I wrote and spoke a lot in the fall semester about the shift we are seeing in literacy today from a focus on consumption (as in reading) to a focus on production (as in writing). This shift has never been clearer to me than it was last term, when I offered students in my graduate seminar an opportunity to do something other than the traditional analysis of a literary or nonliterary text. Not that we didn’t look at plenty of such texts: we did, from works like David Shields’s Reality Hunger or Alan Liu’s The Law of Cool, to Mark Danielewski’s labyrinthine House of Leaves. But when I gave students a chance to do something other than a close reading, they jumped at it: they wanted to do something different and more productive, they said, a project that let them work with the texts in (to them) new ways.
So they went to work. One student scripted, filmed, and edited the (in)famous “5 ½ minute hallway” sequence from House of Leaves (definitely scary!), complete with his own commentary on the choices he made, the goals he pursued, along with his evaluation of the eventual product. Another student built a website called “Unlucky Jim,” dedicated to Kingsley Amis’s novel, but with a twist: this site invites users to mix it up with the text themselves, redefining characters, composing parodies, and so on. Three other students worked together to create another site devoted to Jorge Luis Borges’s “Garden of Forking Paths.” Enter the site and you see fragments of Borges’s story, cut up into pieces that are charred around the edges. Click on one of these and you are taken into an encounter with the three students, who are engaging Borges’s text in not only scholarly but humorous and imitative ways as well.
These projects all showed students entering in to the texts, working with them, changing them, making them in some way their own. Another student used blogspot to create a site called sPOkETRY: A Site for Spoken Poetry. This was his first ever attempt at creating such a site, and he encountered plenty of trouble:
I did my best with the web design, though some pages (‘Favorites’ in particular) I just couldn’t get to configure properly! And for some reason, a number of the recordings I made just would not upload.
He didn’t give up, however, saying that his project felt like “a breath of fresh air after all the traditional papers I’ve been writing,” and noting that he is aiming to reach high schoolers, undergrads, or friends and family members who “are less familiar with poetry.” He believes that poetry needs to be heard rather than read and that bringing the human voice back to poetry is a goal all teachers should have. (I would add that bringing the human voice back in to all academic work is one of my goals: in my classes students speak and perform constantly.)
I’m wondering how others bring student voices into the classroom and whether your students are as anxious as mine are to shift from consumer to producer, to make something of their own out of what they read and view.
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