Saturday, June 23, 2012

Mapping Books

Last week N. came to work with me and sat in on my summer term Jane Austen course.  It was a lovely day, so my 7 undergraduate students and I had class outside.  N. sat nearby drawing while we talked about Mansfield Park for 75 minutes.  Afterwards, I asked N. what he thought of the class.  "All you did was discuss things!  The students weren't LEARNING anything!"  I briefly tried to defend discussion as a productive means of learning, and then I asked him, "If you wanted to learn about Harry Potter, what would you do besides talking about it?"  "I'd do projects, like draw a plan of Hogwarts so I could understand how it's laid out," he replied.

I was taken aback.  In my classes, students talk and write about the books we read.  This is all we do.  Too often middle and high school English teachers assign "projects" of various kinds hoping to engage students with literature, but as a result they do not become truly skilled readers and writers.  The primary way I know to teach college students to become sophisticated readers and writers is through reading, writing, and discussion of their reading and writing.  So I am biased against projects that would distract from what I see as my core mission.  I don't expect my 7-year-old to appreciate this and indeed for a younger reader to make a map such as he imagined would be very instructive. 

Franco Moretti.  Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900 fig. 4 p. 19
On the other hand, I was taken aback because I could immediately see that making maps of scenes they read might also be instructive for my students.  What analytical insights could we gain from charting out the movements of characters in complex scenes such as the concert in Persuasion where Captain Wentworth hopes to speak to Anne while she is hedged in by his rivals Lady Russell and Mr. Elliot?  How would mapping out the land and houses of Rosings and Hunsford Parsonage help us understand the placement of Elizabeth's receipt and perusal of Darcy's explanatory letter in Pride and Prejudice?  Beyond these examples of maps as tools for close-reading particular passages in a novel, Franco Moretti has made a case for graphs and maps as a way of conceptualizing larger relationships among texts, analyzing a corpus of novels via visual representation.  Although I'm not going to abandon the discussion model in my classes in favor of visual projects, I did mention to my students that charting out aspects of Austen's novels on their own might be useful as they develop their readings of the texts, and I gave N. due credit. 

My teaching didn't fulfil his expectations that first visit, but N. has since voluntarily attended six more of my class meetings.  He sits in the back of the room drawing, thinking, reading, staring out the large window at the other college buildings in his view.  He may be enjoying mimicking going to school or going to work by driving off with me in mornings, though it's a kind of school-going that is entirely on his own terms: he goes if he wants to, he daydreams for 75 minutes if he wants to.  Or maybe he's simply enjoying the change of scene.  It's interesting to get a glimpse of what he picks up from class discussions; after hearing their names come up in class he asks me questions about Austen's characters later, and he even made a connection between our examination of Austen's punctuation (especially dashes) as a means of representing speech and a similar technique used by Eleanor Estes in the book he's currently reading, The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode.  I'm still waiting to see if he draws that map of Hogwarts.

Bonus shameless self-promotion: My belief in a pedagogy of discussion is so firm that I make my students read their papers aloud to me and then we discuss them.


Mom and Kiddo said...

I cannot imagine Kiddo having the patience to sit through a college class quietly! I am impressed.

But speaking of map books, has N see this one yet? Kiddo adores all maps but this book is a personal favorite.

Adrienne Pilon ("A") said...

Interesting, FH. I am not a believer in projects either. Class time is for reading, writing and discussion. Interestingly, my students aren't fans of them for the most part. THat said, visuals are important and I DO believe in providing ways for students with different learning styles to engage.When we are reading, say, a piece about the Okefenokee swamp, we will look at a map; I do use film and audio as well. AND I am a map person.
It has been my observation, though, that many college professors aren't concerned with pedagogy as they might be (present co excepted, of course). I am a fan of discussion as learning tool and love your idea of having the students read their papers. It provides a different approach to the paper and the grading, and builds in a high level of accountability for the student.

Fanny Harville said...

A -- I use visuals in class discussion too, of course. And I don't mean *you* in my general critique of high school teachers here, which I hope you know. AND you are SO right that not enough college professors think as deeply about pedagogy as they could, or look much into the research on learning. They tend to think that what worked for them as students should work for all.

I am happy with my "conference" paper grading method; I could never go back to writing comments on papers now.

M & K: We have Ovenden's Railway Maps of the World, but I'm glad you mentioned the Transit Maps book, which I think N. would like better; I just ordered a used copy. As for sitting through the class quietly, yes, it was surprising, but it helped that there were chairs on wheels that he could roll around on discreetly at the back of the room!