Working with Context: Letting Students find the Connections

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This post originally appeared on February 5, 2014.

In my world literature course, I’m using The Bedford Anthology of World Literature, which has – among other features – some nice chapters on context.  For my class today, I had students read the section called “Society and its Discontents,” which includes selections from Zola, Nietzsche, Maupassant and Nitobe.  We’ve also recently read Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor,” Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” and selections of Baudelaire’s poetry (and if you’ve never read “Carrion,” you really ought to. Just probably not while eating).

We’ve been at this for a while now, and I’ve been the one making connections across the pieces of literature (primarily, I’ve been letting the students off the hook and not allowing for quite enough wait time during class discussion, something I’ve addressed in a separate post).  It occurred to me that my students might see connections that I don’t see – or at least that they’d reach their own conclusions about the ennui and general discomfort with the Industrial Revolution and scientific materialism of the nineteenth century.

To do this, I had students divide into groups to discuss the readings and make connections.

1. Each group selected three readings: one of the contextual readings; one of Baudelaire’s poems; and either Tolstoy or Dostoevsky’s short story.  The major question that students worked towards answering was “How does the selection you’ve chosen from today’s reading illuminate the Baudelaire poem and the Russian short story?”  It’s a purposefully broad question, in part because I wanted to see what students might do with it.

2. Each group also considered a handful of questions about the contextual selection from “Society and its Discontents”:

  • What does this reading say about modern society? About the middle class? About urbanization/industrialization?
  • What does the reading have in common with the poem and the short story?
  • How does the reading differ?

Really, these are simple questions. They focus on the themes that we’ve been covering (and some fundamental concepts for the working definition of “modernity” that we’ve been using), and they simply ask the students to compare and contrast.

As a result of this structure and degree of freedom, students chose and discussed the pieces that they felt worked best together – and they came up with a varied list, of course.  Students were able to discuss the literature in conversation with contextual materials, and identify, for example, the theme of the oppressiveness of middle class life expressed in all of these works.

And so it also happened, perhaps most sneakily on my part, that I got my students to review a pretty good chunk of material for the midterm exam which is next week.

About the Author
Emily Isaacson received her BA from Augustana College (Illinois) and her MA and PhD from the University of Missouri. Previously at Chowan University, where she was the coordinator of the Chowan Critical Thinking Program, Emily is now working as an assistant professor of English at Heidelberg University. She has presented her work on early modern literature and on teaching literature at meetings of the Shakespeare Association of America, the Renaissance Society of America, South Atlantic Modern Language Association, and the College English Association. She also frequently reviews books about teaching literature in the classroom.