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Using the ENGL 240 Listserv: Discussion Questions

This page takes on two important questions about the discussion questions you are required to post to your section's listserv: what for and how to. I've included "do"s and "don't"s to help you understand my expectations for your discussion questions. 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 and suggestions. Thanks.

What For

At the most fundamental level, I prefer having you write weekly discussion questions to giving you reading quizzes or having a final exam. I can tell a lot about how carefully you've read a text from the kinds of questions you ask of it--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 these discussion questions to help you get in the habit of being an active, critical reader. Even the activity of reading and thinking about others' posts in itself is valuable--you can get a very clear sense of what others are interested in, you can see the range of different kinds of questions that can be asked of literary texts, and it's very likely that their questions will lead you to see the text in a new light. In fact, your getting in the habit of asking incisive questions of literary texts is the intellectual foundation of the course--questions are the fundamental building blocks of literary analysis, and your skills in asking good ones can best be developed by consistent, steady practice. The questions you and others ask 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 papers 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.

Two more pragmatic reasons it's worth your while to put a significant amount of time and thought into these questions: 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 listserv. (You should be aware that since discussion questions are the only writing from you that I'll see until you hand in your first essay, they influence my general sense of how you're doing in the course and may well have some influence on how I grade your more formal writing assignments and projects.)

How To


So how to practice noticing things about literary texts? What should you be looking for when you read?

Well, you first have to give the text 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 texts. 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. The ideal situation is that you read the assigned works once through at your normal speed to get a sense of where they're going, and then read through them again with a pencil in hand--underlining important or interesting passages, noting questions in the margins, taking notes in a reading journal...whatever helps you record your initial reactions to the text. I think you'll find doing this ends up being more efficient than only using one or the other reading strategy on its own.

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 the text--what jumped out at you, bothered you, confused you, made you think? What did you like and dislike about it? If you found it 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 generating interesting discussion questions, particularly if you strive to be as specific and detailed as possible in your answers to these questions. But you shouldn't just use the first questions that come to mind when submitting your discussion questions. So once you've considered your initial reactions, what else should you look for and think about?

As you're thinking about composing your discussion questions, you should move from getting down your initial reactions to the text you've read to analyzing the text itself:

Focusing on these aspects of a text can help you move from figuring out what happens to whom and why in a text (issues of plot and character) to considering how the story or poem 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 studies.

So far, I've suggested strategies for close reading of a single text--what some have called a "formalist" approach because of its emphasis on the "form" of the text, its concern with how a text means over what it means. This semester, though, we'll often be reading many texts for the same class period. This is where another reading strategy that will be a particular emphasis in this course comes in. This strategy 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. Some of the things to ask yourself when trying out this approach are:

A third reading strategy I like is what some have called a "contextual" approach because of its attempt to read a text in "context," its concern with how political or social issues of a specific time or place are represented, registered, or responded to in literature. 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.

Going through a version of this process can help you get ready to choose which questions to actually ask on the course listserv. Remember, your goal is to come up with questions that you find interesting and that you think would provide the spark for an interesting class discussion. So let's turn to the process of choosing your questions from the range of possible questions you've brainstormed.


Think of all the questions you have as you finish reading the first sentence of a story or first words of a poem. Now, as you read on and are first trying to make sense of the text, you're probably still going to have a million questions. The process of moving from first impressions to first analyses should radically reduce the number of questions, hopefully by several orders of magnitude. But there will still be many more questions than we could hope to address on a listserv or in a day or week or even semester--particularly when the questions are not just about the plot or characters, but are also about the way the text is structured, the author's intentions, the ideas or issues being broached in the story, and so on. So you have to prioritize when considering what questions to ask on the listserv. Here are some informal suggestions/guidelines for generating discussion questions.



Two final points of advice. First, if you find it difficult to come up with discussion questions, it's probably a sign that you're not reading the texts 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 writing assignments. Or to put the point more positively: the more work you put right now into generating provocative questions on your reading responses, the better off you'll be when it comes time to write your essays and projects.

Second, always be striving for improvement over the course of the semester and from week to week. If your early questions are largely about things you find confusing that you need clarified, or if they are not directly about the readings for that week, or don't show an awareness of the options open to you or fail to practice some of the things suggested here, don't be content to continue in that rut! I'm looking for improvement over the course of the semester, and the best way to improve is to experiment with different kinds of questions you can be asking.

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ENGL 240: Intro to African American Lit and Culture, Spring 2001
Created: 1/17/01 9:40 pm
Last modified: 2/12/01 6:21 pm