Using Kenneth Burke’s Concept of Identification

Have you ever watched a movie or read a book in which you “identified” strongly with the main character? This is what Kenneth Burke means by “identification.” We want to be like characters we admire. But this is also true in real life.

I took up the topic of Kenneth Burke’s concept of “Identification,” in a previous post, “Identification and Division in the Current Crisis.” In this post, I want to delve further into the concept and explore some possible uses of the concept.

Identification and Division

Burke notes that “Identification,” (and rhetoric itself) is necessary because there is division. In The Rhetoric of Motives he says,

Identification is affirmed with earnestness precisely because there is division. Identification is compensatory to division. If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity. (22)

“Division” is our natural state. However, humans are also social creatures. We form families, tribes, communities, nations, alliances, and movements. Each of these groupings has ways of signaling membership and recognizing outsiders. Problems arise when different groups want to occupy the same territory, or use the same resources. But where there is division, we can try to overcome it by finding common ground.

It is likely that some identification is unconscious. We see or hear a person and we immediately “identify” with them. They seem to be like us in some way, or to be someone we would like to emulate or believe, but we don’t know exactly why. It might be gestures, a tone of voice, a remembrance of someone we admire who is similar in some way. But identification can also be consciously attempted.

Current Politics

We see this in our current politics. A politician has a core “base” of supporters who think like she does. These people strongly identify with their candidate. However, it is usually the case that the “base” is not enough to win the election. The candidate has to find ways to appeal to a larger group, without alienating her base. She has to find ways to signal to other groups that she is one of them too. Sometimes this involves using terms that have one meaning to the base, but have another to an outside group. This strategy is often called a “dogwhistle.” An actual “dogwhistle” is a whistle that when blown produces a sound that is too high pitched for humans to hear, but can be heard by dogs, who can hear a higher frequency range. In politics, by analogy, a “dogwhistle” is term that sounds positive to the base, but neutral to outsiders, who may actually disagree with the implications it has for the base if they understood them.

Identification is not just in politics, however. It is part of persuasion in schools, workplaces, corporate boardrooms and in the news. It is part of families and communities. It is even part of friendships. How does it work?

Tracking Identifications

One way to think about this is to track ways to signal identification. A short list might include:

  • Clothing including uniforms
  • Colors such as gang colors, school colors, red states and blue states, Dodger blue and Angel red
  • Symbols such as flags, insignia, designs, logos
  • Images and memes
  • Words identified with particular viewpoints (including “dogwhistles”)
  • Slogans, maxims, and stock phrases
  • Gestures such as salutes and handshakes
  • Associations with occupations, regions, social classes

Of course, there is some overlap in these categories.

Military uniforms have a long history. At a very basic level they function to help soldiers tell friend from foe and combatants from civilians. Military organizations also have various badges and insignia that indicate rank and achievements. The uniform and various attachments signify to all that this individual is a member of this organization and what role they perform in it. Of course, members of this organization are more skilled in interpreting these signals than outsiders, which increases the insider/outsider effect of identification.

Outside of the military, uniforms and other clothing choices can help observers tell employees from customers, students form teachers, and identify members of social groupings such as athletes, “goths” or other groupings defined by choices in music, sports, gaming, or other cultural activities. Of course, if an individual attempts to identify with a group by wearing its clothing, but gets it wrong in some way, that will unintentionally signal outsiderness. There is nothing more embarrassing than attempting to identify with a group and failing.

Of course, symbols such as flags and logos also define groups. Recently, there has been considerable controversy about the Confederate battle flag, the “stars and bars.” Does it signify “southern pride” or racism and slavery? Does it unify through identification or divide? The answer will probably be found by exploring what groups want to be identified with the symbol.

Internet memes are now a powerful way of signaling identity. Images from films and other media are combined with short phrases to make concise points that often signal a specific point of view.

Inducing Identification (The Ethos Move)

An interesting exercise is to read an article or listen to a speech with identification in mind. We might ask

  • Who is the audience (or audiences) that the writer/speaker wants to persuade?
  • What are some of the things that this audience identifies with?
  • What moves does the writer/speaker make to identify with this audience?
  • How successful is the writer/speaker in getting the audience to identify with them? What goes right and what goes wrong?

Responding to Identification (The Pathos Move)

Another exercise is to analyze your own response to an article or speech. We might ask

  • What are some of the groups I identify with? What are some of the things that I associate with those groups?
  • Do I identify with this writer/speaker? Do I feel part of their group? Why or why not?
  • What moves does the writer/speaker make to try to win my identification? How do I react to these moves?
  • What could this writer/speaker do better to make me identify with them?
  • How much does identification influence my willingness to accept their arguments?

Recognizing False Identifications

Sometimes attempts at identification simply don’t work. The banker in a cowboy hat does not make a convincing member of a group of cattle ranchers. The white politician who doesn’t know how to eat a tamale is unsuccessful in convincing a Latino group that he is simpatico. The democratic politician from Massachusetts looks ridiculous wearing a helmet and sitting in a tank.

However, sometimes identifications are consciously deceptive. They are an attempt to fool the audience into believing that the writer/speaker is something they are not.

For example, from sea stories by Patrick O’Brian I learned that in the 18th century, it was considered a legitimate ruse of war to fly a false flag when encountering and approaching an enemy warship, as long as the true flag went up before a shot was fired. Many English warships were captured French ones because the French built better ships, but the English sailed them better, so this ruse often brought victory. The French saw a French ship flying a French flag. Then suddenly they saw an English ship and an incoming broadside. But firing a shot under a false flag was a court martial offense, in any navy. It was against the rules of war and highly dishonorable.

In our society, is it ever acceptable to pretend to be someone or something you are not by using the terms, symbols, and other signals of identification of another group? If so, under what circumstances? I’ll leave that up to the reader.

This post as a .pdf.

How ERWC Informs My Online Instruction

In face-to-face, you can think “If it can go wrong, I’ll fix it in class.” Online, “If it can go wrong, well, I’d better make sure it doesn’t.”

It has now been two years since I stepped down from the ERWC Steering Committee after chairing it for 15 years. (For those who don’t know ERWC, it stands for “Expository Reading and Writing Course,” a California State University project designed to prepare high school seniors for reading and writing in college. The course is now taught in more than half the high schools in the state. There are lots of ERWC materials on this site, but for an overview of the approach, you might look at ERWC in a Nutshell and What Will ERWC 3.0 Be Like?)

I have lost track of how many ERWC modules I wrote and I have written others that are on this site that never became part of an ERWC course. I am now out of the loop on what ERWC is doing, as it is in the capable hands of Jennifer Fletcher at CSU Monterey Bay. However, as I plan my courses for fall 2020, I find myself falling back into ERWC ways.

Bridging Gaps on the Fly

A good course needs learning goals, accessible materials, effective pedagogy, structure, connections, and assessments. This is true whether the course is face-to-face or online, but in the face-to-face situation, a lot of gaps and disjunctions can be bridged on the fly. For example, if I have assigned a difficult reading, when I walk into the class meeting I can tell from silences, body language, and facial expressions that the class didn’t read it or didn’t understand it. I have to change strategies in the moment. On a Zoom session, I don’t have enough resolution or bandwidth to assess the situation in this informal way.

An Imaginative Process

ERWC has always been highly structured by the common template that forms the skeleton of every module. (You can see an outline of this template in “What Is a Mini-Module?“) Whenever I wrote an ERWC module, I felt like I was engaged in an imaginative process. I had to imagine a teacher teaching the material and students, who were not my own, doing the tasks. I had to imagine what the students were capable of doing at each point in the module and what they needed to learn or do to perform the next set of tasks. The module would unfold in time, but it was also connected in sort a timeless moment because every element had to connect with every other element. The template was the foundation of this imaginative process.

Remote Course Design

I am now in the midst of an online course for the faculty at my institution called “Remote Course Design Course” (RCDC). It has been very helpful. We are using a Blackboard template (Blackboard is our course management system) based on the principles of “Quality Matters.” Students begin by clicking on “Start Here!” In “Course Content” they find folders for each week that contain the learning outcomes, a step-by-step guide to all the materials and assignments, and links to all the texts. Everything they need for the week is right there. Although we still produce a syllabus, one of the participants commented that the syllabus is actually redundant because the whole structure of the course is visible in Blackboard. Here’s a screenshot of Module 1 Week 1:

Blackboard Screenshot of Advanced Expository Writing, Module 1, Week 1
Advanced Expository Writing, Module 1, Week 1

The Course Introduction video and the video on the first chapters of Performing Prose are not posted yet because, while I have done the PowerPoints for them, I haven’t shot them yet.

I used to have all of the materials of a course in two Blackboard folders: “Course Documents” and “Online Resources.” Students had to read the syllabus and then hunt down the documents, which were not organized in any particular order. I now realize how confusing that was!

Advanced Expository Writing

I am designing a junior-level “Advanced Expository Writing” course. I have five modules:

  • Thinking about Style and Narrative
  • Thinking about Rhetorical Strategies
  • Thinking about Argument and Evidence
  • Thinking about Research
  • Thinking about Publication

Each one takes between one to four weeks. As I design the assignments and populate the folders with links, I find myself thinking about ERWC modules. I am not using the ERWC template, or any template really. But I find myself imagining moving through time with the students, anticipating their needs and questions, structuring activities, and designing little formative assessments to make up for the lack of resolution in Zoom.

As I said above, in face-to-face, you can think “If it can go wrong, I’ll fix it in class.” Online, “If it can go wrong, well, I’d better make sure it doesn’t.”

I got some online teaching experience in spring when we had to shift from face-to-face to online in five days because of the pandemic. I am drawing on that experience, but I think that right now, ERWC is informing my teaching design more than that, and more than the RCDC course. It is good stuff.

Literature Program Outcomes

As I noted in my previous post, I am teaching a section of our capstone course “Senior Symposium” in the fall. One feature of this course is a portfolio that counts as part of the course grade, but is later used to assess the program. Those of you who are high school teachers have been living with Common Core learning outcomes and other top down standards for some time now. In higher education, outcomes assessment has been a topic among administrators for more than a decade, but departmental faculty are still pretty much doing their own thing.

I was on the Learning and Teaching Committee, responsible for developing and assessing Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs), for many years. At first it was fun and it seemed important. University faculty tend to think seriously about their own courses without ever thinking about what the whole program adds up to. This was a way to make faculty think about the whole.

I came to think about outcomes assessment in terms of four questions:

  • What are we trying to do?
  • How are we doing it?
  • How do we know we are doing it well?
  • How can we improve?

A discussion of just those four questions can help a department come together and function as a team with a vision of the big picture beyond individual courses.

However, administrators tended to want to make things much more complicated than a discussion of four questions. And teaching literature is not quite the same as teaching engineering or science. The administration kept asking for lists of the knowledge and skills we were teaching and matrices that indicated in which courses those skills were introduced, reinforced, and mastered. We called these “lego matrices” because they appeared to assume that a degree was built up out of a series of small pieces. This never worked very well for an English Department. They kept asking for more and more detail and it became clear that many thought that if you had trouble filling out the matrix, you weren’t teaching anything of real substance.

Another problem was that over the years, we kept changing the outcomes and the assessment procedures. That probably surprises high school teachers, who usually don’t have much control over the SLOs or the assessments. However, because we kept changing them, we don’t have a baseline, so we can’t answer the “How can we improve?” question.

As part of the portfolio for the “Senior Symposium,” my students will have to write a cover letter that argues that they have met the current outcomes and point to evidence in the rest of the portfolio, which contains a critical paper and some other materials, including papers from past courses if they want to include them, to support their argument. I created a worksheet including the current outcomes to help them prepare to write this paper:

ReflectiveCoverLetter-wrksht-colors

We used to have an “Oral Communications” outcome that caused most faculty to require student presentations in their courses. Some students reported in exit interviews that this practice had made them much more confident about speaking in front of people. However, other students complained that they didn’t get enough guidance in creating the presentations or enough feedback afterwards. The presentations were also difficult to evaluate on a program-wide basis. Rather than taking steps to improve, the department decided to eliminate the outcome. Again, I am sure high school teachers are surprised. I was too.

However, I do think the above outcomes represent a reasonable set of goals for the program. I also think that having students connect their own experiences to the SLOs and think about work they have produced that demonstrates that they have met them is a very useful culminating activity. Students are often surprised at how much they have learned.

Teaching Online in Fall 2020

I am teaching English 3150 “Advanced Expository Writing” in the fall. I have taught it several times before, but never in a completely online asynchronous situation. When students enrolled in it, it was listed as face-to-face. It is still three months before classes start, but I wanted to contact the students to make sure that they knew what was in store, so I sent the following email to the class:

Dear English 3150 Students:

You recently got an email informing you that the course you signed up for has been switched to an online format. We had to do this because of decisions made by the Chancellor’s Office and Cal Poly Pomona to protect students, faculty, and staff from Covid-19. It is disappointing, but is probably a wise decision.

I want to tell you a bit about how English 3150 will be designed. During the summer, all faculty will be taking an online course about best practices for teaching online, so this may change a little as I learn new techniques, but here are my plans at the moment.

The course will be designed around the theme “How Life Has Changed.” I have Covid-19 in mind, but the theme could go beyond that. I will produce podcasts and videos on the course content and provide feedback on the submitted projects. We will also have weekly Zoom meetings.

Throughout the course, you will work together in small writing groups. Your group will be able to form their own discussion places on Blackboard and elsewhere to give each other feedback, advice, and encouragement. You will get to know your group very well.

In the first part of the course we will work on style with exercises, experiments, and other activities designed to stretch your stylistic repertoire. This will result in a personal narrative about your own experiences of change in the world and in your life.

In the second part of the course we will focus on rhetorical strategies, argumentation and persuasion. We will explore different organizational patterns and ways of persuading audiences. In this part of the course you will write an op-ed arguing for a particular change or course of action in how we do things. You might be writing about employment, racial disparity, medical issues, social practices, protests, supply chains, scarcity, art, literature, technology, politics etc., anything that is interesting to you.

In the final part of the course you will begin a research project that will look like investigative journalism. You will choose an issue and go on a research expedition to take a deep dive and follow links and connections to discover the truth about the matter. You will do this through online library databases and other online resources.

I have several blog sites that I maintain. I plan to convert one of them into a sort of online magazine. In the final weeks of the course, your group will decide which pieces–the narrative, the op-ed, or the investigative piece, one from each writer–should go up on the public website. At this point you will be functioning as editors, choosing and revising pieces for a new audience.

That’s the plan so far. I look forward to working with you in the fall.

Synchronous or Asynchronous?

I learned a lot in the past three months about teaching online. The first question is whether the course should be synchronous, with the students meeting online with the professor through Zoom or another platform at the designated class times, or asynchronous, with online lectures and online work to be done according to the student’s schedule. In the spring, I kept my graduate seminar in teaching writing synchronous through Zoom and Slack meetings every Tuesday evening, as originally scheduled. This worked well. It was a small class with engaged, well-prepared students. They all finished the work.

My Genre Fiction course became asynchronous. I created podcasts, and at the end a video using Kaltura, a video capture and hosting app. I had blogs and discussion boards. I felt I was losing track of some students so I started doing a weekly voluntary Zoom meeting that attracted pretty much the same seven students every week. A number of students were not participating in the discussion boards, so I created alternative extra credit assignments. I ignored due dates. By the end, I lost only two students. One other student got a D. The rest passed and there were many A’s because of the extra credit and the relaxed due dates.

The upshot? A synchronous course provides structure and can build community. However, student work and family schedules under lockdown or semi-lockdown can vary widely. An asynchronous course provides much more flexibility. My informal surveys of students were inconclusive. Some students prefer synchronous, some asynchronous. What was clear was that they preferred face-to-face meetings.

I am going to go asychronous with voluntary weekly Zoom meetings. In the spring, these turned into group office hour sessions that were as helpful for me as for the students.

Discussion Boards?

The other thing I learned was that students hate discussion boards. In a face-to-face class, there are always five to seven students who are eager to participate, while the majority of the students prefer to sit back and listen to smart people talk. Even in a face-to-face course, I usually have an online discussion board of some kind, but it is usually low stakes. However, the discussion board in the newly online Genre Fiction course was high stakes because it was replacing the class meetings. It became a big part of the grade. I had multiple discussion questions for each week. Many students listened to the podcasts, read my notes, but did not post to the discussion boards. I felt that a major component of my teaching was simply not working.

Story Response Sheets

However, I found that students liked another aspect of the course, something I called the “Story Response Sheet” or SRS. This sheet asks questions about themes, characters, exposition devices, plot, point of view, style, and other aspects of story craft. Then it asks for a rating on the “Read-O-Meter” from 1 (Totally Dreadful) to 10 (Totally Awesome) and a paragraph about why they gave the story that rating. They happily turned these in and reported that filling them out caused them to think about aspects of the stories they would not normally think about.

Conclusions

In fall 2020 I intend to continue to use a discussion board, but I will make it mostly about personal responses–things they noticed, things they liked, things they didn’t like, things that surprised them, etc. I will use something like the SRS assignment for more substantive questions. Those will be submitted to me and will not be available to other students.

Fall 2020 will be an adventure for the students and for me. All faculty will take an online course in teaching online starting in June, so I will have more ideas by the end of the summer. I will report on those too.

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

A-Stranger-in-Olondria-ds

One of the novels my genre fiction class is reading is A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar, a Somali-American who has taught in Sudan, Egypt, and California. She has received or been nominated for numerous literary awards. The novel is about Jevick of Tyom, an islander whose father grows pepper. Jevick’s father is a wealthy, respected leader in the community. Once a year, he travels to Bain, the capitol of Olondria, to sell his pepper. After one of these voyages, he brings Jevick a tutor, Lunre, a scholar from Bain. Jevick learns to read and to love books, and dreams of Olondria. His father dies suddenly, and Jevick goes to Bain to sell pepper. On the boat, he briefly encounters Jissavet, a girl with a genetic illness that causes her hair to turn red. This is a fatal encounter that immerses Jevick in a struggle between two religious cults, the cult of Avalei, the goddess of love and death, and the cult of the Stone, supported by the king but not the people.

The novel is rich with beautiful sentences and sensory detail. Because I am teaching online, I made a podcast for each of the six parts of the novel. I am including the podcasts and my notes below. Each podcast has questions for discussion. I highly recommend the novel. The religious and political conflicts are not unlike our own, though the world of the novel is very different and Jevick is a hero of an unusual sort.

I suppose that outside of my course, these materials could be used for a book club discussion, or in a different class. My podcasts may contain spoilers, so it would be best to read the appropriate section of the novel before listening. On the other hand, if you don’t intend to read the novel, or are not sure, the podcasts may be interesting, or may inspire you to want to read it.

Because they were created out of the need for converting to an online format during the Covid-19 pandemic, there are references to this difficult situation.

Book One: The Wind of Miracles

Notes

Book Two: The City of Bain

Notes

Book Three: The Holy City

Notes

Book Four: The Breath of Angels

Notes

Book Five: A Garden of Spears

Notes

Book Six: Southward

Notes

Genre Fiction: Week 11

We are in spring break at the moment, though the concept of spring break seems meaningless under these circumstances. I am continuing to create podcasts and grade assignments. Next week, we will finish up the stories from Peter Beagle’s Secret History of Fantasy. After that, each student will choose one of the two novels I have assigned, A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (who I found out yesterday is an Assistant Professor in English at our sister campus, CSU Channel Islands) or Bourne by Jeff Vandermeer. Because I am letting them choose, I will essentially be teaching two novels simultaneously! The prerecorded podcasts should make that possible, but I hope to finish the podcasts for Stranger during this break so that I can record the podcasts for Bourne next week.

Week 11 Podcasts and Notes

Peter Beagle, “Sleight of Hand”

Peter Beagle is the editor of the collection and the author of this story, “Sleight of Hand.” He is most famous for his fantasy novel The Last Unicorn, about a unicorn trying to find out what happened to the rest of her kind, aided by a powerful but somewhat incompetent wizard, Schmendrick. “Sleight of Hand” is about a woman who makes a fatal decision that accidentally results in the death of her husband and daughter, but is given a chance to remake that decision by a mysterious magician.

Here are the notes.

Robert Holdstock, “Mythago Wood”

This novella was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (to which I have subscribed at various points in my life. The magazine, unlike most in these genres, is still in publication, though I no longer have a subscription). Holdstock later turned it into a novel, and then wrote numerous other pieces in the same universe. The story is set in Ryhope Wood, a three square mile tract of original, primeval oak forest. The Huxley family lives in Oak Lodge, on the edge of the forest. The father believes that the forest contains wild boar and manifestations of ancient heroes. When he dies, one of the sons takes up his explorations. It is a memorable, haunting story, grounded in a theory of Jungian archetypes.

Here are the notes.

Kiji Johnson, “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss”

A woman buys a monkey show for $1.00, including 26 monkeys of various types and a tour bus. The monkey act climaxes with the entire troop of monkeys vanishing from a suspended bathtub. They return hours later, in ones and twos. She doesn’t know how they vanish or where they go. The story explores the meaning, or meaninglessness, of life.

Here are the notes.

The students, at least most of them, seem to enjoy the podcasts. The discussions on the discussion boards have been interesting. I think what is key to this is that I am not telling them what the stories mean. I am pointing things out, drawing attention to stylistic features and writerly decisions, and asking questions that could have many possible answers. They seem to feel free to express their opinions, which means they are engaged with the stories.

I read their mini-proposals yesterday. All of them want to write stories rather than a critical paper. More on that later.

Suddenly Teaching Online: A Path Made by Walking

I have now been teaching my previously face-to-face classes completely online for two weeks. My campus uses Blackboard as a course management system. It’s ok. It has some glitches and some design flaws, the worst of which is the inefficient way it uses screen real estate. I’m pretty familiar with Blackboard because I have been using it to support most of my classes for almost 20 years. And before that I was using WebCT, which Blackboard bought. Yes, it has been that long.

Blackboard

Here is what Blackboard looks like when you are responding to papers:

BlackboardScreenshot
The text box is really small. Lots of space is wasted at the top. The right side is taken up mostly by blank, unused, gray space. I can scroll down to eliminate some of the wasted space at the top, but I have to redo that positioning for EVERY SINGLE PAPER. I can make in-text comments (good) but it is hard to make the comment box go away without turning off the commenting feature, so it is basically, turn comments on, make a comment, turn comments off (bad). I can create, edit, and attach a rubric and score a paper by clicking in the appropriate cells (good), but if I score one paper and then find out that I have made a ridiculous error in the rubric, it will not let me edit the rubric. I have to score every subsequent paper with the defective rubric (bad).

Blackboard is full of issues like this. It has discussion boards and blogs, but the only real difference between them is that the discussion boards are organized by topic and the blogs are organized by student. They aren’t real blogs. Both tools are functional, but clunky. In the blog tool, in order to see other student’s blogs, you have to click a tiny down arrow underneath your own name, which produces a drop down menu. By default, it only shows blogs with posts, so at the beginning of the semester if you are the first one to post something, when you click on the down arrow, you see nothing. This causes a great deal of confusion.

So I am familiar with Blackboard, but I have never used it to teach a totally online course.

Other Tools

We also have access to Zoom for video conferencing and chat and Kultura for creating and uploading videos. The problem with video is bandwidth. Many of our students don’t have wifi at home and the places they used to use for wifi access–Starbucks, McDonalds, libraries–are closed. Besides, the whole point is to stay home and stay well. So they use their phones, but quickly blow through data caps.

Some of my colleagues are using Slack, which has a free plan, for chat. My grad students recommended that too. As near as I can tell, Zoom and Slack are overlapping products. Zoom emphasizes video, but does chat, while Slack emphasizes chat but does video. In my last seminar meeting, we did one hour of Zoom followed by one hour of Slack. They both worked well, but provided different experiences.

Genre Fiction So Far

For my “Genre Fiction” class, as I have posted previously, I have been producing podcasts for each story and giving them my notes. We are also using both blogs and discussion boards, using the Blackboard tools. Though there has been lively interaction on the discussion boards, there are six students out of 26 who are not participating. I have emailed them several times. Because I felt that I was losing touch with the class, I decided to have a non-mandatory Zoom meeting at the time when the face-to-face class would have normally met. Seven students showed up. It turned into a sort of focus group.

Only three students activated video, and one of these had arranged the lighting so that his face was obscured. The others not only did not activate video, but they were muted too. They communicated through chat or through icons like thumbs up. I had not expected such shyness.

They were all feeling overwhelmed, but they did not blame faculty. However, they pointed out that discussion boards were a lot more work than showing up in class. In a discussion board, everyone has to think and express their ideas. They see showing up for class as an interesting and even fun experience, but the discussion board is work. From their point of view, the homework load has increased tremendously.

This may mean that the ones who participate in the online activities are actually learning more than before. The in-class experience for them is more comfortable, enjoyable, but also more passive, at least for some.

After this discussion, I decided to eliminate one of the novels I was going to teach as well as the final, on the grounds that the discussion board work was ample evidence of their engagement and understanding. This will give them more time to work on their stories.

One of the books I am using in my seminar argues that teaching is “a path made by walking.” That certainly seems true for our sudden detour into online instruction.

Genre Fiction: Week 10

The combination of podcasts plus discussion board seems to be working well for some students, but I have about eight students who have yet to participate. Our students are overwhelmed with all the changes. Some have contacted me to say so. I think most instructors are using Zoom to conduct pretty traditional synchronous classes online. That means that students, who are usually taking five classes, are using a lot of Zoom. My asynchronous podcast and discussion board model give them more flexibility, but is different.

There are always students who are reluctant to express themselves in class. Some are also reluctant to express opinions on a discussion board that other students can see. I think this is part of the problem. I emailed the non-participants today. I will follow up.

Here are this week’s story podcasts. I try to do them in such a way that you could get something out of them even if you have not read the story, but if you want to read the stories, they are in the collection The Secret History of Fantasy edited by Peter Beagle.

“The Edge of the World” by Michael Swanwick

This story asks the question, “What if the Earth were flat and had an edge?” A group of teenagers climb down the cliff face of the edge of the world.

Notes

“Super Goat Man” by Jonathan Lethem

A story about a third-rate failed super hero who is also a college professor.

Notes

“John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner” by Susanna Clarke

A very funny short story set in the same world as Clarke’s fantasy novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Notes

“The Book of Martha” by Octavia E. Butler

If you had god-like power to make humans better, what would you do?

Notes

 

Genre Fiction: Week 9, Day 2

Our President has finally decided that the rest of the semester will be online. I think that is wise because it is hard to shift from an online course back to a face-to-face one. It is also clear that our Covid-19 situation will last longer than a few weeks.

For the second meeting of the ninth week of this course I assigned two stories from Peter Beagle’s collection, The Secret History of Fantasy. I include a podcast and some notes for each one.

“Fruit and Words” by Aimee Bender

Here is a link to the notes I used in making the podcast.

This story is about marriage, hope, magic and mangoes.

“The Empire of Ice Cream” by Jeffrey Ford

And here are the notes.

So far, this system seems to be working. Students have to listen to the podcasts to get the discussion questions. Then they respond on the new discussion boards. Several students are already doing this.

Genre Fiction: Week 9, Day 1

My “Genre Fiction” class (click link for syllabus) is designed to be either an ordinary literature course or a creative writing course, depending on how the student wants to approach it. As a final project, students can choose to write a critical paper or a short story. However, most students in the past have written stories.

At this point in the semester, we have completed our exploration of detective fiction, reading Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Conan-Doyle’s “Adventure of the Speckled Band,” Dashiel Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and Walter Moseley’s Devil in a Blue Dress. We have begun the fantasy section of the course, reading two Conan stories by Robert E. Howard, “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Red Nails,” plus Tolkien’s The Hobbit. We are now reading a collection of short stories, The Secret History of Fantasy, edited by noted fantasy author Peter Beagle.

Throughout the course, students have been doing writing exercises from Ursula K. LeGuin’s wonderful writing book, Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. We have been discussing plot, characters, world creation, style, point of view, and other issues in story craft.

Now, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we must take our class online. For Tuesday, March 17, we are discussing two stories. I will post podcasts about them and the outlines I used to create the podcasts below.

Stephen King, “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut”

“Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” Notes

Neil Gaiman, “Snow, Glass, Apples”

“Snow, Glass, Apples” Notes

We are also reading Chapter 9 “Indirect Narration, or What Tells” in the Le Guin book. The first exercise in this chapter asks the students to write a page or two of dialogue between two characters without any description so that everything the reader knows about who they are comes from what they say. Students will post the results of this activity to their writing blogs.