To structure or not to structure?

From my grading-addled mind, I bring you a post about structure versus a more freeform approach to teaching reading and writing.

When I first started teaching R&C, I assumed I would work towards being one of those cool, off-the-cuff instructors, the ones who could just sort of toss their hair back and spin out a class discussion that leaves everyone feeling epiphany-ed. Although I’d never actually experienced one of those discussions as a student, I indulged in the fantasy that such an instructor existed. Yet upon reflecting over the course of my past few years of teaching, I’ve come to realize that, in my classes, many of the best student comments and engagements with texts have come out of pretty rigorously structured activities and prompts.

For example, here’s one I asked my students to do, for an at-home bcourses discussion post:

Pick one single sentence that really stands out to you in Carmen Maria Machado’s “Real Women Have Bodies,” and quote it, along with the page number. Then, write a short paragraph (~150-250 words) that analyzes both the content and the form of that sentence. What is being said, and how is it being said? What formal details do you notice, and what effects do they have? As you write, try to put forth at least two possibilities for interpreting the sentence. 

And reader, the results were quite magical! (I would include them here, but I didn’t get to ask my students for permission). What most impressed me was the way students engaged with the details of the—very ambiguous—text to unfold interpretations, rather than gunning straight for an argument. I’ve done similar types of activities in class, with similar results.

I’ve been reflecting a bit that maybe asking students to work within structures allows them to take the freedom and even risks where I think it’s most valuable: in working through their own complex interpretations. There seems to be a paradox in which constraints actually open up space for student writers. I would compare it to—erm—a sonnet, but that seems too pretentious. At times, though, I worry that although this approach can help writers make strides and show off their critical thinking capabilities, it may still feel limiting to some of them, which is why I try not to do this type of thing at every class meeting. And while I’m airing my anxieties, I wonder if this type of planning is a way to avoid some of things that most worry me in classroom settings: feeling unprepared! bored students! general chaos and confusion!

I’d like to close with some questions: what are your experiences in using structured activities and prompts versus going with a more freeform discussion? Does this change depending where you’re at in the semester? Are there activities or prompts you’ve found particularly productive or unproductive? Have you tried the same activity with two different groups and been met with drastically different outcomes? Would this be different if it were an upper-division course? Is there something about reading and composition that lends itself particularly well to structured- or unstructured-ness?

5 thoughts on “To structure or not to structure?”

  1. Marlena,

    I love this post. It’s funny and smart. Your assignment does exactly what an assignment should do—gets students started on serious work with a text, without predetermining where they will end up. Yes, the paragraph you ask students to write has a fairly specific shape and form—but it seems to me that those ¶s could lead to a wide range of interesting and surprising essays.

    But I still have to quote my favorite moment from your post:

    I assumed I would work towards being one of those cool, off-the-cuff instructors, the ones who could just sort of toss their hair back and spin out a class discussion that leaves everyone feeling epiphany-ed. Although I’d never actually experienced one of those discussions as a student, I indulged in the fantasy that such an instructor existed.

    Although the story I have to tell in reply is not as witty as yours, let me offer it anyway: A number of years ago, I was teaching a course on popular film representations of teaching and learning (Dead Poets, Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds, To Sir With Love , that sort of thing), and I asked students one day, “What do we not see going in these movies?”, and a student replied: “Well, we never see anyone actually doing any work“. At that moment, I had an epiphany. I realized that my vision of the ideal class was still a Hollywood one—a place where people would become magically transformed, rather than a place where they would come, sit down, and do some serious work—often kind of slow and boring, very often in silence—together.

    Not to say that your assignment sets up a slow and boring class, but that it seems to me an invitation to serious work. Way to go!

    Joe

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  2. Marlena,

    Thank you for your post! I thought you described the play between structure and freedom in classroom exercises well. In my class yesterday, I offered up a little scene as a puzzle and a provocation for the students to think through. We had been reading Plato’s Meno and I wanted them to sit with the moment when Socrates draws a geometric diagram in the sand, providing a sort of structure from which to draw inferences–but this was to arrive at the ‘right’ conclusions. I asked them a kind of leading question first, in that vein, to get them to think about the social and political context within which such an appeal to geometry derived its force and sense: i.e. the rise of the sophists and so-called demagoguery. Perhaps these kinds of leading questions are, we might say, a kind of structure that aims at consolidating knowledge, making sure we’re on the same page, so to speak. But then I asked them what teaching or demonstrating geometry had to do with other forms of learning, and what the drawing of the diagram might have to do with other forms of writing and other forms of knowledge. I let them work it out in small groups first because of the admittedly unwieldy scope of the question, which I think was a good tactic in this instance, and they arrived at some interesting and speculative thoughts about what kinds of diagrams, forms of writing, might be possible for teaching something like ‘virtue’ or teaching about ‘justice’. Sometimes an example, a question, a diagram, can be used to compel assent. But other times, it can be a puzzle for working through one’s own set of connections, exercising one’s own imagination. One student puzzled over whether the classic ethics 101 scenario of the trolley-car functions as such a ‘diagram’, a schematization and simplification. And that led another student to connect it to our reading of tragedy and Antigone earlier as illustrative of certain impasses that we are left to think through on our own. Even though nothing of course was settled, I think we were able to draw together our own lines in the sand, making figures to think with and to carry forward.

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  3. I’m also an advocate of prompts/projects that are structured around some kind of creative constraint. I got a regular dose of these kinds of assignments as an undergrad taking studio art classes. In a sculpture course, for instance, we were each handed a 10×24 inch piece of wood and told that we needed to create a finished piece that engaged the idea of “extension.” We had a full range of tools and hardware at our disposal, but a fixed amount of material with which to communicate the concept. The studio was soon filled with jutting angular mobiles, ornate architectural structures, delicately woven garments made of wood shavings, and a long snaking trail of sawdust. It was impressive how different each interpretation turned out.

    Sometimes having the complete freedom to create anything you want can feel more like a burden than a gift. This is just the inverse statement of the paradox Marlena identifies in the post. So often it seems that our most rigorous thinking is done in relation to given problem and pre-established set of discursive constraints, not in their absence. Why train our students otherwise? Marlena’s concern about repeating the same types of activities ad nauseam is one that I share. But I can think of few better ways to prime a class for discussion (especially one we might call freeform) than to offer students a structured puzzle or problem to get things started.

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  4. Marlena, this is hilarious. I am also growing to love the structure. I do have a bit of guilt that it boxes in some of the more intellectually confident students, but it seems to get a greater number more deeply involved. It does take extra time to come up with a detailed prompt like the one your describe, though. I’ve realized I really need to get farther ahead than my students in the reading, who would have thought. In a related vein, I’m really digging hand outs lately, especially of the largely open-ended fill-it-in-yourself variety. They seem to perk up whenever I give them something to hold and look at, and it’s easy for me to see how far along they’ve progressed in the case of a group activity. And it feels lower pressure to cold call when I can just ask what they put down on the paper.

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  5. Marlena and all, I love this post too, in part because when I first started teaching sections at Berkeley I was definitely that GSI who thought that she could saunter into her classroom and with a toss of her hair rouse students into a stimulating discussion of the week’s readings.

    Now let’s be honest, I do have great hair, so I might be forgiven for thinking this strategy would work. It did not. Your post Marlena has helped me to reflect on why a) it did not work and b) I thought it might.

    My own college education, and here also I am responding to Amanda’s post as well, was defined by rousing and stimulating free-flowing seminar discussions. Now most of the professors did not have hair, or very much of it, so we can’t attribute the success of these to that. But what we did have was a shared canon of texts that all of us had been assigned when we matriculated and that many of us had already been reading in prep school or while smoking cigarettes in diners or sad and lonely in our bedrooms, etc.

    UC Berkeley students do not have this canon, whether grad or undergrad, and what I love about your structured exercise Marlena is that in some sense it gives your students one: sentences and sentences and sentences to work with, but within the bounds of a collectively shared text. In my own R5B syllabi, I have tried to build “mini-canons” into the course of the semester so that later articles reference authors/articles we have read previously. By the last few weeks of the semester we have a shared set of texts and concepts and authors under our belts and I have found, regardless of what my hair is looking like, that more unstructured discussions start to freely flow…

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