A New Model for Teaching Literature Classes

by DR. JERRY CRAVEN, Professor West Texas A&M University Canyon, Texas English teachers at all levels have accepted the computer as a legitimate tool for teaching students to write better. But so far, few have attempted to integrate computers with the teaching of literature. I suspect, however, that literature teachers will be making more use of computer labs in the near future. Currently available software can convert a traditional classroom discussion into a computer-aided discussion that not only involves all students in the class but also promotes greater understanding and appreciation for fine literature. PC-Aided Discussion For the past two years, I have been experimenting with taking university students in World Literature and Modern P'etry classes into a computer lab where they could chat via keyboard about literary works. The classes are taken into a networked PC lab where we run Interchange, a program that is part of the Daedalus Integrated Writing Environ-ment software package. Students consider a question or a proposition about a literary work, make comments using a simple word processor, then send the comments to all screens in the network. Students then scroll through the comments of other classmates and respond to them. At the end of the class, each student gets a hardcopy of the entire class discussion. The next meeting is a traditional class discussion, in which we use the written comments from the computer-assisted discussion. Characteristics One aspect of the computer discussions that students like most is the way the software allows for anonymity. Students log onto the program under pseudonyms so that their comments appear onscreen under names not their own. On a written evaluation, one student said, "I don't like to speak in class, so the computer gave me a great opportunity to speak my ideas without anyone knowing it was me." At first I thought that introverts would love the anonymity and extroverts might dislike it. But in each class, all students love the computer-aided discussions. Those accustomed to dominating traditional class discussions like seeing immediate evidence that others are considering their ideas. And those who seldom, if ever, speak in class suddenly find their voices because of the safety of anonymity. Another advantage of computer-aided discussion is the change in how time affects the exchange of ideas. In a conventional classroom discussion, a student who d'es not speak up on a particular issue will soon lose the opportunity to do so as the discussion moves on to other topics. But at the keyboard, a student can go back at any time to add ideas about whatever has come up. There are some problems. Professor Jerome Bump, who has experimented for several years with computer-aided discussions, warns of "flaming." Some students will take advantage of their anonymity to send obscene or offensive language to the screen. However, of the ten classes I took into the lab, only one had students who sent out flaming language. But even in that class, other students put a stop to such antics by pronouncing the messages to be juvenile and silly. Structure Is Key Another problem in conducting computer-aided discussions is that traditional methods for class discussions simply do not work in a networked computer environment. This problem is not a severe one, though solving it requires a new paradigm. My first attempts to get students to talk about literature via keyboard were less than successful. I had to rethink the structure of a class discussion and come up with a new model. Until I became accustomed to it, the new model was a bit discomforting. It either removed me, the teacher, from the classroom interaction or set me aside as simply another discussant. A teacher cannot control a computer-aided discussion while it is in progress. No one can. Any control of the discussion must come from the construction and arrangement of the questions. But even the arrangement of topics in a computer-aided discussion must operate by guidelines that differ from those used in a traditional classroom. The most noticeable way computer-based discussions differ from traditional ones is the dramatic decrease in the number of questions a class can handle. This means the teacher must focus with great care on what issues are important in a particular literary work. If students have several questions to examine in one conference, the discussion becomes fragmented and diffused. The printout of the discussion becomes a chore to read, for the comments will be a jumble of diverse observations. Thus the basic guideline I worked out is this: Ask only one question per computer conference. Fortunately, Interchange allows for several simultaneous conferences and students can move at will among them. In one 50-minute class, then, I could ask four discussion questions, each posed in a different conference. The Model, in Detail The model I developed calls for several lesser questions and one main question. Students begin by joining one of the sub-conferences; they exchange comments, then move to the others. Ultimately, all join the main conference to focus on the most important question. For complex works such as Coleridge's Kubla Khan, I found it necessary to provide students with a list of questions they could use out of class to guide their reading. Then, in the computer discussion, I refocused the questions, bringing them all down to one main idea for the final conference. For many literary works, I found it enough to assign the material, then offer some information on a question sheet that moves students through the computer-aided discussion. The following is the handout students worked with in a World Literature class for discussing "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Sample Handout Begin with the conference highlighted on your sheet. When you move to a second conference, read what others have said so you can avoid making repetitious comments; then either respond to the question or respond to someone else's observations. Move to another sub conference after 10 minutes; join the MAIN conference after 30 minutes. Sub Conference: TIME Time is an important element in the p'em. Select a passage that deals with time and explain what the reference to time tells us about Prufrock. Sub Conference: OVER-WHM Since Prufrock never asked his "overwhelming question," we do not know the precise question he had in mind. However, we can make some guesses based on evidence in the p'em. Make a guess about what his question was and explain the reasons for your guess. Sub Conference: STEREO-T Some people see Prufrock as representing a stereotypical intellectual. How d'es our culture stereotype the intellectual, and how d'es Prufrock fit (or not fit) such a description? Refer to specifics in the p'em for evidence. MAIN Conference 1. Name two adjectives that describe Prufrock's personality; point to evidence in the p'em that each adjective applies to him (check what others have said before naming your adjectives; try to come up with adjectives or evidence others have not mentioned). 2. Comment upon other observations. Once a computer discussion such as the one on Eliot's p'em gets underway, the teacher must move aside, becoming more like a coach watching a team play rather than a traditional teacher in front of a class. One of my students observed that "the teacher becomes a guide on the side instead of the sage on the stage." Students take over the class and learn through actively exploring ideas -- their own and one another's. Possible Roles for Teachers It is, however, possible for the teacher to enter the discussion in several positive ways. One is to go into the program, under the teacher's actual name, to give encouragement in the form of praise for particular observations. The other is to enter as do the students -- with a pseudonym. A teacher can then pass for a student and pose outrageous ideas to which students can respond. My own preference is to stay out of an on-going computer discussion and to watch onscreen as the students explore ideas. That way I am better prepared to handle follow-up exercises when we reassemble in a traditional classroom. Wide Applicability It seems to me that English teachers at all levels could make literature more challenging and personal by getting students involved in computer-aided class discussions. Moreover, the processes I have described could be adapted to any discipline, to any course in which the teacher wants students to learn from each other through the interplay of ideas. Jerry Craven is a professor of English at West Texas A&M University. Products mentioned: Daedalus Integrated Writing Environment; The Daedalus Group, Austin, Texas, (512) 459-0637.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1994 issue of THE Journal.