I.A. Richards’ 1938 classic can *still* make you into a better writing teacher

ENG-W 206, Introduction to Creative Writing, is a course I teach often at Indiana University Southeast. A basic CW course, it offers a taste of three genres: poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. The students who take it are from diverse majors, for instance, English Literature, Writing, Secondary Education, Nursing, General Education, and a smattering of other undergraduates across the campus. With such a broad cross-section of students, some taking it as a requirement, others as an elective, and most with pretty rudimentary ideas about what a creative writing course involves (i.e. being “creative,” “easy,” “no study required,”) W 206 has its challenges.

One issue I had to solve for this class was how to improve the level of critical responses to model poems, such as “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden. No matter how I set up the lesson, gave lessons on terminology, and contextualized the model poem, too much of the class was performing poorly, way below the outcome of “Analyzing Creative Writing.” For instance, rather than use any clues from the poem, when asked to discuss who the speaker of the poem was, a student replied, “When I read it I read it as a girl, because I am one.” The same student’s remarks about “interpretation” included,

I read it as a young girl who had gotten into an argument with her Father and even though they were still sort of mad at each other, the cold between them, he gets up to make sure she is comfortable in the morning and ready on his day off.

As you can tell, this isn’t an interpretation; it’s a plot summary.

One response like this, okay. Too many like this, well, they upset me. I was taking quite a bit of time to build the course to support outcomes. I’m experienced at this, with good reviews, and many students have been successful under my instruction. But after several semesters of trying different approaches and rewriting lessons, I couldn’t move this stubborn one-third of the class up the outcome graph. Maybe that’s just the way it was going to be? Maybe some have a head for literary things and some just don’t?

A possible solution arose through summer reading. Typically, I choose one or two books about teaching to study during the summer break. Last summer I chose I.A. Richards’ 1938 classic, Interpretation in Teaching. Though I had read parts of it for a paper I presented at the 2014 Kentucky Philological Association conference (“The Strange History of Metaphor”), this time, incisive comments about pedagogy jumped out at me, such as:

How to hand back the gains of the more experienced to the less experienced in the least hampering and most available form is the general problem. (3)

As I read this, I thought, isn’t this exactly what I’m trying to do? I hoped Richards might have an answer, and soon I found an approach to take. He writes:

The best way to set our minds to work on a critical question is to give them a passage and a comment on it together – not a mere bare specimen of writing by itself. This is the natural, the conversational cue for discussion….it is more provoking….By doing so we overcome, in part, that blank negative feeling of limitless freedom, with no obvious starting points, which is the source of so many vagaries. (28)

This was my “eureka” moment, and so obvious upon reading it, that it was also embarrassing to wonder: why hadn’t I thought of it before?

Having someone else’s published critical commentary to respond to might reduce the fear of “limitless freedom,” reduce the “vagaries,” and make success more probable. I decided to pair my models with a critical commentary.

In fact, I extended the experience, using technology Richards’ didn’t have at his disposal in 1938. Using the Discussion area in our online course administration system, Canvas, I had students post their analytic responses to the entire class, and required that they continue the discussion by commenting on their peers’ responses. You might have Blackboard or some other system, but they usually have similar features. Further, I used a Canvas setting that requires students to post first in the discussion before they could see other student posts. Finally, I set up “Guidelines for Response” based on successful course practices, to attempt to avoid superficial commentary. The guidelines are:

Guidelines for Response

Examples of quality posts include: providing additional information to the discussion; elaborating on previous comments from others; presenting explanations of concepts or methods to help fellow students; presenting reasons for or against a topic in a persuasive fashion; sharing your own personal experiences that relate to the topic, and using your new terminology.

The results were much more in line with my goals across much more of the course’s students. Not only did the majority of students approach the assignment enthusiastically, but they succeeded better. The average score went up an entire grade level, from B-, to A-, and the spread of grades improved from 60% between highest and lowest (between 98% and 38%) to only 21% (between 100% and 79%).

I enjoyed seeing students feel free to take issue with the short critical excerpt as well, as this example shows (students were reading Margaret Atwood’s brief poem, “You Fit into Me”):

I do believe she [critic Jess Simmons] took a left turn somewhere. It is interesting to think of the poem in cases of rape and sexual penetration – since it is such a short poem. She assumes first that, because the writer of the poem is female, then, that the speaker of the poem is adopting a female persona as well. What’s to say the speaker of the poem is not a male? Or what if both characters in the poem are of the same sex? The only words that allude to male or female genitalia are “hook” and “eye” and I didn’t even guess that upon my first few readings. I assumed the hook symbolized the act of fishing – of luring a fish to slaughter with bait. In this case, the speaker is the fish and the promise of a beautiful and loving relationship is the bait. That could happen to any gender and therefore, is why I do not agree that Men cannot comprehend the complexity of the poem.

This simple change, giving students not just the model poem, but a critical sample to work from, seems to have solved the problem. I say “seems” because this is the first semester I tried it, and I need to see how future sections respond in case this class just happened to be exceptional (in which case they hardly need a teacher at all). But it could be the pedagogical trick I needed, and if you are in a similar predicament, I hope it helps you with your teaching. I also suggest you find a copy of Richards’ classic, because it’s a book on teaching writing and rhetoric that has withstood the test of time.

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