Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Turning Obstacles into Opportunities

The villains -- "study guides," shortcuts and cheat-sheets -- of the previous three posts aren't going anywhere, so my advice to readers searching for teaching tips is to make them work for you. While they can be and often are obstacles to learning, they can also be used as opportunities for learning.

First, why will they not go away? For one thing, SparkNotes and their kind represent a multi-million-dollar industry and nothing short of a rapture or an invasion of highly literate aliens will make them disappear.

Furthermore, we have created a system, an "educational" paradigm, that demands their presence. High-school students in my district, for example, take seven classes a day, creating the "sprinting-through-the-art-gallery" model of "learning." High-achieving students bear the added onus of feeling pressured to take as many AP classes as possible. This creates an extraordinary workload that simultaneously trains them in workaholism while encouraging a dependency on shortcuts.

 One critic of education noted that what students really learn from this model is that nothing is worth paying attention to for longer than 48 minutes at a time. It is certainly not a system that invites young learners to savor the narrative technique of Dickens's 1000-page masterpiece Bleak House.

Our current system is also chiefly interested in students performing well on standardized tests, or "Creating the Appearance of Achievement without Learning How to Learn" (CAALHL). This turns the following into time-wasting, non-quantifiable luxuries we simply cannot afford: brainstorming, pondering, speculating, rereading, meditating, reflecting and conversing. It says, rather, "Cut out the fuzzy stuff and go straight to the answers and some cool test-taking strategies that will outwit the test writers!" It also says, "With the SATs coming up on Saturday, you sure can't afford to be reading about some Victorian governess getting all heated up over her master. Read the summary!"

Finally, technology has succeeded in giving all of us, especially young people, the attention span of a gnat on amphetamines. We never walk alone. Someone is always calling. There is always something we need to look up quickly (Who did invent the waffle?!). So, even if students weren't in the current nonsensical educational system, they would be hard pressed to keep their eyes on a complex text for longer than three minutes at a time.

I can imagine that, in my students' position, even I, the Great Reading Purist and Defender of Lit as Holy Writ, would succumb to the SparkNotes temptation.

So they're here to stay. How can we use them as a productive part of the learning process?

Maybe we should get them out of the closet and start working them into our assignments. Here are a few possibilities, some that I've tried with success, some without success, and some I'll try later:

1. In either an informal essay or a brief class presentation, have them -- singly or in pairs or groups -- support, challenge or qualify those smug little analyses at the end each chapter. They could do a single chapter or a cluster or, if time permits, the analysis of the work as a whole.

The author(s) of these guides tend to be narrow and dogmatic in their interpretations. For example, the last time I taught Henry James's Turn of the Screw, the cheat-sheet used by my class baldly asserted that the book was about James's repressed or latent homosexuality. So this reading showed up in many of my students' quizzes and essays. I was flabbergasted. I agreed that it might be about some kind of repression, but also about hysteria, ambiguity, point of view, madness, pedophilia, or the zany, madcap actions of a couple of truly mean kids.

This would have been a great opportunity to ask, by way of an assignment, "Why would the cheat-sheet writer say this? Where is her proof? Is it biographical? Is it embedded in the text? Do you see greater evidence for another interpretation? Discuss!"

2. As recently suggested by one of my former students, we could use the SparkNotes-type text early to provide background on the primary work's historical setting and its place in literary history, and elements of the author's life that might provide either interest or insight as the young readers work they way through the book. There are entire schools of literary criticism and of pedagogy that cry out against this approach, but we can save these objections for another day.

3. The guides' inability to transfer the magic of, say, Don DeLillo's text to theirs is itself an opportunity for learning. If it doesn't violate some copyright law, a teacher could make a PowerPoint with side-by-side slides juxtaposing DeLillo's eccentric tone and puzzling observations with the guide's bland, soulless, robotic summary. Almost any sensitive reader will find DeLillo's side amusing, but a little sinister; no reader will find anything of value in the summary, whether in the use of language or the content. Surely such an activity will help us define literature and perhaps increase appreciation of it.

4. I can't think of a No.4 right now, but I'm sure there are many other ways to "shake hands with the devil," as the saying goes. But for now I'll leave you with another SparkNotes-inspired assignment: If you should ever have the opportunity to teach a book that hasn't been summarized and analyzed by the study-guide industry, ask students to make their own version, either of a scene, a chapter, or, if you're insane, the entire novel. I did the latter when I was a college professor, and some of the work was outstanding. It required careful reading and research, so it was rather time consuming, but the stronger students seemed to think it was well worth the effort.

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