NEW: Comic Connections: Reflecting on Women in Popular Culture

Comic Connections: Reflecting on Women in Popular Culture

Sandra Eckard, editor

From Publisher Website:

With the popularity of comic adaptations on television and at the movies, these current topics can be a great way to engage students by bringing characters and stories they connect with into the classroom to help them build the skills that they need to be successful. Comic Connections: Reflecting on Women in Popular Culture is designed to help teachers from middle school through college find exciting new strategies that they can use right away as part of their curricular goals. Each chapter has three pieces: comic relevance, classroom connections, and concluding thoughts; this format allows a reader to pick-and-choose where to start. Some readers might want to delve into the history of a comic to better understand characters and their usefulness, while other readers might want to pick up an activity, presentation, or project that they can fold into that day’s lesson. This volume in Comic Connections series focuses on female characters—Wonder Woman, Peggy Carter, and Lois Lane, to name a few—with each chapter deconstructing a specific character to help students engage in meaningful conversations, writing projects, and other activities that will complement and enhance their literacy skills.

See my chapter:

Wonder Woman: Reading and Teaching Feminism with an Amazonian Princess in an Era of Jessica Jones, P. L. Thomas

[Sample excerpt from Classroom Connections section]

Women Superhero Costumes and Sexism in Student Dress Codes

“The original Wonder Woman comics included page after page of bondage imagery, scads of cross-dressing villains, and really remarkably unrepressed lesbian eroticism[i],” explains Noah Berlatsky, examining The New 52 reboot of Wonder Woman, adding: “The best Azzarello/Chiang can do, in contrast, is to have their Amazons pose like Playboy models while Eros makes sophomoric cracks about the quest for seminal mortal vessels.”[ii] The tension between the potential for a woman superhero to confront and change corrosive social norms such as sexism, misogyny, toxic masculinity, and objectifying/sexualizing women and the too-often reality of pop culture to reflect and reinforce those norms is throughout Wonder Woman, including how she is physically depicted as a superhero.

While comic books and graphic novels can be effective in classes as ways to reach beyond traditional texts, using Wonder Woman to lead into topics directly relevant to students is also recommended. Consider the controversial issue of dress codes for students as that is dramatized in depictions of Diana Prince and Wonder Woman.

In The New 52 rebooting of Wonder Woman, many have confronted the sexualizing of Wonder Woman in her costume and poses.[iii] These debates about objectification of females as well as slut shaming and body shaming can be introduced through Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman: Blood and the Meredith and David Finch runs before Rebirth), and then, students can research and debate the gender bias often found in school dress codes. Some resources for the latter include:

  • Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Code[iv]. This is a documentary by a 17-year-old student, available on YouTube. This could be a text in this unit or a model for documentaries created by students.
  • “Why School Dress Codes Are Sexist,” Li Zhou (The Atlantic).[v] This is a well-written work of journalism that covers the topic of sexism in dress codes well and serves as a strong model for public writing that uses hyperlinks as citation.
  • “Sexualization, Sex Discrimination, and Public School Dress Codes,” Meredith J. Harbach.[vi] Here, students can examine a scholarly approach to the issues of sexism and dress codes.
  • “The Unspoken Messages of Dress Codes: Uncovering Bias and Power,” Rosalind Wiseman (Anti-Defamation League).[vii] A curriculum resource and excellent overview, this can serve as a guideline for students lobbying for changes to dress codes and/or writing alternative codes that avoid bias.
  • “Baby Woman,” Emily Ratajkowski (Lenny).[viii] Ratajkowski is a contemporary celebrity, model and actress, who takes a strong public position as a feminist, despite her association with provocative and sexualized media (controversial music videos and TV commercials). Her personal narrative is a strong model of the genre, but it also complicates views of feminism and female sexuality as well as objectification.

Using the texts above, students can write persuasive essays, cited essays, and new dress codes; they can participate in formal or informal debates; and they can develop projects around identifying how popular media and culture objectify and shame women based on physical appearance and clothing. A unit on dress code linked to Wonder Woman is a provocative and rich unit that challenges students on many levels.

Finally, in this section on teaching through Wonder Woman, I am listing some additional resources for other units of study:

  • Robert Jones Jr., “Bumbling: DC Super Hero Girls and the White Racial Imagination,” The Middle Spaces.[ix]
  • Eliana Dockterman, “Wonder Woman Breaks Through,” Time.[x]
  • Christopher J. Hayton, “Evolving Sub-Texts in the Visual Exploitation of the Female Form: Good Girl and Bad Girl Comic Art Pre- and Post-Second Wave Feminism,” ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies 4 (2014), www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v7_4/hayton/
  • Charlotte E. Howell, “‘Tricky’ Connotations: Wonder Woman as DC’s Brand Disruptor,” Cinema Journal.[xi]
  • Mitra C. Emad, “Reading Wonder Woman’s Body: Mythologies of Gender and Nation,” The Journal of Popular Culture.[xii]

Kelli E. Stanley, “‘Suffering Sappho!’: Wonder Woman and the (Re)Invention of the Feminine Ideal,” Helios.[xiii]

[i] Noah Berlatsky, “Comic Books Have Always Been Gay,” Slate, June 1, 2012, accessed February 10, 2017, http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2012/06/01/gay_comic_books_have_been_around_since_the_birth_of_wonder_woman.html

[ii] Berlatsky, “Wonder Woman’s Violent, Man-Pandering Second Act.”

[iii] Ryan, “Wonder Woman Takes a Big Step Back” and Berlatsky, “Wonder Woman’s Violent, Man-Pandering Second Act.”

[iv] Maggie Sunseri, Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Codes, YouTube, may 29, 2015, accessed February 10, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDgAZO_5U_U

[v] Li Zhou, “Why School Dress Codes Are Sexist,” The Atlantic, October 20, 2015, accessed February 10, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/10/school-dress-codes-are-problematic/410962/

[vi] Meredith Johnson Harbach, “Sexualization, Sex Discrimination, and Public School Dress Codes,” 50 U. Rich. L. Rev. 1039 (2016), access February 10, 2017, http://scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2275&context=law-faculty-publications

[vii] Rosalind Wiseman, “The Unspoken Messages of Dress Codes: Uncovering Bias and Power,” Anti-Defamation League, September 2014, accessed February 10, 2017, http://www.adl.org/education-outreach/curriculum-resources/c/the-unspoken-language-of-bias-and-power.html

[viii] Emily Ratajkowski, “Baby Woman,” Lenny, February 16, 2016, accessed February 2, 2017, http://www.lennyletter.com/life/a265/baby-woman-emily-ratajkowski/

[ix] Robert Jones Jr., “Bumbling: DC Super Hero Girls and the White Racial Imagination,” The Middle Spaces, May 10, 2016, accessed February 2, 2017, https://themiddlespaces.com/2016/05/10/bumbling-dc-super-hero-girls/

[x] Eliana Dockterman, “Wonder Woman Breaks Through,” Time, December 26, 2016–January 2, 2017.

[xi] Charlotte E. Howell, “‘Tricky’ Connotations: Wonder Woman as DC’s Brand Disruptor,” Cinema Journal 55.1 (2015, Fall), DOI: 10.1353/cj.2015.0072.

[xii] Mitra C. Emad, “Reading Wonder Woman’s Body: Mythologies of Gender and Nation,” The Journal of Popular Culture 39.6 (2006).

[xiii] Kelli E. Stanley, “‘Suffering Sappho!’: Wonder Woman and the (Re)Invention of the Feminine Ideal,” Helios 32.2 (2005).

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Models, Mentor Texts, and (More) Resisting Rubrics

In the discussion spurred by Ken Lindblom’s adding “interesting to read” to his writing rubrics, Tim Ogburn posed on the soon-to-be retired Teaching and Learning forum at NCTE’s Connected Community: “So, along with rubrics (or not), I wonder how folks use models (or not)?”

Ogburn’s question coincided with my first offering of an upper-level writing/research course at my university: Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education. After the first class meeting, I have been revising and adding to the course guidelines and materials.

Part of that work has been looking carefully at how I can use and expand my materials from my first-year writing seminar, which I have taught in various forms for about a decade now.

To answer Ogburn directly, I want to admit that my teaching writing practices are significantly grounded in using models and mentor texts. But here’s the caveat: My experience and the research base both show that using models is only a weak strategy when teaching writing.

For one example of research, Writing Next ranks using models as the tenth out of eleven effective strategies:

Study of Models (Effect Size = 0.25)

The study of models provides adolescents with good models for each type of writing that is the focus of instruction. Students are encouraged to analyze these examples and to emulate the critical elements, patterns, and forms embodied in the models in their own writing.The effects for all six studies reviewed were positive, though small. It was not possible to draw separate conclusions for low-achieving writers, as none of the studies specifically addressed this population.

None the less, I incorporate models and mentor texts while always seeking ways to increase their effectiveness.

Here, then, is how I use models for my four essay assignments in my first year writing seminar:

Essay Requirements

Essay 1: See our shared prompt HERE.

Examples of personal narratives:

Everybody’s Somebody’s Baby, Barbara Kingsolver

Letter to My Son, Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Secret Lives of Inner-City Black Males, Ta-Nehisi Coates

They Can’t Turn Back, James Baldwin

Essay 2: Compose and draft an essay of about 1250-1500 words in blog/online format (see examples below) that offers an expository or argumentative mode for a general public audience from the perspective of expertise. Incorporate images, video, or other media.

SAMPLE submission format.

Examples:

Should We Marvel at a Black Captain America?

[See scholarly version: Can Superhero Comics Defeat Racism?]

There is no debate about hitting children – it’s just wrong

Corporations Are Behind The Common Core State Standards — And That’s Why They’ll Never Work

Gaiman’s Mythical Folding of Childhood into Adulthood

Essay 3: Compose and draft a substantially cited essay of about 4-6 double-spaced pages that presents a discipline-based examination of a topic or poses a discipline-based argument. Citations must conform to APA style guidelines. [See “Writing for Specific Fields.”]

Examples:

Properly formatted APA sample essay

Universal Public Education—Our (Contradictory) Missions

Of Rocks and Hard Places—The Challenge of Maxine Greene ’s Mystification in Teacher Education

Essay 4: TBD in a conference

And then, how I have adapted that approach in an upper-level writing/research course (as embedded, noted bellow in red, in submission guidelines):

Annotated bibliographies: Submit annotated bibliographies in both the initial and final submissions (all drafts should be complete and in proper format, even when submitting “rough” or initial drafts) as Word files and attach to email with “annotated bibliographies” in the subject line. See some guidelines and a sample annotated bibliography here (note APA version). Submit each annotated bibliography as a separate Word file, and format in Times New Roman font, 12 pt., double space, with 1″ margins. Each file should be named “lastname AB#.docx” (each file numbered from 1 through 8 or 10).

Research project essay: Submit research project cited essay in both the initial and final submissions (all drafts should be complete and in proper format, even when submitting “rough” or initial drafts) as Word files and attach to email with “research project essay” in the subject line. See APA guidelines here and a sample APA essay here. Submit essay as a Word file, and format in Times New Roman font, 12 pt., double space, with 1″ margins. Each file should be named “lastname essay.docx” (as you revise and resubmit, add RW, RW2, RW3, etc., to the file name to designate multiple drafts).

Public commentary: Submit your public commentary in both the initial and final submissions (all drafts should be complete and in proper format, even when submitting “rough” or initial drafts) as Word files and attach to email with “public commentary” in the subject line. See a sample public commentary here. Submit essay as a Word file, and format in Times New Roman font, 12 pt., single space, with 1″ margins. Each file should be named “lastname OpEd.docx” (as you revise and resubmit, add RW, RW2, RW3, etc., to the file name to designate multiple drafts).

Finally, what, then, is the case for models and mentor texts—especially as ways to resist rubrics?

  • Authentic (published) models and mentor texts are powerful alternatives to templates and artificial writing forms such as five-paragraph essays and anchor texts for standardized testing.
  • Models and mentor texts are rich and engaging materials for reading like a writer and other critical reading activities, and thus, offer far more than simply teaching writing.
  • If resisting and not outright rejecting rubrics, teachers and students can mine models and mentor texts in order to develop rubrics and/or guiding questions for composing together.
  • Models and mentor texts are essential for developing genre awareness in students as well as fostering in students a greater understanding of writer purpose, audience, writing forms, conventional expectations (grammar, mechanics, and usage), etc.

As I continue to witness, teaching writing is a journey, and with that concession, using models and mentor texts to teach writing is an excellent example of how we must be neither a slave to nor ignorant of the research base and our own practiced experiences with methods. Grounding the teaching of writing in models and mentor texts proves to be both essential and in some ways inadequate, leaving us with “miles to go before [we] sleep.”

Ken Lindblom’s “Is Interesting to Read” and the Rubric Dilemma Redux

At the 2003 National Council of Teachers of English annual conference in San Francisco, I met Ken Lindblom, then a column editor for English Journal and later an outstanding editor for the same.

Ken is among an important nucleus of NCTE colleagues and friends who have enriched my professional life in ways I can never repay; I have served as a column editor for EJ under two different tenures of editors and as the Council Historian just after the centennial along with being awarded the 2013 George Orwell Award—just to name some of the personal accomplishments that I cherish as examples of the collegiality and kindness found in the NCTE community of teachers and scholars.

So Ken’s The Rubric Criterion That Changed Everything has put me in a predicament since I value Ken as one of my go-to thinkers on teaching writing but I also have a long and firm stance against grades, tests, and rubrics (see my chapter on de-grading writing instruction).

The central point addressed by Ken captures exactly why his post inspires me and gives me pause:

Once I was reading a stack of papers, and I remember thinking, “Man, I wish these papers were more interesting!” Then it hit me: Students will work on what’s listed on a rubric. In my next paper assignment, I added this to the rubric: “Is Interesting to Read.”

Rubrics—as Maja Wilson and Alfie Kohn deconstruct—often become the chore to fulfill when students write, and while they can provide structure and clarity in grading for both students and teachers, rubrics can often be nightmares for those same teachers when student writing flounders but fulfills the rubric or soars in ways that the rubric never addresses.

Instead of rubrics, then, I offer students guiding questions, and do agree that students need structure (see these concepts and questions [1] grounded in developing genre awareness).

Regardless of using rubrics or guiding question, I want to stress that raising student awareness of being interesting is both powerful and essential. That awareness, however, must be fostered by examining with students the many ways in which writers accomplish being interesting.

First, we must highlight that embedded in “Is Interesting to Read” is a focus on audience. In my first-year writing seminars, I stress that I want students to stop writing for me, and to develop essays with clear and real audiences in mind. This is part of my on-going goal of encouraging students to stop thinking as students and to start thinking as writers.

Some of the concrete strategies that we focus on that contribute to being interesting as a writer include the following:

  • Creating openings, instead of writing mechanistic introductions, that are compelling first and then focus the reader on the central purpose of the essay. We do several reading like a writer activities (here and here) throughout the semester, but focus on openings in the first few weeks.
  • Expanding tone beyond the faux academic pose of objectivity, and acknowledging the power of humor. Notably in our reading of Kingsolver, for example, students notice that essays are often humorous (especially in the opening), and thus, more interesting.
  • Emphasizing the power of narrative (and description) as a mode that creates interest. Drawing on Style, we think about nonfiction essays in terms of fiction—character, plot, and setting. Inherent in narrative, as well, is the importance of details (see Flannery O’Connor).
  • Allowing drafting to be an act of discovery, brainstorming. Another key aspect of resisting the traditional introduction/thesis approach is helping students recognize that the act of drafting often leads writers to their purpose; in other words, drafting as discovery opens the door to finding the interesting instead of trying to fulfill the obligation of a predetermined thesis.
  • Reimagining the essay form not as an introduction/thesis, body, and conclusion but as a cohesive form better served by framing—developing a few opening and closing paragraphs that share a story, detail, or compelling element that both engages and compels the reader (thus, interesting).

I remain less optimistic than Ken that rubrics can serve our goal to foster students as writers who are aware of their audience and committed to being interesting. I do believe, however, seeking ways to encourage specific strategies for being interesting as a writer is achievable, but it is also essential, as Ken argues, not simply something extra.


[1] Prompt Analysis for Genre Awareness*

To the students: As you prepare to write, revise, and edit, consider these questions, particularly if you are given a writing task in your academic classroom:

[Note: If you cannot answer these questions from the task you have been given, how do you find out the answers?]

  1. GENRE NAME: What is this text called (its genre name)? What do you already think you know about what a text from this genre looks and ‘sounds’ like? For example, how should the text be organized? What kind of language do you need to use?
  1. PURPOSE: What are you supposed to DO as a writer when completing this task? Are you asked to make an argument? To inform? To describe or list?
  1. CONTEXT: If you are writing this task in, or for, a classroom, what do you know about the context? What does the discipline require for a text? Under what conditions will you be writing? For example, are you writing a timed, in-class response?
  1. WRITER’S ROLE: Who are you supposed to BE in this prompt? A knowledgeable student? Someone else?
  1. AUDIENCE: Is your audience specified? If it is your instructor, what are his or her expectations and interests? What goals for students does the instructor have?
  1. CONTENT: What are you supposed to write about? Where do you find this content? In your textbook? In lectures? Are you supposed to relate what you have heard or read in some way?
  1. SOURCES: What, and how many, sources are you supposed to draw from to write your text? Have the sources been provided in the class? Are you supposed to look elsewhere? Are the sources primary or secondary?
  1. OTHER SPECIFICATIONS: What else do you know about the requirements for this text? How long should it be? What referencing style (MLA, APA) should you use? What font type?
  1. ASSESSMENT: How will your paper be graded? What does the instructor believe is central to a good response? How do you know? If you don’t know, how can you find out?
  1. MAKING THE TEXT YOUR OWN: What about the paper you write can be negotiated with the instructor? Can you negotiate the topic? The types of sources used? The text structure? If you can negotiate your assignment, it might be much more interesting to you.

* Created and published in Johns, A. M. (2008). Genre awareness for the novice academic student: An on-going questLanguage Teaching, 41(2), 237-252.

The Stuff of Poetry: My First Good Cry of 2018

Poet Tara Skuru, The Amoeba Game, posted her “Morning Love Poem” as a gift for the new year:

I responded that it brought my first good cry of 2018, and she shared a nugget about how the poem came to be:

The poem and exchange prompted more from me:

Teaching poetry can include focusing on poem analysis, using the poem as a model text for understanding poetry (what makes a poem, a poem?), or fostering poetry composing (how to write poetry).

In all of those contexts as a teacher and poet, I strive to help students unlearn their misconceptions about poetry while helping them become comfortable with the far more nuanced elements of understanding form, genre, and mode that contribute to being able to read or write well any writing form.

Skurtu’s “Morning Love Poem” is both a lovely poem and an ideal model for teaching poetry because it demonstrates the stuff of poetry that students often miss.

In an interview, Jason Reynolds confronts some of the essential aspects of that stuff of poetry:

One of my favorite poets is Countee Cullen, and he only wrote in tight form. But it’s powerful stuff. It hits you, every single one. And I think of Lucille Clifton who wrote these really short poems. She was the master of brevity. You may get five or six lines but it’s a gut punch. It may not be a particular structure like a sonnet or a sestina, but that also doesn’t mean that when structure doesn’t have a name it’s not structure. The danger in talking about free verse the way we normally do, we typically don’t complicate the structure of free verse. What it does is it strips the poet of agency and decision-making. There is a structure. That poet chose to break a line here or add a stanza. To punctuate or not punctuate. And that constitutes the structure of that piece.

About the common “fear (or intimidation) of poetry,” Reynolds explains “[i]t comes from the over-intellectualization of poetry from the classics,” adding:

It’s all over-intellectualized. But I think that the poet has always been seen as the intellect of the literary community. The poets were supposed to be the scribes of all the things. The poets were the leaders of the literary community for a very, very long time. And so, I think it just comes from the echelon this BS caste system that’s carried over. I think it’s that nonsense on top of racism, which is always there, on top of the undervaluing or de-valuing of diverse voices. The truth is Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” should be considered a classic. “We Real Cool” is familiar, it’s accessible. It’s interesting.

Skurtu’s poem as a model for the stuff detailed by Reynolds is a powerful way to help students as readers or writers of poetry—coming to understand and embrace that poetry comes from poet purpose and not from some mechanical analysis, the over-intellectualizing too often common in English courses.

For students, “Morning Love Poem” upon first glance probably triggers their awareness of what a poem looks like (lines and stanzas), but their student-urge likely soon hits a wall against the mechanistic ways they have been taught—looking for narrow sorts of patterns in line/stanza formation, meter, rhyme, etc.

Yes, poetry tends to be grounded in purposeful line/stanza formation, and it depends heavily on pattern. But some of the most compelling poetry is driven by voice, concision, and a poet’s craft to render the language in a way that appears simple (as if anyone could have written it). Think Lucille CliftonGwendolyn Brooks, and Maggie Smith. Or even William Carlos Williams.

In just 14 lines, Skurtu creates a layered story (a couple and both a dream and their reality) and powerfully explores a bittersweet and enduring thing of being human: “It’s hard to say I need you enough.”

Students are well served to contemplate that this could just as easily have been a short story, or even a short film. But Skurtu chose poem, and that makes all the difference.

The line formation and stanzas guide the reader, influence the reading, and then, her diction (word choice) drives the concision: “cracked,” “nose-dived,” “poison,” and as she noted herself “get wet” (two simple three-letter words that rhyme)

And here, I think, is where over-intellectualizing, as Reynolds argues, raises its ugly head. Students become mired in mechanical and simplistic technique-hunts, but they also have (mis)learned that poetry is hard, inaccessible, something to be solved like an arcane puzzle (5000 pieces all blue).

But even when poetry is challenging, possibly inaccessible—think Wallace Stevens—the reductive ways students have come to think about poetry fails them; consider “[if seventy were young]” by e.e. cummings (yes, challenging).

Students can begin to play with how cummings uses pattern in unexpected ways—the dashes, the teasing with rhyme (see also Emily Dickinson), space and colons, wordplay and sound.

cummings becomes more accessible, in fact, if we resist over-intellectualizing, and choose instead to play along with him as readers.

Ultimately, I want students to recognize that, for example, Skurtu’s poem is rich with story (plot, setting, and character) and that it works because of concrete details, the triggering of the senses that Flannery O’Connor called for in the writing of fiction.

In other words, we read poetry not to calculate what the poem means but to share with the poet, often, what we feel, what we intuit possibly in ways that cannot be articulated beyond recognizing that the words shaped on a page are so beautifully bittersweet (“All the moments/we stop ourselves”) that we are looking at them through spontaneous tears.

On New Criticism and Louise Rosenblatt: A Clarification and Dialogue

In an ambitious and contrarian essay, Reconciling Rosenblatt and the New Critics: The Quest for an “Experienced Understanding” of Literature, Andrew Rejan asserts:

Without diminishing the significance of Rosenblatt’s contributions, I wish to reexamine and reimagine the familiar history of Rosenblatt’s rebellion against New Criticism: I will propose that Rosenblatt and the New Critics, particularly Cleanth Brooks, might be viewed as pioneers of parallel, rather than opposing, pedagogical traditions, shaped by the shared influence of I. A. Richards.

As a former Council Historian of NCTE and the biographer of Lou LaBrant, whose career overlapped significantly with Rosenblatt’s, I was immediately drawn to Rejan’s unpacking of both New Criticism and Rosenblatt—but was also intrigued by his citing my “A Richer, Not a Narrower, Aesthetic”: The Rise of New Criticism in En­glish Journal.

Rejan incorporates my analysis of the historical relationship between EJ and New Criticism to offer an example of what he calls the “the folly of defining and critiquing the New Critics without directly citing any of the New Critics’ actual writing.” While I find much of Rejan’s analysis important and nuanced, here he rushes to support his thesis without taking into account the purpose of my piece and he fails to note key final points I raise that fit more closely with his thesis than providing evidence of “folly”:

On one level, we owe our field of English language arts pedagogy the opportunity to reexamine the unspoken power of New Criticism as well as the reduced ways in which New Criticism has been implemented in our classes. We must consider the role reader response has played as the most frequent challenge to New Criticism in our classrooms—including the misunderstanding and misuse of Rosenblatt’s perspective as well. But we must rise above the narrow tensions among critical perspectives.

Literary analysis, then, becomes about agency—the agency in the work/text itself and the agency of the reader reading and rereading the world (Freire). The call for critical literacy does not deny or silence the potential power of New Criticism or reader response or any critical stance. Instead it calls for confronting efficiency and objectivity as questionable stances:

“We can help students read the word and the world in deeper and more profound ways. We can help students investigate the ways in which they are manipulated. They can become critically literate consumers of the media. They can engage with and focus on current issues. We can help them problematize the world so they think about their role in it and what they can do to shape its future directions.” (Michell 45) 

Before highlighting how Rejan offers some very important contributions to both literary theory and how that manifests in traditional English and literature classrooms, I want to clarify a couple points about my own work cited.

First, my article is a historical overview of the relationship between teaching English in high school or college and New Criticism; and in that overview, I note that there is a gap between the pure theory in its founding and how teachers practice a reduced (and often bastardized) version best represented, I think, by the Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition [1] test.

In other words, while not as developed or explicit as Rejan’s thorough essay, I very much recognize that what passes as New Criticism in the teaching of English is not solidly grounded in the seminal work of the New Critics. In fact, I will address this more fully below, high school English teachers may have never read the New Critics and, like our students, often navigate within New Criticism without it being named or acknowledged in any way.

The commonly implemented (distorted) version of New Criticism is mostly a consequence of the goal of appearing to be objective that is driven by the primacy of assessment in teaching; in other words, literary interpretation grounded in analysis and “right/wrong” answers helped reduce New Criticism to a practical shadow of its original self—as I teased out when rejecting “close reading”:

Like the mechanistic and reductive ways in which New Criticism has been implemented in formal schooling in order to control and measure objectively how students respond to text, CC and the focus on close reading are poised to serve efficiency models of high-stakes testing while also failing students who need and deserve the complex and challenging tools afforded with critical literacy.

And to the “folly” Rejan sees my essay modeling, I would note that I spend a significant subsection of the essay, “New Criticism: Defined and Embraced, Narrowly,” arguing a similar point as Rejan’s, the reductive application of New Criticism, citing heavily from a major literary scholar, David Daiches.

Finally, as the passage from my essay highlighted above demonstrates, I was documenting the exact dynamic—the tension between New Criticism and Rosenblatt—Rejan teases out far more explicitly, and also suggesting that tension is too often reductive and fails ultimately to be sufficiently critical, in that students are rarely afforded agency in the process whether they are navigating text through New Criticism or reader response.

Setting aside that Rejan was a bit hasty in one paragraph citing my work, I want to note that Rejan offers some important take aways for how English teachers are prepared and then how we practice our crafts of literary analysis with our students.

One foundational commitment I have implemented as a college professor since my doctoral program in the mid 1990s is assigning seminal texts, not secondary texts, addressing the most prominent ideas in education and literacy. As one example, my undergraduate and graduate students read Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration.

And during our discussion, we address that Rosenblatt’s work is often mischaracterized and over-simplified; I typically add that a careful reading of Rosenblatt uncovers a thinker far more conservative and traditional that often acknowledged.

So, yes, Rejan’s call for reading the original work of the New Critics to understand New Criticism is a worthy call for all aspects of education, the teaching of English, and preparing teachers of English.

Rejan’s broad message about understanding literary theory also shows the importance of the “considerable gap” (LaBrant, 1947) between theory and practice too often common in English classrooms.

A former graduate student of mine and current doctoral student has been discussing by email with me Rejan’s piece as she investigates Rosenblatt. She has confessed, in fact, that she knows little about literary theory because that topic wasn’t covered well in her undergraduate English courses, leaving her with a “superficial” understanding—all of which reinforces Rejan’s central concerns.

When I have taught young adult literature, where I assign Rosenblatt, practicing teachers in the graduate section often share a similar lack of understanding when we practice literary theory with a picture book.

Ultimately, as I shared with Rejan, we are offering a similar message, although our pieces are distinct in purpose and thoroughness (EJ articles tend to be brief, and EE essays, dense and extended). I could not agree more with Rejan’s last paragraph and sentence: “I suspect that Brooks and Rosenblatt both would appreciate a closer reading of the past that might bring us closer together in the future.”

Although I must offer yet one more caveat, the central thrust of my essay—any literary theory lens is a way to investigate text, and if any becomes the way to investigate text, we have failed the ultimate goal of fostering critical literacy in our students.

That is a folly we cannot afford.


[1] I Taught AP Lit and Comp for most of my 18 years as a high school English teacher.

See Also

“A Respect for the Past, a Knowledge of the Present, and a Concern for the Future”: The Role of History in English Education, P.L. Thomas (English Education, January 2011)

The Nearly Impossible: Teaching Writing in a Culture of Grades, Averages

A former student and second-year English teacher and I (having taught high school English 18 years and then in higher education another on-going 16 years) have something in common when teaching students to write: A nearly paralyzing frustration with students’ resistance to draft and revise their essays.

While discussing this problem with the early-career teacher, I was once again reminded of how the traditional culture of grades and averaging makes the teaching of writing nearly impossible, especially for beginning teachers.

I have wrestled with the problems with grades and averaging before (here and here) and co-edited a volume on de-testing and de-grading education. But the essential problem remains: When teachers of writing are denied professional autonomy in their assessment and feedback practices, their writing pedagogy and the learning of their students are inevitably eroded.

As long as students are allowed to play the averaging game (completing assignments rendered irrelevant as long as the math produces a passing grade in the end), authentic learning and holistic outcomes are moot.

To offer an example outside of literacy and the teaching of writing, I noticed while teaching high school that many students in math courses never passed a single math test, but passed the course because they accumulated enough extra credit to have a passing final grade (through averaging) for the course.

I also had students tell me directly that they had simply taken zeroes for all their essay assignments the year before my class, but passed by making high enough grades on vocabulary, grammar, and literature tests.

This second-year teacher—as many of my former students have done once they entered the classroom—has implemented many of my strategies for encouraging students to draft: setting deadlines for drafts, linking participating in drafting to possible final grades on essays, etc.

Still, she admitted that students could skip the drafting, or even completing essays at all, and still because of school and district policies pass the course—without ever really engaging in the learning processes that the course was intended to address.

As is common with young and excellent teachers, she has taken on the bulk of the blame for this problem. “What can I do?” has become her refrain.

First, I want to stress that if and when I have been an effective teacher of writing, much of that success has been grounded in my assessment autonomy at both the secondary and university levels. While teaching high school and as a college professor, I have been afforded the professional support to require that students complete all essays and fulfill the obligation of drafting and revising those essays; if and when students do not meet those minimum requirements, they have failed.

I have always made the analogy that a sick patient must follow a doctor’s orders, including taking prescribed medicines, in order to heal. If that patient refuses to follow orders, the doctor is not responsible. (The doctor, of course, is responsible for a valid diagnosis.)

Since I cannot magically afford most teachers the sort of autonomy I have enjoyed, I want to consider below some real-world strategies for making the teaching of writing more authentic in the counter-productive culture of grades and averaging:

  • Seek colleague (and department) support for assessment and feedback policies that model the importance of drafting and writing essays. One aspect of the negative impact of grades and averaging is that students receive a powerful and consistent message across all their teachers and courses that playing the average game is not only all right, but what education is. Good writing pedagogy among teachers and within a department is more powerful than when any teacher works on an island.
  • Identify clearly for students, parents, and administrators that drafting is a primary instructional goal within the larger writing unit. This is a Sisyphean battle, but teachers of writing must create a culture in which drafting is embraced as an essential part of writing—not that drafting is some sort of option or busy work assigned by the teacher.
  • Design grading scales, assessment weights, rubrics, and assignments so that they all accurately reflect the primary importance of essay writing and drafting in the course. Yes, I abhor all of those traditional structures, but I also recognize they are often not negotiable for most teachers; and thus, we must manage traditional grading in a way that is least corrosive. The number of grades and the weight of grades in averaging can and should be shifted so that drafting and completing essays is essential for students to pass, or to do well.
  • Resist evaluating good assessment and writing practices by the “100% compliance or failure” formula. Throughout my career, I have routinely been confronted with the teacher who rejects my proposals for teaching with “Not all of my students will….” No practice need be 100% effective to be the right practice, but what is also puzzling with this argument is that traditional approaches can be dismissed with the same argument.
  • Periodically review teaching and assessment practices against specific writing goals. Here is a common question I pose to teachers struggling: What is your main instructional goal? Then I ask them to evaluate what they are doing against that goal—and to determine what their threshold is for standing firm on those practices and goals. If drafting is an essential student practice and instructional goal, lessons and assessment practices and policies must reflect that fact.
  • Ultimately all educators must have reasonable expectations for themselves, their students, and their instructional goals. It is not ours to do everything for every student, and it profits no one for any teacher to be a martyr. While I recognize the power of holistic behaviors and artifacts of learning (and am skeptical of the analysis bias of traditional schooling), I do urge a baby-steps approach to teaching and learning. Patience for the teacher and the student. Literacy broadly and writing more narrowly are journeys, not to be fixed with inoculations.
  • Spend as little psychological energy as possible on policies that are not negotiable. District and school policies for grading—usually entrenched traditional approaches to testing, assessment, averaging, and grades—certainly deserve critique by teachers of conscience. But that advocacy for change cannot become a constant source of fretting and self-flagellation. I wish more educators would advocate for de-testing and degrading the classroom, for rejecting averaging grades in favor of portfolios, revision, and effective teacher feedback. But day-to-day teaching must focus on the autonomy that teachers have, not what they are denied. Teaching is necessarily a tremendous psychological drain; we need not spend our energy on that over which we have no immediate control.

While teaching English and seeking to foster our students as writers, we must be concerned when students can pass or make Bs/ Cs in our courses while avoiding or refusing to draft or submit essays.

But when faced with that dilemma, we must first carefully identify the source of that possibility. A culture of grades and averaging works against us in many schools, and thus, we must then work within the autonomy we do have to make our writing pedagogy and assessment practices more closely aligned—even when we cannot achieve perfect.

Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination

You’d think after thirty-four years of teaching writing at both the high school and college levels, I would have a pretty firm handle on everything.

You’d think that, maybe, but not me.

On the last class session of my first-year writing seminars this semester, I asked my students what has worked and not worked over the course of four or so months. They were amazing in what they shared, and as a result, I am now redesigning significantly both my schedule and the time spent on many of my practices.

Their feedback, thankfully, was mostly positive—as this student shared in her final reflection that is colored with a bit of hyperbole:

I will never use any of the writing techniques that I was taught all four years of high school. My high school teachers failed me as a college writer. I am grateful that I got Dr. Thomas as a teacher considering that he was very willing to help you and was understanding that we are freshman and will make many mistakes. Talking to my friends outside of my class who have writing seminars this semester their professors expected them to know everything that needed to make them a strong college writer.

Confirming the gap between how students view writing after high school and the expectations of academic writing for undergraduates and scholars, her feedback also speaks to a truism about learning to write and learning to teach writing: both are journeys, and not destinations.

Here, I want to discuss the patterns expressed by my two seminars, and consider briefly how that will impact my practice in future first-year writing and other writing-intensive courses. Their feedback included the following:

  • Students emphasized the effectiveness of professor/student essay conferencing. I have at the college level greatly adjusted how I respond to essays compared to my previous career teaching high school English (note that now I have about 24 first-year students over two courses that meet M, W, F, and my high school load was 100-125 students over five classes that met M-F). I have all essays submitted as electronic Word files, and I then offer some track change edits/revisions and include comments. However, I now provide very brief, and never exhaustive, feedback on these drafts, and instead require students to conference (at least once after the first final draft submitted and my feedback returned) so we can discuss the essay and create a revision plan. I have always felt this is more effective so when these two seminars overwhelming confirmed the power of conferences, I am now planning more class time dedicated to conferencing since requiring additional out-of-class conferences, they said, would be burdensome (scheduling these now are a bit of a challenge).
  • However, students noted peer-conferencing was less effective as currently implemented. My standard process has been to have students bring hard copies of their first final essay submission on the due date (the electronic version is due by email attachment before that class session) in order to have peer-conferencing in class. These students felt this process was not effective, and instead, want peer feedback after my feedback. I have always struggled with peer conferencing, and this means I have work left to do.
  • Students recognized the value of writing teachers sharing their own writing as models for student writing. One of the most conscientious students shared quickly in our debrief that she appreciated my sharing my writing and talking through what and how I write in order to model for them how to draft their essays. The other students were enthusiastic in agreement, and I feel this was a strong endorsement of the power of teaching writing as a writer. While I am happy with this part of my teaching, I think I can increase the intentionality of this approach—sharing an ongoing draft of a piece, for example, instead of all final pieces.
  • Students valued writing workshop time in class because they could interact immediately with the professor while drafting. My course daily schedule and overarching course pattern tend toward the first half of the course being more traditional (class lessons and discussion, especially reading like a writer with mentor texts), and then the second half includes quite a few class sessions devoted to workshop time for students to draft, research, read, conference, etc., during the class hour. Although I have always valued workshop time for students, the expectations, especially at the college level, that class is about professor-oriented and content-based instruction still weigh on my own consideration about effective use of class time. These students confirmed the value of workshop time in class, noting especially having me there to help.
  • Students appreciated a composition course remaining primarily focused on learning to write and not on content acquisition and traditional practices such as taking tests. A problem for the first-year writing seminars at my university, since switching away from more traditional composition courses anchored in the English department, has been professors outside of English teaching the writing seminar as an introductory disciplinary content course. When talking with their first-year peers in other first-year writing seminars, my students came to appreciate the writing focus of my courses—mentioning, for example, that other students have been taking tests and involved in other activities (such as very narrowly prompted essays) more common in disciplinary content courses.
  • Students asked for more class sessions dedicated to brainstorming for every essay assigned. One definite improvement I will incorporate is providing a more structured class session for brainstorming of all four essays. This set of students noted they very much benefitted from the one intense brainstorm session for the cited scholarly essay, and added that they felt this process would have been effective for all of the assignments.
  • Students both appreciated and struggled with choice in types of essays and topics. I have been a strong proponent and practitioner of allowing students choice in both the kinds of essays they write and their topics. The problem I have encountered teaching college students at an academically selective college is that these students prefer prompt-driven writing, and most of their experiences have been absent any choice. An on-going goal for my practice remains how to help students build the writer’s toolbox necessary for being capable of the choice they deserve as scholars and writers.
  • Students admitted that drafting, and required drafts, were helpful for improving the quality of their essays and thinking. One of the most shocking lessons I have learned with my current university students is their resistance to drafting. But that resistance is grounded not in any sort of laziness or even procrastination (although they bring the procrastination-still-allows-A’s habit from high school); it is mostly their fear of turning in work, in their words, “that isn’t perfect yet.” Because I employ a minimum requirements approach (instead of traditional grades) that emphasizes drafting, most of my students do comply with those minimum expectations; however, far fewer students embrace the unlimited opportunity for drafting essays that would certainly improve their grades and improve them as writers. While I have been fairly successful with students drafting as required, I must continue to find strategies for helping them appreciate drafting more fully (I will touch on this below).
  • Students viewed feedback on their drafts positively and appreciated prompt replies and thorough feedback. The same student I quoted above also embraced one of the foundational jokes of all the classes I teach: I tell students if I do not respond immediately to an email (or text) or if they do not have their essays returned in less than one day of submission, I didn’t receive the email, text, or essay—or I am dead. There is a scene in the film version of Mosquito Coast in which the Harrison Ford character is whipping up the locals in the land he has bought, noting that he wants them to work hard but he will always be working harder. That is a teacher commitment I have always worked by. While I have learned to temper the amount of feedback I offer (but still have some tone problems), I remain prompt in how I respond to students and their work. Students respond well to my standards for myself by embodying higher standards for themselves.

Not directly addressed by my students’ feedback, I have an additional broad concern that I plan to address as I revise these seminars. My minimum requirement technique meets some of my instructional goals, but it fails at helping students develop their own sense of the quality of their work and their deserved grades (which I must assign despite not grading throughout the semester).

I have long rejected rubrics, but I also do appreciate the need for teachers at all levels to make expectations clear for students—both in how the teacher states explicit expectations and how students identify their own expectations.

“Minimum” seems to be less effective for the population of students I teach (the “do all this or fail” is a a deficit approach and does not really match the aspiration of high-achieving students who are mostly in courses for the A).

This is quite tentative, but here are some initial thoughts on how to help students understand the A/B divide in the quality of their essays and their overall course grade:

  • A work: Participating by choice in multiple drafts and conferences beyond the minimum requirements; essay form and content that is nuanced, sophisticated, and well developed (typically more narrow than broad); a high level demonstrated for selecting and incorporating source material in a wide variety of citation formats; submitting work as assigned and meeting due dates (except for illness, etc.); attending and participating in class-based discussion, lessons, and workshops; completing assigned and choice reading of course texts and mentor texts in ways that contribute to class discussions and original writing.
  • B work: Submitting drafts and attending conferences as detailed by the minimum requirements; essay form and content that is solid and distinct from high school writing (typically more narrow than broad); a basic college level demonstrated for selecting and incorporating source material in a wide variety of citation formats; submitting work as assigned and meeting most due dates; attending and participating in class-based discussion, lessons, and workshops; completing assigned and choice reading of texts and mentor texts in ways that contribute to class discussions and original writing.

Just as my students should come to embrace writing as a journey, I discover every time I teach writing that, yes, teaching writing is also a journey and not a destination.

I have much left to do.