Finding Comfort in Uncertainty via Low-Stakes Close Reading Practices in Global Environmental Literature—Phillip Drake (2019)
An English professor redesigns a mid-level, cross-listed course on environmental literature to accommodate and challenge students with diverse levels of experience with literary studies and global perspectives.
Global Environmental Literature (ENGL 306/GIST 306) is a course that surveys global perspectives of environments, environmental aesthetics, ecological dynamics, and environmental politics through literature. Because this cross-listed course attracts students from different departments with diverse ranges of experience with literary studies and global perspectives, I have struggled in previous semesters to develop lessons and exercises that appropriately address knowledge gaps in methods of literary analysis (e.g., language, themes, characters, cultural assumptions, critique, etc.), while simultaneously challenging more advanced students to refine their work.
Methodological shortcomings are most apparent in work that merely summarizes the text, rather than working through it to develop deeper analytical insights, which include confronting boundaries to what is knowable. To promote deeper analytical engagement with texts at the boundaries of our faculties for knowledge, I redesigned a series of low-stakes daily response assignments to address this concern, anticipating that the effects of the exercises would reverberate into other coursework. Most notably, I organized students into small groups, or “Kulas,” within which they discussed texts and practiced presenting their own and their Kula-mates’ written work.
Overall, the quality of engagement with daily readings, class discussion, and peer comments dramatically improved. In particular, students seemed far more interested and engaged with the writing and comments of their peers. Compared to previous semesters, the quality of students’ written work and final grades were the highest I’ve seen. While I cannot be sure whether this assignment directly improved analytical capacities or merely intensified student engagement, which indirectly improved analysis, the Kula effect seemed real.
In general, I am pleased with the transformation of this assignment, which seems to have heightened both the quality of students’ written work and their engagement with course materials. One unanticipated consequence of this transformation was a real rejuvenation of the response paper exercise. While I’ve always appreciated using response papers and presentations on responses as a way for students to practice low-stakes writing and synthesis, in larger classes like this, I see many students tuning out when their peers present. This transformed assignment has instilled in students greater accountability for both producing and responding to the assignment.
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English 306 (cross-listed as Global International Studies 306) is a course that surveys global perspectives of environments, environmental aesthetics, ecological dynamics, and environmental politics through literature. While environmental literature in the United States has enjoyed canonical status in literary studies – owing to towering figures like Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, and Carson – there is a rich variety of literature throughout the world that engages with environmental ideas and concerns. This course foregrounds these overlooked perspectives through the close reading and analysis of global environmental literature.
Broad course goals include the following:
- Core Goal 4.2: “To examine a variety of perspectives in the global community, distinguish their own cultural patterns, and respond flexibly to multiple worldviews.”
- To understand a broader array of environmental concerns and perspectives that are not burdened by the legacies of American and European environmentalisms.
- To develop and refine close readings skills.
- To foster critical tools and perspectives to improve our conduct as social and ecological actors.
This cross-listed course attracts students from different departments with diverse ranges of experience with literary studies and global perspectives. Thus, I have struggled in previous semesters to develop lessons and exercises that appropriately address knowledge gaps in methods of literary analysis (e.g., language, themes, characters, cultural assumptions, critique, etc.), while simultaneously challenging more advanced students to refine their work. While over half the class submits adequate to high-quality work, about a third of the students have struggled with the basics of literary analysis.
At the same time, these students often have misconceptions about environmentalism and/or other cultures that are also important to address in the class, which means addressing various forms of insufficient and inadequate knowledge that shape responses to texts and lessons.
Therefore, I transformed a response paper assignment that I have used in previous iterations of the course. Previously, students were responsible for three to four response papers each semester that involved quick and dirty analytical writing that allowed students to consider any issue that they found particularly provocative from the reading on a given day. In addition, I encouraged students not to worry about developing formal introductions/conclusions, as analytical depth and engagement with the text were my primary concerns. In general the responses were about 500-700 words, and there was an informal presentation element.
While there were many things that I appreciated about this assignment, I noticed students often taking advantage of the rather loose instructions and submitting low-effort work. More concerning was a trend with some students who never really spoke except on days they were writing responses, which made me worry that students were not keeping up with reading and/or were uninterested in their classmates’ comments. Thus, the transformation of my Spring 2018 ENGL/GIST 306 course was conceived to address many concerns, but with minimal disruption to some of the strengths of the course and its assignments.
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I redesigned a response paper assignment, in which students previously were responsible for submitting a two-page written analytical response to an assigned day’s reading. In the assignment, students are expected to demonstrate serious engagement with one or more points from the text. Students have the freedom to engage with anything that provoked them from the text, but I encourage them to focus on specific themes, issues, rhetorical choices, and connections to other texts or outside materials. This response is submitted to all students via Blackboard email. On a typical day, two or three students discussed their responses in class, and students were responsible for signing up for three or four response papers per semester, each following the same rules.
For Spring 2018, I retooled this assignment to give the responses a more coherent and challenging sequence, with each response designed to prompt the application of specific skills.
- The first response followed the standard format, with students submitting response papers to the entire class, but I added that students were expected to come to class with a quotation (or selected portions) of the assigned text, and use this quotation to ask rest of the class a “provocative question,” which would be used to initiate discussion. Here, I wanted to promote “uncertainty,” a sense of intellectual curiosity and comfort with paradoxes, unanswerable questions, and unknowable experiences. This would force students to think about the text as a lively object that is capable of sparking inquiries in infinite ways. Rather than thinking about texts as mere conduits of information, in which once the plot is understood no further analysis is useful, I wanted to particularly convey in a low-stakes assignment the ways engagements with texts change over time and across cultural contexts.
- The second response was more experimental: it was titled the “Kula Ring Response,” in which I organized students into groups of three “Kulas” – which is a famous anthropological term associated with Bronislaw Malinowski’s research in Papua New Guinea. Each Kula was assigned a bird name (pitpit, hornbill, frogmouth, condor, nightjar, ovenbird, and kingfisher), and each student was responsible for writing a response paper which had the same general rules as the first assignment – to engage directly with the reading through quotations and analysis. Every week, one member from each Kula wrote a response paper. However, rather than submitting it to the entire class, the student would submit it to the other members of their Kula.
- For the first ten minutes of each class, everyone gathered with their Kulas to discuss the reading along with the response papers that were submitted. Kulas that did not have a response scheduled that day were instructed to use the discussion period to find and discuss noteworthy passages from the text that warranted further discussion with the entire class.
- For Kulas that had a member scheduled for responding that day, the members who didn’t write a response would discuss the response with the writer and then present a “response to the response” orally, noting BOTH passages from the response paper and the original text, and then raising a provocative question from which to kick off discussion. In other words, the student writing the response that day didn’t present their own paper – the other members of their Kula did it for them.
- The third response assignment set aside both Kulas and actual written work. Instead, it had students simply presenting on the selected reading of the day. Central to this third response was identifying and sharing a passage or two from the text that served as the basis for the student’s analysis. Thus, students followed a sequence in which they practiced close readings in various contexts. While the final assignment seems easiest in some ways (since there is no writing), students were actually taking more responsibility for meaningful textual engagement.
Methods in literary studies involve many levels of inquiry, interpretation, and extrapolation. I suspect that many students fail to think of close reading as a formal method of research and analysis. Many students simply want to know the superficial content of a text, which limits the depth and refinement of students’ inquiries. These exercises were meant to encourage close reading practices that open doors to new analytical horizons.
In addition, these response assignments involve students communicating to different audiences, which breaks down traditional instructor-student relations, presenting new ways for students to express themselves and test their analytical practices.
- Finally, the Kula is a non-Western social and economic assemblage through which to rethink group work, which is relevant to the course’s themes and approaches to environmental literature.
- Because my evaluation of this assignment is based on a simple check-plus, check, and check-minus system (which roughly corresponds to A, B, and C), which tends to slightly inflate grades, I planned on tracking the effectiveness of this transformation through both ethnographic methods (observations in classroom performance) and in grades on formal essays. While this is an imprecise way of measuring outcomes, it makes sense given the nature of the assignment.
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Overall, the quality of engagement with daily readings, class discussion, and peer comments dramatically improved. In particular, students seemed far more interested and engaged with the writing and comments of their peers. At the observational level, students were thinking about texts, their own writing, and the work of their peers at a depth I had not expected. Perhaps the transformation merely prompted students to work a little harder in their daily preparation for class, which paid wild dividends for the class as a whole – I can’t be certain.
Also, compared to previous semesters, the quality of students’ written work and final grades were the highest I had seen. While I cannot be sure whether this assignment directly improved analytical capacities or merely intensified student engagement, which indirectly improved analysis, the Kula effect seemed real.
The assignment prompts for student essays can be found here:
Compared to the previous iteration of the course (Spring 2017), students’ grades moved up by an astonishing average of .5 letters. In comparing rubrics on this assignment with the previous year, “missing or improper use of textual quotations” has dropped from 35% of students to 10%. Due to the rough quality of the response assignment and the emphasis on provocative – and sometimes uncomfortable – discussions, and because I’m not confident that they would provide useful data, I opted against sharing sample response papers.
I expected that additional feedback by more recent iterations of the course would provide more useful data. However, because enrollment in my Fall 2018 ENGL/GIST 306 course grew, fluctuating between 26-30 students, I adapted the assignment once again, taking out the Kula portion due to practical considerations. While I expected final grades to drop because of this omission, they actually rose slightly. I suspect this rise in grades occurred because of the addition of a new exam in place of one of the three major essays, a change prompted by the increasing size of the class. Apparently, the exam was much easier for students than I expected, as scores were surprisingly high.
When isolating essay scores, however, there was a small drop, which suggests to me that the Kula assignment really was useful. Regardless of class size, I will find a way to include this transformation next time I teach this course.
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In general, I am pleased with the transformation of this assignment, which seems to have heightened both the quality of students’ written work and their engagement with course materials.
Some lingering thoughts and concerns remain about the precision of the transformation, particularly its goals and outcomes. Early on, there was some evidence of students’ struggling to keep track of the work assigned on a given day, and these response assignments do take an additional ten minutes (on average) of the class session away from other potential activities.
While the transformation was conceived first to address knowledge gaps due to a classroom containing students from diverse disciplines with varying levels of familiarity with basic methods of literary studies, the transformation evolved to focus more specifically on deep textual engagement.
For me, this depth is best exemplified in confrontations with boundaries of knowledge, of reading a text that truly puzzles, of lingering with the lack of resolution, and learning to be comfortable in situations in which our knowledge at hand only takes us so far.
In a sense, I wanted to teach students to be humble, to not be afraid to admit not knowing about something, and to use this state of not knowing as a way of energizing textual engagements. Of course, lingering with our own boundaries of knowledge is an ethical stance as much as an analytical attitude, and can be extended to thinking about not just texts but also the others we live with: friends, family, acquaintances, strangers, distant strangers in other cultures and/or in other historical periods, trees, animals, robots, gods, microbes, and more. Because I am not sure that this ethical impulse ever became clear in the assignment, I will focus on drawing more attention to this ethical stance in future versions of the course.
Finally, it is worth reminding anyone reading this that this course transformation involved an assignment that had a strong presentational component, which does not necessarily synchronize with some of the original goals of this project, specifically concerning written literary analysis. That said, there was a bluntness to the Kula Ring exercise that seemed to have a cascading effect, improving learning in various ways, including in other assignments. Certainly future experimentation with the course will help refine specific aspects that I would like to improve, but there remains something appealing about the sloppiness of the transformation, as it forced the entire class to recommit to learning through experimentation and collaboration.
As for more practical reflections, I worry that the Kula Ring assignment is too complicated both to administrate as an instructor and to perform as a student. As enrollments for this course swells, I’m fearful that the assignment might devolve into chaos. That said, in the context of the Spring 2018 iteration of the course, the benefits of the assignment seemed to outweigh the inconveniences.
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