EXPECTATIONS FOR AN “EXPERT READING” RESPONSE AT THE GRADUATE LEVEL

EXPECTATIONS FOR AN “EXPERT READING” RESPONSE AT THE GRADUATE LEVEL

Over time I have defined and refined an “expert reading” response criteria that I hand out to my graduate students at the beginning of the term. Perhaps aspects of this 8-step criteria will be of use to you? Check it out:

I. Introduction: There are 6 “Expert Readings” (ER’s) across this 10-week summer term. Of these 6 ER’s you can opt out of one without penalty. By the end of the term, you must have completed 5 out of 6 of the assigned ER’s. At 32 points each, these 5 required ER’s account for 160 points across the term.

I have a list of 8 specific criteria for completing a graduate level “Expert Reading”. Spend time familiarizing yourself with these criteria. The way I prompt you to successfully complete an ER is precisely how I will grade what you produce and turn in. And, by assigning/using the same criteria for many weeks, this should reduce surprises.

You should, steadily, become more efficient in producing these (2 page, 12 point font, double-spaced) reports as the term progresses. But, the broader purpose of an ER is to make you read the materials assigned closely and analytically. The goal is not to have you write about all aspects of each week’s readings, but to figure out what you want to focus on, why, and then conduct a focused analysis (that incorporates your experience/perspective and follow up research) on one, or two key ideas. Sometimes these are “open” ER’s. Other times, I offer prompts with some specific directions to take.

II. Grading Key:

  • “√” indicates that the expectation was met (with possible notes about under specific section).
  • “ø” indicates a point deduction, that there was room for improvement, and to see individualized feedback notes under the specific section.

III. Expert Reading Criteria:

  1. Formally Incorporate Multiple Sources (4 points): Demonstrate your reading of the relevant materials by formally incorporating aspects of them (through summary, or quotation) into your analytical narrative. When doing so, make sure to follow up with the ideas that you include from others and explain, in your own words, what they mean. Use APA format –see Diana Hacker and Barbara Fister’s online style guide: http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/resdoc5e/RES5e_ch06_o.html.
  1. In Your Analysis, Signal and Coordinate Between Multiple Perspectives (4 points):Analysis requires that you are able to pull in and work from and against multiple points of view. At key moments in your analysis, particularly when explaining your key points, make sure to coordinate your analysis between multiple sources and perspectives (including your own opinion). With this in mind, be sure to construct sentences that signal your emphasis and the hierarchy between ideas through the use of coordinating (and, but, for, yet, or, nor, so), subordinating (if only, unless, whenever, rather than, as though, as long as, etc.), or correlating conjunctions (both … and, not only … but, either … or, etc.). Or that particularly employ conjunctive adverbs like –however, moreover, nevertheless, consequently, as a result, etc. Consider the difference between:

A. I think “y”.
B. If Bazerman (1998) is correct when he indicated that “x,” then it is difficult to believe Myers (2003) when he noted, “y”. Overall, it is likely the case that “z” because …

 

It is not that you cannot and should not include simple and direct statements like, “I think that …,” but make sure you strengthen your key points by recognizing multiple points of view and multiple arguments when possible.

 

  1. Include Supplemental Research (4 points):Show the initiative to supplement what you have been assigned to read with some kind of additional research. Do additional research and incorporate it into your analysis and overall reflections.
  1. Include Your Voice (4 points): Make connections between the readings and arguments to your own professional and personal experiences.
  2. Work to Be Interesting, Even Surprising (4 points): Try to write about that which is not immediately obvious (to anyone that has already read the article). A key first step is to avoid excess summary. Include summary as background information, but make sure that information leads to a bigger point and serves to set up your own perspectives, interpretations, and arguments. Take control of the material and tell us something that we might not expect, or know (stated as the opposite, a poor analytical post only restates what an article clearly establishes). Explain why and how the points you want to make are worth our time and attention.
  3. Revise Your Final Posts So They Are Focused (4 points): Follow through with the most important ideas you raise (do more with less). In other words, make sure to follow through and up on key concepts addressed. Focus on one, or two topics in your short, analytical narratives (or stated in the negative form, do not change topics abruptly and repeatedly between each paragraph). This often requires that you write your analysis in time so that you can revisit it and revise your work for overall coherence (often eliminating ideas that were not as important, or unrelated to your primary emphasis).
  4. Focus on Presentation and Overall Document Design (4 points):Pay attention to document design and use headers/sub-headers, or some other method to signal the order and progression of content in your post. Make sure to include a descriptive title.
  5. Edit (4 points):Edit your post to avoid excess spelling errors, or poor syntax.

Interact with Classmates’ and Their Work Each Week: Make sure you read and respond at least 3 classmates’ work across each unit. Include more than a simple comment. As indicated in the syllabus, this is required each week. And it is -2 off of the overall point total for each missing feedback post.

Total 32 points:          29 =’s approximately 90%;
26 =’s approximately 80%;
23 =’s approximately 70%;
20 =’s approximately 60%.

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A SAMPLE “TEXTUAL INTERVENTION” -FOR FELLOW TEACHERS

David Stacey first introduced me to the teaching and learning concept of “textual interventions” in 2002. While taking a course titled, “Rhetorical Approaches to Writing” Dr. Stacey described Rob Pope’s work. Years later, I discovered Stacey’s (1995) review of the primary book through which Pope described the approach. See Stacey’s book review of Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for Literacy Studies at JAC Online (archives): http://www.jaconlinejournal.com/archives/vol17.1/stacy-textual.pdf.

Put as simply as possible, a textual intervention requires that a reader change some portion of the original text and then determine the implications of that change.

For years, while teaching first year composition courses (that emphasized writing instruction through the study of literature and poetry), the “poetic intervention” assignment was always one of the most exciting units to teach. In most ways, I think it represented a chance for students to feel a bit rebellious. As most of us probably have experienced ourselves, the reverence and priorities that many teachers demand when assigning literature and poetry often obscures students’ own access to the texts. Interventions, however, offer a small, but meaningful opportunity for students to change that. When assigned, an intervention allows a student to invent a unique relationship to a text. At first they find it confusing, then liberating, and before you know it, they are explaining not just the changes they made to a given text, but how those changes differ from the author’s original work.

There is often a real excitement in the room when you tell students to weigh in to the margins of a revered text, or poem. But, this post is not about the method, or specific teaching strategies, etc. It isn’t a reinterpretation based on Rob Pope’s work, or a conceptual analysis of the practice; instead, I am sharing here one of the more successful examples that I created to introduce the practice and prepare students to conduct their own. Enjoy.

1. INTRODUCE THE POEM

General Script:

Let’s read a poem together. At the end of it, I will introduce you to an exercise that you will eventually do on your own. But before we get there, let’s read a poem that combines mystery and love with reading and writing.

This is a poem, titled “Marginalia” by the contemporary poet Billy Collins.

Marginalia

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have manage to graduate from college
without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

~Poet Laureate, Billy Collins


2. GIVE STUDENTS SOME TIME TO DIGEST THE POEM

General Script: Before we talk about this poem, take a moment (5 minutes) to look at the poem again and write down some of your reactions to it.

3. HAVE AN OPEN CLASSROOM DISCUSSION

General Script:

Ok, now: What are your reactions to this poem?

[Discussion]

Did you expect that ending?

[Discussion]

4. PROMPT A TEXTUAL INTERVENTION (IN SIMPLE TERMS)

General Script: Now, instead of just admiring the poem, what if you jumped into the text and changed it somehow? What would you change?

[Discussion]

But what if they did meet? (the one “whom I would never meet . . .”).

[Discussion]

What if the book wasn’t ‘Catcher in the Rye’ but ‘_____’ instead?

[Discussion]

What if the end-note hadn’t been “Pardon the egg salad stains” but a different sandwich?

[Discussion]

 

5. AND FINALLY, INTRODUCE THIS PREPARED SAMPLE INTERVENTION:

General Script: Let’s look at an example. What if the final line of the poem:

Original:           “Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

Was actually this instead?

Intervention:     “Watch out for the chocolate smear, but I dig this cat.”

A. GIVE A MOMENT FOR THEM TO THINK ABOUT THIS CHANGE

General Script: Take a moment (the next 5 to 10 minutes) and write down your immediate reactions to this change.

What kind of things did you jot down just now?

[Discussion]

B. SHARE SOME OF THESE PREPARED REFLECTIONS

  • Immediately it is obvious, this change isn’t nearly as good as the original; however, this simple change to the text made me, for a brief moment, consider more just what I liked about the author’s original, “Pardon the egg salad . . .”. From this brief ‘re-considering’ I realized that we are not entirely sure what the girl is asking us to pardon her for, the egg salad stain, or the fact that she has fallen in love with Holden Caulfield, or perhaps both. In fact, by making it less than certain, she is incidentally suggesting that, “Hey, it is just an egg salad stain. And it is just a little bit of love. You can forgive me for this right?”
  • Love, in this manner, is partially equated with an egg salad stain. She is inadvertently saying that they are similar – pardon the egg salad, pardon the love. Implicitly then, love takes on aspects of an egg salad stain. Love, like an egg salad stain, is a bit messy. It is yummy.
  • And further, I would argue that it is legitimate to go a bit further, that egg salad is usually something that people eat during the summer time. And so, according to this assumption, we can assume the time of year. We can assume it is hot out. And because of this assumption, we can virtually imagine this young ‘beautiful’ woman bounding out of the library, back into the hot-summer world . . . full of this new found ‘Catcher in the Rye’ love-inspiration, ready to do something daring, brave, bold, adventuresome.
  • And speaking of Holden Caulfield, what if she had said, “Pardon the egg salad stain, but I am in love with Holden Caulfield.” No, no this is not nearly as romantic. It is her state of being-in-love that is important. It is the simple fact that she feels love that appeals, I believe, to the narrator’s sensibilities and hence eventually my own (the reader). For if she is just-in-love, the possibility exists that she could eventually love others, like “you”. But if she is specific, if she says Holden Caulfield – is it possible to feel jealous?, considering it is someone that the author has never met?
  • What if it was chocolate smear instead of egg salad stain? Well, chocolate doesn’t have the summer feel to it. It isn’t as fresh, or healthy. It is more something someone would eat because they are gluttonous. They are indulging. Chocolate leads, in this manner, to a whole different feeling about this person. And we do not get the same sense of a specific time of year that the egg salad implies.

“She was a sad girl, I could tell.” Again, different poem, right? Now, practice this with a poem of your choice.

Prompting Students to Introduce Themselves by Documenting Their Writing Workspaces

As teachers, we are always looking for new ways for students to introduce themselves. Most of my professional and technical writing courses incorporate social constructionist perspectives. Now, when I begin my courses, I ask students to introduce themselves by documenting and describing their workspaces (and places). This allows them to start the course by describing something with which they are familiar, but also prepares them to think about writing in terms of a situated activity.

In what follows:

 

I. First I have archived some examples (from students that have cleared me to post them).

 

II. And second, I have shared a basic version of this assignment.

 

I. ARCHIVE OF WORKPLACE “SNAPSHOTS”

 

1. Alex Adrian, Online English Teacher for Scottsdale Unified School District

 Alex -Snapshot 1

My name is Alex Adrian.  I am the Lead Online English Teacher for Scottsdale Unified School District’s eLearning and SOL programs. 

 

My workspace is very special to me because I spend more time at this desk than I do in my bed. I am seated at this desk for hours upon hours every day, so I needed to make the area not feel like a work desk. The pictures and other small pieces allow me to lean back in my chair and forget about work for a few minutes a day and just reminisce about great memories. It may look to some like a clustered mess, but this is what I like to call my organizational mess. It takes others minutes to find something on my desk that takes me seconds to find.

 

2. Dennis Mitchell, Institutional Research Analyst and Adjunct Faculty at Mesa Community College

Dennis M. -Snapshot 2 

My name is Dennis Mitchell, and I write in a few distinct work and academic roles: in my full-time employment as “Institutional Research Analyst” at Mesa Community College (MCC); as a part-time English composition adjunct faculty at the same college; and as a graduate English Rhetoric and Composition Student, currently at Northern Arizona University.

 

The top left and bottom pictures of my mashup capture my office at MCC. I spend the vast majority of my workdays starring at the two monolithic monitors hanging above my desk; a picture of a favorite place (Chase Field) and other trinkets help the office feel more comfortable. The two monitors help display many data sets and reports at once to assist in the creation of my own work-related texts. Interruptions emanate from my email inbox, coworkers, boss and uncomfortable office temperature, and I occupy this workspace during a typical weekday schedule. While this office is primarily used to construct work-related texts, I do use this workspace to compose faculty-related or student-related texts during breaks or after business hours.

 

My home desk occupies the top right of my mashup image: one monitor with stacks and shelves of papers, books and baseball memorabilia. Creating texts in this environment faces distractions from my dogs (a chubby Chihuahua and a black lab mix), my significant other, household tasks, the TV in the nearby living room or noises outside.

 

3. Ramon Lira, Academic Advisor and ESL Adjunct Instructor at Phoenix College

 Ramon -Snapshot 3

My name is Ramon Lira. I work as an academic advisor and ESL adjunct instructor at Phoenix College. I’m currently taking additional English courses through NAU to be eligible to teach other areas such as composition and creative writing.

 

My workspace is a desk in a spare bedroom, which I share with my wife. The desk is simple, with only “useful” clutter such as paper, pens, a small lamp and computer equipment. To the right is my collection of some interesting things I’ve collected over the years, such as a paper mache replica of a mummy and a Michael Jackson skeleton figurine, both of which I picked up while visiting my wife’s hometown in Mexico. 



 

One thing about this space that makes it special to me is that this is where I wrote “English Speech Production in Insects,” which won the grand prize in this year’s NAU humorous writing contest. The winning entries should be posted soon at: http://nau.edu/SBS/Communication/Student-Work/

 

4. Anthony Garcia, Higher Education at Tidewater Community College and Old Dominion University

 Anthony -Snapshot 4

My name is Anthony Garcia and this is my first semester at NAU in the graduate professional writing certificate. I currently work in both the public school and higher education settings teaching English. This fall I will be transitioning exclusively to teaching in the higher education setting at Tidewater Community College and Old Dominion University, in the Norfolk/ Virginia Beach area.

 

The picture of my work area is necessarily basic, but arguably complex. This is my work environment in the public school that I teach in. The work area is extremely basic where only the humming of the HVAC system keeps me amused. I do not favor a generic work environment for getting most of my writing done. Instead, I prefer the white noise of coffee shops, kids playing in a pool, or the waves rolling onto the shore. For this reason, I’m returning to higher education in the fall where writing, grading, and conferencing with students offers more flexibility. 

 

5. Kevin Boyd, Graduate Student at Northern Arizona University

 Kevin -Snapshot 5

My name is Kevin Boyd and I am a student at Northern Arizona University in the MA in English program. My workspace for my studies consists of a desk in my bedroom with a computer hooked up to a forty inch television as a monitor. When I am alone, it is a perfect setup to write and complete schoolwork.  The large monitor allows me to write on one side of the screen and have another document or website on the other side for quick reference.

 

Unfortunately, I also have to share my workspace with a four-legged friend. My cat’s food is also on top of the desk. The desk is the only safe place we have been able to find where our dog is unable to get into his food. Sometimes when I am working the cat comes up to eat, paws at the monitor, or tries to rest his head on my hand that should be typing.

 

6. Selina Reid, University Staff Position at Arizona State University

 Selina -Snapshot 6

My name is Selina Reid, and I am in the Rhetoric and Teaching Writing (RTW) program with NAU. This is my first semester as a graduate student, although graduate school is my area of expertise. I currently hold a staff position at Arizona State University in the Graduate College, where I’m a jack-of-all-trades, helping students, applicants and academic units go from application to graduation. I specialize in dealing with international students, international transcripts review, and I issue I-20 documents which allow international students to apply to get their student visas and study in the United States.

My workspace differs according to what tasks I need to accomplish. Much of my reading is done while walking on my treadmill. You can see my makeshift foam and duct tape “desk” that I rest my books on. I studied and read throughout my undergraduate career this way and I am convinced that walking and reading makes me learn more efficiently.

 

The big, brown chair is the latest addition to my reading and studying workspace. This chair is only for lazy, non-serious reading and writing. This is not a schoolwork chair.

 

The kitchen table is the best workspace for writing and doing school assignments. I like being next to the kitchen and family room while I work, but sitting at the table forces me to get down to business, unlike the comfy chair.

 

7. Steven Seamons, Associate at W.L. Gore & Associates

Steven S. -Snapshot 7 

Since I am not permitted to take a picture of my workspace at Gore, you get to see my workspace at home. My name is Steven Seamons. I am an associate at W.L. Gore & Associates, and I attend NAU.

 

At this workspace I am a father of 4 (2 girls and 2 boys) all under the age of 8, and it is very hard to find a free minute, or at least quite free minute.

 

For this assignment you get a glimpse of this workspace in all of its glory. On closer inspection you can see we have a lot of coats. We live in the mountains and we are always in need of an extra layer, my workspace is also the coldest spot in the house. I have to wear socks so my feet don’t turn into ice. This workspace is most commonly used for storage of bottles, crayons, children’s art, and supplies for runny noses.

 

8. Kathryn Johnson, Graduate Student Northern Arizona University, Mother, Business Owner

 Kathryn -Snapshot 8

My undergraduate self of 8 years ago would be shaking her head in disbelief if she saw this. Gone is the idealistic dream of what I thought my home office would one day be like when I became a mother and a teacher. Instead, on what doubles as my dining room table (my favorite piece of furniture, witness to countless family occasions with all the people I hold dear) there sits what appears to be a mess. On the contrary, I promise, it is actually an organized chaos of bills, business paperwork, and now, as evidence of my jump back into the academic world, endless amounts of English classwork. It is a place that is uncharacteristically peaceful for me in the early morning hours and afternoon naptime, knowing the most precious things in the world to me, my twins 3 ½ and new baby boy, 8 weeks, are sleeping soundly in the rooms within earshot. It’s true that this is probably not the most convenient home office for a student, business owner, mother, and former English teacher, however, the views are great and the kitchen (copiously stocked  with cereal, coffee and beer- essentials for every busy mom) is close by, so I can’t complain.

 

9. Steven Maierson – Undergraduate Admissions and Orientation at Northern Arizona University

Steven M. -Snapshot 9 

I work in two separate environments in distinct capacities. The larger and more vibrant image is the space in which I free write and work as a student. It is my game station and link to the world and all its ills. Books and images surround me, things representative of who I am—tiny Batman figurines, a replica of Sting from The Lord of the Rings, and the desktop image of a Black Mage from Final Fantasy. The other half is my workspace at Undergraduate Admissions and Orientation at Northern Arizona University. At this place I maintain an orderly environment with minimal personal conveniences. I keep it neat so that if I need to move it isn’t a hassle. The small flashes of personality are random holiday gifts we receive in the office and, of course, a fantastic image of Tremors as my desktop background. It is here where I write procedural documentation and the occasional essay for school.

 

10. Dennis White, Saint Louis Community College; District Coordinator (4 campuses, 2 satellite locations), Assistant Professor, Reading (Florissant Valley Campus)

 Dennis W. -Snapshot 10

I share an office in the communications building with another faculty member, which is the typical setup; offices are located at each end of the building with classrooms in between. I spend many hours writing in this space, most recently developing student and instructor materials for the college’s new student success course, which just completed its first year of implementation. Sometimes I work through periods of concentrated writing activity, and other times I engage in conversations with colleagues, students, and administrators. I usually place work on the desk to the left of the computer, which I removed in order to give this picture a cleaner look, but I am fairly neat in the way I typically maintain my writing space. I enjoy writing here and the relatively quiet location at the end of a hallway. I also enjoy the close proximity of a window, glancing out of which provides an occasional quick break when needed to reenergize my writing.

 

11. Ashley Salazar, Assistant Director of TRIO Educational Talent Search, Garden City Community College

 Ashley -Snapshot 11

Our office and my desk are hidden away in the basement of the administrative building on campus, but I like it that way. It allows for our small staff to work together without distraction and shields the outside world from the chaos that we often create.  Our writing takes many forms and those texts create action. That action is often noisy, causing the rest of the college campus to appreciate the existence of a “lower level”.  I have a distinct area for my own creative processes, but I share the larger communal space with two other staff members.  I find it both comical and telling that we regularly communicate through text via internet signals and computer screens when we sit within inches of one another.

 

12. Jesse Maloney, substitute High School Teacher at Greyhills Academy High School and Graduate Student at Northern Arizona University

 Jesse -Snapshot 12

My name is Jesse Maloney, I’m a substitute High School teacher at Greyhills Academy High School and graduate student at Northern Arizona University.  The place where I like to conduct my school work now that it’s summer is at the bar in our outdoor parlor. 

 

When I put on some surf shorts and a basketball jersey it’s a serene warm setting even at night and I don’t feel cooped up and stressed.  It helps to lose track of time and get quality reading and writing done with my heavy semester.

 

 

II. [ASSIGNMENT]: INTRODUCE YOURSELF; DESCRIBE YOUR WORKPLACE

 

Hello and welcome to _____,

 

We all, likely, have multiple places in which we work and in which we read, think, and write. This assignment asks you to document and describe the key features of your environment at one of those “places”. I put “places” in quotations because it may be a fluid and dynamic location. You can, and should here, think of work places and spaces as both a physical location, but also as a time-based location. What else is potentially at play? For example, do you share the space with others? Is there anyone else competing for that space? Are there interruptions? Etc.

 

To think about reading and writing as things that happen in spaces, in locations, in specific time periods, is a unique way to introduce yourself to others in the course. Follow these instructions. This firs assignment will also prompt you think about the production of texts as a literal and situated act that happens in real locations. And it will help you get to know your classmates a bit in order to jumpstart the formation of our classroom community.

 

With this in mind, I was recently inspired by the discovery and playfulness of a blog: http://nathanmeunier.com/2012/06/22/shop-talk-freelance-workspaces-volume-1/ that invites writers to send photographs and brief descriptions of the settings and spaces in which they work. As teachers, researchers, and students of writing, we all spend endless hours in these spaces writing and working. See my example at: https://acomposing.wordpress.com/2012/06/22/the-work-spaces-and-places-of-writing-teachers-researchers-and-administrators/. Consider how my example is primarily playful. Feel free to be playful yourself, but also focus on including some serious forms of analysis about some aspect of your workspace that is worth comment.

 

So, tell us a bit about your workspace.

 

INSTRUCTIONS

 

1. Include only one (JPG) photograph (which can be a mash-up, multi-panel photograph) of the setting/space in which you work and write.

 

2. Include the following information: your name, title/job, and the university/school with which you are affiliated.

 

3. And include a short description focusing on what you find most interesting to describe/share about your workspace.

 

4. Post your narrative for the class to see. Remember: Write it in a fashion where you feel comfortable sharing publicly. Do not include details that you don’t want others to know. Do not include details that you might consider too personal for some reason.

Literate practices: Rediscovering the value of recitation

Men on Succor Street -Photo: (c) Kate Koshnick Photography (katekoshnick@msn.com)

Our Changing Literacy Expectations:

We (as teachers and as a broader culture) critically underestimate the degree to which our expectations of literate practice change. Even more so, we fail to appreciate the extent to which what we expect of a literate person in today’s society is dramatically more ambitious than our recent past and that the these demands and expectations have changed over a very short period of time. No book makes this more apparent, nor outlines in greater detail the nature of these changing expectations than Miles Myers’ (1996) book, Changing Our Minds: Negotiating English and Literacy. In it, he gives a historical account, naming, categorizing and describing precisely how our expectations have shifted. Here is his timeline and the general terminology/classifications that he uses to organize his presentation:

1600 Oracy

1776 Signature

1864 Recitation

1916 Decoding

Translation 1983

After I first read Myer’s book, I came to appreciate the evolving generational differences in the forms of literacy education. They became apparent, for example, in my own family as I grew to recognize that my grandfather was taught a form of literacy that valued different kinds of “reading” than my own. My late grandfather, Robert Koshnick, was educated in a rural Minnesota one-room schoolhouse during the early 1900’s. Throughout his childhood, he was taught printing through tracing and replication (a significant overlap between his education and my own grade school work), but he was also taught to memorize and recite long passages of both prose and poetry. This emphasis on memorization (recitation on Myer’s chronology) was no longer valued by the time I was in grade school. Whenever he would quote Tynneson, Poe, Robert Service, Yeats, etc. I envied him because I did not share his ability to recite tens of poems by heart. 

1925 My grandfather (in back) and a neighbor friend during the first day of school

As Myers’ book argues, translation captures aspects of our current literate practice. The ability to translate, i.e. to summarize, re-symbolize, and transfer information from specific sources for use across shifting social, political, and professional contexts takes a great deal of training and practice to do well. Given the power and relatively availability of increasingly “hand-held” search engine devices, via Google, etc. we can find vast stores of information instantaneously -the primary skill that must be emphasized, given these trends, is to interpret and repurpose that information for shifting purposes and audiences. Where once we stressed honoring established works of poetry and literature as aesthetic and moral achievements -when we include such works now, we value instead the ability to: a) decode, and therefore learn from them; b) to summarize, and therefore symbolize for renewed intentions and purposes. These abilities do not require memorization, or recitation, largely outdated forms of literate practice.

My teaching practices in reading and writing have been utterly influenced by my understanding and appreciation of a translation literacy for modern, functional, goals and outcomes. And yet, inspired by the legacy of my grandfather’s (recitation) childhood literacy to memorize and recite poems, I have, and continue to, dedicate myself to such learning. I have done so on my own terms as an adult and often with the sneaking suspicion that -although outdated- my own childhood was intellectually malnourished by the loss of such practice. Sure, admiration of my grandfather has influenced my perspective, but for years I could sense, but could not adequately explain why the ability to recite poetry in particular felt so important and powerful.

When I was introduced to the concept and term “gignomai” however, I was suddenly able to both establish and explain just what happens when we hone the ability to memorize and recite specific passages. Ever since, when teaching those courses in writing that are explicitly grounded in the humanities, I have included the following assignment in my courses, with the following explanation of its value.

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This is what I expect of this assignment. You are to enter into the work – populate a poem with your own identity – bring together two realms – you and a poem – until they become each something a little more familiar.

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The Art of Poetic Memorization

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A good poem is an introduction to the world. In medieval times, a poet was called ‘a maker’. According to this understanding, a poet makes the world. And, in a way, every story, every poem is a form of making and re-making the world. Such stories, however small, are not fanciful, complete fictions – rather, they inform us about the world. They tell us how we live, often in surprising and sobering ways.

Consider for a moment the Greek word: Gignomai –born of ‘gnosis’ or “knowing” it is commonly known as the form of knowing that is ‘to become’ -a from of knowledge whereby you become that knowledge. Gignomai, or knowing, in this sense, is a happening, a becoming.

It is to take within, and a transformation occurs. Memorizing poetry – the act allows a poem to enter fully into your self both consciously and unconsciously. It transforms your views in particular instances because you can call on the relationships inherent in a poem, to evoke a feel, or felt sense, of knowing particular words, or situations more immediately and fully.

And so poetry is a happening, a making in a very sincere sense.

Poems also entertain. When you memorize a poem, like learning to play a groovy song on the guitar, you may find yourself reciting it (to the amazement of others) around a campfire, or to yourself when you are stuck in traffic waiting patiently. Many people who memorize poetry often say it can be comforting at times, to have something familiar to recite much like a secular form of praying. The act offers an immediate connection with some part of the cosmos.

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An Example: How Knowing a Poem
Can Make the World a Bit More Familiar

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What follows below is the assignment and some suggestions on memorizing. But first read this entry from Karen McCosker’s book A Poem a Day.

“In the early 1970’s I was living in Athens. After a year, I was hoping that my father would find the courage to make the trip to see me. But despite the fact that he hated flying, loathed being away from his small, self-owned business and hometown where he knew everyone and everyone recognized him, my father did accompany my mother on this visit. While making the arduous ascent towards the Acropolis, I sensed a trepidation in his steps. He had a bad heart; it was suffocatingly hot and windless; the landscape was utterly foreign to him. He had become something he had rarely been: a stranger. I feared he might lose the psychological surefootedness that being on his own terrain gave him, want to turn back, go home. Pausing, he began to recite a poem, one by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

…Euclid alone

Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they

Who, though once only and then but far away,

Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.

Recalling what he knew oriented my father. The poem gave him breathing space in the crowd, and time to recover from the anxiety of feeling off balance. Hearing the words he had memorized helped him make his way because they suggested an an association between the strange place and the familiar poem, gathering up the distance between Athens and his upstate New York home.

Though my father often recited (no Thanksgiving or Christmas went unmarked by verse), I hadn’t realized until that morning in Athens how a single poem, even a few lines, learned by heart can transform the person who needs to hear those words at a particular time: how they can make what otherwise might have been abandoned possible.”

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The Assignment 

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During the course of this term, you are expected to memorize 2 poems of at least 15 lines. You may also choose to memorize specific lines from a play of the same minimum length.

On the day of the quiz, you will clear your desks and write out the poem on a piece of paper. You will have roughly 8 minutes to write the poem out and hand it in to me. You must demonstrate a near perfect transcription for full credit.

Each quiz is worth 5% of your grade. This is an all or nothing assignment. Minimal word variations in several lines is acceptable such as articles omitted or substituted: ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘an’ and a couple (meaning 2 or 3) word variations will be allowed. Form, word, spelling and meaning must remain wholly intact in at least 14 our of your 15 lines for credit. This includes knowing the line breaks throughout your poem.

You must choose and hand in a typed copy of the poem (or lines of play) to me roughly 3 weeks before quiz day. Unless you are very talented, DO NOT try to memorize 15 lines in one night! This kind of exercise will take at least 4 concentrated sessions to learn fully.

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Some Suggestions on Memorization
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*begin with 2 lines and add 2 additional lines as you become moderately comfortable with each new addition

*recognize the feel and feeling that the poem evokes; tapping into the sense or feel of the poem will help you recall details you may otherwise forget

*try to imagine the poem in a specific setting

*visually imagine the words on the page, then compare your mind’s image with the printed words; repeat as necessary

*pay attention to rhythm, rhyme, the overall music of the poem

*read the poem aloud

*use a pneumonic device  -the 1st letter of each line to form an acronym -then create a memorable line from the acronym; often the first letter will clue you into the words you want to remember

Oremember

In your narrowing dark hours

That more things move

Than blood in the heart.

~Louise Bogan~

O. I. T. T.

oil is terribly thick’

*be conscious of specific words, or line breaks that you miss on a repeated basis

*look up any words if you are not familiar with them

*choose a poem you appreciate and enjoy

*recall as many lines as you can before you go to sleep; often memorization is a good tool for overcoming insomnia

*begin memorizing early and don’t worry, with a little practice anyone can memorize far more lines than needed for this assignment; just think of all of the actors that memorize the whole of Hamlet’s character

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A Few Poems I Have Memorized:

The Way We Live
by Kathleen Jamie

Pass the tambourine, let me bash out praises
to the gods of movement and absolute
non-friction, flight, and the scary side:
death by avalanche, birth by failed contraception.

Of chicken tandoori and reggae, loud, from tenements,
commitment, driving fast and unswerving
friendship. Of tee-shirts on pulleys, giros and Bombay,
barmen, dreaming waitresses with many fake-gold
bangles. Of airports, impulse, and waking to uncertainty,
to strip-lights, motorways, or that pantheon —
the mountains. To overdrafts and grafting

and the fit slow pulse of wipers and you’re
creeping over roadways, while the God of moorland
walks abroad with his entourage of freezing fog,
his bodyguard of snow.

Of endless gloaming in the North, of Asiatic swelter,
to launderettes, anecdotes, passions and exhaustion,
Final Demands and dead men, the skeletal grip
of government. To misery and elation; mixed,
the sod and caprice of landlords.

To the way it fits, the way it is, the way it seems to be:
let me bash out praises — pass the tambourine.

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Sitting
by Phyllis Webb

The degree of nothingness
is important:
to sit emptily
in the sun
receiving fire
that is the way
to mend
an extraordinary world,
sitting perfectly
still
and only
remotely human.

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Thistles


Links to:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/05/books/review/Holt-t.html