Among the most important parts of developing critical insight into any art are persistent attention to it and practice with it. Because English studies works primarily with words, persistent attention and practice take the form of repeated, extensive reading and discussion about what is read. The readings are taken care of by the readings due listed on the course calendar. Discussion is accounted for in part by the physical classroom. However, the assigned class meetings must also include some lecture and overt instruction, meaning they cannot be wholly given over to the kind of talk that allows for critical approaches to develop—and assigned class meetings are not enough time to do so even if they can be dedicated entirely to talk. Literature classes do well, therefore, to extend their discussions outside the regularly scheduled times; online discussion postings are a useful means through which to offer such extension.
Accordingly, the course asks students to compose numbers of substantive posts each week, of which
- One must begin a new thread of discussion,
- One must respond to a discussion already in progress,
- One must occur on or before the midpoint of each discussion period, and
- One must occur after the midpoint of each discussion period.
Part of developing critical insight inheres in following thoughts and exploring them. Doing so means that a certain minimal amount of time and effort must be spent in laying out and substantiating ideas. For this course, a minimum of 125 words in a post will be necessary for it to be considered substantial. As noted for a similar assignment at another institution, “More will not necessarily be better, as padded prose is generally annoying, but fewer will not typically have enough heft to be useful.”
Also, given the positioning and orientation of the course, it is to be hoped that posts will be relatively free of mechanical and grammatical errors, as well as displaying an appropriate style—all as provided for by MLA standards and as treated in class. Since posts should work towards having enduring value for the course, leaving them such that they are easily readable by others throughout the term will be of benefit.
Posts of exceptional quality, loosely interpreted, may be rewarded at a higher rate. Also, additional substantive posts may occasion greater rewards.
Beginning a new thread is beginning a new conversation, and, as with any conversation, it needs to lay out what is being discussed and what idea about it is being advanced. In some senses, a new thread functions as a formal paragraph, identifying a topic, advancing a claim about it, and substantiating that claim in some way. That claim, however, need not be argumentative (although it can be); expressing that a given passage in the reading gives pause or occasions some wholly reactive comment or question is entirely okay. For example, in a class that deals with Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, a discussion thread might open with a post similar to what appears below:
As I was reading early on in “The Wedding of King Arthur,” where Gawain and Gaheris chase a hart into a castle, and Gawain ends up in a fight (http://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/MaloryWks2/1:5.7?rgn=div2;view=fulltext), I was struck by the idea that a person—however noble a lady—could actually gift a deer to another. Were deer somehow more nearly domesticated in the Britain of the text, that they could be given as gifts? Or is the matter rather one that betokens the lady’s power? But if it is, then should she not be able to do more with Gawain than fall across her lover and before his sword, losing her head in the process? Something in the passage reads strangely to me; am I the only one for whom this is true?
Further, while the readings and assignments for the course are likely to—and should—undergird much of the ongoing discussion, other materials relevant to them may be brought in for consideration and discussion. As such, another discussion thread in a class that deals with Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur might begin with something like what appears below:
I saw a commentary on Malory, https://literaryanalysis.net/2009/09/05/literature-commentary-le-morte-darthur/, and I notice that the author makes much of the difficult language. That is, the writer notes that “‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ [sic] makes Shakespeare or the King James Version look positively modern” and remarks on “a 500-page chunk in the middle of the book that is dry as dust. There just aren’t that many ways of describing jousts, tournaments, and one-on-one duels. Things get really old, really fast. […] It’s tedious, dull, and probably the most difficult book [the online writer has] ever read.” If it is so hard to read and dull, why do we continue to read it at all? Why not just go to the “shorter, snappier, simpler, and more fun to read” versions of which the online writer writes?
In both cases, the post-writer brings a specific item to attention, outlines a reaction to it, and gives some reason to have such a reaction. While no formal argument is made in the samples, each could serve as a useful springboard for discussion, allowing for considered response that leads to new knowledge. And, again, more formal argument is also entirely fine; another discussion thread in a class dealing with Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur could begin more argumentatively, as in the example below:
The beginning of Malory’s work (http://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/MaloryWks2/1:3.1?rgn=div2;view=fulltext) gives us a vision of a disunited England, one in which nobles war against their kings openly. It also gives us one in which the king is a lecher, lusting after a married woman and conspiring to get at her by whatever means—even deceitful magic. Arthur’s origin is in something far less than pleasant in the text, then, and that very unpleasantness—conceived through what we, reading the next now, have to call rape, since Igrayne could not give informed consent to the sex-act that resulted in Arthur’s conception—foreshadows Arthur’s own sexual problems (being raped by his sister and siring Mordred, being unable to conceive a legitimate child with Guinevere, being cuckolded by her and Lancelot) and the political failures that result therefrom.
Other modes of introducing new threads could be found, certainly, but those laid out above suggest themselves as reasonably accessible—and easy to respond to. The latter is helpful, since responses are required.
It is not enough to simply advance ideas; the ideas of others must be responded to if knowledge and understanding are to be advanced. (Indeed, each of the thread-beginning techniques noted above is, in fact, a response to another’s idea.) To help the class move along, then, discussions require students to respond to one another. Doing so tends to be easier than starting new discussions; conversations have inertia no less than physical objects do. Discussions that begin by asking questions make responses easy via answering them. Discussions that advance more formal arguments invite response, whether agreement and extension, disagreement and explanation, or nuance and explication. Whatever the response may be, it will need to make clear what is being responded to, what the response is, and what substantiation is available for the response.
As such, simple affirmation—“I agree,” “Yes,” or the like—or denial—“No,” “That’s wrong,” or the like—will not suffice. Something like “I agree because, later in the text, we can see…” or “I disagree. If we look at…” will be more helpful, however, because it gives the reader more with which to work to move forward. Again, the point of the exercise is to arrive at better understandings, and doing so is aided by seeing how others are thinking.
As an example, a response to the “Wedding of King Arthur” comment, above, might look like what appears below:
I’m not sure it’s an issue of deer being domesticated—or more like domesticated—so much as it is an issue of who owns hunting rights and lands. Common understandings hold hunting as a restricted privilege in medieval times; that’s part of what annoys the authorities about Robin Hood and the Merry Men, that they hunt in the (protected) forest where they live, if I recall. It seems to me, then, that the lady gave her knight a special deer, taken alive and therefore with great effort and at great cost; it is a display of her wealth that she could do such a thing. Given that, it makes sense that the knight would want to protect it, and I know I’d have something to say to someone whose dogs came after my pets.
Similarly, a response to the foreshadowing comment, above, might look like what appears below:
There is something to be said about the idea of foreshadowing—but it does rely on our sensibilities more than on those of Malory’s contemporaries. The sexual misconduct noted would not have been perceived quite so broadly then as it is (more rightly) now. Merlin, remember, goes along with Uther’s plans to take Igrayne, even as Uther knows Igrayne is married. The same Merlin notes the rebuke Arthur will receive for having sex with his half-sister (http://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/MaloryWks2/1:3.18?rgn=div2;view=fulltext), even though Arthur is unaware of who she is at the time (http://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/MaloryWks2/1:3.17?rgn=div2;view=fulltext). A misogynistic view of sexuality and sexual responsibility is suggested, to be sure, but it is the one in force as the text was composed; it is the one we have to use if we are to treat the text appropriately. And I think that weakens the foreshadowing somewhat.
In both cases, the item occasioning response is identified, a claim is made, and that claim is supported—whether by anecdotal and commonplace evidence or by direct textual reference. The responses also directly engage the ideas presented, rather than commenting on the person who advances the ideas. The latter point is particularly important, not only to avoid instances of the ad hominem fallacy, but also to ensure that discussion remains civil despite its treatment of less-than-pleasant, potentially triggering subject matter—and a civil environment is necessary for people to feel safe enough to be able to advance ideas and benefit from the experience of doing so.
The periods over which online discussions are to be made are not evenly distributed. Accordingly, they will have different midpoints, and they will require different numbers of posts, as outlined below.
|Discussion Period (Discus)||Midpoint||Minimum Number of Posts|
|1 (24 August to 9 September)||31 August||5|
|2 (9 to 16 September)||13 September||3|
|3 (16 to 23 September)||20 September||3|
|4 (23 to 30 September)||27 September||3|
|5 (30 September to 21 October)||12 October||9|
|6 (21 to 28 October)||25 October||3|
|7 (28 October to 4 November)||1 November||3|
|8 (4 to 11 November)||8 November||3|
|9 (11 to 18 November)||15 November||3|
|10 (18 November to 2 December)||27 November||7|
Discus 1 is lengthened against late registration and roster instability. Discus 5 is lengthened to allow more focus on Ppr 1 and the MTEx. Discus 10 is lengthened against the Thanksgiving holiday. Keep in mind that each Discus ends at the moment class begins on the specified class day (i.e., Discus 2 ends when class is scheduled to begin on 16 September); posts made on the day but after class begins will be regarded as belonging to the next available Discus.
As is noted elsewhere, posting during assigned class times is inadvisable, as it argues against being engaged with what is happening in the physical classroom.
A copy of the grading rubric that will be applied to each Discus appears at the following link: ENGL 2340 Discus Grading Rubric.
As motioned towards above, some of the materials treated in any literature class—or any discussion of literature—may be triggering. They are not brought up for the purposes of triggering those who may be triggered, but they are part of the literature and the context in which the literature exists; understanding both may necessitate treating such materials. Every attempt will be made to do so with respect to participants in the discussion.
Geoffrey B. Elliott
22 July 2016