English Majors Practicing Criticism: A Digital Approach

by Paul Schacht, Caroline Woidat, Rob Doggett, and Gillian Paku, State University of New York at Geneseo (SUNY)

(Originally Posted April 30th, 2011) 

Project Overview

At SUNY Geneseo, Practicing Criticism uses digital technology to help build a sense of community, common purpose, and shared identity among undergraduate English majors enrolled in separate sections of a required, introductory course, English 170: The Practice of Criticism. A long-established course at Geneseo, English 170 introduces students not only to the essential disciplinary skills of interpretation and critical writing, but also to some of the basic theoretical questions that help constitute English as a discipline: What types of works should we read? Why should we read these particular works? And, most important, how should we read them? By prompting students to engage with these fundamental questions, English 170 aims to create self-reflective majors who are skilled at critical analysis and have a deep understanding of the disciplinary issues and debates underpinning the various modes of critical analysis. In other words, students in this course learn both to practice criticism and to examine criticism as a practice.

This essay reports on our effort to launch Practicing Criticism in the fall 2010 semester. It explains our purpose in creating the project, describes the tools we chose and the assignments we designed with them, and explores some of the lessons we learned.

Purpose

Although English 170 is the gateway to the English major at SUNY Geneseo, instructors are free to choose their own texts and develop their own assignments. Ideally, the primary learning outcomes are enough to give students a sense of how these different sections are connected, but in reality, because the contents of the course and the intellectual commitments of the instructors vary, students often come away with only a minimal sense of these connections. In this respect, the course is tailor-made to confirm students’ suspicion that success in English is a matter of discerning anew in each course “what the professor wants”–as though there were no identity to the discipline that a student might recognize across the inevitable individual differences in critical perspectives and teaching styles among the faculty.

The problem is to some degree a microcosm of the problem that Gerald Graff has identified within literary studies as a whole, in which a structure of “patterned isolation” or “uncoordinated individualism” among faculty and courses, resulting in part from the live-and-let-live solution to an earlier era of theory wars, fails to acquaint students with the constitutive role played in literary studies by the conflicts–over “assumptions, premises, and legitimating principles and concepts”–that have driven different faculty to adopt different methods and approaches in the first place.1

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has suggested that discussion and debate over core principles structure traditions of practice generally, so that “when an institution–a university, say, or a farm, or a hospital–is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is. Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict.”2 Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave’s influential notion of “communities of practice” identifies the same constitutive role for ongoing conversation in less formal settings (and with less emphasis on conflict), including tighter or looser networks of individuals who “share a concern or a passion for something they do” and who may or may not meet face to face.3

The internet, of course, offers new ways for these communities of practice to engage in shared enterprises while sustaining the conversation that constitutes them. Wikipedia, with its communally authored “article” pages and their attendant “discussion” pages, is perhaps the quintessential example, but online discussion boards for shared-interest groups large and small serve a similar purpose. Yochai Benkler argues that these and other tools for networked communication and peer production are helping to foster a more general “culture of conversation about culture” in which the habits of linking and commenting produce a structure of “response and counterresponse,” increasing “the transparency of culture to its inhabitants.”4

The Practicing Criticism project at Geneseo might be described as an attempt to leverage this culture of conversation so that students experience their own involvement in English 170, and in the major, as the experience of a community of practice, a community that mirrors but also strives to understand the larger practice that is “literary study.” If successful, the project should increase for students the transparency of both their own local practice and the larger practice that they are studying and that some of them may aspire to join. It should do this by putting them in conversation with each other and allowing them to hear, in their professors, the style of conversation that characterizes the practice of criticism. It should do this not only in spite of but because of the fact that the different instructors approach texts in different ways.

Tools

In its first semester, the collaborative tool at the heart of this project was wiki. SUNY Geneseo uses Atlassian’s Confluence software to provide a wiki platform for the entire campus. We created a “space” in Confluence titled “Practicing Criticism,” and inside the space we set up three different sites for collaboration: two for collaboration among the students, one for collaboration among ourselves. A discussion site allowed students to engage in conversation about questions touching on their shared identity as English majors. An annotation site invited them to collaborate in annotating over a dozen poems that were assigned in all three sections of the course. An approaches site attached four audio clips of interpretive commentary, recorded by the four professors, to the text of William Butler Yeats’ poem “Easter, 1916.”

We decided that the simplest and most direct way to involve students in the kind of conversation about “assumptions, premises, and legitimating principles and concepts” that constitute our discipline, and to simultaneously constitute them as a community of practice, would be to build some discussion forums around a few fundamental questions cast in terms of their identity as English majors. Prior to the 1970s, most English programs operated on the assumption that students, in order to master the discipline, needed to study a series of “great” authors, with critical debates tending to center on which of these authors are truly essential (say, Milton or Shakespeare) and which are merely important (say, Pope or Keats). Since then, with the advent of feminist, Marxist, New Historical and other critical paradigms, debates about “the canon” have changed considerably. Many professors now teach previously marginalized authors, many reject the idea of abstract aesthetic hierarchies, and some have called into question the very notion of the literary work as a distinct textual entity. Our discussion forums personalized and localized this constitutive debate about the “canon” by asking the students across our four sections of English 170 to discuss such questions as, “How should a professor decide what works to include on a syllabus?” and “What factors or issues should be considered in deciding whether all English majors should take a course in Shakespeare?” The forums also asked students to reflect on the differing principles that inform the practices of reading and conversation within and outside the discipline of English by posing such questions as “What are the advantages and disadvantages of close reading?” and “What’s the difference between a book club and an English class?”

Schacht1_Woidat2_Doggett3_Paku4_Figure1_2011

Annotation

Whereas the discussion site fostered conversation about the practice of criticism, our annotation site required students to practice criticism in conversation; that is, to construct a “reading” of a poem, or take the first steps towards a reading, by collaboratively elucidating and interpreting particular words and phrases within it, and by articulating a shared thesis statement about it.5

Confluence wiki software allows for a hierarchical page structure of “parent” and “child” pages. We put each of the poems to be annotated on its own page, then asked students to annotate by selecting words and phrases within the poem that seemed to require interpretation or explanation and linking these words or phrases to individual child pages with commentary. Thus a student could select the phrase “shallow rivers” from Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” and link it to a page holding commentary about the phrase. Another student could improve the annotation by elaborating on it or polishing the wording. We asked the students to adopt a Wikipedia-style “neutral point of view” in writing these annotations, so that they could collaborate in producing commentary that spoke in a single voice. We also asked them to use Confluence’s “comment” feature in the same way that Wikipedians use “discussion”–to suggest an individual viewpoint for consideration by the group, or to hash out a disagreement. Making this distinction had the potential to create, in effect, two layers of conversation: the conversation formed by the individual annotations in relation to the poem, and the conversation among the creators of each annotation as to what the annotation should say.

Schacht1_Woidat2_Doggett3_Paku4_Figure2_2011

Approaches

There is no shortage of pedagogical tools for illustrating the kind of conversation that characterizes the practice of criticism. The most popular of these is probably the “casebook,” which juxtaposes a primary text with critical essays representing a variety of viewpoints on the text. In collections where these essays are meant to exemplify the different kinds of reading generated by different “schools” of critical practice (Marxist, feminist, postmodernist, etc.), the impression left on the student can be precisely the one we were attempting to counter: that these specific practices are not instances of any general practice–that the schools, in effect, have nothing to say to each other.

Our approaches site in the wiki attempted to model critical variety by using the same localizing logic as our discussion forums about the English major. We ourselves became the exemplars of critical variety, and we did so in a manner that was “conversational” in tone as well as form. We put the text of William Butler Yeats’ poem “Easter, 1916” on each of four wiki pages. We each recorded a brief audio commentary on the poem and attached one clip to each page. On a parent page for the four commentary pages, we reproduced the text once more, together with an explanation of what we wanted our students to see: namely, that “four practicing critics can look at the same poem and find different things in it,” that the differences spring not from mere personal idiosyncrasy but from adopting “different intellectual angles,” and that “despite our differences, all four of us are doing certain things in common.” Two of us took the lesson this site was designed to teach a step further by bringing their sections (scheduled at the same time) together for a joint lecture in which each offered a viewpoint on a novel assigned in both sections. The lecture was followed by group discussion.

Schacht1_Woidat2_Doggett3_Paku4_Figure3_2011

Results

We surveyed students at the end of the semester in order to get a sense of how the course had or had not changed their knowledge and attitudes. Only 4% percent of the 88 students surveyed said that they began the semester with a “very clear conception of the skills an English major should have”; 52% said they had a very clear conception of these skills at the end. Thirty percent began the semester “wondering” what skills an English major should have but lacking an answer; at the end, no student agreed with the statement, “I still don’t have an answer that’s even moderately clear.” Fully 19% “hadn’t really asked [themselves] what skills an English major should have” before taking the course; by the end, only 1% agreed with the statement, “I’m unclear about the skills an English major should have, and I haven’t given the question much thought.” Exactly the same percentage–47%–began and ended the semester with a “moderately clear conception of the skills an English major should have.” Most of the students who fell into this category at the end had likely moved there from the “I wondered but didn’t have an answer” and the “I hadn’t really asked myself” categories.

Similarly, we asked the students how clear their thinking was before and after the course about “the works an English major should read” and “the debates an English major should understand.” Eleven percent began the semester with a clear conception of the works a major should read; 39% ended the semester that way. Nine percent had wondered about this question at the beginning but lacked an answer; at the end, no one was without at least a moderately clear idea. Twenty-five percent had not asked themselves this question at the beginning; at the end, 9% said they still had not given the question much thought. Again, the percentage who possessed moderate clarity remained about the same, declining slightly from 55% to 52% as, presumably, some moved up from moderate clarity to great clarity and others moved up to moderate clarity from not having asked themselves this question.

Four percent began the semester with a very clear idea of the debates a major should understand; 31% ended with a very clear idea. On this question, we saw the largest percentage–36%–who had wondered about the question without finding an answer; only 7% said they lacked even a moderately clear answer at the end. Twenty-five percent began the semester without having asked themselves the question previously; 7% ended the semester without having given it much thought. On this question, the percentage that began and ended with moderate clarity–35% and 55%, respectively–showed the greatest change.

Asked generally whether “this class changed your thinking about the skills of an English major,” 72% said “yes,” while 28% said “no.” Asked the same question about “what works an English major should read,” 63% replied “yes,” 37% “no”. Asked this question about “the debates an English major should understand,” 64% said “yes,” 36% “no.”

These results suggest that we were modestly successful in giving our students a better sense of what makes English a discipline. We asked some additional questions about their experience of the online assignments; judging from their answers, our success on this part of the collaboration was more limited. Asked to rate, on a scale of 1-5, the usefulness of our online annotation assignment for clarifying or stimulating thought about close reading, their ratings broke down as follows: 5 (very useful), 14%; 4, 19%; 3, 33%; 2, 23%; 1 (not useful), 11%. Asked to rate the usefulness of online discussion forums in clarifying or stimulating thought about the skills, content, and issues an English major should master, the ratings were 5 (very useful), 5%; 4, 24%;  3, 35%; 2, 23%; 1 (not useful), 14%. Our most effective online assignment was the one in which we ourselves were the collaborators. Asked to rate the usefulness of our audio commentary on Yeats’ “Easter, 1916” in providing a sense of how professional scholars/critics approach a literary work, students responded as follows: 5 (very useful), 28%; 4, 32%; 3, 22%; 2, 7%, 1 (not useful), 11%.

Lessons Learned

Practicing Criticism has been dormant during the spring 2011 semester but will continue in fall 2011. As the project goes forward, it will benefit from some of the lessons we have already learned.

The challenges faced by the project in its inaugural semester were technological, organizational, and motivational.

The technological challenges themselves were threefold, involving, respectively, faculty, students, and tools. One member of our faculty group had had a great deal of experience teaching with technology and was already a “power user” of the Confluence wiki software. Another was less familiar with the software but highly invested, from the beginning, in adopting digital methods to expand conversation beyond the classroom. Two members of the group saw technology more as an aid to pedagogical collaboration and coordination of purpose than as a central feature of the project. These differences in technological comfort and investment were not a drawback–on the contrary, they created a healthy balance of perspectives on the value and limitations of our digital tools. But they led to occasional frustration with the tools and less than perfect agreement on what we hoped to accomplish with them. Going forward, the project will benefit from some formal efforts to increase everyone’s familiarity with the tools and ongoing conversation within our own community of practice as to how they can best be used.

It was not only the professors, however, who found the wiki a challenge. Our students are thoroughly used to inhabiting online spaces, but these spaces do not all work the same, feel the same, or serve the same ends. A social network such as Facebook is not the same as a networked community of practice. Writing collaboratively from a “neutral point of view” is not a skill that digital natives automatically possess. (A good number of students had difficulty adopting this style in their poetry annotations, and fewer students produced collaborative annotations than we had hoped for.) Finally, even geeks need help with an unfamiliar interface. The project will go better in the future if we set aside some time to train the students in using the tools.

But what will the tools be? Wiki works well for collaborative authorship, and a flexible platform such as Confluence can extend the capability of wiki into other areas, such as group discussion. But a dedicated tool for building conversation around a central text, such as VoiceThread, might be a better alternative for the “approaches” component of Practicing Criticism.

The main organizational challenge we faced was that of giving students a sense of community while each syllabus went its own way with readings and other assignments. Although this combination of collaboration and autonomy was in some sense the point of the project, we ran into difficulty when, for example, collaborative online assignments across the sections took place out of sync with the readings on one or another professor’s syllabus. As already indicated above, two of us did coordinate readings and assignments more closely than the rest; in conjunction with synchronized scheduling, this planning made possible the joint lecture and group discussion offering a live reprise of the online “approaches” to “Easter, 1916” in the wiki. Better coordination might have also enabled students working across sections online to combine their virtual meetings with live ones. There are times when, as one student told us, you would just “rather meet in person” to accomplish collaborative work. In future semesters, at least a few planned meetings of the four sections–for technology instruction, open discussion, give-and-take among the professors, or even just pizza–would also help create a greater sense of community.

From a theoretical perspective, perhaps the most interesting challenge we faced was that of generating excitement about the work. Communities of practice form, by definition, because of shared passion or concern. By contrast, students choose courses and majors from a wide variety of motives and come to them with widely varying levels of interest and commitment. In the conventional classroom situation, the familiar remedy for this discrepancy is to incentivize “participation” using grades. But the familiar remedy seems inappropriate, at a deep level, to the culture of the Internet, whose very ethos is self-motivated participation and whose most powerful social lesson has been the capacity of self-motivated participants to produce lively, engaged discussion and (in the case of Wikipedia, for example) highly organized content without central direction or extrinsic reward. We went into the semester before having resolved this quandary, and, to judge from the survey results, without providing our students sufficiently clear guidelines for how active they should be online or how their work would be credited. We are still uncertain where the balance lies between meeting students’ expectations for guidance and protecting the culture of self-motivation that makes the Internet an exciting place to collaborate and share. We will surely need to make adjustments on both ends–not only by formulating clearer expectations but also by structuring opportunities for discussion in ways that keep the conversation lively and fresh. Offering a wider range of discussion questions, introducing new questions at strategic points in the semester, and allowing students to pose their own questions would all help produce more participation for participation’s sake.

Conclusion

As we write, the community that is SUNY Geneseo’s English department is in the midst of revisiting its own practice. In face-to-face as well as asynchronous virtual conversation (within a dedicated space of Geneseo’s Confluence wiki), department members have been discussing a substantial revision of the major that would shift the major’s emphasis from coverage of content to the self-reflective practice of analytical reading and writing skills. Not surprisingly, the department’s conversation has returned again and again to the very questions we posed to our students in Practicing Criticism: What should we read in English? Why should we read it? How should we read it?

For the four of us, the department’s conversation has reinforced the conviction that students need to see through their course syllabi, their assignments, and the requirements of the English major to the issues and principles that lie behind them–in other words, that students should experience English courses and the English major as transparent.

The department is considering making multi-section collaboration and cross-section conversation using digital tools a permanent feature of English 170 in a revised major, perhaps transforming Practicing Criticism into the official locus of the course. Needless to say, the four of us believe that such a decision would go far toward promoting the transparency of English at Geneseo. But whatever the department decides, we are certain that our project has improved the quality of our own conversation, while making our own practice more transparent to ourselves.

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Notes

1. Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional History, 20th anniversary ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 252-62.
2. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 222.
3. Etienne Wenger, “Communities of Practice: A Brief Introduction,” last modified June, 2006, accessed March 14, 2011, http://www.ewenger.com/theory/index.htm. See also Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
4. Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 293-94.
5. For a discussion of the same kind of assignment in the context of civic engagement, see Paul Schacht, “Rowing Alone: Technology and Democracy in the Humanities Classroom,” International Journal of Technology, Knowledge, and Society 4 (2008), 61-68.