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Using Digital Technology to Critically Engage the Literary World—Giselle Anatol (2011)

Overview

Morrison

An English professor redesigns a 300-level course on major authors by adding a technological component to more effectively engage students in exploring ways to use out-of-class time for productive learning.

Background

In my section of English 334, we explore the major works of fiction of Toni Morrison, as well as a lesser-known short story, a children’s book, and a critical article about her work. We discuss the themes that resonate for the African-American community, and for the larger U.S. community as well, including the ways in which the concept of race is socially constructed, and how ethnicity, class, and gender intersect. In addition to other requirements, students produced an end-of-term project created in the interactive space of Second Life, an online virtual world where users interact with each other through avatars. Digital technology is everywhere, and I wanted to find ways to tap into it – to pique my students’ interest, allow a scholarly outlet for their expertise, and encourage them to use technology more actively, pursuing knowledge rather than hoping to absorb it. I also hoped the project would

Implementation

In addition to more-or-less standard requirements for a traditional 300-level English course, students in Major Authors: Toni Morrison had to produce an end-of-term project where they chose one of Morrison’s novels and created an interactive space that worked on Second Life. Collaboration was encouraged (maximum three people per group). Each group was instructed to design and “build” one of the houses or landscapes in the novel they had chosen, and figure out ways to represent the historical setting, social conflicts, cultural milieu, and/or important themes of the novel for avatar-visitors. My intent through this project was for students to meet the larger course goals of being able to identify the major principles of Toni Morrison’s fiction for themselves; convey these ideas to others in an accurate and compelling way; and see evidence of the further development of their critical thinking skills as they participated in constructing the space on Second Life.]

Student Work

During the first iteration of the project (Spring 2010), I met groups of students in the virtual realm for brainstorming sessions (we arranged times and sites for our avatars to meet). During the second iteration (Fall 2011), I gave students a series of writing prompts from the start of the term to get them thinking about the creative possibilities of Second Life. These ranged from asking questions about a particular quotation, which also gauged how well they comprehended the more subtle themes of the Morrison work at hand, to much broader prompts that involved more creative thinking.

In the end, the projects that received the highest marks showed that students not only read the chosen novel comprehensively, but also made connections between the selected scene and the overarching themes of the book (which had been addressed in lectures and class discussions) as well as overarching themes in Morrison’s oeuvre. The students who wrote these projects explicated why each item was selected for their Second Life space – connecting to a historical moment or event, establishing cultural milieu, creating symbolic value, etc. There was definite improvement in student projects from 2010 to 2011. The scaffolded writing assignments, guiding questions for independent visits to Second Life locations, and portfolio approach all provided a better foundation on which students could build their final projects when they took the time and effort to do so.

Reflections

Second Life and other platforms can provide a wonderful opportunity to develop careful close reading, critical and creative thinking, and research skills with undergraduates—provided that an instructor has the financial support to maintain an island (or smaller parcel of virtual property) and builders who can help bring students’ projects to fruition. Without a Second Life site of my own, I was reliant on space donated from Johnson County Community College. Without the technical skill to be a builder, or the time in a semester to train students how to use the technology to construct their own virtual models, I was reliant on instructional technology staff from JCCC, who were eventually pulled from the project to fulfill other institutional demands. While I am unable to continue with Second Life at that time, I am a now staunch supporter of scaffolded assignments, and hope to integrate more of these into my other courses.

I am also enthused by my students’ increased ability to grasp the concept that “Art is work”—one of the ideas that Morrison articulates in her children’s picture book Who’s Got Game? The Ant or the Grasshopper, a rewriting of the traditional Aesop’s fable. The amount of thought put into these projects helps undergraduates comprehend that simply because a piece is creative does not mean it has limited intellectual value. This understanding is invaluable for a greater appreciation of the role the humanities play in society, and in life.


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Background

In my section of English 334, we explore the major works of fiction of Toni Morrison, as well as a lesser-known short story, a children’s book, and a critical article about her work. We discuss the themes that resonate for the African-American community, and for the larger U.S. community as well, including the ways in which the concept of race is socially constructed, and how ethnicity, class, and gender intersect. We consider Morrison’s representations of a dominant society that often demands assimilation while simultaneously rejecting assimilationists on the basis of racial and cultural difference. The relationships among Individual, Family, and Community and the relationships among written history, oral stories, and memory are major issues that were also addressed. Students were asked to collaborate on a final project in the 3-D virtual world of Second Life where they visually represented the issues that we discussed in the class.

At the time, 300-level English classes could be taken only after the student had passed English 101, English 102, and one 200-level course that introduced the techniques of literary analysis and gave students a range of texts and experiences for thinking and writing about literature. I employed the digital project with classes at the Edwards Campus in order to work in smaller numbers (my Morrison classes on the Lawrence campus typically consist of 35 students, whereas Edwards classes fill at 25). I was thus able to arrange numerous sessions in the computer lab, where Second Life had been downloaded on each computer in advance so that all students could participate in the exploratory and teaching sessions at the same time and receive my individualized attention. The Edwards students were a mix of traditional undergraduates from Lawrence who commuted for the once–a-week class and non-traditional students who ranged in age from early 20s to early 50s, typically balancing their degree requirements with full-time employment and family responsibilities.

I decided to add this Second Life component to my course after years of witnessing several trends: greater intellectual passivity on the part of my students; the increasing abandonment of pen and paper in favor of taking notes on laptops; young people’s preference for email correspondence and text messages over and above face-to-face meetings with me and each other; and their shying away from physical books, library excursions, or trips to the cinema when everything can be downloaded to various hand-held devices. Digital technology is everywhere, and, rather than turn into a curmudgeon holed up in the library stacks, I wanted to find ways to tap into it – to pique my students’ interest, allow a scholarly outlet for their expertise, and encourage them to use technology more actively, pursuing knowledge rather than hoping to absorb it. The project would also inspire them to create materials that might push other learners to be more actively engaged as well.


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Implementation

I have a series of goals that I lay out for the students on the first day of class. By the end of the term – building on what they’ve gained from class discussions, lectures, assigned readings, hearing and delivering oral reports, conventional papers, research, and the Second Life project – students should be able to:

  1. Identify the major themes of Toni Morrison’s fiction; describe the common ideas found in her various writings; discuss how these principles apply to the larger bodies of African-American literature and American literature.
  2. See evidence of the further development of their critical thinking skills as they participate in class discussions and practice articulating their ideas clearly and concisely.
  3. Demonstrate improvement in their writing skills as they develop essays that are not only well-organized and grammatically-correct, but express ideas in a clear, concise, and captivating way to the reader. These essays should progress beyond summary to an analysis of the writing at hand.
  4. Engage analytically with literary criticism.

In addition to more-or-less standard requirements for a traditional 300-level English course (literary analysis papers, short essays, an oral report, research into literary scholarship, a midterm exam, and a final exam), students had to produce an end-of-term project where they chose one of Morrison’s novels read in class and then created an interactive space that worked on Second Life. Collaboration was encouraged (maximum three people per group). Each group was instructed to design and “build” one of the houses or landscapes in the novel they had chosen and figure out ways to represent the historical setting, social conflicts, cultural milieu, and/or important themes of the novel for avatar-visitors. My intent was for students to meet the larger course goals of being able to (a) identify the major principles of Toni Morrison’s fiction for themselves; (b) convey these ideas to others in an accurate and compelling way; (c) see evidence of the further development of their critical thinking skills as they participated in planning out the Second Life space. (Due to time limitations, the high learning curve required to actually construct a Second Life space, and the costs associated with hiring an experienced builder, students were not required to get their ideas up and running on Second Life—only to describe what they would like to see built.)

I anticipated that through the Second Life project, students could meet these course goals in ways that exercised their creativity and their negotiation of “new” technologies. By using Second Life as a virtual space in which to recreate a scene from one of Morrison’s novels, by using their writing skills to describe the scene and what they hoped to achieve, and by explaining how and why this scene might be important for other readers (or potential readers) to gain a greater understanding of Morrison’s work, students would accomplish several tasks. They would demonstrate

  1. their mastery of descriptive writing;
  2. their mastery of literary interpretation;
  3. their ability to convey their interpretations in analytical writing; and,
  4. their understanding of which scenes in the selected novel were thematically important.

For this project, they would have to read the novel carefully, looking for the details needed to create the space, and hopefully they would discover aspects of the text they might have missed on the first reading. They were instructed to look for the particulars as well as the obvious statements and think about how each detail gets used to create narrative mood, establish and develop a character, allude to other literary, historical, and cultural texts, generate setting, etc. In other words, students would use their analytical skills to unearth the symbolic meanings of particular details and in deciding what images they would include to stand for particular ideas, people, or events in the novel. They would use their descriptive writing skills to explain what was to be included in the Second Life space; they would use their thesis-building skills to justify their choices.

After teaching this class in the Spring 2010 semester, I decided on several changes to implement for the Fall 2011 iteration:

  • A clearer description of the project for the students.

    Second Life allows visitors to interact with objects and physically negotiate a space so that they can get a better understanding of an environment. How can a student present some of the material from Toni Morrison’s [X novel] in the virtual space of Second Life to give readers a better sense of the environment depicted by the author? This required that students think about “environment” not only as the physical space (a yard, a house, a sidewalk, a pond), but also:
    1. The cultural environment (note that “culture” does not refer to the narrow definition of superior pieces of art, but rather to the beliefs, values, norms and standards, and practices of a particular group of people [religious, ethnic, social, lifestyle or age group]).
    2. The historical moment in which the novel is set (during the months and years depicted in the writing, what other events are going on in that town? the country? the world? How might these affect the occurrences in the novel, and the dynamics between the protagonist and others?).
    3. The emotional feelings of the individual.
    As the students conceptualized their Second Life space, I asked them to consider how they might translate Morrison’s words and themes into visual terms that profit from Second Life technology. Keeping the following question in mind helped them facilitate this task: How can they teach other readers the crucial lessons of the novel in a more creative way than through the conventional analytical essay?
  • A more specific grading rubric, which students helped create.

    A clear explanation of the evaluation process would benefit the students in several ways. First and foremost, I wanted to emphasize that the teams would berewarded for process and not just product; hopefully this would relieve some of the performance anxiety over not feeling competent with the technology, and also reinforce the process of thought, reflection, drafting, and revision from crafting conventional essays.

    In the same way that I provided “A,” “B,” and “C” sample essays to small groups in the past during regular class sessions, having students assess the writing given a particular rubric, and then apply the knowledge gained to their own work, I provided my Second Life groups with the addresses for several different Second Life sites (hopefully several with literary frameworks), had them visit three of their own choosing, interact with the environments, and then “grade” the sites using a very loose, general rubric. Here are the initial choices:
    1. The Exploratorium (especially for those interested in the sciences)
    2. Virtual Hallucinations tour (psychology)
    3. The SL Globe Theatre (a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre)
    4. Rachelville, Imagination Island (children’s literature)
    I asked the participants to help me develop a final rubric for the project by answering the following questions:
    1. What does each site do particularly well to make your experience educational and enjoyable? In your opinion, which site is best, and why?
    2. Why do the other sites not work as well for teaching a visitor about the ideas at hand?
    Articulating the answers was another way to help students practice analyzing a “text,” even if that text was not the traditional short story, poem, novel, or scholarly article. Articulating criteria for a project with an aesthetic/artistic component can also help students comprehend that “art is work” – simply because the piece is creative does not mean that it has no intellectual value, which is an idea they sometimes have trouble with.

    My hope is that if students are actively involved in generating the rubrics instead of just being handed one, they will have more ownership over their projects and the evaluation of them. Additionally, I was able to coach them to consider fine details instead of ambiguous generalizations: If they visited a site and wrote, “I enjoyed that there was music playing,” I could ask “What type of music? What specific feelings, settings, and images did it evoke? How did this enhance your experience?” And if they commented on enjoying the wildlife sounds in Rachelville because the noises highlighted their sense of being outdoors, I could ask, “How are wildlife sounds and the outdoors connected to children’s literature or one’s sense of being a child?”
  • A set of scaffolded writing assignments.

    Instead of requiring two longer, discrete essays, I assigned one conventional five- page paper and a set of scaffolded microthemes and activities to help students think through the possibilities for the project in increasingly complex ways as the semester progressed.

Through Second Life, I designed a project that challenged the students’ ways of thinking about the interpretation and analysis of written texts. It was my hope that the alterations for the second iteration would allow future students to delve beyond simply simulating an exact physical environment (only paying attention to colors, the type of furniture in a room, the layout of doors and windows, etc.) and pursue the larger social and cultural issues conveyed by the novel, such as what it feels like to be a minority subject, and how the historical setting affects the way the characters perceive their world and each other. Second Life provided the excellent opportunity for a “safe” environment in which to explore a general lack of experience with diversity and exposure to difference.


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Student Work

While during the first iteration of the project (Spring 2010), I met groups of students in the virtual realm for brainstorming sessions (we arranged times and sites for our avatars to meet), during the second iteration (Fall 2011) I gave students a series of writing prompts from the very start of the term to get them thinking about the creative possibilities of Second Life. These ranged from asking questions about a particular quotation, which also gauged how well they comprehended the more subtle themes of the Morrison work at hand, to much broader prompts that involved more creative thinking.

For example, after reading The Bluest Eye, in which Pecola Breedlove, an African American adolescent girl, loses touch with reality in her pursuit of blue eyes – which she has been conditioned to view as necessary for love, happiness, wealth, and success – students were asked to think about what would happen if Pecola time traveled to the year 2011 and joined Second Life: What kind of avatar would she design for herself? Would this be a positive or negative experience, and why? In comparison, after reading Song of Solomon, students were asked to choose a scene that they found compelling and describe how they might represent the salient aspects of this scene on Second Life.

I provided feedback on these in-class essays rather than letter grades and reminded students that the work would be included in their Second Life portfolios. Most of the time, my comments asked students to specify why they had included particular details. “Why” questions encouraged students to justify their choices, often with further textual support from the narrative at hand.

In-class writing examples (all pdf):

The portfolio was also supposed to include appraisals of several particular Second Life sites that students visited and assessed in groups in the computer lab (to diminish the anxiety of negotiating Second Life individually), and five more that they sought out independently over the course of the semester, seeking innovative uses of visuals, animation, sound, interactive technology, etc. Students were specifically asked to discuss what ideas from each site might be applied to their own creations. This portion of the assignments was graded more on evidence of initiative and development of thought than of mastery of writing skills – content vs. form.

Second Life site appraisals (all pdf):

Thus, where in Spring 2010 groups of students and I met virtually to discuss our explorations and discoveries, during the second incarnation of the Second Life projects, I incorporated several lab sessions into the semester schedule so that the students and I could begin at the beginning: sign up for Second Life accounts, establish avatars, negotiate several Second Life sites together, and sit together while the various groups explored on their own. Students in the 2011 class called out to their peers, “Hey! Check out the north side of this island!” and “Oh! You actually have to figure out how to go underneath the surface of the witches’ moor!” providing clues and tips to one another as they learned collectively. This alteration was key to lessening some of the anxiety and introducing more possibilities for entertaining educational spaces in a variety of fields (Shakespeare studies, children’s literature, art history, psychology, physics, environmental studies).

Requiring students to independently visit at least five other Second Life sites to further investigate the virtual world in areas determined by each student’s own interests was meant to produce a cumulative project: Instead of one computer lab session at the start of the term followed by a final assignment that they would complete in one go, I hoped that students would engage in creative yet analytical play, visiting different locations and mining them for ideas for their own designs. I gave them questions to guide their analysis of these spaces: questions to evaluate whether a site was exemplary or superficial and for what reasons (type of information conveyed, entertainment value, interactive potential, etc.). Students were also asked to consider how aspects of each Second Life space might be applied to their own site. When a student took this portion of the assignment seriously, the project stood out. When students perceived this portion of the assignment to be busy work, however, and answered the questions incompletely or in a cursory way, they tended to focus more on the descriptive aspect of the project, not developing ideas extensively, and concentrated on plot.

The projects that received the lowest grades focused only on the descriptive element of the assignment: details about the physical environment and information about tangible items that would be found in the envisioned Second Life space. In addition, little to no additional thought or creativity went into the selection of these physical objects; all were mentioned explicitly in Morrison’s text, but the student did not try to expand on narrative cues, explain the significance of the objects, or link the objects to discussions of Morrison’s writing that had taken place over the term. These projects corresponded to conventional papers that only include plot summary of a text instead of deeper analysis.

The projects that received the highest marks showed that students not only read the chosen novel comprehensively, but also could make connections between the selected scene and the overarching themes of the book (which had been addressed in lectures and class discussions) as well as overarching themes in Morrison’s oeuvre. Students in this group explicated why each item was selected for inclusion in their Second Life space – connections to a historical moment or event, establishing cultural milieu, for symbolic value, etc.

There was definite improvement in student projects from 2010 to 2011. The scaffolded writing assignments, guiding questions for independent visits to Second Life locations, and portfolio approach all provided a better foundation on which students could build their final projects when they took the time and effort to do so.


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Reflections

Gisell Anatol

Students performed very well, even though they complained a lot! In the past five years or so, I have found that undergraduates are increasingly anxious about assignments that require independence; they fear open-ended questions that don’t have precise “right” answers, paper topics that give them room to develop their own ideas instead of providing a specific question to which to respond, and directions that don’t provide a step-by-step map on how to proceed from start to finish. For this reason, Second Life assignments created some nervousness during the course of the semester. Most students responded negatively to the assignment on the course evaluations, which were filled out on the last day of class, and yet, when they submitted their final Second Life projects one week later, quite a few of them confessed that they had truly enjoyed the experience. They said that once they got into designing the space and thinking about Morrison’s imagery, symbolism, historical vision, etc., and the range of possibilities for representing these ideas, they were excited by the challenge. (I have provided an example of one student in particular who created an especially thoughtful project. Notably, she was not an English major, but pre-med).

When I initially implemented the project in Spring 2010, the criteria were quite vague. Part of the problem was that I myself was not familiar with the technology and what would be possible for the students to achieve. I also fought an internal battle between providing very detailed rubrics and allowing students the freedom necessary for more creative assignments. I worried that overwrought specifications might constrain the students’ imaginative work and/or their drive to push beyond the bounds of what I explicitly stated about how the assignment could be designed and would be graded. What I found, however, was that many students were just as ignorant as I was about the Second Life technology. Some were afraid of making “mistakes.” Others were solely goal-oriented and so did not/could not/would not explore the Second Life world independently. I had made the project optional, rather than requiring it for the entire class; I found that the students who participated were tremendously enthusiastic, but struggled with pushing beyond the visual element of Second Life. They simply recreated – rather than interpreted – the selected spaces from the Morrison novels.

The biggest challenge was my assumption that students would naturally gravitate toward using the Second Life technology and incorporate elements of the virtual world with traditional essay assignments. In fact, many were unfamiliar with the technology, and a couple could be described as resistant. All of the students had to be coaxed to think outside the box, to use non-word processing computer programs and visualize how virtual reality might be productively employed to teach English literature, and to prepare for an assignment that asked them to apply what they learned rather than simply answer specific questions in the style of a conventional English final exam or paper.

The second largest obstacle was the rapidly changing landscape of Second Life. At the beginning of the semester, I researched five distinct sites that I wanted students to visit and evaluate for general effectiveness, pedagogical appeal, interactive elements, etc. A couple of weeks later, when I took my class to the lab, familiarized them with Second Life, and instructed them to explore the sites, two of them were no longer in service. About midway through the semester when I took the 2011 class to the lab to show them a former student’s Song of Solomon site, the Morrison location had been replaced by a science exhibit; Johnson County Community College, which had funded our original project and the Morrison site on Second Life, had taken our space down due to budgetary constraints. All of the work has been saved electronically, but there is currently no “hands-on” virtual space for students to access and explore. The Second Life project has now, therefore, come to an unfortunate end and is no longer online.

Second Life and other platforms can provide a wonderful opportunity to develop careful, close reading, critical and creative thinking, and research skills with undergraduates—provided that an instructor has the financial support to maintain an island (or smaller parcel of virtual property) and builders who can help bring students’ projects to fruition. Without a Second Life site of my own, I was reliant on space donated from JCCC. Without the technical skill to be a builder, or the time in a semester to train students how to use the technology to construct their own virtual models, I was reliant on IT staff from JCCC, who eventually got pulled from the project to fulfill other institutional demands. While I am unable to continue with Second Life at this time, I am now a staunch supporter of scaffolded assignments, and hope to integrate more of these into my other courses.

I am also enthused by my students’ increased ability to grasp the concept that “Art is work”— one of the ideas that Morrison articulates in her children’s picture book Who’s Got Game? The Ant or the Grasshopper, a rewriting of the traditional Aesop’s fable. The amount of thought put into these projects helps undergraduates comprehend that simply because a piece is creative does not mean it has limited intellectual value. This understanding is invaluable for a greater appreciation of the role the humanities play in society, and in life.

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio: cte@ku.edu.


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