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A Course Portfolio for English 322: Summer 2000


The main goal of this course was to enable students to become more active readers of English Renaissance texts; as a secondary goal this course set out to make students more aware of themselves as learners, and thus both more capable of engaging actively in their learning in this particular course, and more able to engage effectively in other courses throughout the rest of their university careers.

Active Reading

Most of the undergraduates I teach find Renaissance texts very difficult, and they thus begin the course as relatively passive readers, looking to me to tell them about the works we read. My aim is to change that focus, to foster in them a concern with what they, not I, think about our texts. This is not a revolutionary goal, but in the past students have found it difficult to achieve.

I introduce active reading by defining it as a two-step process. The first asks students to understand better how texts function in non-literal ways—what I call paying figurative (as opposed to literal) attention. The second (since seeing texts as ways to refer to something other than the literal requires a sense of what that "something other" might be) asks students to become familiar with a series of common cultural topoi that professional readers of these texts tend to use in their readings. In this connection I suggest that students think of literature as one of the ways members of a given culture have that allow them to engage with each other in conversations about issues of culture-wide importance. Some of these issues are topical and historically fixed ("Should Queen Elizabeth I marry?"); others are of more abiding interest ("What constitutes the abuse of power, and what can we do about it?").

I normally organize a course around one or two dominant conversations. In this course I focussed on cultural notions of "discipline" because through that topic I could link the thematics of sixteenth-century educational discipline together with those of such other disciplines as love, politics, and personality. In this class we began the quarter with the theme of educational discipline in Utopia and Dr. Faustus; then, starting with Faustus and continuing through 3 weeks of sonnets, we explored how first Marlowe, Sidney, Shakespeare, and then Spenser, Greene and Heywood each weave versions of the disciplinary theme together to explore connections among its other dimensions in the registers of love, politics and personality.

Finally, as a way of demonstrating both to myself and to my students that they had indeed become better and more confident readers as the quarter progressed, I assigned as the last project for this class the task of reading an Elizabethan play we had not covered in class, and reporting on this play to the class as a whole. This was remarkably and—given what had been on my part an initial skepticism about whether it would actually work—surprisingly successful. Several students mentioned it in their Self-Reflective Essay as a high point of the course, expressing satisfaction that they had been able to read material on their own that few would have been able to read at all just 8 weeks earlier.

Self-Reflective Learning

This is in some ways new territory for me; I’m still learning how best to incorporate metacognition into my students’ learning. I have for some time had students write Self-reflective Essays as they end their quarter’s work (see the Course Portfolio Assignment below), and I have long begun the class by explaining both orally and via the course booklet my goals for their learning (see the essay “Goals for English 322” in the Course Packet: Reading and Writing the Elizabethan Age). More recently I’ve been encouraging students to think about their own learning by means of a kind of diagnostic quiz as the quarter opens. In an exercise that takes about half an hour I ask them to read and respond to a sonnet, and we then use their responses to mount a conversation about what goals they have for their learning, both in the class itself and as English Majors generally. All these devices have helped raise student awareness of themselves as learners, but this quarter for the first time I included Self-Reflective Learning as itself a course goal, targeting not just students’ performance in English 322 but their learning at the University generally.

In practice that means that in addition to the techniques described above I also devoted two different class hours to issues of learning theory, and on two occasions three weeks apart I asked them to write about their learning in the class. One of these was a short paper in response to the question: “Part of good learning, paradoxically, is the resisting of learning. We resist for different reasons—some good and some bad; in this response paper I want you to write about resistances you have found yourself developing to what we’ve been doing here. What have you found yourself resisting here? How? Why? What can we do to address that resistance, to respond to it in terms of what we do for the rest of the course?”

I found the papers students wrote for this assignment fascinating. All of them reported one or another form of “resistance,” some even resisting the idea of thinking about learning in the first place! But they also showed students becoming very aware of methods the class was using, and finding ways to question as well as to value them. (I see this reflected in the course end evaluation sheets—the yellow comment sheets had more conversation about possible changes in teaching methods and assignments than any class I’ve ever had evaluated—even as the number scores remained for the most part consistent with other sections I’ve taught in the past.) I include examples of these papers in the Appendix below.



The course syllabus both sets out a short version of the course goals I describe above and also advertises two things about the course that may cause students trouble: daily writing and group work. I make an issue of each here in order than students will know exactly what they will be getting. For I depend heavily upon both; indeed, I assign writing topics for every class session, and use groups at least once a week. I refer to their daily writing as "response papers," and I explain that a good response paper is one which shows a mind actively engaged with the material.

As I explain in the section on writing, I assign topics for each day's writing (rather than asking for a reading journal), and I do this because I expect the writing to prepare students for particular discussion subjects in succeeding classes. Writing on a topic given in advance almost inevitably improves class discussion: people are ready to talk as soon as class begins, and we can more quickly get to sophisticated conversation. Moreover, daily writing improves group work as well. If group work can start from writing students have already done, more students take active roles than otherwise might, and we can move from group discussion to general, full-class discussion much more quickly. Group sessions often begin with student summaries of their response papers, followed by an establishing of consensus on whatever question may be at stake.

Finally, in my "Truth in Advertising" section I explain what students have sometimes complained of in my classes. With this advance warning, I invite students who expect to be uncomfortable with my methods either to drop my class altogether, or at the very least to take upon themselves the responsibility for talking with me about any problem that may arise.

The Course Portfolio Assignment

In every class I teach, students submit a portfolio containing all their writing for the course, organized and listed, along with a short essay commenting on their experience in the course. The benefits of this assignment are several—indeed, it may be the single best technique I know to involve students actively in the course. Perhaps the greatest benefit of portfolios is to solve for me the "too-many papers to read" problem. Though I collect and read some sets of student papers during the term, I couldn't possibly read 20 sets of 40 to 50 papers. With this system, something like three quarters of what students write just goes straight into the portfolio. Because I do eventually grade those portfolios, students know that they will get credit for having done the writing even if I don't read it then and there--but it takes me far less time to review this work at quarter's end than it would mid-quarter.

Second, the portfolio is an organizing mechanism. If students write often, and if all that they write must appear at course end in the Course Portfolio, then I can see at a glance who has been in class and doing work--I don't need to take role, or check off daily assignments. I can assess all that when I get the portfolio at quarter's end.

Most important, however, a portfolio also provides a concrete place in which students can see their own work grow. This is true literally: by the time they submit their portfolio they will have accumulated a substantial body of work, all produced by their own hands. But it is also true more abstractly, for as students review their work at course end, they can see for themselves how much more sophisticated their work has become during the quarter. Unsurprisingly, discovery and confidence often become the themes of the Self-Reflective essays written to accompany the Portfolio.

Teaching Active Reading

Few new readers of literature easily see how to track the complexities of poetic language. Instead many readers move to general thematic reflection before they have first fully explored the semantic and conversational logic of a work’s language. But how to prevent that? In class I set out a simple heuristic students can use to locate and then explore literary language. I’ve found that its steps follow a sequence in the conceptual skills it requires that I explain in terms of paraphrasing, noticing, exploring, and integrating. That sequence is at the center of the active reading dimension of the course; while I presuppose students’ ability to paraphrase, the other three steps (unsurprisingly) are central to my grading criteria. I give here the definition of these key terms with which my class worked:

Paraphrase: an inevitable skill underlying the active reading of literary texts is simple comprehension. Literary language is different enough from ordinary English that most new readers work hard to get even the literal sense of a text. Thus many students will have made progress just by learning to paraphrase, and that is in fact no small accomplishment. Nevertheless, paraphrase really is only a preliminary skill. It is something I presuppose in formal writing, not something I give credit for.
Noticing: Paraphrase presupposed, then, the first level of active reading is the noticing of specific details concerning choices authors make among possible alternative uses of language. An author may choose, for example, to use a metaphor, or to elevate diction, or (in a verse drama) to switch mid-scene from verse to prose. Those choices are easily enough seen once one has pointed them out, but many new readers look right past them. This level corresponds to “Specifics,” the most basic of my grading criteria.
Exploring: Active reading’s second level is “exploring,” the word I use for working through the semantic and interpretive implications of the specifics one notices. Having noticed that a particular expression is metaphorical, for example, how can you explain the logic of that metaphor? How do its terms shape the way we understand a character’s utterance? Exploring obviously depends upon noticing (how could you explore something you haven’t yet noticed?), and is thus a higher order skill; it is also a more challenging task because it doesn’t have fixed, “right-wrong” answers. It is in this sense open-ended, and readers must develop a certain interpretive patience if they are to get beyond the superficial. Good explorations should be full, not sketchy, and thus my criterion for this skill has the double label: “Exploration/Fullness.”
Integration: My criterion for the third level of active reading is “Integration,” and it stands for the ability to pull together, sort, and evaluate the many particular observations made while noticing specifics and exploring their semantic logic. Very often Integration begins by identifying how the observations you’ve made can be described as moves in a particular cultural conversation. Specific observations we could make about a play like Shakespeare’s 1 Henry 4, for example, might raise questions in a conversation about the ability to control language as a kind of political Darwinism—a survival of the linguistically fittest where Prince Hal emerges the political victor because he is an accomplished master of language. Such a hypothesis would supply a conceptual framework within which to organize discussions and demonstrations of the many places in the play where issues of language (like truth, lying, deception, description) arise. A paper can become conceptually powerful only when writers can integrate their observations into this sort of coherent interpretive hypothesis.

Graded Assignments

It perhaps goes without saying that I use the criteria described above as focuses for daily classroom activities. I often gear response papers to them, and as such they are central to group work. But they also underlie my grading for each of the course’s graded assignments (which I tend to call “midterms” whether they write in class or at home). In this course I had three such assignments: a paper assignment on Shakespeare’s sonnets, an in-class essay on Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and an in-class final essay exam. I see these exercises as a sequence in which the reading skills I ask for are repeated in increasingly complex contexts. The first assignment focuses on a single sonnet; the second focuses on passages from the Faerie Queene, a much more difficult text; the third invited them to review all their reading for the course and to allow them a shift to performing a functional analysis of one of the plays we read.

The First Midterm: Shakespeare’s Sonnets

The first midterm, a take-home paper assignment, asked for a rhetorical analysis of one of two of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I handed out the prompt the week before the paper was due; then to prepare students for writing I used the prompt in class that day for a group exercise. I assigned each group a practice sonnet and asked them work up for that sonnet the kind of analysis I wanted them to do in the paper. After groups had spent about 20 minutes generating their "paper" (not exactly an Einsteinian Gedanken-Experiment, but something along that line), we had a full class discussion in which we critiqued the analyses they had developed in terms of the three criteria (Specifics, Exploration/Fullness, Integration/Power) I would be using to grade the paper. The exercise helped; of the 18 papers, none missed the boat entirely, and most were relatively well engaged (if not yet well skilled) in active reading.

Yet while I announced well in advance that I would be using the three criteria (plus a fourth--Presentation) to grade these papers, I knew from experience that even after students had done the exercise I describe above, many still wouldn't truly understand them. So to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the criteria, after handing the paper back I ran a second criteria-based workshop, this time on two papers selected from those handed in.

Second Midterm

For the second midterm—this time written in class—I prepared students for writing by running another criteria-norming workshop. As material for the workshop I used two essays students from a previous class had written for one passage on the second exam, along with an answer I myself wrote to model Fullness/Exploration. I handed copies of these three essays out ahead of time, and students prepared for the class by writing as their response paper for that day a criteria-based evaluation of each answer. Then for the workshop I formed four-person groups and asked each to come to consensus about how they would rate each paper with each of the criteria. We then had a general discussion in which we worked out a full-class consensus on how to understand and apply the criteria to these essays.

A copy of the papers I used follows below, and (for those willing to work through them) will illustrate something of what I’m looking to develop in my students. The first was a weak answer; though full of specific references to the text (normally a good thing), the writer neither explores them nor pulls out of the observations made anything of much interpretive interest. Though fluent, the answer is finally little more than a paraphrase with quotations. The second answer, by contrast, is quite strong. That writer actually works a way into the semantic logic of Spenser's lines, explores as well as notes the specifics, and comes up with a way to integrate the answer’s particular observations into a coherent interpretive argument about the stanzas.

Finally, answer C is one I myself wrote, focussing just on the first 6 lines of one stanza to illustrate what I mean by a "full exploration." It does pretty well to exhibit “exploration,” but students usually also see that it is incomplete—and therefore doesn’t score as well as it should for noticing or for integrating.

I liked what happened in this particular workshop; people were prepared, they did a good job of coming to consensus on criteria scores. We were able to see what I very rarely do NOT see in this exercise: that people agree strongly on scores once they’ve first agreed on how to define the criteria they use. In the 9 different criteria categories this exercise sets up (3 for each answer), 7 varied by only a single point on a five point scale. For the other two, a single group had a 5 where others had a 1 or a 2, but this was owing to a different understanding of what should count as “specifics.” We were able to resolve that difference. And the last was a two point variance on essay C, something of a special case where Integration is formally difficult to evaluate because the answer works only with one of the passage’s two stanzas.

But even granting that one difference, the upshot for the exercise as a whole was to demonstrate that it really is only when people do not know what they are looking for, or are looking for very different things, that wild variation in grading shows up. Since many English majors tend to think that the grades they get emerge as from a black box, with no rational basis behind them, this sort of exercise is particularly useful. The fact that so many students found themselves in agreement while using these criteria also suggested that we’d actually made some progress as a group in terms of defining and applying the sorts of reading skills required for texts like this.

Criteria-Norming Workshop Papers

Paper A.

The thematic importance of the quotation is that of the suffering of man and beast due to the extreme heat of the summer's day. The "raging heat" is said to burn the earth and boil the rivers dry and cause "brute beasts" to refrain from hunting. The travelers must stop and seek shade because the heat is too intense to stand. Rain is very welcome to cool the earth of its intense burning.

The images of intense heat sets the text for the next scene where Britomart "restores the prize" and cools the earth, saving the people from the heat. The "shrilling trompets" signify to the people that they can leave their "laborious and long toyle" to enjoy a time of "feasting" and "gentle play." The important choices made in the text were the travelers stopping and seeking shade along with the beasts, until the cooling rains came to restore the earth to its normal condition. Britomart ultimately restored the earth making the People and Beasts happy once again.

The images of intense heat also parallel Britomart's burning personality as she tries to over take the world and then control all those inhabiting it. With the world at rest, Britomart is able to have everything at her finger tips. Then after the world has cooled and returns to its present pace, her damage has been done and nobody sees it different. She is in control.

Paper B.

The passage comes at the very end of the whole tournament when the fight for Florimel's girdle is getting way out of hand. There's a sense of chaos which seems to symbolize how ridiculous the whole tournament is. After all, they are fighting over a material object which is the symbol of Florimel, i.e., chastity. Britomart comes and puts a stop to everything and restores peace and sanity to the situation.

The description of a summer's day with its raging heat burning the earth and boiling rivers dry sets an image of intense desperation. The worlds "raging" "burne" and "boyled" are very harsh and hellish, possibly referring to the evil-ness of desire and the sin that lust and beauty connote. All the "brute beasts" brings to mind the animalistic nature of everyone that has gotten caught up in the "hunt" for Florimel's girdle. These people are "tormented" and with "paine" in their search, which makes me again think of the deadly-like sin in lust. Suddenly to save the day comes a "watery cloud" and poureth forth a sudden shoure of rain." Water is often the symbol for purity and cleansing. Like the water restores the "wretched world," so Britomart "restores" the souls of the knights. She comes in and brings with her appearance "ioyous feats" and other "gentle play." Immediately we see the stark contrast between these worlds and the dark words from before. Things are now much lighter, happier, for she rescues them from the darkness they were trapped in before.

A lot of the first stanza seems to deal with nature, like the earth and rivers. When this is compared with the second, it makes me think that the fighting between the knights is all a very human natural thing, but when "beauties prize" is the "spoyle," then that is showing the corrupt side of mankind. How can beauty even be measured in terms of a prize? They seem to be longing for a shallow representation of something more.

Paper C.

The total effect of these lines is to take the fairly commonplace idea of the barrenness and emptiness of this tournament world's values and to develop it, push it, beyond the mere "too hot" to the disintegration of the self of line 5. Same with Britomart's part of the stanza. The first line first introduces summer--a positive, pleasant idea--then goes to "raging heat." "Rage" is a word about anger, but in the first line there are no people yet, no beasts. Just a world of "raging heat" sort of hanging there, waiting for something to attach to. Then line two ("Doth burne the earth, and boyled riuers drie") pushes raging farther, briefly recapitulates what's been going on for three cantos, a sense of more and more and more of the same brutalizing rage. Line 3 finally introduces the beasts into this raging, boiling world, calls them "brute," but the detail is that they are forced to refrain from "meat." It is so raging hot they cannot eat. So life is at risk, there is anger everywhere, they are starving, dying, for heat.

That's bad, but then lines 4 and 5 push it even farther: the destructive heat has given them all purpose: to hunt, not for meat, but for shade, to "shrowd" themselves--this in a world where their hunting for shade represents their having lost direction and purpose, where they fight because they have no better way to organize their lives. In such a moral desert this stanza pictures them seeking to disappear, hide--"shrowd" even suggests death. It recaptures the sense of the world expressed at the end of Canto 2 when Triamond's mother moans about the hopelessness and emptiness of all human life. All of which is then summarized in 5's: "missing it," they "flie themselves." That's real Spenserian--images of brute beasts flying apart, trying to leave their own bodies to escape the pain and torment of the terrible lives they lead.

The first five lines thus work as a sequence to define and intensify--to keep running out and up the notion of heat, loss of control, sterility, self-destructiveness. Then, and only then, does Britomart arrive. But again, while water is associated with fertility and with purifying, and so on, Spenser doesn't just say, "and so Britomart rained on them." And what she does is restore something, a notion whose logic resees the heat as a distortion of natural relation.

The Group Play Project

In this assignment I set up groups of five students and assigned each group a play from their anthology. I evaluated the project in a letter I sent to students near the end of the quarter:

I liked what happened. I thought you all managed to represent your plays well, and I thought most of you not only read well, but gave serious and useful accounts of why you chose the lines you did. I liked the idea of having you read and respond to a work totally on your own; I liked too the oral dimension. People really need to get more comfortable with making presentations like this.

At the same time, watching your performances gave me ideas about how to make this assignment better. For one thing, the plot summary turns out to be very hard to do—they tended to be too detailed, and too long. I did say on the assignment sheet that the plots are complex and can’t be fully represented. But it’s hard to know what that means, and you may well have worried about leaving something out and making me think you hadn't really read the play. So next time I’ll put a word limit to the summary—no more than 500 words.

Second, I think I’ll combine the commentary on thematics with the passages. It will be enough to have each member of the group read lines and explain why they were chosen. I think it may have seemed a little redundant to you to first deal with themes, and then give lines. So I might ask for somewhat bigger selections, and let thematics follow from what you’ve chosen.

And third, I’ll experiment with providing a different rhetorical framework. Something like: though in fact you’ve only just read this play, imagine that you’ve just seen it, and that you are giving a review to other playgoers. What should they be looking for should they decide to see this play? What can you tell them such that they can be a better, more informed audience for the performance? How can the lines you read serve as touchstones, or points of recognizability, for these potential playgoers? This might work best if the reports were going to provide information for more reading—if we did this at week 6, say, in preparation for a second go in week 8 or 9?

Finally, as that last sentence suggests, if I do this again, I’ll provide an occasion for a trial report early on—just so people can get the kinks out and learn how fast 15-18 minutes goes by. I’d also like to develop a way to make it more interactive.

The Final

With the final I repeated the second midterm's format. Again in a response paper students nominated passages for inclusion on the exam and offered outlines for model answers; again I used those nominations to write the exam. As with the second midterm, the point of having it written in class was not to put them under time pressure—though some inevitably feel some of this. Rather it was first to make them review the readings they had done in order to integrate in some way the class as a whole—to see the readings (as we had talked of them all quarter long) as “conversations” the Elizabethans had about issues, some of which we still find ourselves very much interested in. And second, it was to provide balance in terms of graded tasks. My students tend to divide into two camps: those who really prefer take home work, and those who really prefer in class writing. Especially in evening classes students have so much difficulty managing time that many actually would rather be forced to sit in a room for two hours and work solidly and with concentration. They wrote a single essay for the two hour period; I explained that I had imagined their being able to write a strong essay in an hour, so that two hours would be more than enough time to complete the task without having to rush.

Self-Reflective Essays

In response to the Course Portfolio Assignment students each submitted with their course portfolio a 2-3 page essay talking about their work in the course. I have found these very useful in evaluating teaching methods. Students are remarkably forthcoming about what worked well for them and what didn’t; from these essays I’ve learned much about effective group work, about how much material will “fit” in a give course frame, about why some of the things that seem so useful to me don’t seem very useful to them. The essays students wrote for this course were particularly interesting for their strongly positive response to the group project. Clearly this worked very well for them. Most saw it as a way to demonstrate to me, to the class, and to themselves, that they really had learned to negotiate the difficult material of the course. Though I’m happy that was true, I must admit to having been surprised they liked it so much.

And there were other surprises here, too. I did not expect to read a complaint about having foregrounded learning issues, but I got one, even if that complaint was balanced by several students’ positive comments. But those of us who wish to make learning ever more intensive need to remember that not all our students share our ambitions for them. Similarly I was surprised that a student could wish I had not published my teaching journal day by day as the class proceeded. She found the two to three pages I published per class hour an addition to the class workload that she didn’t need. Again, that complaint was balanced by several students who were happy to have the summaries, but I really hadn’t imagined that someone would rather NOT have the professor’s day by day summary of what was central to the learning in the class.

OEA Course Evaluations

Over all ratings for this course were high, about 4.7 on a 5.0 scale. At the same time, most students took this course to fulfill their Period 1 requirement for an English degree; I take that to mean that they would not ordinarily have signed up to read this sort of material, and I think that shows in the somewhat depressed score some gave to the first two items on the form (median scores: 4.2 and 4.2). Few English majors actually ever see much poetry; fewer see verse drama outside of Shakespeare, and it’s not surprising when they don’t all finally warm up to it. But as in other sections I’ve taught of this course, most in this class finally did.

Course Portfolio - Close Reading Shakespeare

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