PERFORMING CRITICISM: How Digital Audio Can Help Students Learn (and Teach) Poetry

By Phillips, Christopher | Transformations, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

PERFORMING CRITICISM: How Digital Audio Can Help Students Learn (and Teach) Poetry


Phillips, Christopher, Transformations


Whether spellbound by a charismatic lecturer or buzzing with the backand- forth of animated discussion, literature professors and their students routinely surround themselves with the spoken word. Literature classrooms are filled with speech as well as writing. This commitment to aurality draws its impetus from prior immersions in written or printed texts-poems, plays, novels, essays-and it ideally channels its energy back into writing through written explications and arguments about the earlier reading. This text-tospeech- to-text trajectory is so familiar as to escape our notice when we plan and teach our courses. Literature classroom pedagogies increasingly harness new technologies to facilitate active learning. Assignments beyond traditional essays and examinations have proliferated at every level of the English literature curriculum. Yet digital audio technology, embraced in fields such as communications and composition, has been nearly invisible in literature classrooms. Most documented uses are instructor generated, either in the form of recorded lectures, podcasting supplementary "mini-lectures," or providing aural feedback on student work. In my teaching, I have found that digital audio recorded technology in the hands of students is a powerful tool for teaching criticism through the performed reading of literary texts, a corporeal method of interpretation in which students use not their own words but their own voices to convey the meaning they bring as readers to a text. More specifically, by recording themselves reading poetry out loud, students can engage their critical skills more creatively and deeply than in essays alone. Both by itself and as a complement to written criticism, this performed criticism is an accessible but neglected pedagogical technique.

The primary reason for this neglect has nothing to do with the technology, and everything to do with the history of English education in the United States. Histories of literary studies as a field, such as Gerald Graff 's Professing Literature or Elizabeth Renker's The Origins of American Literature Studies, focus on institutions, canons, and political dynamics at work in different eras, regions, and types of university or college; they are almost completely silent on the role of aurality in the classroom. Renker says nothing about the place of recitation or aural reading in the institutions she studies; Graff briefly discusses the recitation method and gives the impression in a single paragraph that recitations had been chased out of college classrooms by the upstart lecture method by the time of the Civil War (32).1 While a number of valuable studies of the history of aural pedagogies have been published in recent years (Robson; Rubin; Sorby, Schoolroom), they focus on pre-collegiate education and public spaces such as Independence Day celebrations. Pedagogical history has not recognized reading aloud as part of literary study at the college level.

And yet Harvard had the Boylston Chair of Rhetoric, a position initially devoted to oratory and eloquence, years before anyone taught English literature there. Jay Fliegelman has pointed out that by the start of the "elocutionary revolution" in education in the mid-eighteenth th century, the "primary sense" of the term reading (as in "the art of reading") was "reading aloud" (24). Garrison Keillor's practice of reading poems on his daily radio show The Writer's Almanac would indicate that the entertainment value of the spoken poem has not vanished, and at least anecdotally, every professor of American poetry directs students to read poems aloud in and out of class. Yet publications on teaching poetry do not discuss reading aloud, and most literary analysis seems predicated on the act of silent reading, focusing on the viewed page and not the ear.

How did this disconnect come about? One of the few accounts of the "rise of silence" in the practices of academic reading and teaching appears in Cynthia L. …

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