All about my Selfie

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?

6 thoughts on “All about my Selfie”

  1. I love this presentation assignment, and I think you should stick with it, but I’ve also seen similar results when I give students a chance to get personal and contemporary, and to do it creatively. They don’t often have a chance to do this, and I think part of the problem is that they don’t actually even have a “coping” mechanism for this kind of assignment to break free from. Be creative? Talk about your actual life and how it relates to literature? They have little or no experience doing this, it seems to me. So wrapping it in more regularly all semester is one thing I’ve tried to do, as I know you have, too. Also, one way we can help them do better work is to compile models of the kind of work we’re looking for. So, perhaps some of the hybrid part of the course would include watching videos of real people (contemporary celebrities even?) responding to or engaging with literature. Or going to readings or literary events in the city and seeing contemporary engagements with texts and what that looks like. I love the idea of giving students more time to make things personal, creative, and contemporary, but I think we need to build a stable of models and resources for them and build that in all semester long so they know what makes critical creative work and what makes silly or shallow creative work. Maybe this is something we can work on when we make a resource list next week.

  2. I feel much the same way about the results of some presentations–the ones that work well, as I think back quickly, seem to share a clear set of parameters and to use the technology adeptly. I really like Meechal’s suggestions too. I’m also thinking about one of Cheryl’s responses on the research paper in Great Works, or the traditional comparative literary essay assignment, and how non-traditional replacements or complements to this standard assignment might really need to be be well-supported and transparently explained. I can’t wait to see what you all come up with!

  3. Wow, I spent a long time thinking about your post. I agree that “creative” can spell “less rigor” in many cases. I realize that when I’ve tried assignments like this, I’ve often not been sure for myself what I ultimately want students to get from it or how really to assess creativity. I also worry that if my students detect a whiff of “I’m still figuring this out, this is experiment for me too” they’ll descend like a pack of wolves. (But those are my issues!) Meechal has great, constructive ideas, I just came to say that I think the tension between experiment/innovation and rigor is an interesting one. We face this in COM 1010 too, I think, with wanting to open up the course to different experiences of public speaking but also needing students to gain mastery of particular concepts and skills.

    I wonder if a rubric or another tool that helps students see clearly the potential levels of critical engagement and that leads them to question their coping responses would be useful. Or, now that you’ve tried the assignment, an example of previous work by students that models the level of rigor you expect? I really like the assignment too and am curious to about how you will go forward.

  4. ( I felt more often than not that students equated freedom and creativity with less critical thinking and the urgency to get a laugh. )
    Miciah, Boy, do I ever love that you brought this out. One semester doesn’t always beget another. I have changed and backtracked so many times! It’s the nature of the business. Different people, different needs. Why I yearn for the 16-week, 60-minute classes, three times a week semester of bygone years (when I taught writing classes) when there was more time to get to know the students before planning everything out. Ihave even tried sending out emails to students before the semester begins to pose questions to them, only to see the at times great turnover in the first two weeks. (But at least those who responded usually stay. Perhaps you could send them video samples to provide feedback. A few might answer at least.
    I think was is most pragmatic is to have precise instruction at the outset with a disclaimer to tweak them after students discuss in an online group and present them to you, perhaps. I absolutely love your exciting activity. While teaching writing in Mexico as a unit on creativity, collaboration, organization, revision. I had the students each organize their classmates as they saw them, as what they felt about a collaborative class. Take a photo. Post them. Everyone had to write about them. Then discuss, then revise. One guy made everyone sit on the wide walkway ledge outside the windows and he shot the photo from below. Another had the women (and me) lie on the floor like a pinwheel, our long hair intertwined. Such fun and imagination. Tried it in a class in NYC. Didn’t work. 🙁

  5. I also really appreciate the issues you’ve brought up in this post! I am also invested in trying to figure out how best to organize student presentations or discussion-sessions as I think they have the potential to really enhance a class. This past semester I had one or two students be responsible for leading the first 15 minutes of class discussion. I left the assignment pretty open (they just had to speak about that day’s assigned reading), and emphasized that I would be participating very little (if at all). I found that emphasizing that I would just be a listener (and then sticking to it, which was hard!) helped facilitate a truly discussion-based atmosphere–I was surprised at how much they really engaged with one another. That’s all to say that it ended up taking less pressure off the presentation itself so that what was more important was how the leader asked questions and facilitated discussion. It wasn’t always successful but overall I was pleasantly surprised with their ability to have a real and often insightful conversation with one another about the text at hand.

    So I’m wondering how online learning might enhance that. Perhaps in an assignment like yours the students could provide their creative content online but then be responsible for leading discussion both on the text at hand and their creative project (which everyone has already seen online). I’m just brainstorming ways in which an online platform might enrich student presentations by allowing the presentations to have multiple directions at once.

  6. Thanks for the great ideas and support. Yes, I think I need to bear in mind that these assignments should incorporate some flexibility to tweak throughout, and that I really should include models for the students from the get go.

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