~by Rick Vanderwall
My fall semester Introduction to Literature students were a great group. This course is a required, entry level lit course for first year students. Everybody takes this course and instructors are encouraged to develop unique, engaging themes for the course. I came up with “Journeys through Danger, Temptation, and Violence”. Although this title may seem an exercise in the Sergio Leone (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) school of curricular development, it has actually worked fairly well. The course begins with Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, moves to Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD, takes a left turn to Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL, then Shakespeare’s MACBETH, finishing up with Marlowe’s FAUSTUS. Students engage with these texts in a variety of ways, including writing the traditional literary analysis, branching out into multi-genre projects with the CAROL. The final two works, Macbeth and Faustus work well together thematically and comparatively. Performance activities blended with in-class readings has connected students with these texts in a new and often deeper way. With some groups and some students the performance activities can be intimidating. While some students have experience with this way of working with dramatic literature, for some it is a first. Students new or otherwise may find performing in front of the class is daunting. I have always offered doing scenes in video as an option but few have selected that option, until this past fall.
From the beginning it was clear that these students were ready for whatever experience I was willing to give them. They quickly demonstrated experience and competence in the writing of the traditional college literary analysis. They loved to discuss and pushed me for more adventurous explorations of the material. As we moved into Macbeth we simultaneously worked our way through the text and formed production teams. Each team selected a scene from a teacher provided list. I provided some training in the language of Shakespeare and helped the groups engage with the text for deeper understanding. When given the performance choice most chose video production over live performance, the reverse of previous groups. The resulting scenes met my expectations for close reading and engagement. The discussion that resulted as we watched the videos was rich. The quality of the videos mattered less than the scene concept expressed.
What I noticed as we moved into Marlowe’s Faustus was that the groups chose to stay together for the next performance project and expressed a desire to improve the films. There seemed to be a competition among the groups to put forward an improved product. As the quality of the videos did improve, the level of the textual engagement became much deeper. One group in particular selected a complex task. They wanted to do scenes from Faustus that included Good Angel/Bad Angel scenes. I suggested they adapt several of these scenes into one. The act of adaption required a deep study of the text of these scenes in order weave them together. The resulting video (linked below) opened an expanded discussion of the character of Faustus and speculation about author intent. The culminating assignment was a paper comparing the two plays which seemed an afterthought compared to the high level of engagement of the scene production process.
I learned that alternatives to live classroom performance had potential for greater engagement. I have been aware for the past few years that more and more students came to class with experience in video production and skills with other technologies that could be utilized in performance activities. Students reluctant to perform live in class were very willing to perform in video. The level of engagement depended somewhat on my individual coaching of the groups and my facilitation of each group’s task/scene. I had to emphasize “process over product” and make sure not to become too focused on the success or failure of the technical aspects of projects. Instead, I commented on the concept students presented and how it addressed the text chosen. With the videos all students, presenters and audience, were able to focus on the textual interpretation. We could easily replay all or part of the videos as comments or questions arose.
Some groups had issues with compatibility and portability of the videos. I suggested as a backup that the videos be posted on YouTube. Equipment varied from cellphone cameras to high end camcorders and use of Adobe Premier, iMovie, to Windows Movie Maker. Students were encouraged to use technology they had at hand. I stated clearly that this project was not about the quality of the video but the depth of the textual engagement. I set no “quality” standards but focused my attention on selecting challenging scenes and facilitating the groups as they addressed the task.
While this group was exceptional in their engagement, they did not seem unusual in the technology skills they possessed. In written response following the completion of the project, they expressed surprise at the level of interest they developed in both Macbeth and Faustus. They connected particularly with the moral dilemmas faced by both characters. As a result I am rethinking the culminating comparison paper. Each semester informs the changes I will make for the next, that’s the one constant I have been able to count on over the course of my teaching career.
Rick Vanderwall is a faculty member in in the Department of Languages and Literatures specializing in English education At the University of Northern Iowa. He has been an educator in a middle school, high school for more than thirty-five years. He is still learning new things