Real Roundtable: Dynamism in the English Literature Classroom

So much of the reading I have been doing in the Pedagogy class has concerned vitality, energy, dynamism in the English Literature classroom.  Much of the pedagogical literature notes that this dynamism is often missing in classes, that the problem has been ongoing for generations, and that it is a difficult problem to fix.  Randy Bass tells us there is a “widely held presumption that [teaching] can be done right, or that it need only be done competently…” but this attitude “has strangulated the development of teaching as an intellectual enterprise and analytic subject” (9).  Certainly, the trend in literary scholarship nowadays is to recognize a multiplicity of readings over singular, authoritative interpretation, so why should literary scholars assume pedagogy is any different?  Why would practicing only one or two teaching methods qualify as successful pedagogy in the contemporary classroom?   Nevertheless, all to often instructors rely on old methods and interpretations that worked well enough for us when we were undergraduates or graduate students, but by using the “tried and true” in our lectures today, instructors are not venturing forth (Bass 4; Linkon 35; Chick 42).  We are not blazing new trails!   At best, we are jogging in place; at worst, we are teaching in the past.


Linkon maintains that to create a dynamic learning environment in the literature classroom today, instructors need to focus more on imparting strategic knowledge than on simply offering content knowledge: “While our discipline is defined by its content, research on learning suggests that content knowledge becomes functional through the application of strategic knowledge” (3).  Linkon advises for instructors to approach instruction as a kind of mentorship process: “cognitive apprenticeship” is what she calls it, and she recommends a two-step approach.  First the instructor models important literary tasks in front of the students to allow them the benefit of the instructor’s expertise.  Then the instructor needs to build with the students a kind of scaffolding.  In other words, there must be opportunity for students to practice (41).  There are many ways of going about this: groupwork, web work, pairwork, roundtable discussion, games, question and answer, combinations of all these activities, and, undoubtedly, other means that I have not yet considered.  What is important is that some decentring occurs: not everything that goes on in the classroom needs to revolve around the instructor; there are as many legitimate voices as there are participants in the class.  Is it not possible that a more organic, all-embracing learning environment becomes established when more than one voice is heard in the class?  Does this not cultivate a more dynamic atmosphere?   This kind of literature classroom, when established, possesses the vitality of a healthy, functioning democracy.


Our colleague, Nancy Chick, calls for something much along these lines in her paper “Unpacking a Signature Pedagogy in Literary Studies”. Professor Chick observes that some professors tend to “pack” knowledge: they present to students their own textual interpretations as a kind of intellectual fait accompli  instead of teaching the class how to do their own interpretations (43).  One problematic result that Professor Chick notes is the “pseudo-Socratic” discussion to pull out the professor’s interpretations.  This approach seems almost ghastly to me now in how it limits literary interpretation, but I have used the “pseudo Socratic” method more often than I care to admit.


Professor Chick recommends “unpacking” instead.  Unpacking consists of “opening up something, sifting out what’s inside, and exploring the contents.  The process turns a singular entity (a text) into multiple elements.” (43).  The goal is to move beyond content knowledge towards a more strategic “deep disciplinary understanding” (44).  If instructors commit to go down this road, they will find opportunities to model important literary concepts and tasks.  They should also become aware of the necessity to build scaffolding, offer opportunities to practice. Rather than having English literature “done unto” them, unpacking includes students more actively in the learning process and works to create a dynamic classroom environment.


Dynamism in literary teaching is not a new value.   People have been calling for it for centuries.  How many of us learned about “Man Thinking” from Emerson’s “American Scholar” address?  Emerson was urging for dynamism in one’s approach both to life and to study.  Bass, Linkon, and Professor Chick are all working in a long scholarly tradition, one that recognizes something has always been wrong with the static, teacher-focused literature classroom.  These contemporary pedagogical scholars are shaping solutions to this ongoing problem.  Linkon says it is not difficult to introduce dynamism into the classroom (58), but even if it is difficult for some of us, it is worth doing and we need to try.  We do this to create a welcoming literature classroom, a vibrant centre for discourse that works for the many, not the few. We do this for those people that should be at the centre of our concern as educators: our students.

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