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Using the American Identities Discussion Forum: Reading Responses, Spring 2006

This page takes on three important questions about the reading responses you are required to post to the course Blackboard site: what, what for, and how to. I've included "do"s and "don't"s to help you understand my expectations for your discussion questions and response essays. My goal is to make this page as useful to you as possible, so let me know if it can be improved. If anything is badly worded, unclear, or missing, please contact me with constructive criticisms. Thanks.


There are two ways for you to get credit for a reading response in a given week. You can post three discussion questions before noon the day of class that we'll be discussing the readings your questions are directed toward. Or by the Sunday following that week's classes, you may post a response essay that answers someone's discussion question(s) (or a follow-up question of your own invention) from that week. Only one reading response per week will be counted toward your total for the semester. Of course, you may continue the conversations begun in a given week all the way through to the end of the semester (for your own interest/learning and extra credit). Particularly if you tend not to talk much in class, you can use the Blackboard discussion fora to help extend and deepen our class discussions. If you want to raise a question about a reading we've already discussed and get credit for it as part of a reading response, find a way to craft a question that addresses a reading we're about to discuss along with the older reading or a response essay that compares and contrasts the older reading with one or more of the newer readings.

Your grade for this segment of the course will be determined by the number of on-time, passing reading responses you post to the course Blackboard site: 8 or more sets of discussion questions/response essays=A; 7=B+; 6=B; 5=C+; 4=C, 3=D; 2 or less=F. The quality of your discussion questions and response essays will be factored into your preparation/participation/team work grade; in addition, extra questions or essays posted per week and any reading responses you post beyond the eighth will count as extra credit and raise your preparation/participation/team work grade (for more on this component of your final grade, see the main page, Section VI).

Any reading responses that don't meet the above requirements or the expectations laid out below (see "How To") will be counted as an extra-credit "follow-up response" (the extra credit will be factored into your preparation/participation grade; the better the quality of the follow-up response, the more extra credit it will be worth). So there are several circumstances in which something you intended as a set of discussion questions or a response essay may end up being counted as a follow-up response: if you submit your questions late, if they look back on a previous class's readings and discussion without also looking ahead to the next class's readings and discussion, if you fail to ask three discussion questions in a week, your Blackboard submission(s) will be counted as a follow-up response. The same goes for response essays that are late or simply repeat what was discussed in class or in an earlier post.

For the first few weeks of the semester, as people are familiarizing themselves with these requirements, I will notify people when I am counting their reading responses as follow-up responses, but by mid-semester, I will expect everyone to understand what is expected of them and will stop notifying them when a Blackboard submission is counted as a follow-up response. It is your responsibility, that is, to know the difference between a reading response and a follow-up response and to keep track on your own of how many of each you have submitted to the course Blackboard site. If you have any questions, contact me; I will assume you understand what is required and expected of you unless you ask for clarification.

What For

At the most fundamental level, I prefer having you write biweekly discussion questions or response essays to giving you reading quizzes or having a final exam. I can tell a lot about how carefully and thoughtfully you've done the readings from the questions you ask of them--and I'd rather watch how the kinds of questions you ask change over time than use the one-time assessment measure of a final exam. Rather than the teacher always supplying the questions and your job being to figure out the answers, having you ask interpretive/discussion questions can enable you all to influence or even set the agenda for a given class discussion. Rather than taking up valuable class time with pop quizzes or making you think this is the kind of course where it's ok not to do any work except for cramming for the exams, I want the job of regularly raising questions and trying to answer them, in and out of class, to help you get in the habit of being an active, critical reader. Even the activity of reading and thinking about others' questions and answers in itself is valuable--you can get a clear sense of what others are interested in and challenged by, you can see the range of different kinds of questions that can be asked of the readings and different ways of answering them, and it's very likely that others' questions and answers will lead you to understand the readings differently. In fact, your getting in the habit of asking incisive questions of the course materials is probably the key intellectual foundation of the course--questioning is the fundamental building block of all intellectual activity, and developing an inquiring mind is a product of consistent, steady practice. The questions you and others ask and answer can not only form the basis of our class discussion, but they can spark ideas for the essays and projects in the course, as well. The discussion questions provide opportunities for inquiry-based learning, class time gives you practice in generating and discussing possible answers to important questions, and response essays give you practice in choosing a challenging question and not only giving an answer to it, but doing it in such a way that it's persuasive to your audience, as well. All together, these assignments prepare you for the more formal, graded projects in the course.

Two more pragmatic reasons it's worth your while to put a significant amount of time and thought into these reading responses: avoiding boredom and getting better grades. If you ask questions that you're genuinely interested in and that you want others to be interested in, as well, you're increasing the chances that we'll have a vigorous class discussion. And when I calculate your final grade, I will be sure to raise the base grade of those who have made extraordinary contributions to class discussion and to the Blackboard site.

How To


Think of all the questions you have as you finish reading the first sentence of a story or essay. Now, as you read on and are first trying to make sense of the text, you're probably still going to have a thousand and one questions. The process of moving from first impressions to first analyses should radically reduce the number of questions, hopefully by a few orders of magnitude. But there will still be many more questions than we could hope to address online or in a day or week or even semester of classes--particularly when the questions are not just about the plot or characters or main arguments, but are also about the way the text is structured, the author's intentions, the ideas or issues being broached in the story or essay, its relation to other works we've read, what you think of it, and so on. So you have to prioritize when considering what questions to ask on the listserv. Keep in mind that the point of asking these questions is for you to influence the shape of our upcoming class discussions. Ask questions that you believe will lead to active, interesting, and productive discussion in the next class meeting--a discussion that not only helps us understand the texts better and their relations to each other and to others we've already read, but that also gives people the opportunity to share their own interpretations, analyses, and reactions, to agree and/or disagree over significant issues, and to bring their own perspectives, values, and experiences to bear on their own and others' responses to the readings in the course.

Here are some informal suggestions/guidelines for generating discussion questions.



Noticing, Analyzing, Synthesizing, Reflecting: Answering Discussion Questions

So how to practice noticing things about the course materials, making comparisons, connections, and contrasts between pairs of novels, and analyzing, synthesizing, and reflecting on key concepts, issues, and problems--all of which can help you develop good answers to your own and other people's discussion questions? What should you be looking for when you read the texts for this class? How should you use your observations while reading and participating in class discussions to help prepare you for writing your reflective essays?

Well, you first have to give each work you read your full and undivided attention. And you have to give yourself time to process what you've read. So make sure you've given yourself sufficient time to read and think about the assigned readings for each class. Make sure that you're alert and focused when you read, and that you have something to write with and on, so as to record your first impressions that don't fit in the margins of the book. Manage your time efficiently. Without giving yourself enough time with the text and away from it, you make it very difficult to notice anything at all.

So let's say you've taken care of this timing issue. What next? My advice is to start off by considering your gut reactions to each work--what jumped out at you, bothered you, confused you, made you think? What did you like and dislike about each? If you found one difficult to understand, precisely what features made it difficult? What would you need to know to make better sense of it? Thinking carefully about these kinds of first impressions can help provide the raw material for a reflective essay, particularly if you strive to be as specific and detailed as possible in your answers to these questions. But a reflective essay shouldn't be only a record of your first impressions and how they were similar and different for each work. It should consist of your reflections on the relations between what you read, their meaning, and their significance. Nor should it only be a response to ideas from the discussion leading project alone. Making an observation that a relation between two works exists, or starting from a relation the discussion leading project reveals to you, is only the starting point. You need to consider the implications of that relation, what follows from it, what it reveals, what hypotheses of conclusions can be drawn from it.

As you're thinking about doing this and what to focus on in your reflective essay, you should move from thinking through your initial reactions to the works, to people's discussion questions, or to the discussion leading project's take on the relations between them to analyzing them and considering issues they both raise:

Focusing on these aspects of a single work can help you move from figuring out what happens to whom and why in a literary text (issues of plot and character) to considering how the story or poem or essay is told, by whom, and to what end (issues of form, structure, address, and narrative strategy). Both kinds of issues are important, but the latter tend to be valued more highly in literary and humanities-based interdisciplinary studies. Doing the same for the other novel can help you find some interesting formal or structural relations between the two novels.

So far, I've suggested strategies for close reading--what some have called a "formalist" approach because of its emphasis on the "form" of the text, its concern with how a text means or how a writer structures an argument--and for using close reading to generate comparisons between texts. As you can see, it's closely related to a similar reading strategy I encourage you to explore, which has been called "intertextual" because of its emphasis on the relations between literary texts (or between literary texts and other kinds of texts). Any time you compare or contrast two texts, you're engaging in an intertextual approach to literature and culture.

The traditional version of intertextual criticism focuses more on generic conventions and evolutions, the way literary traditions emerge and change. It focuses on the relations between two texts primarily to discern significance changes in a genre, or ways in which writers relate themselves to literary traditions. It asks, what can we figure out about something in general from comparing and contrasting two particular works that exemplify it? But there are other ways of doing intertextual criticism relate to other approaches. Consider the following kinds of questions:

As you can see, some versions of intertextual criticism are not that different than what has been called a "contextual" approach to literature because of its attempt to read a text in historical "context," its concern with how political or social issues of a specific time or place are represented, registered, or responded to in literature and culture. This approach can be difficult to do well if one's knowledge of context is limited, but we can certainly try to make inferences about the relation between text and context based on what we have read. This is a valid and potentially fruitful way to generate observations about a given text, comparisons between different texts, and reflections on the meaning and significance on those observations and comparisons, so I encourage you to experiment with it in your reading responses, even though in its purest form it does involves doing outside research that you are not required to do.

Those who want to experiment with doing cultural or interdisciplinary comparisons in their reading responses will probably find themselves starting from either a formalist, intertextual, or contextual mode of making comparisons between works and drawing conclusions from them.

If you've asked yourself some of these questions and considered some of these issues while reading or rereading the assigned texts, if you've paid attention during class discussions and the various discussion leading projects, and if you've thought about the relation between what we read and what we did that week, then you're ready to begin composing a reflective essay. Your task is to cull or distill from all the possible observations you've made on your own while reading and thinking about the readings for that week the one or two that will best help you get a handle on the unit as a whole. That is, you should choose a question to reflect on that will help you both focus in on the comparisons and relations that interested you the most and to gain a holistic understanding of patterns and relations across the week's readings.

Remember that informal as reflective essays are, you're still writing to a "public"--to your classmates, in this case. Take pride in what you do, and be aware of your audience as you write. Try to interest them in your point of view, make them see the relations you've focused on from your perspective. Try to convey why you find the comparisons you're posting important or interesting. And try to treat each reflective essay as part of a continuing dialogue that goes on out of class; feel free to respond to other people's questions and comparisons in their reflections, to note patterns in what people have been talking about in class or writing on the listserv, or otherwise show that you're thinking about the issues other people have been raising during that week.



In closing, if you find it difficult to come up with discussion questions or response essays, it's probably a sign that you're not reading carefully enough or giving yourself enough processing/brainstorming time. Adjust your work schedule accordingly. If you don't, you'll find it very difficult to complete the other, more formal and ambitious writing assignments.

Or to put the point more positively: the more work you put right now into generating discussion questions and response essays, the better off you'll be when it comes time to write your essays and projects.

M A I N * N E W S * L I N K S * R E S E R V E S

AMST/ENGL 296 American Identities, Spring 2006
Created: 1/26/06 10:47 am
Last modified: 2/2/06 10:22 am
Webmaster: Bruce Simon, Associate Professor of English, SUNY Fredonia