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On the first day of my Introduction to Literature course, as soon as we’ve finished our introductions and reviewed course policies, I distribute the first assignment, a poetry analysis. Although we’re still just getting to know one another, students are quick to react. “Poetry?” asks the bubbly guy in the corner, who just won a prize for memorizing everyone’s name. And from the look I his face, I can tell he’s not thrilled. He has not selected this course to be enraptured by poetry.
This student, and most of his classmates, enter my Introduction to Literature course to fulfill a general education humanities requirement. We’ve just learned, from class introductions, that the room is filled with a wide variety of backgrounds--from high school students to a retired military personnel to retail managers—and an even wider swath of career interests: nursing, finance, neuroscience, teaching, family counseling, physical therapy, etc. Few identify as English majors. Even fewer declare a love for poetry.
This setting is ripe with urgency. In their entire college career, this may be the only course where these students read poems, where they get the rare opportunity to be startled by their own humanness and consider, in the words of the late, beloved poet Mary Oliver, “their one wild and precious life”
Because of this sense of urgency, I always begin the course with an analysis of a poem, a recently published poem, far from the scope of Shmoop.com and Sparknotes.com study guides. This assignment works as a formative assessment tool, a way to determine how much knowledge of poetry students already possess; however, the assignment also provides me with a chance to slow down the pace of students’ typical reading experiences and ask them to really consider the way a poem works. Designed as a sort of “tell me what you notice about this poem,” the informal assignment gives them a low-stakes chance to practice a skill they will use throughout the course: paying close attention to language. Like the students themselves, the short papers produced from this assignment are varied in knowledge of poetic devices and sophistication of analysis.
After this initial assignment on a poem, we devote several weeks to the study of fiction, and after that, we launch into a three week unit on poetry. As such, by the time we delve into poetic devices and look at the contours of a poem’s design, the first poem students encountered in the course is slowly fading from their mind. After the poetry unit, we launch into the study of drama and by then, that first poem is a distant memory. All of this memory loss works perfectly when the course nears completion and that first poem reappears in a portion of the final exam that now asks students to perform a much deeper analysis, apply poetic devices with sophistication, and convincingly demonstrate how a variety of critical approaches could open up the poem to varied and rich meanings. This final summative assignment allows students to return to the poem that may have caused trepidation at the beginning of the course, but this time they are equipped with more tools and experience.
The assignment has consistently worked well at demonstrating the confidence and skills students have gained in the course. Many of them are impressed with their evolution as they’ve gone from providing a surface-level description, to conducting a close reading of a poem. In their final reflection of the exam, they often remark on their growth:
At first analyzing poetry was definitely not my strong suit at the start of this class, but recognizing the specific diction, syntax, imagery, and audience each poem contained aided me in combining everything I could figure out about each poem in order to find the overall theme and meaning. After this class I feel better prepared for writing essays about literary texts since I was able to develop a better understanding of different techniques.
Digging deep into this poem and all the poems we did in this class was enjoyable as it allowed me to be free with my thoughts and build on them as I continued to read.
I appreciate that the students feel more confident and less weary of poetry at the end of the course. And though I realize this new found appreciation for poetry will not convert any of them into English majors or, heaven forbid, poets, I do hope that they learn, as Mary Oliver advised that “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear. It mustn’t be fancy.”
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