Learning Literature in an Era of Change: Innovations in Teaching
Edited by Dona J. Hickey and Donna Reiss
Foreword by Kenneth Bruffee


"Innovation, Instruction and Literary Studies"
by Dona J. Hickey and Donna Reiss

Background and Overview

In response to challenges and changes in higher education, how should professors of literature confront the questions of literacy—cultural, print, computer, and, as Sandra Gilbert said in her 1996 MLA presidential address, "plain old literal literacy" (371)? And how do they apply their thinking about new literacies to their literature classes? The authors of the chapters in Learning Literature in an Era of Change: Innovations in Teaching offer instructional approaches that emphasize these multiple literacies as well as active and collaborative learning techniques. Their students write as well as read and listen: they write informally as well as formally; they construct their own literary texts; they collaborate in a variety of ways; and they use electronic communication.

Like many other teachers of literature, we had looked for some answers to Gilbert’s questions about literacy and teaching literature in the PMLA special  issue on the teaching of literature (January 1997) but found instead, as Kenneth Bruffee’s subsequent response pointed out (May 1997), that contributors evaded the central question, "What should a literary academic do in the classroom?" (440). Similarly, George Levine described that issue as "symptomatic of the profession’s failure to engage the most serious issues of teaching literature" (437). Subsequent to the special issue on the teaching of literature and the critical letters that followed, the MLA Newsletter (Summer 1998) included a special supplement on Innovations in Undergraduate Teaching. This newsletter included short articles about the training of graduate students to be teachers as well as scholars, shared responsibility for learning activities, incorporation of computer-conferencing, and analysis of multiple syllabi. The necessary brevity of these articles meant the omission of details and examples to illustrate student interaction with the literature; however, their very publication demonstrated some responsiveness by the MLA to pedagogy.

The contributors to Learning Literature in an Era of Change: Innovations in Teaching have addressed a number of these instructional issues, often confronting the impediments described by Biddy Martin’s introductory essay for the PMLA special issue on the teaching of literature (January 1997): "As teachers of literature, we need to identify and remove the educational barriers to complex, creative thought that are built into institutional structures, departmental requirements, and pedagogical approaches" (11). Martin further emphasized the forces against innovation in literature instruction, including "disincentives [for faculty] to collaborate and coteach" and "little institutional support for forms of teaching that do not fit into the regular thinking patterns" (13-14).

Despite that lack of support, despite the disincentives, despite the widespread institutional emphasis on research and departmental organization, teachers are developing and practicing teaching strategies that are not traditional, as the chapters in Learning Literature in an Era of Change: Innovations in Teaching illustrate. Teachers and their students are collaborating across disciplines and across colleges, in some cases across countries and grade levels, demystifying literary studies for students brought up on visual media and inculcating in students not destined to be academicians themselves a love of the English language and the literary arts. These teachers are leading their campuses in the use of visual communication, computer-mediated communication, and multimedia to support instruction. They are inviting students to understand the literary arts as practitioners, not just in "creative writing" classes but also in introductory literature classes, upper-level literature classes, and literary theory seminars. Students write hypertexts or construct multimedia; they write poems and plays; they compose lyrics to songs; they write letters to critics, poets, and each other.

The contributors to Learning Literature in an Era of Change: Innovations in Teaching describe a range of ways that teachers of literature and literary theory offer repeated occasions for students to learn literature as they

  • write in various genres, including the literary genres they are reading in class;
  • read and respond to each other’s writing;
  • participate in academic life by listening, reading, writing, drawing, and moving;
  • think and write more imaginatively.

Two themes that emerge in this collection are multiple literacies and innovation, especially innovation using technology. Encompassing most of the chapters is a clear focus on active and collaborative learning, incorporating learning-centered and social constructionist perspectives in which a variety of ways of communicating are valued and in which students are respected as developing authorities.

In his Foreword to Learning Literature in an Era of Change: Innovations in Teaching, Kenneth Bruffee reminds us that collaborative learning "shifts the locus of classroom authority, transforming the way students and teacher construct both authority and knowledge." He concludes with three observations:

  1. "Genuine conversational engagement implies a change in the structure of classroom authority";
  2. Many teachers claim to accept but do not put into practice "Thomas Kuhn’s insistence that knowledge "like language, is intrinsically the common property of a group or else nothing at all’";
  3. Scholar-teachers still are developing "[a]n intellectual and aesthetically satisfying nonfoundational social constructionist literary criticism."

The chapters of Learning Literature in an Era of Change: Innovations in Teaching illustrate these premises.

(Re)Vision and (Re)Acculturation

The teachers represented in Learning Literature in an Era of Change: Innovations in Teaching have heard the call from students, employers, and academic administrators for more relevant learning experiences in an ever-changing world: for students with the skills to build community within diversity, the skills, that is, of cooperation and collaboration as well as engagement with complex issues and the aesthetics of literature. The goal of such teaching, as Bruffee emphasizes, is "reacculturation." It is a shift from understanding teaching as "making students see what the teacher sees" to inviting them to engage texts together, as a community, and to learn how, with their teacher, knowledge and authority are culturally and socially constructed. And this goal of reacculturation is a linchpin of Learning Literature in an Era of Change: Innovations in Teaching.

In Critical Theory and the Teaching of Literature: Politics, Curriculum, Pedagogy, editors James T. Slevin and Art Young classify among the "central questions of our discipline at this time" four issues, of which two are also central to Learning Literature in an Era of Change: Innovations in Teaching: "the end of the professor as the agent of learning" and "the end of the classroom as a place where education is delivered" (ix). The authors of Learning Literature in an Era of Change: Innovations in Teaching respond to these issues as beginnings rather than endings, as places where professors are partners in learning, and where education is not just delivered but discovered, constructed, and disseminated.

Preview of Chapters

Recognizing that many of these chapters would fit just as comfortably in another category as they do in the category into which we have placed them--multiple literacies and active and collaborative learning provide a strong philosophical foundation for most of the pedagogies offered here--we have organized the volume in four sections to reflect four types of innovative approaches: Literary License: Alternative Readings and Writings, Visual Literacy and Visualizing Literature, Learning Literature through Partnerships, and Cyberlit: Hypertext, Hypermedia, and Multimedia. In addition to the full-length chapters, we include several mini-chapters, short pieces with practical ideas for alternatives to traditional teaching approaches.

Part One: Literary License: Alternative Readings and Writings

We begin with Literary License: Alternative Readings and Writings. The authors of these chapters have developed or adapted approaches that enhance creativity, community, communication, interpretation, and pleasure in reading and writing about literature. In a recent collection, Rethinking American Literature, James S. Laughlin describes a collaborative project in which students develop an anthology of American rock music designed for "crossing the bridge between the work they’d done and the work the editors of our literary anthology appeared to have done" (241). The chapters in Literary License feature similarly instructive and compelling pedagogical approaches in which students write imaginative works as a way to understand imaginative works.

  • In "WINGDAMS: Piloting New Channels in Writing about Literature," Katherine Fischer presents a polylogue, the very kind of nontraditional writing she encourages in her students, in this case a representation of three voices charting a course that resists barriers. A student dramatizes an encounter between Sophocles’s Antigone and Sam Shepherd’s Lee to confront the importance of the land. Another student offers a courtroom scene in which the father from Roethke’s "My Papa’s Waltz" faces a charge of child abuse.
  • Students enter the imaginative worlds of literature using e-mail and computer conferencing in Donna Reiss’s "Epistolary Pedagogy and Electronic Mail: Online Letters for Learning Literature." Using electronic communication to form writing partnerships and publish their work to their classmates, students adopt the voices of literary critics, poets, characters in fiction, and novice scholars seeking illumination—and they receive answers to these letters. Students enter the world of literary studies through a familiar genre and a new medium that captures their attention.
  • Sharing their responses to literature through textual indeterminancy is the focus of Ronda Leathers Dively’s "On Teaching Literature Students To Interpret: The Textual ‘Gap’ as Point of Departure." Based upon theories of Wolfgang Iser and of George Lakoff and Mark Turner, this approach emphasizes ambiguities and metaphor and encourages dialogue among students as they share interpretations orally in class.
  • Barry Lewis, in "Generative Criticism in the Seminar Room," outlines a series of techniques for generating ideas that derive from the work of Edward de Bono. Lewis illustrates classroom applications of de Bono’s heuristics: The Escape, The Stepping Stone, and The Random Input. With these methods of questioning assumptions and generating critical thought, students recover a sense of their own critical agency and are more willing to challenge and be challenged with less anxiety about being "right" or "wrong" when reading primary or secondary texts.
  • Two short pieces offer additional approaches. In "Exploration and Discovery with Poster Sessions in Undergraduate Literature," Madeline-Marie Schein suggests that poster presentations, an approach becoming increasingly important to professional conferences, are appropriate for undergraduate students to illustrate the results of their research. In "Permeable Boundaries: Arts Within the Arts," Dona Hickey encourages students to explore the inter-relatedness of the arts by constructing projects, often collaborative, that make use of other art forms—music, dance, image, hypermedia—as heuristics for literary interpretation of poetry.

Part Two: Visual Literacy and Visualizing Literature

The chapters in Visual Literacy and Visualizing Literature remind us that we, like our students, are residents of an increasingly visual culture. Computers and the World Wide Web have contributed to this influence, but relationships between the visual and verbal are not new to literature. Illuminated manuscripts and Blake’s drawings come immediately to mind. An early direct connection between imaginative literature and the visual arts comes from Plutarch and Horace, according to Amy Golahny, who quotes Plutarch’s reference to Simonides, pictura poesis ("as in painting, so in poetry") and paraphrases Horace’s words, "[P]ainting is mute poetry and poetry a speaking picture" (11). Contemporary teachers are approaching the visual-verbal relationship in student-generated illustrations.

  • Marlowe Miller, "Figuring Literary Theory and Refiguring Teaching: Graphics in the Undergraduate Literary Theory Course," incorporates student-generated visual media into her introduction to literary theory class for undergraduates in order to strengthen their analytical skills and to learn the concepts of literary theory as well as to generate class discussions. Donald Keesey’s graphical representations are the basis for her approach, which requires student collaboration and construction of images.
  • In "From Short Fiction to Dramatic Event: Mental Imagery, the Perceptual Basis of Learning, and the Aesthetic Reading Experience," Terri Pullen Guezzar draws on the work of Rudolf Arnheim, who maintains that "visual perception is visual thinking." Students in an introductory prose fiction analysis class for English majors at Illinois State University at Normal kept a visual/verbal reading journal, writing about their drawings and how the illustrations evoke their understanding of the work.
  • Joy Castro’s British Modernism students used Virginia Woolf’s sketch of the structure of To the Lighthouse as a model for their own sketches of the structure of other novels in "The Look of a Book: Visualizing Narrative Structure."
  • Nancy Macky and Frederick Horn, "Sculpting the Text," incorporate three-dimensional representations when students sculpt the central issue of a literary work using play dough or another malleable medium, leading students to remark that such activities bring fun back to learning and that they challenge students to "sculpt what the essence of my topic is rather than what it is literally."
Part Three: Learning Literature through Partnerships

Learning Literature through Partnerships has only two chapters, but not because only two collaborative activities are included in this collection; collaborations are included in many of the other articles. These two chapters are unique, however, because of their cross-disciplinary partnerships.

  • Sandy Feinstein’s collaboration with a chemistry professor led to an exciting combination of science and art in "Alchemy to Chemistry: Integrating Science and Humanities." Within a core curriculum program, students in this particular course learn to see history, science, and literature as a dialogue that demonstrates more than one acceptable way to define and solve problems. Their cross-disciplinary readings of primary texts lead to possible laboratory experiments in which, for example, poetic metaphors can be realized chemically. Their readings also raise larger questions, such as: How is alchemy gradually replaced by provable theories of chemistry? How does meaning relate to culture? How have sapientia and scientia—divine wisdom and the human pursuit of knowledge—been reconciled?
  • Sylvia Hodges Gamboa brought together teachers and students from several disciplines for "Theme Days: Literature Across the Curriculum." This project began as a way to enhance the presence of Writing Across the Curriculum on campus and involved the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and WAC as sponsors of a campus-wide event featuring an interdisciplinary panel. Support from faculty and administrators grew in response to demonstrable evidence that students were motivated to explore various ways of looking at a subject. Frankenstein, for example, inspired debates over the ethics of genetic engineering and a psychological study of parents and children. Gamboa outlines five "Theme Days" and suggests how to adapt such events at the classroom level and beyond.
Part Four: Cyberlit: Hypertext, Hypermedia, and Multimedia

Our final section, Cyberlit: Hypertext, Hypermedia, and Multimedia was in some ways our starting point. Dona Hickey and Donna Reiss met in 1996 at the first Epiphany Project workshop, scheduled opposite each other to conduct hands-on sessions on writing about poetry with computer conferencing. Afterwards, we met in the hall, exchanged handouts, and found that we had considerable common ground in our approaches to teaching literature despite the differences in our institutions and student populations, Dona at a small private selective university and Donna at a large multicampus open-admissions community college. It turned out we both had a background in writing across the curriculum and an ongoing interest in student-centered learning, learning communities, and professional development, emphasizing computer-mediated communication in writing, literature, and across the curriculum. We have since collaborated as the cyberdon(n)as, workshop leaders at Epiphany institutes and elsewhere, always interested in the ways computer conferencing can help our students build learning communities, communicate about literature informally and formally, and appreciate literature.

When we were invited to collaborate on a book about new approaches to teaching literature, we knew we did not want to limit ourselves to new technologies, tempting as that approach might be and important as we consider computer-assisted instruction. We had met and read about teachers trying other instructional strategies, some of them new and others revisions of valuable old approaches, and wanted to feature that range. But we did want to represent the wonderful work being done with student-constructed projects and Internet enhancements. We are not ready to dismiss more static texts even in what Jay Bolter calls "the late age of print" (xiii); however, we see that the writing students do on line, including creation of their own hypertexts, helps them understand the new fictions that are just beginning to appear on our syllabi, such as Carolyn Guyer’s Quibbling, or Sister Stories with Rosemary Joyce and Michael Joyce (Guyer is among the first wave of writers to publish hypertext fiction), Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, and Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden.

With Nancy Kaplan, Moulthrop encourages student hypertexts as a "form of writing [that] helps engage students in an encounter with literature, raising the possibility of a new community of critical and creative discourse. This community, whose conventions are not yet formed, can only be defined by a confluence of literature, composition, and technology" (8). Such student-developed critical and literary hypertexts and hypermedia can display what Randy Bass in Engines of Inquiry identifies as six attributes of effective instruction that technology can enhance: distributive learning, authentic tasks and complex inquiry, dialogic learning, constructive learning, public accountability, and reflective and critical thinking. The chapters in Cyberlit: Hypertext, Hypermedia, and Multimedia offer a range of examples that fulfill most or all of those criteria. James J. Sosnoski reminds us that human involvement is what’s important in the use of computers for literary study and emphasizes the teacher’s role and the teacher’s design (274). Readers will recognize the significance of the instructional design of the activities in guiding the students whose projects are praised by their teachers in in Cyberlit: Hypertext, Hypermedia, and Multimedia.

  • Daniel Anderson’s "Project-Based Literary Instruction: Women of the Romantic Period" details a Web-based resource for studying writers using Richard Polwhele’s 1793 poem "The Unsex’d Females" to present texts and explore issues of gender and the canon. Here Anderson explores the class dynamics as students conducted research, made selections, digitized images, and wrote and edited texts. Unlike most student projects in print, this one is universally available on line.
  • Tonya Browning’s students constructed a hypermedia project published as a CD-ROM. In "Hypermedia Design in the English Classroom," design principles and literary principles intertwine as students build their own fictional image base and link to literary works they have selected to represent a theme such as American tall tales or women of color whose works have been made into films. Browning’s students also developed electronic portfolios to assess their own work and the work of their groups.
  • Marcel Cornis-Pope, in "Hypertextual and Networked Communication in Undergraduate Literature Classes," emphasizes rereading and rewriting strategies that help students move from linear uncritical reading to multilevel and interactive modes of rereading. Through their guided work with hypertext and networked communication, students learn to take into account a text’s complexity as well as the relationships among author, culture, and reader.
  • Peter Havholm and Larry Stewart describe an authoring system that allows students to create their own generators in order to model ideas about narrative structure. In "Linear Modeling: Giving Technology's Power to Students," the authors argue that students who do so increase their ability to talk meaningfully not only about individual texts but also about literary theory. Because making the generators requires students to operationalize ideas about narrative structure, they learn to think critically about the nature of stories rather than only about a single story.
  • Helen Schwartz and Brian C. McDonald present the evolution of computer-aided instruction in literature classes in order to satisfy their students’ needs for flexible delivery methods as well as state-level encouragement of distance education initiatives. Moving a 300-level Shakespeare class on line involved a "reconceptualization of the class." In "Shakespeare Online: Reflections on Teaching and Learning," Schwartz and McDonald give us a glimpse into the process of guiding student interactions on line.
  • In "Videos and the Virtual Classroom: A Teleweb for Teaching Modern American Poetry," Gail Cummins shows how a telecourse can be made dynamic and interactive with the addition of a Web site and opportunities for students to interact online.

Forward from the Foreword

The instructional strategies in Learning Literature in an Era of Change: Innovations in Teaching attempt to incorporate shifts in authority, socially constructed knowledge, and, if not a more intellectually and aesthetically satisfying literary criticism, then certainly a more intellectually and aesthetically satisfying understanding and appreciation of literature among our college and university students and faculty.

The authors in this collection call to mind Sandra Gilbert’s "fortunate figures"—those "whose teaching, speaking, reading, and writing are mutually supportive, interlocking activities" (375). In their revisioning of instructional approaches, these scholar-teachers strive to create—for themselves and with their students—the ideal dynamic of knowledge-making in the academy: a cooperative and collaborative exchange of ideas within a community of learners who, in response to each other, become increasingly knowledgeable and increasingly aware of other paths to knowledge.

Works Cited

Bass, Randy. Engines of Inquiry. Teaching, Technology, and Learner-Centered Approaches to Culture and History. Feb. 1998. http://www.georgetown.edu/crossroads/guide/engines.html (13 Dec. 1998)

Bolter, Jay. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbum, 1991.

Bruffee, Kenneth A. Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence, and the Authority of Knowledge. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1999.

---. Letter. PMLA 112 (1997): 439-40.

Gilbert, Sandra. "Shadows of Futurity: The Literary Imagination, the MLA, and the Twenty-First Century." PMLA 112 (1997): 370-79.

Golahny, Amy, ed. The Eye of the Poet: Studies in the Reciprocity of the Visual and Literary Arts from the Renaissance to the Present. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1996.

Graff, Gerald. "Afterword." When Writing Teachers Teach Literature: Bringing Writing to Reading. Ed. Art Young and Toby Fulwiler. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995.

Guyer, Carolyn. Quibbling. Hypertext fiction. Boston: Eastgate, 1992.

---. Sister Stories. Hypertext fiction with Rosemary Joyce and Michael Joyce. Boston: Eastgate, 1997.

Joyce, Michael. Afternoon: A Story. Hypertext fiction. Watertown, MA: Eastgate, 1987.

Laughlin, James S. "Beyond the Culture Wars: Students Teaching Themselves the Conflicts." Rethinking American Literature. Ed. Lil Brannon and Brenda M. Greene. Urbana IL: NCTE, 1997. 231-248.

Levine, George. Letter. PMLA 112 (1997): 436-37.

Moulthrop, Stuart. Victory Garden. Hypertext fiction. Watertown, MA: Eastgate, 1991.

---, and Nancy Kaplan. "Something To Imagine: Literature, Composition, and Interactive Fiction." Computers and Composition 9.1 (1991): 7-23.

Slevin, James T., and Art Young, eds. Critical Theory and the Teaching of Literature: Politics, Curriculum, Pedagogy. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1996.

Sosnoski, James J. "Students as Theorists: Collaborative Hyperbooks." Practicing Theory in Undergraduate College Literature Classes. Ed. James M. Calahan and David B. Dowling. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1991.

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