Name: Pam Knights, email@example.com
University: Durham University
Key Concepts/Threshold Concepts: student voices, children’s literature. Other:critical thinking, confidence-building, alternative approaches to reading and understanding texts, VLE, e-discussion board.
Background: BA Literary
Aims: Outside the classroom, worthwhile discussions often feature any or all of the following: incomplete thoughts; advancing, testing, revising, and often retracting, ideas; speculating about possibilities; guessing at motives; snatching at clues; puzzling over random details; expressing doubts, questions, or anxieties (see Benton and Fox for more). Inside the Higher Education seminar, however, teachers often come up against students’ perceptions that contributions should be firmly thought-out, evidence-based statements or opinions, expressed in polished academic prose. The formal essay, in the passive voice, is one model which casts its shadow here; the ghost of the formal debate, or public-speaking performance is also sometimes a chilling presence. Such modes project the role of the speaker as a virtuoso rhetorician—an unhelpful and intimidating model for everyday practice. Further, when encountering texts, students often believe that they need to have grasped and understood the whole before they can venture a contribution. As teachers, we sometimes give mixed messages. (Where oral contributions are also assessed, such contradictions can loom even larger.) From our students’ point-of-view--what are we asking for? Lively, spontaneous, exploratory discussion? Or careful, considered, well-wrought arguments? This case-study seeks to stimulate the first, but suggests that it can often lead effectively to the second.
What I am trying to achieve
Image 1: Screenshot of branching discussion threads.
Approach taken to development of academic literacy
This case study relates to academic literacy in the following ways
My strategy is very straightforward: simply to invite students online to our VLE discussion board, to give their quick responses to a text, as they go along. To reduce any sense of burden, I make the activity:
1. Voluntary. (Students can benefit
from lurking, as well as posting.)
Examples-in the context of thinking about young people’s books
My samples here come from a forum linked to our discussions about the short-list for a book award [described in related case-studies]. In some other contexts, the online postings have mainly fed back into our seminar debates. Here, they served primarily as a ‘half-way’ house in our preparations for going into a school, to discuss books with younger readers.
The board gave the students a chance to respond to the texts at their own level, and to find out what others were thinking in advance. Discussions continued informally in the students’ group, as well as within seminars; and continued later, in the talks generated by the actual response of the school pupils. Although the leading instructions here focus on the literary narrative, concentrating like this helped prepare the ground for the more wide-ranging debates in the school-based events.
A teacher can take up points generated by students, and use quotations from the board to offer starting-points for more systematic exploration—of the issues and of students’ own responses and assumptions:
1. Perspectives on childhood/adulthood:
‘the “enjoy your childhood while it lasts” thing is a very adult perspective’
‘how grateful I am not to be a teenager any more!’
‘Anthony’s youth makes him less creepy than a 50-year old stalker I guess.’
‘I was uncomfortable with the way the father was set up as a completely evil figure. I guess I was expecting him to give in sobbing at the end or something! Does any one else feel that, or am I just an old romantic?’
‘I like Caitlin, very much. I can identify totally with her (so far), because she is exactly how I was at 14/15.’
‘Found the narrator quite an interesting character, as [X] said, different to all “typical” teenagers.’
‘I thought that the author depicted the confusion of thoughts and emotions that a teenager goes through incredibly well.’
‘Subject: Scary grown-up stuff.’
‘“I’m not a child anymore.” Couldn’t have said it any better.’
2. Younger readers’ perspectives
‘I really don’t know why they bother teaching ‘Lord of the Flies’ to GCSE classes when there are novels like this in print.’
‘I’d be really interested to know what the Year 9 pupils think of it as I couldn’t help thinking that for all its references to alchohol, drugs and sex, Lucas was slightly unrealistic and I don’t know whether this a bad thing or not. The other question it raised for me was whether it realistically would interest teenage boys.’
‘I’m a bit scared of discussing this one with the [name of school and class]!’
‘I think it is the sort of book parents should read and discuss with their children, older ones obviously, to gain a real understanding of the feelings involved on both sides.’
‘I felt almost traumatised by the intensity of the description of pain and wondered whether this would have the same effect on younger readers. I was literally squirming in my seat.’
‘It’s interesting to see how such weighty issues [class, loss of faith] are being discussed in a children’s book.’
‘it didn’t seem to patronise the reader’
‘I can see why one girl in my group at [name of school] loved this book--it’s got all the ingredients a teenager could want, from unrequited desire to adventure and mystery.’
‘I think because it was a children’s book I was looking for a definite resolution [. . . ]’
3. Cultural perspectives
‘I realise however that this book particularly spoke to me, being a second-generation asian in Britain, and therefore it probably won’t seem nearly as powerful to the kids who won’t be able to relate to it.’
‘I especially enjoyed the book as I live in Edinburgh, which really adds to the atmosphere. [. . . ] I remember, for one, learning about Edinburgh’s rather unpleasant past at school, and really finding it interesting and somewhat ‘cool’. It opened my interest to the past and how things were.’
4. Perspectives on reading, narrative and subjective response
‘The first few pages I was finding nauseatingly romantic, but it’s amazing how quickly the drama builds up [ . . . ]’
‘I have found it a really interesting opening, gripping but somehow so in a gentle way. Roll on the next hundred pages!’
‘I’m having a very odd, very mixed reaction to this book. [. . . ] I’m feeling a little mixed up. I’m angry with the stupid people Caitlin knows, upset because I want to protect Lucas, and generally very confused and emotional.’
‘The narrative is electric, it makes me want to cancel all my other commitments and lock myself in my room.’
‘Can’t seem to make up my mind about Lucas himself, it seems that Cait is keeping him at a distance from the reader.’
‘I actually found it pretty difficult to read, simply for the rawness of the beginning, it sounds weird, and this may be to do with the fact that i don’t like blood etc., but i almost felt a little faint… or ill...i can’t put my finger on it when i read about the operation. I suppose, though, this is the intended effect, and so it is highly successful.’
‘I’ve just started Chapter 5, and think that the endurance shown by the children, and their ability to survive, keeps this from being a completely upsetting book. However, I’m sure things aren’t going to stay positive for long . . .’
‘Having spent the last couple of hours powering through this book, I was left with a sense of questions unanswered.’
‘In some ways I agree with the fact that I felt “cheated” at the end of the novel’
‘I was very surprised by the ending of [X] – really did not see his death coming.’
‘I really enjoyed the goryness throughout, and the violently provocative language!’
‘It wasn’t fairytales and romance, it was cold, cruel, and dark.’
‘On a pretty unrelated note – did anyone find the mob scene reminiscent of the one in To Kill a Mockingbird?’ [led to later assigment by this student – on intertextuality].
Image 4. Screen-shot of forum.
I have found great benefits in using this technique--for example:
1. As an alternative space, the discussion board allows both interchanges between students, but also the kind of musings associated with blogs.
2. The activity takes the pressure off individuals, and, as discussion builds up, gives a group an ever-changing ‘mind-map’ of each other’s perspectives.
3. Contributions often, in turn, enable me to see interests/problems of individuals (and/or of the group) that might have remained invisible in more formal settings.
4. The task offers a different register for students. In addressing their peers, they lose self-consciousness about ‘academic literacy’; but paradoxically, the kind of details they notice, and feelings they describe, often provide firm starting-points from which to develop academic analysis.
5. The activity licenses detail. These sharply specific observations are much more vivid (and hold more potential for development) than the bland abstractions that some students might have come to believe are the proper discourse of the academic seminar.
6. The activity also has great potential for further research into learning: in some cases, it is possible to track an idea through from its first glimmer on the board, to its polished re-emergence, developed in the instigator’s final assignment.
Students valued both the spontaneity of the board, and the opportunities it gave to go back and look again. I was especially pleased to find the idea of ‘capturing’ fleeting responses had been important in their experience. The small ideas that can get ‘lost’ are often those which are most interesting when scrutinised and investigated later. A number of student summative assignments gave evidence that the ‘first impressions’ had stayed in the mind, and become the nucleus of an academic paper.
[From MEDAL interviews:]
• ‘we weren’t reading the books at the same time always [. . . .] so we agreed something and as we would go along I’d you know be on page 20 and say ‘oh that’s quite interesting’ and go around to my computer to put in the message and if someone else was reading it they might, you know, they say ‘oh yeah, I agree or I don’t agree with that at all, rubbish’.’
• ‘ . . . straightaway you can put it down. I remember reading ..... which one was it I read, one of those ..... Lucas ..... yeah, I think it was Lucas actually, when I got the end of Lucas and ..... I don’t know if you’ve read it but has quite a big impact when you do read it and ..... I just remember getting to the end of this book and it was the first one I’d read as well which made a different and thinking ‘oh … much … gosh’ and just ..... I had to tell someone about it at that moment because if I had waited an hour it would have been gone.’
• ‘[Interviewer] But you weren’t just writing reviews then. You were using it to ..... [not to write] reviews as such?
[Student] No, we weren’t ..... we weren’t really writing, we were sort of ..... it was in all fragments whenever you had an idea ..... you know, because I find a lot of the time really in [reading you] come up with things and get to the end and I think ‘oh what’s that’ you know but it was nice to be able to put [immediate] ..
[Interviewer] Right, right.
[Student] You know that kind of first impressions and I think they're quite important.’
‘[Student] . . . with Fleshmarket,
after the first page nearly everybody posted something because it’s
such an amazing first page that had to be commented on [. . . .]
[Interviewer] So what the nature of the comments that you wanted to post then about that? Was it on children’s behalf?
[Student] Right, we had to kind of ..... no I think it was nice just to have from our own perspectives. They were just comments as they came into your head. You know, and that’s quite nice that because you come up with ..... okay, you come up with different things. You come out with more considered things when you’ve had time and you’ve [mulled] over it and you’ve thought ..... mm. But sometimes it’s not as interesting .....[. . . .] It’s just like literally the thing that struck you when you're reading them and it didn’t have to be anything particularly deep or meaningful, just how you felt ..... like oh that bit gave me nightmares.
[Interviewer] Yes [. . . ]
[Student] Yeah, it was very ..... it helped us compare the books because you'd forget exactly how you felt but you could go back and read your comments and remember and in some of my comments I was comparing them and I said ‘oh this bit is better than that and that point is better ..... ‘ so comparing them as I went on.
[From written module feedback:]
• the online discussions - an
invaluable tool - I like many others,
• Discussing the NEBA books
online was useful as it allowed and actually
• Reading these opinions online whilst still in the process of reading the book meant that I was often made aware of additional details and would then take them into consideration when I went back to reading the text in question. This in turn then enriched group discussions in seminars and at the school as we were aware of a variety of opinions and differing perspectives from which we could further develop our analysis.
• A response exercise works best where there is an element of surprise or suspense in the text. As well as fiction, you could, for example, use it to gather reactions to the unfolding argurment of a controversial article.
• Keep the exercise quick, informal and simple, or else it can become yet another burden (for you as well as for the students).
• Make sure that you emphasise the values of lurking as well as of posting. Not everyone has instant access to the internet, and so cannot ‘post’ immediately. In my introduction, I also suggest that some students might prefer an ‘observer’ role – looking at the board less frequently, but perhaps adding a comment on ‘trends’.
• Other versions could include a physical board (if, for example, you have dedicated teaching-space), with post-its; or (in a higher tech version), group texting (though this transfers the costs to the student).
There is a vast literature about both ‘reader-response’ theory and its applied pedagogical approaches, for active learning; and many activities long familiar to classroom teachers (in the secondary sector, especially) are now being enthusiastically revived. The following, founding studies, continue to strike me as particularly helpful:
Louise M. Rosenblatt, Literature as Exploration (Washington, 1938), rpt. London: Heinemann, 1970; and The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work, Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1978. [Two inspirational classics by a pioneer teacher and critic.]
Michael Benton and Geoff Fox, Teaching Literature: Nine to Fourteen, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985. Translates 1970s-80s reader-response theories into stimulating ideas for classroom-based approaches. The title is misleading. Lots here for Eighteen to Eighty as well.
For discussion of this kind of activity
in an American Literature tutorial context, see:
I would welcome feedback from other lecturers who have used, or would like to use, a similar approach. Examples of brief instructions and/or texts which have generated lively shifts and turns of response would be particularly interesting; as would examples of ‘discussion board’ details, which have then formed the germ of a student essay.
Knights, P. ‘Responding Online: a ‘starter’
activity for e-discussion boards’ in the MEDAL Casebook, MEDAL Consortium
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