Inside Higher Ed’s Tips for Summer

Inside Higher Ed just posted this helpful article for educators regarding how to make the most of summer vacation. I am already taking stock in some of what is proposed in the article, namely to do most of the prep work for the fall in the early part of the summer, including syllabus revisions or new course development. The article theorizes that doing this in the beginning of the summer will declutter the mind and leave more time for writing and research during the rest of the summer. In addition, the article also suggests keeping a shadow syllabus throughout the semester to write down what worked and didn’t work in a class, so changes can be made early in the summer, while the comments are still fresh. I have never kept a shadow syllabus, but I do take notes regarding what worked and didn’t work, especially if I need to change an exam or change some of the readings, based on student response.

Lastly, the article stresses the importance of setting realistic goals for writing and publishing and ensuring to plan vacation time to reset and recharge the batteries. It’s worth a read! Anyone else have any helpful suggestions regarding how to make the best use of summer?

A Call for Poetry in English Composition

Like most English faculty members, I always have to teach English composition each semester, along with my literature courses. For adjunct instructors, the English comp load is much heavier, sometimes, at multiple schools. While the course may differ from school to school, at least slightly, it does have some common features. A research paper is generally always taught, along with the three appeals, MLA, and APA. But surrounding the research project are shorter writing assignments, and composition instructors do have some flexibility in terms of those assignments.

For years, I’ve included a poetry unit in the course, usually after the research paper, as we drive towards the final weeks of the semester. I do this for a number of reasons. First, I hope to reset their views on poetry. A lot of students groan about having to study poetry again. They return to their 10th grade high school classroom and the Emily Dickinson poem they just couldn’t understand, especially when they had to dissect its meter. By their first year in college, a lot of students are convinced that they’ll never understand poetry, which is why it should be taught! During their first year in college, students have the opportunity to reset, to try something new, to challenge their notions about various subject matters.

Immediately, I tell students not to worry about form, meter, rhythm, and other textbook elements so much. Instead, I’m more interested in having an open discussion about the poems. What works? What doesn’t work? What are the figurative and literal readings? How do they relate to the poem or not relate? By opening the discussion this way, I find that students are much more comfortable talking about poetry. A little later, I give them some of the terminology to use, so they can write the required lit. analysis.

I’ll also add that my poetry lists for my composition courses are contemporary. This year, I taught Donelle McGee, Meg Kearney,  Kevin Coval, Natasha Tretheway (four poets under 50), and then reached back to the mid-20th Century in Robert Hayden and Theodore Roethke, before reaching back to the early 20th Century in covering some of Carl Sandburg’s Chicago poems.

I do this because I want the students to be able to understand the language. I also believe that if they REALLY take an interest in poetry, then they will go back to see who influenced those poets. But for students just encountering poetry again, or even encountering it for the first time, I want them to be able to understand the language. If they take my literature courses, they’ll have a chance to read works much earlier than the 20th Century. First, however, I need to ensure they don’t have poetry phobia.

I encourage any composition instructor comfortable teaching poetry to teach it because it enhances a student’s ability to closely read a text and critically analyze a work line by line. Once the class wraps up, there just may be a few comments on the class evaluation that state a few students really disliked poetry going into the class but their views changed.

On Teaching Poetry

I am sharing a video by the Academy of American Poets featuring Naomi Shihab Nye, a poet whose work I like quite a lot. This video focuses on Nye’s comments about teaching poetry and the difficulty of poetry. Much of what she says in this video resonates with me both as a poet and a full-time English instructor at a college. When I taught creative writing in the past, I’ve had students groan about having to write poetry, and when I come to the poetry unit in my literature courses, I have countless students who think that they can’t get or understand poetry. I have had my own theories on why this is, and some of my students have confessed to me that their experience with poetry in high school was reduced to dissecting meter on a black board, as though poetry is a math equation that needs to be solved.

Nye brings up another point, however, that I think is true. She states, “Something happened with poetry a while ago where it became a measurable thing. You either get it or you don’t get it.” She stresses the importance of sweeping that idea under the rug in the classroom and creating an environment where love for poetry is known and welcome. She also recommends allowing students to bring in poems that resonate with them and talking for a few minutes about why they love the poem so much.   Furthermore, she recommends playing audio clips of the poets reading their work. This is something I do in nearly all of my classes. I have noticed time and time again that when students can hear a voice and associate that voice with the poem, they relate to the poem more. Sometimes, it makes the poem easier for them to understand, too. Though this is a short video, there is a lot of good feedback in here regarding teaching, creative writing pedagogy, and teaching poetry.

Here is the video. Enjoy!