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Learning Literature in an Era of Change: Innovations in Teaching. Ed. Dona Hickey and Donna Reiss. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2000. ISBN 1-57922-018-5 (paper) $22.50.

– Reviewed by Louann Reid, August 1, 2000
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Professors of literature have been increasingly challenged to re-examine ideas about texts and authority. How should they respond? How might they understand and confront literacies as multiple and constructed? How might they focus more on the learning and less on the teaching, as traditionally defined?

Dona Hickey and Donna Reiss have selected and edited an excellent array of answers to these questions. In most of the eighteen chapters of Learning Literature in an Era of Change: Innovations in Teaching, teachers of literature demonstrate that it is possible and desirable to create classrooms that "focus on active and collaborative learning, incorporating learning-centered and social constructionist perspectives in which a variety of ways of communicating are valued and in which students are respected as developing authorities" (xvii). Each chapter of this fine collection contains descriptions of classroom practices with clear connections to literary and learning theories.

Hickey and Reiss have backgrounds in writing across the curriculum and are especially interested in "the ways computer conferencing can help our students build learning communities, communicate about literature informally and formally, and appreciate literature" (xxiii). New technologies do play a role in the collection, but they are not the only innovations featured. The editors consciously sought writers who would describe a range of instructional strategies.

The chapters are divided into four sections, each a category of innovative approaches. Examples from each section will give the tenor and variety of the contributions. Part One, "Literary License: Alternative Readings and Writings," contains descriptions of approaches that ask students to understand imaginative works through writing imaginative works or generating alternative ways of thinking. Donna Reiss uses e-mail for online letters and publications that help students adopt the voices of critics, poets, and fictional characters. Barry Lewis applies Edward de Bono's lateral thinking strategies to help students understand literary criticism "from the inside rather than the outside" (40). Other authors suggest activities using drama, art, music, hypermedia, and poster presentations—often encouraging student collaboration.

Attention to the influences of visual culture makes up Part Two, "Visual Literacy and Visualizing Literature." Marlow Miller considers the words of Arthur Levine in the Fall 1997 issue of Daedalus: "[students are] more likely to prefer concrete or practical subjects and active methods of learning while faculty are predisposed to abstract and theoretical subject matter and passive methods of learning" (8, qtd. in Miller, 62). Consequently, she confronts the difference between her subject—introductory literary theory—and her undergraduates with two assignments that "engage students in creating graphic representations of literary theories" (63). Her descriptions and the students' graphics suggest that these are, indeed, assignments that will meet the needs of today's students.

Terry Pullen Guezzar suggests ways that students can use mental imagery to better understand literary works, building on the theories of Rosenblatt, Iser, and Arnheim. Nancy Macky and Frederick Horn offer ways that students can "sculpt" an aspect of the text using their bodies or materials such as clay. Body and material sculpting have made the circuit of conferences for secondary school teachers and have met with enthusiasm and reports of success. Macky and Horn indicate that such collaborative and kinesthetic activities also work well with undergraduates.

Part Three, "Learning Literature through Partnerships," seems to cover largely unexplored territory and is the shortest section, with only two essays. Sandy Feinstein describes an interdisciplinary core course at Southwestern College in Kansas. In "From Alchemy to Chemistry," a medieval and Renaissance scholar and a chemist teach a course that integrates science and the humanities. In it, "the students face both a scientist and a literary scholar, they learn to read both science and literature and to listen to two kinds of languages, and they see collaboration in action and appreciate why it is imperative. The students observe their teachers learn as well as teach . . . . The chemist, like the students, learns there is no literature without metaphor; the literary scholar, like the students, learns there is no chemistry without a certainty of objective reality that inevitably precludes the relativity of language" (101). Two of the themes of Learning Literature meet in this essay—collaboration and construction of knowledge. Feinstein demonstrates her collaboration and her learning while explaining the course in enough detail that other teams of professors could replicate or adapt it.

"Theme Days: Literature Across the Curriculum," by Sylvia Hodges Gamboa also describes collaborative efforts and specific examples of how those efforts have been enacted at the College of Charleston. She started Theme Days as a part of the WAC program, in an effort to involve faculty across the college. She found that Theme Days such as Frankenstein or the Vietnam War became "an opportunity for faculty to exchange ideas and a means for students to become better communicators" (123). Both of these partnerships occurred at relatively small schools; it would be interesting to know whether and how they might work at other institutions.

The final section of the book focuses on innovative approaches to using new technologies. "Cyberlit: Hypertext, Hypermedia, and Multimedia" contains six interesting and pertinent articles that focus on "student-constructed projects and Internet enhancements" (xxiii). Most of the authors provide web sites for syllabi or further examples. Daniel Anderson has studied undergraduate student work surrounding the Women of the Romantic Period hypertext. In his article, "Project-Based Literary Instruction," the focus is on the collaborative, constructive work that students do and on their positive reactions. Anderson explains, "Students select, digitize, and edit texts for publication and create resources and annotations that either offer contextual information, offer interpretations, or clarify problematic aspects of the texts" (127-128).

Tonya Browning describes in some detail the hypermedia projects about literature that her students have designed. Photographs of selected screens enhance the explanation. The examples in "Hypermedia Design in the English Classroom" ought to inspire professors to try this approach, and the instructions are clear enough that they can do so.

Marcel Cornis-Pope contends that we need to change our paradigm in teaching literature from text hermeneutics to critical reformulation. He says, "As teachers, our most urgent task is to integrate literature into the global informational environment, where it can function as a full-fledged, imaginative partner, lending its interpretive competencies to other components of the cultural landscape" (165). A full description of how he uses computer technologies to do this in upper-level undergraduate literature courses indicates that the task can, indeed, be accomplished.

Peter Havholm and Larry Stewart warn that using new technologies may be invigorating for the creator but engender passivity in students. To counter this effect, they describe an authoring system that shifts technology's power to the learners in "Linear Modeling." The Linear Modeling Kit story generator is a grammar of story. When students use it to create stories, they become engaged in theoretical issues about the nature of narrative. An instructor's ability to adapt this "palpable engagement with abstraction" (179) to the classroom probably depends on some extensive experimenting with the program. Fortunately, Havholm and Stewart offer the program as freeware that can be downloaded from the web site they provide.

Throughout the design and redesign of an online Shakespeare course, Helen Schwartz raised theoretical and practical questions about the differences between online courses and traditional courses. In 1998, she and Brian McDonald redesigned the online course to address some of the difficulties and questions she had experienced. In "Shakespeare Online," their reflections are interspersed with descriptions of the course and relevant theories of learning and computer pedagogy. Their thoughtful exploration of the topic should be read and re-read by anyone considering or engaged in offering online courses.

Instructors may be encouraged to try a Teleweb course, based on Gail Cummins' experience. "Videos and the Virtual Classroom" is a concise description of how she designed a course in modern American poetry. It is appropriately placed at the end of the book, following Schwartz and McDonald's more complex exploration of a similar topic.

Instructors of literature who are interested in active and collaborative learning will find a wealth of ideas in Learning Literature in an Era of Change. There is something in here for everyone to try, from adaptations of activities that have been successful in other contexts to cyberlit activities that extend our experience and thinking. Instructors in higher education are the main audience, with the examples drawn mostly from undergraduate literature classes. Secondary school teachers will also find much of value in this collection; the approaches and activities are relevant even if the text examples would be different. Hickey and Reiss have edited a collection that makes collaborative and constructivist learning vivid for people who may not be familiar with such approaches. Learning Literature in an Era of Change: Innovations in Teaching is a valuable contribution toward answering the question raised by Kenneth Bruffee in the Foreword: "what should literary academics do in a classroom?" (ix-x).

Publication Information: Reid, Louann. (2000). [Review of the book Learning Literature in an Era of Change: Innovations in Teaching. Academic.Writing.
Publication Date: August 24, 2000
DOI: 10.37514/AWR-J.2000.1.5.18

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Copyright © 2000 Louann Reid. Used with permission.