In January, I wrote a column about a colleague who took his students on "classroom pilgrimages" around our campus to help them better understand the experiences of medieval travelers. Inspired by his energy and innovative spirit, I vowed to plan a special event in my survey course this semester on British literature—specifically, to celebrate the works of the Scottish poet and songwriter Robert Burns.
That event has now come and gone, an experiment with challenges and rewards. It took far more work to pull off than I had anticipated, and I found myself, in the anxious final hours leading up to the event, wondering whether it would end up being worth the effort.
The first hitch I encountered was trying to determine what the event would look like. In my course, I place a strong emphasis on reading British literature in historical context. But I wanted to organize an evening that would encourage students to see connections between the texts—many of which probably seemed far removed from students' everyday concerns—and their lives today.
I begin my course at the end of the 18th century, with the works of Robert Burns, and my original idea was to host a Burns Supper. Celebrated by Scots around the world, Burns Suppers are nights of appreciation of his poetry, complete with haggis, whiskey, and more. I thought we could perhaps capture the spirit of a Burns supper without the food and drink that my students either shouldn't, or wouldn't, touch. I would ask them to select a Burns poem that spoke to their lives or to society today, give a reading of it, and then talk about what it meant to them.
I ran into an immediate practical problem, however. Burns Suppers are traditionally celebrated in late January, around the time of the poet's birthday, January 25—and hence at such an early point in the semester that it would have allowed little planning time. I also began to think that I should not impose my love for Robert Burns on them, and that they were more likely to find works that seemed relevant to their lives if I opened up the event to include any authors we read over the course of the semester.
So that led to an event at the end of the semester that I named "Burns and Beyond: a Celebration of British Literature." I booked a campus auditorium for two hours on a Tuesday evening in late April, begged my department chair for a couple hundred dollars for tea and desserts, and instructed students that attendance at the event was required.
In the middle of the semester I wrote up an assignment sheet. I asked them to work in pairs to identify a text that we had read and to prepare a presentation on it—but not a typical classroom presentation. No standard PowerPoints, I explained. Be creative. Act out the murder from Robert Browning's poem "Porphyria's Lover," I suggested, or bring in decorated vases to talk about John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," or make a video about Gabriel and Gretta's relationship in James Joyce's The Dead. Just don't stand up there and talk at us the whole time.
The point, I explained, was to find creative ways to connect a work of British literature to their own experience, or to something current in our society. How they made the connection was up to them. Some still wanted to use PowerPoint and I finally assented, but cautioned them to make sure they moved beyond a standard academic presentation.
Out of a class of 30 students, I offered a handful of them the opportunity to take on a specific task for the evening, instead of doing a presentation. I needed two students to design a program, which would include an abstract for each presentation and an image to go with it. Two of the shyer students in class jumped at that opportunity and had a beautiful program ready a week in advance. I graded them on the program.
I also asked for some brave singers or instrumentalists who wanted to open the evening with me by performing two of Robert Burns's songs, which I would teach them and then lead them in playing on the piano. I got three volunteers: two singers and a flute player. I wrote a part for the flautist, taught all three the songs, and in the weeks leading up to the event we met for two rehearsals, which went swimmingly.
I took one final step to encourage the students to do their best work: I let them know that I would be videotaping the event, and inviting all of the faculty members in the English department to attend. I reassured my colleagues, when I announced the event at a meeting, that I was more concerned about the threat of their presence than I was with their actual presence, so that while they were more than welcome to join us, they needn't feel too obligated to attend (yet another) evening event in late April.
"So you're just using us to scare your students, right?" one of my colleagues said.
"Exactly," I said.
When I came into the auditorium on the evening of the event, I saw some heartening signs. The singers were warming up; students were wearing strange hats and carrying around props; I saw rolled up posters and heard rock songs playing out of people's laptop computers. Our food-service department had set up a table of coffee, tea, and fancy little dessert cakes. The media-service woman was setting up the microphones and preparing to film. Everything looked good.
My musical performance with three students went off exactly as rehearsed. The singers confided to me beforehand that they were nervous. I was a little anxious myself about kicking off the event in this way, but by the end of the second song I was improvising rolls and fills, thrilled to be able to bring the songs of this centuries-old poet to life before my students.
The first pair of presenters did an excerpted reading of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere," restaged as a dialogue between the mariner and the wedding guest he harangues. In their very creative version, the mariner spoke verbatim lines from the poem, while the wedding guest offered sarcastic asides and occasional summaries of the mariner's words.
Among the best of the remaining presentations: A group of female students re-enacted Christina Rosetti's "Goblin Market," with parts for a narrator, the two sisters in the poem, and a goblin. The student who played the goblin actually went outside before the performance and rubbed mud all over her face and arms to give her a dark, gobliny look. Another group staged selected scenes from Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, interspersed with commentary by a narrator who drew parallels to the film Mean Girls and analyzed the depiction of women in literature, past and present. A third group showed Army advertisements and the video for Green Day's song "Wake Me Up When September Ends" as a means of analyzing Wilfred Owen's World War I poem "Dulce et Decorum Est."
The evening ended with a group who compared two works we had read with two contemporary songs: James Joyce's short story "Eveline" was paired with a song called "Thinking Over" by Dana Glover, and Virginia Woolf's essay "The Lady in the Looking-Glass: a Reflection" was paired with "Tied Together With a Smile" by Taylor Swift. This group did use PowerPoint to show the lyrics of the two songs, but it was effective—they had highlighted the lyrics that tied back to Joyce and Woolf, and drew connections that were fresh and imaginative.
Not all of the groups that used PowerPoint did so very imaginatively, however. At least two presentations turned out to be exactly what I had hoped not to see: standard classroom fare. They paled in comparison to the more creative uses of PowerPoint, and deflated the energy in the room a bit.
Another problem I had not foreseen was that many students chose to read poems aloud. I had not remembered how difficult it can be to read poetry aloud, and how painful and stultifying to listen as students skip words or mispronounce them, get the rhyme and meter wrong, or speak in a monotone. I will think twice about making that suggestion next time.
The event ended a little after 9 p.m., and we were all together the next morning for class at 9:30 a.m. I asked students to fill out an evaluation about the assignment. To my great surprise, the issue that I had been most concerned about—asking students to think creatively and move beyond a standard presentation—was the part they liked best. "The assignment was good because of the freedom we had," one student wrote. Another: "It really allowed room for creativity." And another: "I really liked how each group did something different."
Students ended up being as disappointed as I was at the use of PowerPoint: "Get rid of the PowerPoint presentations," a student wrote. Even one of the students who used PowerPoint agreed: "I didn't like the PowerPoints much, including my own."
I asked one final question on the evaluation: How well did the assignment help you understand the work you presented in comparison to a more conventional assignment (i.e., a paper or exam)? The scale of possible responses was one to 10, with one as the highest score. The average response was three; most of them felt it had been a more effective learning experience than a traditional assignment.
Watching the videotape afterward left me little doubt on that question. I can't imagine the students who offered a detailed comparison between "The Rime of the Ancyent Mariniere" and an Iron Maiden song of the same will soon forget the main themes of that poem. Likewise for the pair who showed a clip from a Criminal Minds episode to help illustrate the ideas in Robert Browning's "Porphyria's Lover."
I won't soon forget some of those surprising connections, either. My eyes won't be quite so glazed over the next time I stumble over a late-night showing of Mean Girls. And although it's not exactly my kind of music, I might even listen more closely the next time Taylor Swift comes on the radio.