Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Syllabus Pt 2.: Reflection

We had to write a reflection for our syllabus project. Here it is. (I told you I had a lot due this week).


Jenn Miller

Professing Literature

David Jolliffe

April 18, 2007

Syllabus Reflection

Course Overview

I titled my course “Textually Active,” taken from an avatar on a friend’s online blog. I felt that it captured the sense I wanted students to have about the course; in order to be successful, educated individuals, they would need to possess the tools to be both active consumers and producers of text. (Plus, it’s a bit of an evocative pun). The most effective way of learning is doing, and by obtaining the skills required to create text (and to reflect on what went into that creation), students also learn how to interpret. English is a growing field and is increasingly about texts other than literature (Dead White Guy texts). Helping students realize that the interpretive act can move outside of the classroom and beyond literature they may only encounter in a class setting may assist in creating actively conscious consumers and producers of text that won’t be fooled by advertising or slick words.

Learning Goals

I have four learning goals: 1.) Getting students to realize that text is more than just literature or novels or poetry—it can be film, blogs, magazines, paintings, advertisements, etc. If they are able to recognize that literature is among a range of texts, I think it will help them recognize that the skills they develop through a literature course of this nature can be applied to other situations in their lives, be it for entertainment or for further knowledge. Thus, after they come to understand this conception of text, the next learning goal will come into play: 2.) Developing techniques to interpret the range of texts they will encounter everyday. Interpretation is one half of being “textually active”—if we want involved citizens, students need to be active consumers of text, not individuals who allow others to tell them what a text means. However, to fully understand the interpretive process, students also need to be active creators of text, which leads to my third and fourth goals: 3.) Students will produce creative texts of their own, and 4.) Students will reflect on what is involved in the creation of text. The creation and reflection (to take a page from Kathleen Yancey) go hand in hand for actual learning and meaning-making to occur. By striving to create a text out of their own experiences and then reflecting on why they chose which elements to use in their creative text, students should be creating and reflectively interpreting. It is not enough to merely create something—knowing their own process helps them to better understand interpretive techniques to apply to text outside of themselves.


The texts I chose were geared to demonstrate a variety of mediums and differing interpretive strategies. We’ll begin the class with the short story by Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”, paired with an article from The New Yorker about a wounded American solider returning home from Iraq, diving into historical analysis and connecting the past to our present. I wanted to students to see how historical events and circumstances can often spark the production of art, and how often our contemporary situations can cause us to interpret art about the past in a new way—in this case, many have begun connecting Vietnam and the war in Iraq. The New Yorker article contains statements about Vietnam veterans who can sympathize with the wounded men returned back to the US. The war is increasingly a part of our social and political reality, and I think teaching texts that help students realize that will empower them as citizens.

In this same vein, I also chose the novel by Asar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. The novel takes a look at how the revolution in Iran and its return to a state of theocracy where women are not allowed to teach at the university and must wear the veil, and no one is allowed to read Western literature. Nafisi, a professor of literature at a Tehran university, forms a book club where her former female students can read forbidden books and remove their veils. She finds, however, that their political and social situation has increasingly interesting effects on their discussions of Nabokov’s Lolita, Jane Austen, and F. Scott Fitzgerald as she and her students make connections between their lives and the lives of the fictional characters. It’s a combination of creating art from history and interpreting art because of political circumstances.

I paired up two more texts to explore the cultural aspects of texts—in this case Native American culture with its rich oral traditions. “The Circle in the Square” is a chapter from John Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions which contrasts John Lame Deer’s Lakota (Native American) worldview with the typical white person’s. I believe this nicely sets up some similar tensions we’ll find in Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. Silko also relies heavily on her cultural heritage and the importance of storytelling and ceremony to that culture to create her novel. Additionally, the novel is full of interpolated poems, symbols, and metaphorical language that it would be a good text to demonstrate those elements to students.

To demonstrate text as visual representation, I brought in a graphic novel (Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman) and a stunning film also by Gaiman called Mirrormask. To introduce the graphic novel, I wanted to use excerpts from Paul Gravett’s introductory text, Graphic Novels. Graphic novels are unique for their combination of textual and visual elements, and Gaiman’s graphic novels are rich creations that contain mythological references, examples of interdiscursivity and intertextuality, and great stories. Mirrormask is a film that tells the tale of Helena who finds herself in the world of her own imagination, where the story strangely parallels the story of her real world. Dave McKean and the Jim Henson Company add their visual magic to Gaiman’s storytelling to create a beautiful and intriguing film that will demonstrate to students the limitless nature of creativity and artistic ingenuity.

The next three texts I selected because of they interplay with one another: The Odyssey, The Penelopiad, and the film O Brother Where Art Thou?. Texts often have their root in other texts, and the interplay between those texts often forms a unique and interesting discourse. The Odyssey, a canonical text, finds itself revised in ways Homer could not predict in the feminist version of The Penelopiad (where the narrative voice is controlled by Penelope and her twelve maids who Odysseus hanged), and O Brother Where Art Thou?, where the story finds a new context, but still has clear roots in the originating story. Reading (or watching) these three texts together helps students see that borrowing ideas from other sources is a good idea, when the artist can do something interesting and meaningful with it. It also gets them to think about playing with text—since, after all, learning that is fun works—and allows them to de-center and re-center a text, an effective interpretation technique.

I wanted to include a discussion of nonfiction (especially the essay) because it to is a source of creativity. Pollan is a journalist, so it also introduces a journalism-style text to the course. It also is a way to tap into the essay genre, another type of text that students will encounter. Nonfiction has different motivations, characteristics, and interpretations than fiction or film. This is part of the unit on text as a creative process, so I also wanted to include “The Raven”, which is one of the most carefully planned out poems I’ve ever read along with Poe’s accompanying essay, “The Philosophy of Composition” to give students a clue into what a writer is thinking when he sets out to create art. Also, Poe is often labeled as having written much of his work while he was on drugs, so this is a chance to demonstrate that “The Raven” is an example of meticulous, careful writing and not the product of opium-induced creativity.

Also in this unit that moves the students to thinking about creativity and production of text, I wanted to include a visit to the student art gallery, and also teach student produced texts. I think it’d be useful to obtain writing from an MFA student, have the students analyze it and discuss it, and then come up with questions to ask the author. In the next class period, we would have the contributor come to class and share with us his creative process and answer the students’ questions. These classes would demonstrate the connections between production and interpretation as well as assist the students as the move toward their own creation of a text for the final project.


The online world is becoming increasingly important in the sharing of ideas, finding information. It’s influencing social interactions, writing, and the way that we do research. In order to represent that aspect of textuality, as well as providing a space for students to keep a reading journal, the first class project will be a blog. All of the students would be linked together through a blogring, which means that the entries would be public. Students would be required to post once for each class session on a specific prompt, though more frequent posting would certainly be encouraged as a form of class participation. The student responses would be due before class, so I would be able to use them to tap into what students have questions about, what themes they are exploring, and other issues. More importantly, it gets students to write on a regular basis and to receive feedback on that writing from both me and other students. This opens up the dialogue beyond the teacher-student relationship, creating a community of learners that can share with one another.

In addition to the blogging assignments, students will turn in three reflection papers after each of the first three units. These papers will be a way for students to bring together the lessons of a unit; for each paper, I will give them fairly open prompts where they can reflect and synthesize what they have learned from that specific unit. While being more formal in tone than a blog entry, it will to be a place for them to reflect and explore ideas. I would encourage them to post them to their blogs to share them with other students, though that will be strictly voluntary.

Group work is an important skill to have, and also can serve a creative function—two minds are better than one and all that. Thus, in place of a reflection paper for the interplay of text unit, there is a group parody project/presentation, where students will do their own de-centering and re-centering of The Odyssey. This can be a skit, an epic poem, or whatever they can think up—but the presentation of it to the class is what will be evaluated—and the students will have to make their project into a performance. It allows them to play with the text and to share their playing with their classmates while they dig into the themes and characters of The Odyssey.

Finally, the final project will bring together all of the elements of the course. To make sure they are at least thinking about it before the last minute and also to give me a chance to provide feedback, students would turn in a project proposal. The final project has three parts: the actual creative production, a reflective element, and then a presentation where the student shares that creative text with the class and discusses their process and inspirations. Not only do they need to actually create a text, students also need to reflect on how and why they created it the way they did, and then share both the text and the reflection with their peers. (To make sure students don’t skip presentations, they’ll have to choose one of the texts presented each day to write about on their blogs). The final creative project will pull together everything that we’ve been learning in the class, but hopefully be an enjoyable and interesting final project for the students.


I weighted all the parts of the class equally, except for the final project, which is more substantial than the other projects and thus should be worth more to their grades. I thought this would be the best way for them to see that keeping the blog is just as important as a paper or group project, and that I expect more from the final project. I’m not sure how useful a percentage assessment is—how many professors actually figure out a percentage grade for an assignment and then weight it accordingly?—but by putting it on the syllabus and explaining it to the students, they will hopefully understand the relative importance of assignments to their grade.

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