This past semester I reintroduced presentations to my section of ENG 2850, after taking a semester’s break. Previously, I had organized presentations throughout the year to introduce the time periods of the texts the class was going to be studying (for instance “The Enlightenment,” “Romanticism,” or “Post-Colonialism and Globalization”). Groups of 3-4 students would research the period and come up with a presentation that I hoped would be a fun and informative supplement to lectures that I give to introduce a new unit. Unfortunately, what I had hoped would be fun and exciting (and some were, to be fair), were often drier than what I presented. So, I took a break and reintroduced the group presentation this past semester, but at the end of the term. This time, I asked students to brainstorm on a general question: what is something you think about a lot every day. This brainstorming session gave birth to topics like, Social Media, Sports, Racism, Romance, Feminism, Inequality and, yes, even Selfies. Each member of the group of 2 or 3 drew topics from a bag and among themselves had to select the topic from those choices. After selecting a contemporary topic, they then had to present how this idea relates to 2-4 works we had studied in the year. As all assignments go, some were fascinating and informative (The social media group created facebook accounts for three literary loners—Frankenstein’s Monster, Sarty from Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” and Gregor Samsa from “The Metamorphosis”—and the ensuing back and forth messages, pulled from quotations from the texts and their own interpretations, wall posts, buzzfeed quizzes showed a great deal of insight into the works and specifically queried the idea of whether or not social media promotes human connection), and others were not (a promising premise of Clarissa Dalloway coming out on an episode of Oprah quickly devolved into reductive thinking about the novel and over-emphasized a discussion of sexual mechanics).
Why do I bring this up as a risk? Well, in my attempt for students to embrace the connection between the great works we study and the lives we live today, I felt more often than not that students equated freedom and creativity with less critical thinking and the urgency to get a laugh. When I approach how I can use hybrid learning and technology to open up the classroom to empower students and harness their own innovative thinking and learning, I fear that the freedom I give them will not produce happy chaos or productive mistakes, but rather their turning a blind eye to the rigors of literary study and critical thinking in favor of navel-gazing. I teach literature today for this reason—I do believe that rigorous creative work helps to transcend time and place and helps us to increase our self-knowledge and what it means to be human. The presentations of last semester have stuck with me because of the risks they pose—a risk that can bring out strengths in weaker students, produce innovative thinking, but that can also expose how inveterate the coping mechanisms and bad habits are that block learning potential. How do I strike the balance of giving students have more control over their education with hybrid technologies in the deconstructed learning environments, without compromising on my teaching goals of the class?