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Lit Classes with a Different View

Kelsey Harmer presents her final project. (Photo by Stephanie Lockhart '16)

Dr. Jennie Joiner, assistant professor of English at Keuka College, is putting a new twist on some classic short stories, sonnets, plays and prose.

Joiner introduced a new course this fall, Literature in the Wider World, which serves as the new introduction to the major. It seeks to expand student horizons on books, reading, writing and all-things English and to grasp the role literature plays in everyday life.

Professor of English Doug Richards, chair of the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts, visited Joiner’s class and shared a real-life example of how English can play a role in careers beyond writing and teaching. According to Richards, a graduate of Keuka’s organizational communication program was on a sales call “that was going nowhere” but  took a positive turn when the prospective client referenced the medieval poem, Beowulf. The Keuka graduate was able to build on the allusion in conversation, earn the client’s respect, and make the sale.

Megan Hall listens to Dr. Doug Richards share stories of English in real-life settings.

“You will know the stories of your culture and can engage in intelligent conversation and you’ll get further along,” advised Richards. “Keep working on building links and connections.”

And that is what the students did in Joiner’s class. They studied some classics, among them Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, and short stories, such as Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper. However, more than simple context and content were discussed. In addition to reading the traditional works, students also investigated digital and other media formats, and even theatrical and cinematic formats, in the case of Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles, and Fitzgerald’s classic, The Great Gatsby.

Joiner discusses digital vs. traditional formats with students. (Photo by Stephanie Lockhart '16)

While digital technology has had a significant impact on the written word, students debate more than just print-versus-e-book preferences. One challenge Joiner gave students is to consider literature as hypertext, the embedded digital links to prior electronic postings. In the final assignment, for example, the autobiographical “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a popular treatise against slavery, students reviewed the Biblical story of Daniel in the lions’ den. They then analyzed a portion of the work where Douglass describes his newfound freedom as escaping the hungry mouth of the lions.

While on its own, the reference makes literal sense, Joiner said, “it’s a hypertext without links and we have to be aware there’s a link, so how do we fill that in? We can read [literally] without understanding the allusion but what if we do? All of a sudden it takes on this whole new meaning and how does it help [Douglass] make [his] argument? His audience would have understood that [allusion] and we, today, may not.”

Douglass’s “Narrative” contains several other Biblical and secular allusions, which students further analyzed in their final class project, where they could choose their own creative medium to demonstrate the knowledge gleaned in their studies. While some students presented digital essays using literal hyperlinks and hypertext, others chose creative mediums – digital and traditional – to share what they learned.

Part of Jackson's Prezi display on Frederick Douglass

For example, freshman Brianna Jackson of Syracuse used a multi-dimensionsal software known as Prezi, which some have compared to PowerPoint on steroids, to present a 3-D, visual display of quotes, images, colors and more. Two students, sophomore Jake Banas and junior Justin Hess wrote fictional stories, with Banas “writing a story about writing my paper,” while Hess reverted to the classic detective-reporter serial, turning the research into clues to decipher the mystery.

Meanwhile, sophomore Tyler Hixson of Shortsville created a Facebook persona for Douglass, posting photos available in the public domain, as well as links to facts and figures relative to Douglass, then “friending” the real Facebook accounts of fellow students in the class. He also created a Twitter account using the handle FreddyDouglass17.

Tyler Hixson displays a Facebook profile for Frederick Douglass. (Photo by Stephanie Lockhart '16)

Joiner asked students to compare and contrast pros and cons of each format or medium.

While sophomore Judy Ludwig of Rochester merged the traditional term paper with hypertext, she  “came to the conclusion that you needed both – neither the hypertext nor the traditional paper did everything you needed it to do,” explained Joiner.

Similarly, Jackson’s Prezi slideshow was visually appealing, “but in terms of something that can stand on its own, this won’t work – we need you to fill in the blanks,” Joiner described.