My goal in the classroom is to help students experience literature: to observe its complexities, revel in its pleasures, and discover its power. To begin, I place each text in its historical context to help students discover its value to the original audience. I play music from the period, bring in maps of the setting, show image and video of the landscape and its people, and discuss the cultural anxieties that would have kept initial readers awake at night. This exploration into another culture and time helps students understand the past, which is only a breath away from the present. Once they see the past as a real place, they are able to apply those same critical-thinking skills to examine the present. For example, after spending a semester observing how other races and religions are “othered” in Sherlock Holmes stories, students are able to examine how our contemporary tendency to “other” has continued (and even increased), but that the targets have shifted to Muslims, immigrants, and those with mental illness. Additionally, while students often identify with a character they can relate to through shared experiences, engaging them in a text helps students move past this point to understand and empathize with a character and experience that is entirely foreign to them, a skill that makes them better readers, writers, and members of the human community.
“I think that one of Mrs. Benham’s strong suits is guiding our class discussion and helping us think critically about the text without telling us what to think. She is able to lead us into a thought process in which we are able to form our own ideas about the text.” -student evaluation, Fall 2015.
To encourage students to grow as readers, I emphasize close-reading while simultaneously highlighting continuity across texts and times. To teach close-reading, I first model it for them by reading the passage aloud several times, writing it on the board (or displaying it on the screen), and then drawing a web of the information I can discover by closely examining the passage. This web grows as I add the importance of the passage within the scene, within the overall text, and finally within the culture more broadly. After demonstrating this exercise for students, I select a different passage and repeat the steps, except I ask students to attempt their own analysis. After a period of independent work, students share their ideas in class discussion, building their analysis off of one another. Making this a class-wide activity demonstrates the value of collaboration and collective knowledge, while also easing anxiety and instilling a tiny bit of competition among students who desire to rival their peers. Gradually these class-wide exercises divide into small-group work, partner work, and finally independent work that is graded. By staggering the exercises in this way, all students have a chance to grow as close-readers and learn from each other as well as from me.
“Renee Benham was one of the best professors I have ever had at Ohio University. She is very passionate about literature and in turn made me love in even more. She taught me to not only read what is on the page, but between the lines, and beyond the page.” -student evaluation, Spring 2016
Another way that I help students develop as good readers and see continuity and difference between texts is to have students keep commonplace books. Commonplace books were a common form of journaling in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; people would record their favorite passages as well as commentary within a small book that they kept with them. In their commonplace books, students complete daily assignments, record group work, take class notes, as well as write any musings they have about the class or upcoming projects. Additionally, I ask each student to bring to each class a passage from the day’s reading that they found particularly interesting. These passages are used as the starting point for the day’s discussion, a tactic that both allows the students to discuss what they found most interesting in a text, and encourages regular reading because class discussion relies on their participation. When students are routinely asked to share their thoughts about a text, they are encouraged to think independently about the material and form their own deductions, developing their critical-thinking skills. These skills are then applied to make connections between texts, an activity that is easier when all of their notes are in one place. Moreover, I routinely create space for students to reflect on the similarities and differences between texts, and to make meaning out of those differences. For example, students observe that Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit (1937) is quite a different hero from Allan Quatermain or Sir Curtis from Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885), a difference from which they can deduce a redefinition of masculine heroism in post-WWI England.
-“I think my classmates and I definitely had a role in the success of the class. That being said, we wouldn’t have done so without the contagious attitude of our teacher. We all were encouraged to participate and felt as if our opinions mattered, so we responded to that. The small group work was helpful as well because it allowed us to get to know one another on a more personal level, which in turn made us more comfortable sharing our ideas with the class.” -student evaluation, Spring 2016
Creativity and multimodality also helps students create connections between texts, as well as to experience literature on multiple levels. In my Introduction to Prose Fiction and Nonfiction course, students individually select one moment from Alfred Lansing’s nonfiction novel Endurance, then find one piece of music that captures the essence of that moment. This activity encourages students to empathize with the novel’s characters, and to then articulate that emotional experience by linking it to a different genre. In a similar activity, students create tweets for a specific character during a particularly harrowing experience, and then we arrange the tweets in order and read them aloud. Afterwards, we discuss how translating an experience to a different genre deepens our understanding. I use this method in all of my classes. In my freshman composition course on the rhetoric of violence, students translate their argument essay into a website, and must alter their writing for a new purpose, genre, and audience. In another version of this course, students write a nonfiction essay that connects a topic discussed in class with their own lives. This has led to meaningful results, such as the student who used this essay to wrestle with her own emotions following a recent student suicide. Another student wrote about the way regularly playing violent video games increased his aggression, and he was rethinking how often he played those games. Translating writing and knowledge from one genre to another, particularly in a creative way, helps students understand, relate to, and retain complex and sometimes foreign material.
“She was incredible. Her enthusiasm is contagious – it is impossible not to get excited about coming to class every day. She always used positive reinforcement and my confidence in my ability to hold my own in a college-level English class (a prospect that severely intimidated me at the beginning of the semester) has grown leaps and bounds.” -student evaluation, Spring 2016
I also use creativity as a tool to teach students that research is exciting and useful. In my junior-level composition course, themed on Sherlock Holmes, I begin with a Victorian mystery that the students must solve using evidence that they locate through research within the library’s physical space and digital resources. Each team must first locate their suspect and acquire the code that grants them access to the digital interview. Students then listen to the audio recording of the suspect interview, complete with British accents and cheesy detective music, and gather historical information to determine whether or not their suspect is guilty. At the end, students argue their case in front of the class through theatrical presentation. By framing this research-based activity as a mystery game, it familiarizes them with academic research, Victorian culture, the detective genre in an engaging way. This research is then utilized throughout the rest of the semester to provide depth to both in-class discussions and the student essays. For example, the student who researched British colonialism for the mystery project can explain this concept to the class when we read A Sign of Four, as well as use this research in his later essay on the role of Empire in “The Speckled Band.”
“I think our monograph (short paper) assignments really improved my writing. I haven’t been in an english class that took the time to do several revisions of a paper, so my writing skills were improved because I got feedback from students and Mrs. Benham and I was able to take the time to create my arguments.” –student evaluation, Fall 2015.
By teaching students the complexities and pleasures of reading and research, they can discover the power of literature as a living artifact. What is it about Sherlock Holmes and The Hobbit that make them compelling to both original and contemporary audiences? Helping students experience literature on multiple sensory and intellectual levels encourages them to develop empathy and to discover that though time and place change, humanity and its social anxieties remain largely the same. This continuity of experience enables literature of the past, therefore, to illuminate and empower students to comprehend and overcome the social issues they face today.