a considerable amount of money.
Jonathan asked, “Now does the traditionalist curriculum represented in the GRE Subject test correspond to what an English department should be teaching its undergraduates?”
Implied: Should the GRE subject test be changed to reflect more accurately what most universities are teaching their undergraduates? Or should the GRE subject test be dispatched altogether? I think Jonathan’s right that most admission committees are more interested in statements of purpose and writing samples anyway. These are interesting questions, especially for discussion at The Valve.
By a low-stakes, anonymous test, I meant an exit exam in the basics of literary reading and literary history--being able to define terms and recognize examples of them, demonstrating wide familiarity with literary canons, knowing some principles of literary interpretation. This would have a diagnostic purpose for literature departments. How well are their graduates learning the rudiments of literary understanding?
It shouldn’t be hard to do. Of course, it would raise questions outside the department, especially if the scores were low (and the students’ gpas were high). People might ask about the purpose of literary study. They might wonder about its relationship to the workplace, about the effectiveness of the teachers . . . And right now, the literature professorate doesn’t have very convincing answers to those questions.
You seem to be implying that scores would be low. But it depends on what’s being tested and why. What are the principles of literary interpretation? This is not a simple question. And the literature professoriate has as good of answers to those questions as do their colleagues in the commerce departments. Better, actually.
The best solution (in the sense that it seemed actually to work, for the most part) I have seen to this sort of problem was when an instructor made up a dummy essay filled to the brim with all the things wrong, and took half a class to go over it briefly. You know the the sort of thing:
“Since the dawn of time people have wondered how the mind relates to the body. This topic interested Descartes. Descartes, like Hobbes and Gassendi, was a philosopher in the seventeenth century. He wrote the Meditations on First Philosophy and the Discourse on Method. In the Meditations Descartes says....”
the question ms. burstein raises (what should the student assume about his reader?) is relevant not only to classroom performance but literature in general. i compare it to what novelists and playwrights do at the beginning of their work, namely set the scene—which word applies (in student papers) not only to the particular story or drama or sonnet they mean to address but what they intend to say about it. i think they do need to identify the type of thing they are presuming to interpret, if only as a courtesy to the author. if they begin a paper about Heart of Darkness, let’s say, without mentioning its name, or the kind of thing it is, or who wrote it, they risk leaving the impression that kurtz isn’t dead, or a fictional character invented by a particular author, or anything distinct from what they just heard on “All Things Considered.” readers need reassurance of this kind, the sooner, the better.
writers have an obligation, in other words, to identify the particular world they inhabit, and having named and identified it, proceed with greater confidence to inform the reader (among other things) of the terms by which such things can be measured, and the degree of success achieved by the author. with respect to the more precise identity of this reader, i tell my students to assume that he has read the work but needs to be reminded of things: this is a short novel; this is a sonnet; it was written by joseph conrad or petrarch who is talking about the colonial experience in africa, or a young woman he loved, . . . and so on. all this can be managed in a very few sentences, introducing the subject and alerting the reader to the line he proposes to follow. to omit this step is to leave the ground and the leverage it affords.
i agree with the respondents (using poetry as an example) who insist that prosody is not important in itself but only as it contributes to the effect of the work. if i may give an example from shakespeare, i frequently use two of his sonnets (#s 29 and 73) as a means of showing the importance of form to meaning, and how the earlier one adheres more closely to petrarchan structure even as it divides like the other into three quatrains and a couplet. in the traditional arrangement, typically, a problem is set in the opening eight lines, and resolved in the six remaining. this we see carried out by shakespeare in #29 despite his differing rhyme scheme, as the poet moves from despair to great happiness, turning on a dime (“yet”) at the beginning of line 9. in #73, of course, the quatrains fit perfectly with the three separate metaphors, the moral applied in the couplet at the end. different reasoning but no less effective: one goes with the beat; one goes against.
Maybe it would be helpful to engage students on the question of why they are writing papers.
The perfect allusion is all things to all people: it flatters those who get it; informs those who don’t; and, for everybody’s benefit, identifies what the properly literate are expected to know. It can also serve as non-electronic hypertext, of course; but for the most part the reader declines the invitation to open a virtual link to a remembered text.