Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below looks at the practice of close reading of texts and how to enhance the experience in the flipped classroom. It is by Haerin Shin, assistant professor of English, Asian Studies, and Cinema & Media Arts Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN and is from the May 2015 issue, Volume 24, Number 4, of the National Teaching and Learning Forum. It is #74 in a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1002/(ISSN)2166-3327 ] The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. Copyright ©John Wiley & Sons, Professional and Trade Subscription Content, One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594. Reprinted with permission.
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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Flipping the Flipped Classroom: The Beauty of Spontaneous and Instantaneous Close Reading
I first came across the concept of the “flipped classroom” a few years ago, while sifting through articles on on-and offline hybrid courses—articles about minimizing prescriptive learning on site and helping the students make the best of their shared physical presence in the classroom, emphasis on live interaction, etc. I was delighted to notice that my own course-work experience nicely aligned with the objectives of this pedagogical innovation. After all, literary seminars have been exercising this approach all along! In particular, close reading is a wonderful way to create a convergence effect, reconfiguring the discrete threads of the critical thinking that students (hopefully) brought back from home into a constellation of understanding. Individual stars of insight sit in the sky as luminous yet isolated entities, but when a community draws connections among them, curates their alignment, and endows the resultant observation with a shape and story, new meanings are born.
As Kant asserted, the appreciation of beauty hinges upon both the subjective and the universal. Classrooms are none other than the generative site where the universal dimension of literature—as not only subjective representation and reflection but also the source of timeless inspiration, a work of art—is established through processed-based collaborations, whereby the written, spoken, and drawn “become,” rather than simply “are revealed to be” as a fixed object with any preordained value, the seedbed of new meaning. Through close reading, students exercise and realize their agency, owning their learning experience. In other words, they read the assigned materials, walk into class with thoughts and questions, and bring on the magic of dialogic engagement by unpacking the mysteries of word-craft right then and there. One student picks up the nuanced tone of a certain passage and detects layered ironies that point to a rich cache of social critique, while another directs our attention to the architectonic intricacies of the sentence or identifies cultural markers that eluded the class’s notice, illuminating the discursive and aesthetic appeal of stylized double entendre. Reading becomes making, and consumption, production. The marvels of making the stars fall into place in front of their eyes, the beauty of spontaneity paired with instantaneity arising from what I see as the central tenet of the flipped classroom model: shared temporal, spatial (whether physical or virtual, considering the growing appeal of digitally remediated classroom experience), and cognitive presence.
Our Practice—New Practice
Too Long—Too Short. The discovery that one of the most innovative approaches in contemporary pedagogy is already an embedded practice in my discipline was a heartening one, but the need for further fine-tuning emerged when I began to notice subtle differences in the classroom dynamics as we marched through a variety of texts. A literature class is and should be a multifaceted experience, one that cannot be readily reduced to a two-dimensional plane with lectures and discussions on each side. In turn, the discussions should foster a wide array of abilities, such as the ability to distill and abstract, but also to effectively support these ideas by feeling out the contours of the text, which can be achieved through close reading. However, the particularities of the genre, medium, and form each class revolves around appeared to result in a “weighted average” (rather than a properly distributed) model. For instance, poetry classes were more conducive to on-site close reading due to the (not always, but often) shorter and more condensed form in which the content is presented, whereas the bulk and scope of a prose-centered class tended to migrate towards an open forum of ideas with less opportunities for intense close reading. As a fan of student-initiated class flows, and given my own research and teaching focus on prose fiction and critical theory (which involves reading and discussing a good number of long novels that go over 300 pages), I wanted to find a way for our class members to exercise the wonders of close reading in a more holistic and organic fashion instead of getting piecemeal exposure. The problem persists even with short stories, ironically, as Poe pointed out in “The Philosophy of Composition,” the “unity of effect” is a desired goal precisely because of the challenges posed by “length.” A short story can be read together in one sitting, but doing so would leave little or no time for students to collaboratively engage in the making of its meaning. In turn, asking them to read the story beforehand and discuss it in class results in a dynamic that is hardly different from novel reading, since even “short” stories comprise multiple paragraphs and pages, inevitably reverting back to the piecemeal analysis model. Instead of singling out paragraphs and passages and subjecting them to rigorous analyses, while letting the rest of the reading play into the discussion as readily available yet unrealized sites for detailed appreciation, wouldn’t there be a way to help students see their joint effort transforming the text as a whole? How to fully capitalize on the temporal continuity and spatial proximity we experience in one class sitting, to “enact” the structural practice of reading prose (namely, creating an organic synergy between part and whole) by placing an individual class period into dialogue with the semester-long journey of the course?
The Flipped Flip
What I realized upon facing this challenge, was that I had to further flip my own perspective regarding the “what” of close reading in order to maximize the effects of the “how.” The conundrum of negotiating performative spontaneity/instantaneity with the disproportionately large volume of its object of engagement could be resolved by recalibrating my preconception of prose fiction. Put simply, I had to present the students with something short enough for thorough interrogation in one sitting, yet complex and multifaceted enough for layered discoveries, with sufficient architectural coherence to ensure the procedural joy of building a perspectival framework. Perhaps a paragraph-long story that serves as a seedling for a cosmos of its own.
Enter Borges. Fortunately, there was a text that handsomely fit the bill: Jorge Luis Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science.” Composed of 155 words, “On Exactitude in Science” (in English translation) is of a length that warrants the modifier “short” even within the category of flash fiction. At the same time, its content runs wide and deep, every single sentence packed with references to and commentaries on historical, cultural, socioeconomic, and political issues that resonate with our lives past, present, and future. A map of an Empire, the precision and exactitude of which becomes so overwhelming that the terrains become covered in its fold, only to be reduced to “tattered ruins ... in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.” Following the dense prose word by word, the students pondered on the effect of each semicolon, the artful diction that invites rigorous scrutiny, and the flow of the sentences as they unfurled the process by which representation takes over the real and becomes a thing of its own. One student investigated the author’s word choice of Empire (why choose the word Empire instead of something more neutral such as land or country?) and remarked upon the subtext of power and control, as well as the impression of spatial vastness embedded within the term. Another student connected these elements back to the gradual expansion of the map and sketched out the progress of Imperialism powered by the science and technology of institutionalized intellectual disciplines delivered (“Cartography,” “Geography”...), while yet others called attention to the inhabitants of the map’s ruined relics (“Animals and Beggars”) and questioned the framing of the tale (presented as a quotation, the source of which is but a fabrication), coalescing the discussion towards a poignant critique of modernity and the legacies of Enlightenment. Having spent a full fifty minute period over this one paragraph of a story, one student later reflected that it was one of the most intense and revelatory experiences throughout the term. She was proud and happy to have made something of the given text on her own terms, or rather, on “shared ground” through which she not only exercised her own agency but also realized the power of collaborative, dialectic thinking. I can, meanwhile, confidently state that I myself was probably one of the greatest beneficiaries. There is nothing more rewarding for me, as a teacher of literature, than catalyzing and witnessing the birth of meaning and an appreciation for the beauty of its process, the craft of its embodiment.
The Next Flip?
Teaching has always been a learning experience for me. Likewise, theory and practice go hand in hand, each supplementing and enriching the other. What I learned by “flipping” the “flipped classroom” model with this particular experience, which I hope to carry over to more classes to follow, is that there is always more room for further conceptual, and perspectival flipping in the interactive and dynamic process of teaching and learning.
Haerin (Helen) Shin
Assistant Professor of English,
Cinema & Media Arts, Asian Studies
421 Benson Hall
2301 Vanderbilt Place
Nashville, TN 37235-1654