Pacing in a Literature Class: A Bit of Luck

My class is usually really lively and loud. We dive into texts and argue about interpretations, and I allow (and encourage!) a lot of outraged / shocked / delighted exclamations. After all, one of the goals of the class (as stated on the syllabus) is to learn how to enjoy and appreciate older texts.

On the day before we read John Donne, I realized I needed to change tack. I gave a brief overview of Donne’s life, and then a quick summary of what to expect when reading “The Flea,” and I realized that the atmosphere of fun would quickly lead to inappropriate comments when talking about a very sexy / erotic / graphic poem.

I immediately took on a serious demeanor and asked my class to please be serious: “We can have fun with it afterwards,” I said, “but let’s first get the actual ideas down.” They quieted down for the next couple of minutes until the end of class.

As it happened, I was fighting the last days of a cold the next week, as we dug into Donne, so my pace was naturally slower and quieter. It worked well.

It meant that while we talked about the Early Modern idea of semen being produced when the blood churns and froths, students exclaimed in surprise – but we stayed on track. I may have overemphasized the philosophical parts of the poem at the expense of the really fun parts… But it was necessary, and I don’t regret it.

What I discovered, accidentally, was something very valuable about pacing.

First: My own strengths lie in medieval literature, towards the beginning of the semester. When we get to the early modern texts, I can teach them of course – but I haven’t engaged with them in my own scholarship the way I have with medieval texts. The slower pace was very useful for me, as I couldn’t pull random facts out in middle of class as easily, and I couldn’t make exciting connections as much as I had until that point. I could do a solid job with the early modern – but nothing as flashy as what I can do with medieval.

Second: Early modern texts tend to be in shorter pieces, (sonnets, or epic poems easily broken into chunks) and therefore easier to focus on for intense close readings. They’re also slightly more difficult to read than the translated Middle English texts we’d been using (other than Chaucer, which we read in the original ME with lots of glosses). So the slower pace, where we read poems line by line rather than discussing sweeping plots, worked very well.

Third: Early modern poetry felt more “real” to some students than the medieval texts, and they had a harder time keeping track of the historical context. A number of them kept slipping into anachronism, interpreting poems about love or death according to their contemporary understanding and disregarding the poem’s original context. Reading the poems slowly and carefully together helped me head this off each time it happened, before the misunderstandings and misinterpretations had a chance to snowball beyond possibility of correction.

And finally: It was a great way to bring together all the skills students had been honing all semester through class discussion and papers, as they are now more confident in their abilities and excited about the literature. I very much like that at the beginning of the semester, with the loud and lively atmosphere, students felt emboldened to make wild assertions about the texts, always reigned in by the question they started asking each other after getting sick of hearing it from me: “can you find evidence for that in the text?”

But I had been getting the feeling, for a few weeks, that students felt frustrated and unable to see just how much their skills had grown since the beginning of the semester. After a few sessions of intense in-class reading and discussion of shorter poems, in which I made sure to point out critical skills we’ve been practicing and they now use with a fair amount of ease, I can see that they do realize how much they’ve learned.

I didn’t plan to slow down the pace of each class session toward the end of the semester. But I am really glad it worked out that way.


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