Strategies for Student Success in the First-Year College Literature Classroom
The majority of students have been taught literature with a textbook anthology at some point in their secondary education. As such, their past experiences with reading and studying a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century text, whether authored by Defoe or not, will be significantly different than what they will be asked to perform as readers and writers in the college literature classroom. For some students, it is even possible that they have not read a lengthy early-modern work, like A Journal of the Plague Year, in its entirety. However, there are strategies for working within this reality.
Given that most students will have only come across modernized excerpts of early-modern literary texts, it is imperative that instructors highlight the status of assigned literary works as whole cultural artifacts with material features distinct to the historical and cultural contexts in which they were produced and consumed. Reading noncanonical early-modern genres and texts will further help students to begin to grasp early-modern culture and literature and contextualize popular genres like the novel, rendering what seems a distant history and culture less alien or foreign. Textual artifacts like letters, chapters from grammar textbooks, book reviews, and periodicals expose students to, and familiarize them with, the evolution of language, genres, and compositional and printing practices. As Shannon L. Reed and Kirilka Stavreva discuss in their research on information literacy and critical thinking, student exploration of the multiple layers of meaning in texts and the relationship among texts in and across historical periods "requires intellectual curiosity, sustained attention, open-mindedness, creative courage, and multi-dimensional cognitive abilities — all aspects of critical thinking" (439). Rather than simply being told about a given culture and history as background to an assigned text, active engagement with these noncanonical works builds a more concrete mental model of eighteenth-century language, genres, and people.
With active engagement comes higher-order thinking skills that we expect our students to have at the university level: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. However, these skills need to be modeled in the British literature classroom in order for students to master them. During class discussions or explanations of assignments on early-modern literature, making one's pedagogy transparent is a small way to reinforce the level of participation expected, such as pointing out and praising strong analytical work carried out in class discussions or perhaps even retracing the mental steps taken to arrive at the conclusion. More active than simply showing students a "good paper" on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature, practicing close reading and textual analysis in the classroom demonstrates the level of critical thought expected in college-level coursework. Even advanced students appreciate taking time to practice constructing a specific, concise thesis.
Additionally, scaffolding lessons on analysis enables students to learn to make their own inquiries and lead discussions instead of only responding to pre-set questions, improving their ability to draw connections and critically engage with early-modern texts. Students can begin by recording their own questions while reading a text and these can be incorporated into class discussion. As students grow accustomed to inquiring about texts of this period rather than passively reading them, the questions that they devise will generally move them beyond plot comprehension to a sophisticated synthesis and evaluation of the themes of a text. Incorporating constant application of the expected skills into classroom exercises will yield more engaged, active, and learned students of early-modern literature.
Illinois State University