I’ve just finished teaching a course on fiction and its relationship to social justice, and I noticed a couple of things about the students. First, they prefer straightforward narration to more literary forms where the author doesn’t make it easy to know who’s talking at a particular point, or when the narration becomes unreliable and you have to track the plot like a big game hunter tracking his prey. Second, they read pretty well - they can identify issues and themes, and they can “get” what the novel has to say, even the ones where they struggle with the form or style.
What they can’t do, however, or at least not do very well, is identify passages or quotations from the novel that can be used as the cornerstone for a commentary on the larger text, and then build a commentary based on that passage. I want them to learn this for a couple of reasons: it helps them develop more precise reading skills; it encourages them to think about novels as more than just plot; it gives them a solid starting point for expressing ideas about the novel (they have to start with the text and build out from it).
My preliminary search for useful tools or strategies to help students develop this very particular and specialized skill hasn't yielded a lot of fruit. Libraries and writing centres have put out some material that relates to this issue, but most of it focuses on more standard kinds of literature study and research. So for the Scholar module of the eCampusOntario Extend mOOC, I thought I would design and implement a study of a new teaching approach to this issue.
The bulk of the project would be taken up with developing a teaching strategy for this task, implementing it, and seeing if students benefit in any tangible way. I would by doing a more exhaustive literature search on teaching strategies for this task; if they exist, they won't be many in number, as this is a sort of peculiar approach to teaching literary interpretation. (What I have seen, in a cursory glance at the secondary literature, is attention focused on how students can write about literary devices or literature in general.)
In the course I have in mind, students compute four or five commentaries. I would have them do the first one “cold",” ie without any instruction on how to approach the commentary. During the rest of the term, I would reach my strategy. I would compare their last commentary with their first, and I would interview willing students to get their feedback on the approach. All of this would follow applicable ethics research protocols.
My hypothesis is that the targeted “passage commentary” instruction would yield improved commentaries. Freeing up time in the course to address the task will have an impact on content, of course, but that is probably a price worth paying. Adopting a SoTL approach to the issue, as advocated in the mOOC module, has compelled me to think very analytically about the problem in trying to solve, so that is already a win in my books.
To see more details about the plan, go to this Google doc.