Friday, May 29, 2009

Talking literature on message boards

Teaching writing often involves a kind of fluid idea of course content: Often, our "content" can be largely based in the student texts created that term. But we still do teach a lot of what you would otherwise call "content." In fact, if you take a writing about writing/writing studies approach (1), as we do at Drexel, composition and rhetoric research are important components of the curriculum.

And, of course, many compositionists still teach literature (2), and we often teach literature, for lack of a better term, for its own sake.

As you know if you read this space, I am a fan of asynchronous, message board conversations. So what might online conversations about literary works look like online?

First off, know that students can produce high-level work when they converse about literary texts online. To help them, you can create whatever guidelines you wish, including requiring them to quote their texts heavily, helping them build that evidence "muscle."

To start these conversations, prompts should be simple and direct, encouraging text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world connections (3). Remember when creating prompts that you can interact later with students on the threads. If your goal is for them to build collaboratively their knowledge in the class, then don't give them initial prompts with too many constraints. For instance, create simple prompts around topics like this:
  • Ask them if they would agree or disagree with a character's actions or statements. How would they have acted in the same situation?
  • For poems and short pieces, ask them simply what a work means to them.
  • Where there's ambiguity, explain what happened. Sometimes even better, ask them to pose questions about the work.
  • Describe the significance of a symbol, action, metaphor, etc.
  • Connect one work with another they have read (or with a film, an incident in pop culture, etc.).
  • Comment on a particular aspect of a work--such as the setting or plot.
  • Analyze a particular quote.
  • Link two or more works based on a common theme--especially with poems and short stories--and ask them to comment from there.
These examples all lend themselves to short, one- or two-sentence prompts.

When facilitating literary-based online discussions, there is an important thing to keep in mind: The students have the Web at their fingertips. This could be frustrating, especially if you love to wow them by revealing surprises inherent in works: How many students are stunned that Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" could be about an abortion?

You may be reluctant to lose some of that power. But you can use the students' connectedness to your advantage in several ways. First, you can immediately focus the discussion's energy on higher-level problems raised in texts, the kind of issues that ultimately make literature so satisfying for us to read and discuss. Also, in these conversations students can work on interpretations embedded and developed in their particular class. What can be especially interesting is working on text-to-self connections and having other students respond to those connections. Finally, they can work hard on practicing the challenging skill of incorporating texts--from the literature as well as from each other--expertly in their own posts.

I put this issue of their Web access right out there for them, by the way: I tell them we're going to talk about literary works, and I assume they will use all of the resources available. I just ask them overtly to make sure they cite their sources.

A recent experience in my first-year hybrid class confirmed the power of this environment for discussing literature. After reading Ibsen's A Doll's House, we started our conversation in our onsite meeting and then moved to an online discussion. The final moment of the play, Nora's door slamming, has been widely considered since the play's first production (just check Google if you don't believe me) as a noble, powerful act. Yet one student, several days into the conversation, observed that children are big door-slammers (I live with three of them and can confirm this), so she wondered if Nora's act was a continuation of her childish behavior. The student who expressed this clever alternative view hardly ever spoke in our f2f classes. Not just her comment but the fact that she made it on our message board affirmed for me how students can generate creative thoughts from literature after having some time to think about and reflect on the work, which of course are the basic advantages built into using asynchronous discussions.


1) We at Drexel have based our approach on Downs and Wardle's College Composition and Communication article “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies’”(58.4, 2007, 552–84) and the many conversations that it spawned.

2) See Anderson and Farris' anthology, Integrating Literature and Writing Instruction (MLA, 2007)

3) I'm borrowing this terminology from Zlotnick Schmidt, Crockett, and Bogarad's literature anthology Legacies (fourth edition)