Active Learning techniques for the (medieval) literature classroom

Active learning classroom at Berkeley's Educational Technology Center (2014)

Active learning classroom at Berkeley’s Educational Technology Center (2014)

This term in my undergraduate medieval seminar I tried something new: I did not lecture at all. Instead, I assigned a secondary reading for each primary reading, then informed the students that the secondary reading was the lecture, and that when they came to class I would assume that they understood it perfectly (and would hold them responsible for its contents), but would answer as many questions as they had about it. Similarly, I made it clear that I would assume they understood the primary readings perfectly unless they had specific clarifying questions about it. I then dedicated a Q&A session for primary and secondary texts in each class meeting, and the rest of the session to ‘active learning’ activities in which the students engaged with the readings in various ways, as follows below. I’ve compiled them into a pdf you can download here for your convenience.

I don’t know if this approach is or is not more pedagogically sound than the traditional lecture. I do know that is was a change of pace for me, and that they appeared to be more engaged and less bored over the course of a three-hour seminar that met from 5:00-8:00pm. I would love to hear about your own experiences trying out these kinds of activities in the literature classroom.

The following techniques are slight modifications of active learning strategies that I found on websites like this one and this one. Many of them involve the use of 5×7 inch index cards, which are great for focusing attention, limiting output, and can be projected on a screen using a document camera, which is a simple, efficient way for using student-generated content to focus class attention.

Linguistic awareness: On an index card, Identify 3 characteristics of the medieval language in question (provided it is a vernacular language) in a passage on board, then render the passage into modern. You can also collect the cards and spot-teach interesting or problematic features on the board.

Summary: each pair is assigned two chapters to summarize, then writes summaries on board in order to form a summary of the entire reading.

Synthesis secondary/primary: Main idea of secondary reading: on an index card, write one sentence that expresses the main idea of the secondary reading. Then explain why it is useful for understanding the primary reading.

Linkage: In pairs. On an index card, write one short passage each from the primary and secondary texts. Prepare for five minutes. Explain how they are related. Instructor can project index card with document camera so that entire class can follow explanation.


Quiz: Each pair writes a quiz question for the reading, write it on the board. Class votes on top four questions then takes the quiz and reviews the answers in pairs, reporting back to group.

Role Play: In pairs, one student as Interviewer and one as a character (historical or fictional) from the primary reading. Each pair writes five questions and five answers for the character. Each answer is based on a citation from the primary text. Write citations on cards, interview conducted with notes but not reading directly from cards. Can give hilarious results.

Name that author: In two teams. On index cards, each team selects 10 characteristic quotes from each author that voice different ideas. Shuffle the cards and number them 1-20. On a separate card, keep a list linking each card to the correct author. Switch decks with other team, try to sort them by author. Student reads cards, student from opposing team tells them if it is correct. Third student tallies correct/incorrect guesess. Team with most correct guesses wins a prize.

BNF Paris MS Espagnol 36 f32r, detail

BNF Paris MS Espagnol 36 f32r, detail

Transcribe section of medieval manuscript: It is getting progressively easier to find decent quality images of the manuscripts of the texts we are teaching. I’ve found a transcription exercise is a good way to bring a long seminar to a tranquil landing.

Discussion of peer’s written assignment: A productive way to leverage a written assignment for classroom discussion. In pairs, explain your written analysis of the primary text to your partner. Join with a second pair; then each explains their partner’s analysis to the larger group of four. This is a nice structured way for students to exchange their ideas and analyses of the primary text.

Paraphrase academic Spanish: in pairs, choose a paragraph from the secondary reading. Write a paraphrase of it in normative Spanish on an index card. Then join with another pair and explain the paragraph.

Deconstruct the narrative: In pairs, select six short passages from the primary text and write them on six index cards. Do not write the page numbers on the cards. On a separate card, identify the passages by catch words and record the page numbers. Trade cards with another pair. Each pair tries to put the passages in the correct order.

predictionPrediction: On an index card, write three predictions for what will happen in the following chapters of the primary reading. Include justifications for your predictions. Students can then exchange predictions and report to the larger group, or instructor can post individual predictions on a document camera to share with the class.

Questions about readings: On an index card, write your question about a specific passage in the reading (primary or secondary). Note the page number and location of passage. Instructor collects cards and reads/answers selected questions.

Flash analysis: Instructor shows a short passage from primary text on board/screen. In pairs or groups, students identify the passage and explain its significance. Give them a set time to work on their analysis. This can be gamified if you hand out a different passage to each group on a slip of paper, gives everyone five minutes, and then shows each of the passages on a slide as the groups present their analyses. Then the other teams can write down ratings for each analysis; ratings are aggregated at the end.

3-2-1 for secondary reading: In pairs, on an index card, write 3 key concepts from secondary reading, one example from the primary reading to illustrate one of the concepts, and 1 question. Students or instructor can then write the key concepts on the board.

debateFormal debate: Instructor gives class a resolution based on their reading of the primary text. Class divides into four teams (A vs B, C vs D), for two separate debates. In each debate, one team argues pro, the other team argues contra. In each debate, one student from the teams not currently debating keeps time and another tallies votes on chalkboard. Instructor places the following conditions on participants: (1) All members of each team must speak during each turn, (2) Everything they say must be supported by specific textual quotation (primary or secondary). (3) In your rebuttals, you must address specific points made by the opposing team and demonstrate why they are not valid. Debate format: (1) A presents pro argument (4 min.), (2) B presents contra argument (4 min.), (3), A rebuts contra argument (2 min.), (4) B rebuts pro argument (2 min.). Teams C and D vote on winner of debate. Repeat for teams C and D, with A and B voting on winner.





















The survey course: back to the drawing board (again)


Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

I’ve written twice before about approaches to the survey course in medieval Iberian literature (or whatever you prefer to call it). The first time (Sep 2011), I took an ‘issues-based’ approach by which I applied a ‘big idea’ to whatever text I was teaching. I used mainly handouts of texts I had entered and glossed for my undergrad students, sometimes following the lead of popular anthologies and providing study questions, key concepts, a very minor apparatus. I was responding to student feedback (based on their written comments and their affect and my perceived level of their engagement during class) that suggested students will more readily engage a culturally unfamiliar text when it is paired with a cultural problem with which they are familiar. It’s a bit of conditioning: you pair a negative stimulus with an associated positive one, in order to transfer the positive attachment to the less attractive object. Your students might call it ‘relatability.’

This approach was a success in terms of leveraging interest in broader cultural problems (female beauty standard, sexual politics, ethical economies such as carbon credits, and so on). However, two problems persisted: I found it difficult to achieve a thematic or narrative cohesion for the course, something that the students pointed out in their written comments. Also, the teaching materials, a course reader made up of my own short pedagogical editions and photocopies of excerpts from modern editions, was hard to work with. It lacked consistent pagination, was not illustrated, and had no visual or thematic identity as a text.



In frustration, I reverted to the classic anthology (which I wrote about here in July 2013), a format with which I was familiar but with which I had serious reservations. I decided, for convenience’s sake, to go with the textbook. There were advantages: I used the reading comprehension questions for the daily online quizzes, and the thematic questions for exam questions. There was perfect clarity as to what was being assessed. I fielded very few procedural questions from students.

After teaching this format for a year, I was pleased with the clear-cut structure of the assessments, but still kept running up against the narrative problem. For students (and myself to a lesser degree), the History of Spanish Literature was not a meaningful rubric for organizing our readings. They are attracted to political and social narratives. More than anything else, they crave background information about the places and times in question. They find the original medieval Castilian difficult, disorienting, disheartening, but not distasteful.

Drawn to narrative Source: Telegraph UK

Drawn to narrative
Source: Telegraph UK

In an attempt to address these concerns and to allow myself to return to teaching a more culturally inclusive vision of my understanding of the literary culture in the Peninsula during the first half of the second millennium, I decided to teach fewer works in their entirety, to give the students all texts in both Spanish and English (regardless of their original language of composition), and to assign trade books in English paired with each primary reading to give them abundant background information along with the narrative they seem to be craving. I was inspired by the example of my colleague Prof. S.J. Pearce (NYU), who has taught a similar course in English (focused on al-Andalus), and by a discussion I had with the Historian Prof. Brian Catlos (U Colorado) about organizing large survey courses. The result is the following course, organized thematically around questions of coexistence, conflict, and conquest. You can read a draft of the full syllabus here.

  1. María Rosa Menocal, Ornament of the World
  2. Cities of Light (Film)
  3. Richard Fletcher, Moorish Spain
  4. Clarke, The Muslim Conquest of Iberia: Medieval Arabic Narratives
  5. Poems of al-Mu’tamid (trans. Rubiera Mata)
  6. Jane Gerber, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience
  7. Catlos, Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Christians, Muslims and Jews in the Age of Crusade (chapters on Samuel Hanagid and Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar)
  8. Poems of Samuel Hanagid Nagrela (trans. Peter Cole; trans. Ángel Sáenz-Badillos)
  9. The Poem of the Cid (ed. Ian Michael, trans. Rita Hamilton and Janet Perry)
  10. Roger Wright, Spanish Ballads (especially romances fronterizos)
  11. Matthew Carr, Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain
  12. Francisco Núñez Muley, Memorial (ed. Lingkua 2007; trans. Barletta;)
  13. Don Quijote (ed. Rico; trans. Grossman; chapters 1-3, and Ricote episdoe)

The idea with this approach is that the students come to the first day of class having read Menocal’s Ornament of the World and having viewed Cities of Light, and so have some historical and cultural background before getting down to the business of reading medieval texts. Each primary text is (ie paired with a historical study in English that gives them considerably more historical, political, and cultural background than the brief introductory paragraphs in a classic anthology, and the availability of English translations take the pressure off them to digest 13th- or 14th- century Castilian after just having come from third-year reading and composition courses.

It's a new world

It’s a new world

In the fall, when I teach the survey course in a larger format (60-70 students, 2 lectures and one discussion section), it will include the New World. Our department has shifted to a survey system that covers the Hispanic-Latino world during a given time period, as opposed to teaching separate sequences in Peninsular and Latin American literature. I will probably add the Diario of Columbus and Naufragios by Cabeza de Vaca, either in a bilingual edition (Columbus) or separate Spanish and English editions (Cabeza de Vaca).

And by the way, I am still looking for an undergrad-friendly secondary source in English to provide historical and cultural background for the romances fronterizos. Any suggestions?




Re-rethinking the Survey Course: back to the commercial textbook

Spanish 316 is a panoramic survey of Peninsular Spanish literature of the premodern period (1100-1600). It is a mainstay of my teaching practice; I usually teach it about 3 times per year. It is a requirement for the Spanish major at the University of Oregon and satisfies the literature requirement for the Spanish minor. It is taught in two lectures weekly with a discussion section at the end of the week covering both lectures. In addition to the instructor of record there is a GTF (Graduate Teaching Fellow) who is responsible for the discussion sections. It is taught in Spanish and is a fairly large format for our department; enrollment is capped at 70 students.

Here are a few relevant documents: [course listing] [syllabus] [final exam rubric]

I’ve written about the survey course in a previous post (“Rethinking the Survey Course”) in which I argued for an issues-based approach mixing short selections from pedagogical editions and non-literary primary sources (treatises, chronicles, etc). In this iteration I am going back to a more conventional model and am basing my course on the popular textbook Voces de España. In line with our recent reorganization of our survey courses (texts and contexts), I am putting the emphasis on helping students make the connection between literary practice and historical context. That is, my mission is to help them understand why a given formal or thematic innovation is significant in its literary historical and broader historical context. As in a communicative language class, the emphasis is on demonstrating/articulating one’s readings of the primary texts through close textual analysis.

For this class I have reversed my position on avoiding commercial textbooks and adopted Voces de España as the text. After teaching Spanish 316 for many years using my own materials (almost all free of copyright) I decided that the overall coherence and quality of the materials was lacking, and that a commercial textbook, for its shortcomings (price, limited selection of readings), would solve many of the problems I had been facing in terms of editorial consistency, pagination, and in particular the consistency of textual glosses, introductory essays, and reading/thematic questions. Voces in my opinion is superior to the other choices in that it has a more diverse range of readings (female authors, essays, etc) and fairly well-thought out questions for prereading, comprehension, analysis, and extended writing assignments. It is still far from ideal in teaching multicultural Iberia in that it does not contain readings originally written in many of the literary languages of the Iberian Peninsula: Catalan, Aragonese, Galician-Portuguese, Arabic, Latin, or Hebrew. Details, details. I won’t address the question of the linguistic and/or cultural diversity of medieval Iberia and its implications for teaching in Castilian at the undergraduate level here, but it is definitely a conversation worth having.

In order to leverage the advantages of such a textbook, and in an effort to draw a very clear connection between content, class activities, and assessments, I decided to adopt the pedagogical materials in Voces outright. The daily quizzes are the preguntas de comprensión, the prereading discussion is based on the preguntas de prelectura, and the exam questions are the preguntas analíticas. There is no question whatsoever as to what will be on the quizzes, on the exams, or how what we are doing in class will relate to the midterm or final exam.

I’ve structured the lectures and discussion sections as follows: At the end of the prior lecture we will dedicate a few minutes to the preguntas de prelectura in anticipation of next class’s text. Students will bring a 3×5” index card to each class session and will write a short response to the pregunta de prelectura that will serve as a basis for small group discussion of the pregunta and then, once they hand it in, as a record of their attendance and participation for the class.

Before the start of the following lecture, students are required to log onto Blackboard and complete a quiz on the lecture’s reading that consists of 4 questions drawn randomly from the preguntas de comprensión associated with the reading. This way, students are able to prepare all of the questions in advance and answer the 4 questions based on their level preparation.

Lectures are devoted to explaining the historical context of the readings and attempting to draw connections between the primary text and the historical context. Lectures will be structured as follows:

  • introduction to historical context
  • close reading of key passages
  • explanation of relationship between context and text
  • broader significance of text
  • literary historical context: links to other texts in class
  • prereading for next text

Discussion section:

As outlined in the syllabus, discussion section should be spent reviewing students’ preliminary answers to the preguntas de análisis (which will serve as the questions for the midterm and the final exams) and doing exercises to help them develop their critical reading and writing skills so they will perform well on the midterm and final exams. All exercises conducted in section should be clearly related to improving their performance on the exams and should be based in the rubric for the final exam.

Some suggested activities and exercises for discussion section:

  • Spend a few moments discussing what you will be doing in the section and why; what is the purpose of the exercises and what do you hope to accomplish with them.
  • Practice critical reading strategies (focusing the question, what kind of evidence am I looking for, etc)
  • Identify key vocabulary in texts (verbs, adjectives, etc)
  • Identify key rhetorical figures in texts
  • Practice writing topic sentences that contextualize the evidence you are about to present
  • Practice writing sentences that incorporate textual evidence
  • Practice adapting grammar of citations to fit sentence grammar
  • Practice identifying key elements of historical contexts in introductory essays and identifying textual evidence that reflects these elements

What about you? How does this course compare with your experience teaching (or taking) a survey course in premodern Spanish literature? I look forward to your comments.

Teaching medieval literature to undergraduates in the original version: back to the philology seminar model

Libro del caballero Zifar, f32r.º del Manuscrito de París (ms. espagnol 36 (Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

Medievalists working in modern languages face a happy dilemma: we sometimes have the privilege of teaching works in our own subfield to a captive audience of language majors who need to take upper-division courses in the target language in order to complete their degrees. In some rare cases these students are actually required to take courses on premodern works. On paper this is a wonderful opportunity to share with our students the same works that got us all fired up about medieval literature in the first place.

But there is a problem: medieval vernaculars are difficult, and students may come to the classroom with facile but entrenched preconceptions about the difficulty, irrelevance, and strangeness of medieval texts, even those in modernized versions or in English translations.

One approach to this problem is to preempt these preconceptions by working to demonstrate the relevance of medieval texts, their value for understanding current-day issues and debates (I discussed this approach in survey courses in a previous post). We can address the question of difficulty by excerpting, modernizing, translating the texts in question. Break them down into digestible bites so the students will not feel overwhelmed or linguistically incompetent.

a cucharadiiiiitaaaaaas

This approach comes with a price: if we teach modernized versions, our students get little exposure to the linguistic reality of the culture we are teaching them. Their understanding of the target language is less diverse, less historically informed. Learning to read medieval registers of a vernacular language is a window onto linguistic diversity, one that persists in modern non-normative dialects. Medieval registers of modern languages also reveal commonalities with other modern national languages that have since been repressed.

There are other reasons to teach original versions of medieval texts. There is a satisfaction that comes with overcoming the uncomfortable, the challenging, with rendering the strange familiar through sheer effort. Students of languages are not strangers to this process, but by the time they have achieved sufficient proficiency in the target language in question, having to face a steep linguistic curve as advanced upperclassmen may seem like an ambush: I wanted to study Spanish literature; I didn’t sign up for…this?

This fall I will be teaching an upper-level seminar in my field, and I have chosen to return to a pedagogical model we all know well: the philology seminar. Instead of teaching a series of short excerpts or modernizations of texts, I will teach the whole of the original Libro del cavallero Zifar in ten weeks, in chunks of some twenty pages per class session. We will begin with an introduction to medieval Castilian phonology, morphology, orthography, and lexicon. Students will write critical commentaries and modernizations of weekly selections. And yes, they will write a term-end literary critical essay.

I believe the students will suffer some. They have not ever been asked to do this before. They have read very very little, if any, medieval Castilian. At best they have read very short excerpts of Gonzalo de Berceo or Juan Ruiz, usually with accompanying modernizations or English translations. There will be blood.

Petrus de Capua. Distinctiones Theologicae. England, 13th.

The first weeks will likely be rough going. But I hope they will gain something as well. I am hoping they will ramp up, and that the sixth or seventh reading assignments will go down far easier than the first and second. They will have the opportunity to tackle the whole book, and work through that sense of strangeness they often bring to medieval language.

What about you? What has your experience been in teaching entire medieval works in original versions to undergraduate students of modern languages?
Please feel free to leave a comment below.






Rethinking the survey course (Peninsular Spanish Literature 1100-1600)

The survey course of literature was originally designed to give students an introduction to the major authors, genres, and works of a given time period. It is a performance of literary history. The idea is for students to have a general familiarity with a national canon before they progress to the higher-level courses that specialize and go in depth into the study of a more specific time period, artistic movement, genre, author, or work.

Don José says read this

This makes sense if you approach the study of literature as literary history. But the recent social science and cultural studies turn in literary studies has created different expectations and habits of thought among students and professors alike. Some are beginning to find the traditional survey course out of step with expectations and current practice.

In a recent discussion with some students in my survey course on Peninsular Spanish literature (1100-1600), I found that very few of them thought that a Spanish major was essentially (as I had always imagined it) an English major, but in Spanish. That is, they did not feel that the purpose of the Spanish major is to learn the literary history of Spain and Latin America, and to learn about the formal aspects and critical approaches to the literary critical study of poetry, fiction, drama, and film. In short, they didn’t care about literary history; they wanted to ‘learn Spanish.’ One stubborn student admitted that he liked to read books and write essays about them. But the rest saw it differently.

I am always tinkering with my survey course. I teach it at least twice a year, so I have lots of opportunities to swap readings out, fine-tune the written assignments, and update my lecture notes and activities. In light of this recent discussion with my students, I decided on a more radical overhaul this time around.

Fond memories of 3rd-year Spanish

Many students in survey courses of Spanish and Latin American literature (in US universities) are language learners who are in their third or perhaps fourth year of study. They are not anywhere near as proficient in Spanish as the average English major is in English. It makes sense that the survey courses they take would not simply be a Spanish-language version of a survey of English literature. Many third-year language textbooks rubricate readings thematically, opening the unit with a general discussion of the theme (migration, women’s rights, pollution, family structure, etc) then progressing to a related reading with activities and written assignments designed to reinforce student’s understanding of the theme and their command of key vocabulary.

I adopted this approach in structuring my survey courses. I maintain a chronological structure that begins in the eleventh century and ends in the seventeenth. The main difference is in the presentation of the texts. The syllabus introduces each reading with a ‘big question,’ designed to point up the broader social, religious, or political significance of the text. In formulating the questions, I asked myself “what is interesting about this text?” (Not “how have literary historians explained the significance of this text” or “why is this text important for the development of Spanish literature?”).

What's interesting about this text?

For example, the unit on Marian miracles (we read one of the miracles in Gonzalo de Berceo’s Milagros de Nuestra Señora) asks “Why do we want God to be a woman?” For many of the readings, there is an excerpt of a contemporary essay on a related topic, and an additional primary text from the period on the same subject, and the occasional excerpt of a secondary literary critical essay.

The Question-driven syllabus

The ‘big question’ for each reading sets the agenda for the class meetings, discussion section meetings, and written assignments. For each syllabus entry, there is a question, key terminology or themes, a debate topic, and a creative assignment (práctica). In a given lecture meeting you might begin with an individual writing exercise and/or small group discussion of the question, then segue into coverage of the excerpt of a modern essay on a related topic (for the Catholic Monarchs’ Edict of Expulsion we’ll read an excerpt from an essay on ethnic cleansing) or a related primary text from the same period. Discussion section leaders can choose to assign students to prepare both sides of the debate based on textual evidence from primary and/or secondary texts. Alternatively they can choose to have students prepare the creative assignment, which can in turn form the textual basis for activities conducted during section.

Click here to see the full syllabus

None of these adjustments in approaching classic texts means that literary history is consigned to the dustbin. They still learn about Gonzalo de Berceo’s biography, about the emergence of Castilian as a literary language, about Catholic Mariology and popular Marian practices. It is still a survey course of (mostly) canonical texts; one geared for students who do not necessarily see themselves first and foremost as lit majors.

There will be skeptics. They will accuse me of pandering to students’ obsession with ‘relatability,’ of giving in to the tyranny of present-ism. But I think leading with the question is simply good humanism. It helps remind us of how these texts we love to read and teach speak to the human condition. And if our students, even our Spanish majors, are not necessarily presold on the humanities, I don’t see any harm in reminding them why they should be.

Narratology + Film adaptations = Introduction to Narrative (Spanish 333)

Our undergraduate program in Spanish literature has three courses at the third year level focusing on the study of a given genre: poetry, narrative, drama. This summer I taught “Introduction to Narrative” during summer session. It is a 4-credit course that meets four days weekly for sessions of 1h 50m over four weeks [click here to see syllabus].

In the past when I have taught the course I have had the students read a series of short stories and introduce a critical vocabulary of narratological concepts (plot elements, characterization, point of view, etc.). This time I gave them a selection of classic short stories from canonical Spanish and Latin American authors (Don Juan Manuel, Pardo Bazán, Rulfo, Matute, Borges, etc).

Typically I would assign a series of writing assignments geared to demonstrate an understanding of how the authors make use of the various narratological resources (theme, tone, narration, dialogue, plot, etc) and to what effect. The final assignment was usually a 5-7 page literary critical essay focusing on one or more of the texts.

There are two things I wanted to accomplish in designing this course the way I did:

  • Give the students some models for academic literary criticism
  • Provide an opportunity to produce a literary critical project that went beyond the traditional literary critical essay.

For the first three weeks we read one story per class session from the popular anthology Aproximaciones al estudio de la literatura hispánica (Approaches to the Study of Hispanic Literature). For the first class session, the students were responsible for reading the introductory essay on narratology and familiarizing themselves with key critical terms for the study of narrative. Before each class they took a short online quiz (4 strictly factual true/false questions) to make sure everyone had done the reading. In class we reviewed the stories and relevant critical concepts, and workshopped close readings, applying concepts, selecting textual examples, and explaining their importance for understanding the concepts.

In past classes, when reading students’ literary criticism I have been getting the (unscientific) impression that they do not have a strong sense of what professional literary criticism sounds like. That is, they are unfamiliar with the style, the rhetorical strategies and structural conventions of the genre.

It occurred to me that I have never required my third-year students to read literary criticism. I’d always assumed that assigning them professional literary critical essays would either overwhelm them (if in Spanish) or derail the pedagogical mission (if in English). I myself remember college professors of 300-level survey courses in English literature saying that they preferred we focus on writing our own criticism rather than read what other people thought about the texts.

But it is fair to ask someone to imitate a model they have not seen? Probably not; but in any event, I still thought that assigning long literary critical essays in Spanish might not be productive. So this time around, I compromised. For each short story on the syllabus, I located a published literary critical essay, and included 2-3 short selections in a one-page handout [click here to see one]. These extracts satisfied a number of requirements: they are short enough to be easily digestible for in-class discussion of how to deploy textual examples, they were short enough to satisfy most working definitions of fair use (and so could be included in a course reader without incurring additional copyright fees), and they were mostly in Spanish, the language of instruction for the course.

Because the articles are all about the stories the students read in preparation for the lesson, they help bolster their understanding of the material and give them specific examples for how to approach the texts critically. These models of criticism help to give students an idea as to what they are shooting for. I don’t expect them to start writing immediately like professional critics, but better to aim high.

At the end of weeks 1-3 students handed in a short (min 500 words) critical essay written on one of the week’s four texts explaining the author’s use of at least two of the critical concepts discussed in class.

For the final project, the students (working in groups) produced a film adaptation of one of the stories. Students were assigned randomly in groups of four and were responsible for submitting a script (guión) of their adaptation, then a storyboard (guión gráfico), and then the final cut video in .mp4 or .mov format.

To familiarize ourselves with the new format (video) we watched a series of similar video adaptations produced by AP Spanish students in US high schools. We also read Gerardo Sánchez’s short, self-published Como escribir un guión (How to write a script) and looked at examples of professional screenplays in Spanish. They built their skills in a series of in-class exercises in which they practiced conceiving and scripting short scenes from the readings in formal screenplay format.

The students spent week 4 (the final week) of the course workshopping their project in groups of 4 or 5. They spent the weekend working on their screenplay. On Monday they turned in the screenplay, with the storyboard due the following day. Wednesday they finished shooting and editing their short films. On Thursday, I booked the (very swanky) screening room of the new UO Cinema Studies Lab for a Spanish 333 film festival. Each group gave a short introduction to their film and fielded questions after the screening. The groups decided collectively whether or not they wanted to publish their shorts on YouTube.

It may seem counterintuitive to spend three weeks studying literary critical essays and then not require them to write a substantial literary critical essay. This was an experiment. My hope was that by combining traditional literary criticism with cinematic adaptation, the students would:

  • Reinforce their understanding of narrative and narratological concepts by approaching the material in a creative, productive assignment.
  • Come to a better comparative understanding of literary and cinematic approaches to narrative by having to experience, first-hand, the possibilities and limitations afforded by the film medium.
  • Experience something different in one of their Spanish classes, and maybe even have some fun (is that wrong?)

The adaptations were pretty good overall. I made it clear that I did not want them to spend lots of time mastering the equipment or the editing software. I wanted them to tell a story. A couple of the projects were shot entirely on an iPhone or iPod Touch, with pretty impressive results on both video and audio (the Rulfo adaptation below was shot entirely on an iPhone, including the audio). I’ve embedded two examples in this post, adaptations of story no. 35 from Don Juan Manuel’s Conde Lucanor (Spain, 14th c.) and Juan Rulfo’s “No oyes ladrar los perros” (Mexico, 20th c.)


Does graduate coursework in literature prepare students for professional academic literary criticism?

Grad seminar at London School of Economics, circa 1981

What is the point of a graduate level seminar in literature? In a Masters-level class in, for example, medieval Spanish literature, there are two goals.

The first is to help students achieve mastery of a corpus of texts that will provide them with a broad familiarity with Hispanic cultural production. This way, when they are looking for work as instructors at the post-MA or postdoctoral levels they will have a familiarity with major works and movements in their historical contexts. To this end we require them to read and demonstrate critical understanding of primary works and secondary essays.

The second is to help them develop professional skills. To achieve this, I feel it is helpful to draw on communities of practice pedagogy, which in a nutshell suggests that if you want to be a chemist you should do chemistry and not just learn about it.

In literary criticism this generally means engaging with texts and eventually producing a critical essay that is essentially a Fisher-Price version of an academic journal article. I feel this is a reasonable goal for a graduate class but that ten weeks of furious reading followed by a week or so of scrambling to put together an acceptably rigorous essay is not a fair approximation of professional academics.

We all have different working methods, but generally the road from reading to finished manuscript is more iterative. We read, take notes, discuss with students or colleagues, write abstracts, give papers, respond to questions, rework ideas, hand a draft to a colleague, perhaps blog a preliminary version, submit a manuscript for peer review, incorporate readers’ comments, and then —hopefully— have a finished manuscript.

In a traditional graduate seminar there are far fewer formal occasions to articulate and reflect on the ideas you are forming. This is partly due to time constraints: in ten or fifteen weeks it is difficult to both get through a list of books and drill down onto one of them in particular.

We can, however, take steps to offer our students a more graduated experience, one more in line with the experience they are likely to have as an academic literary critic. One way to increase the intensity of a course is to limit the syllabus to one or two major works to be read in full over the term. This way, students can spend less time frantically trying to cram themselves full of Canonical Works and spend more time understanding a single work in its particular context. They can read selections of related works or source texts, historical documents, and secondary essays. And they can work on a series of close readings of the week’s section of the work. All of these, hopefully, contribute to a deeper and more intensive understanding of the work in question.

This format is also more conducive to a critical practice that anticipates the work of a humanities researcher. Students can develop a concept or theme over the course of the term, in a series of related writing assignments, in a conference abstract, in a short paper delivered in class, and then in a term paper.

The communal focus that comes from all students focusing on different aspects of a single work creates a group of critics who all have a stake in the conversation that is based on a deep and sustained reading they have undertaken together. When they present papers, all of their interlocutors are similarly critically engaged in the same text, as in a conference panel where the audience has all read, taught, and written on the text in question.

There are, of course, tradeoffs involved. The monographic course does not get you much closer to the bottom of your exam reading list. You could argue that by showcasing a single work, students who are not likely to take more than a single course in (for example) medieval Spanish literature will not get a sufficiently broad understanding of the period from their subsequent individual readings of the rest of the works on their list from that period.

This can be allayed somewhat by making an effort to bring the work into dialogue with other major works of the time. In one course I required each student to present on a related work of the same period in order to get a better idea of the intellectual context of the times. This provides some synthetic overview of the period, but does not go into much detail about the related works.

This past term I taught a seminar on Fernando de Rojas’ Celestina (1499) putting some of these ideas into practice. It yielded some fine results. There was sustained, insightful discussion in every class session, and all students participated very actively. I could see the students developing their critical voices over the course of the term, and by the end of the ten weeks they were able to write with some authority on their selected themes. The Q&A sessions after the short 10-minute mini-conference papers were lively, and the resulting essays seemed more interesting and more rigorously thought out than the kinds of essays I would receive when the syllabus was more ambitious. For now, at least, I’d say that’s a case for slow reading in graduate education.

What do you think? Have you had success designing (or taking) courses focusing on one work? Courses with graduated assignments that take students through various steps of the idea-mongering process? I look forward to your comments.