My "English 1102: African American Literature from the Harlem Renaissance to the Digital Present" students' final assignment this term was a version of one that Anne Sexton gave in her "Anne on Anne" course at Colgate University in the spring of 1972. Sexton taught a class on her own poetry and her teaching notes for it are in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin (regarding Sexton's teaching see also Diane Middlebrook's Anne Sexton: A Biography (1992) and Jo Gill's Anne Sexton's Confessional Poetics (2007)). I discuss Sexton's course and assignment in greater detail in Annotating Modernism: Marginalia and Pedagogy from Virginia Woolf to the Confessional Poets (Ashgate, 2015). During her first class meeting, Sexton asked the students to read two interviews she had given and then for their final projects, they were to craft fictional interviews with her that did not repeat what she had already been asked and provided answers she would give. She would be evaluating the answers. If the students did not desire to complete this assignment, they could also write a critical essay on her work. At least one student whom I interviewed chose that option. In the lectures that Sexton prepared, she would walk her students through close readings of her poems and she prepared answers in response to her own questions about aspects of her poems. In many instances, Sexton may have been answering these questions for the first time. She had, however, developed a sense of close reading from workshops and literature courses she attended. While scholars and her own students were skeptical as to whether she was following notes, two of her students sent me copies of the marginalia in their books from the course indicating that Sexton did stay close to her original plan. Following Sexton's example, my students began by viewing and reading interviews with contemporary writers we had read this term. The assignment then asked them to compose a written script that they would then film or record as a podcast.
In preparation for this project, the students completed several short blog assignments that allowed them to research and interpret different aspects of the relationship between the author and the text. In their blog postings analyzing Toni Morrison's Sula (1973), the students investigated the relationship, or lack of one, between the years in the chapters' titles and their content. The novel exists in a world of its own, both in and out of time, rarely referring to the historical events of each year. Drawing on the novel's location, the students searched an Ohio newspaper archive and other online historical resources to research the year in which one chapter is set. Returning to the novel, the students began to ask new questions, such as how Morrison could have ignored the flood in Ohio, how a character's amputated limb recalls the soldiers returning from World War One, and why it matters that a heat wave in the novel really did take place. Investigating the significance of Morrison's chapter titles, the students not only became more conscious of the novel's design, but also asked new questions about the relationship of fiction to the realities it depicts. When we read Pearl Cleage's novel of the Obama campaign set in Atlanta, Till You Hear From Me (2010), I gave students the task of interpreting some of her manuscripts, which I had photographed, in relation to the published novel. Cleage's manuscripts at Emory University are uncatalogued,so my students were among the first to decipher the codes she used in her drafts, which included numerous colors of ink. As they discussed in their postings, the materials that I gave them included a segment that Cleage later abandoned, and this led to innumerable questions about her development of the novel. We were also grateful to have Cornelius Eady, co-founder of the African American poetry foundation, Cave Canem, visit Georgia Tech. The students were not only able to attend his reading, but also had the opportunity to ask him questions. The blog postings then provided a space for the students to examine in greater depth the difference between hearing Eady read a poem and reading it themselves on the page.
In their interviews, the students were encouraged to build from their blog postings to create discussions with Morrison addressing the years in which Sula takes place, Cleage regarding her manuscripts, and Eady involving his readings. The students also investigated the current genre of the online interview and podcast, in which visiting writers answer questions about their work. They watched and read interviews in order to ask new questions and imagine how the writer they had selected might respond. This assignment asked students to consider the differences between the writers' and readers' perspectives. An author is not the only interpreter of her work; she is both the creator and a reader of it. A final component of the project involved the students' discussion of a quotation from the text with its author. This led to fascinating responses in which students discussed such elements as the form of a poem or novel, word choice, and creating characters. Imagining an author's response inspired students to take texts apart in new ways and discuss them from more than one point of view.
After the students finished developing their written scripts, they filmed or recorded their interviews. Because they were dramatizing their conversations, the students often discussed the way a poem or novel works with greater appreciation and enjoyment than they might have communicated in an essay. As you can see in the image above, the students sometimes brought in a friend to read one of the parts. Working on their own, students also recorded themselves in both roles and would "do the police in different voices," to adapt Charles Dickens in Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), which famously inspired T. S. Eliot's initial title of The Waste Land (1922). One student filmed himself as both interviewer and Cleage, stitching both versions together using video editing software. With his permission, I have included a link to his project here. Some students also used voice altering software or software where the computer read out what they had typed (sounding a lot like Siri). The result was nearly seventy-five (in my three sections) engaging, often humorous discussions about literature, language, history, and craft.
Since my Georgia Tech students also created so many fascinating projects in the fall, I have included some of my Digital Woolf assignments below. You can also read more about the course and the Mapping Jacob's Room
Project 1: Place in Howards End
Project 2: Mapping Jacob's Room
Project 3: Mapping Jacob's Room Presentations
Project 4: Woolf Apps
Blog Posting Instructions, Blog Posting 1: Geographical Scavenger Hunt in Howards End, and Blog Posting 2: "Only Connect" Assignments
Blog Posting 3: Mapping Mrs. Dalloway
Blog Posting 4: The Hours
Blog Posting 5: Writing about To the Lighthouse Using Leslie Stephen's Photograph Album
African American Literature: From The Harlem Renaissance to the Digital Present: Multimodal Assignments
Because my students have completed so many different kinds of assignments in my African American Literature: From the Harlem Renaissance to the Digital Present course at Georgia Tech this term, I have included some of the assignments below. The project rubric was developed by Georgia Tech's Writing and Communication Program.
The image to the left was made by one of my students (shared with permission).
Blog Posting Instructions
Blog Posting 1: Langston Hughes
Blog Posting 2: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Blog Posting 3: Their Eyes Were Watching God Film
Blog Posting 4: Investigating the Years of Toni Morrison's Sula
Blog Posting 5: Pearl Cleage's Manuscripts
Blog Posting 6: Cornelius Eady Visits Georgia Tech
Project 1: Harlem Renaissance Digital Resources
Project 2: Harlem Renaissance Digital Resources Presentations
Project 3: Interviews with Contemporary Writers
I will be presenting "Evidence for Pedagogy: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes Annotating Crime and Punishment" on the International Dostoevsky Society's panel, "New Approaches to Crime and Punishment," organized by Susan McReynolds (Northwestern University) at the 2015 Modern Language Association Convention in Vancouver, B.C. Further treatment of Plath and Hughes's marginalia and teaching will be in my forthcoming book Annotating Modernism: Marginalia and Pedgagogy from Virginia Woolf to the Confessional Poets (Ashgate 2015).
Here is a brief abstract of my talk:
While she was teaching first year English at Smith College in 1958, Sylvia Plath annotated a Penguin paperback copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), which she then handed to her husband Ted Hughes to use when he taught the novel in his Great Books course at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. This copy of Crime and Punishment, housed with Hughes's library at Emory University, records their pedagogical engagement with the novel and its midcentury critical reception. As a reader, Hughes did not share Plath’s tendency to annotate his books and his response may have even surprised Plath. When her classmate at Newnham College had the audacity to add notes in pencil to one of the books Plath had annotated, she was outraged, “feeling my children had been raped, or beaten by an alien” (Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath 226). Hughes proceeded to fill the entire novel with his own notes in black ink, pencil, and sometimes red pencil. In order to be thorough, at times he repeated points Plath had made or, in at least one instance, he underlined her comments and added his own. While Plath’s annotations engage midcentury critical interpretations of the text, Hughes’s notes suggest his adaptation of academic practices for his own purposes. As he made his way through the novel, Hughes wrote in available spaces, often adding brief remarks above Plath’s underlining and at the top of pages. The practicality of Hughes’s annotations provided a form of shorthand for teaching that also speaks to his approach to poetry. While Hughes desired to maintain his distance from academia throughout the rest of his career, this copy of Crime and Punishment records some of the ways that his interpretation of language, literature, and pedagogy existed in close proximity to Plath's marginalia and the critical contexts informing it.
Amanda Golden is an Associate Professor of English at New York Institute of Technology. She is the author of Annotating Modernism: Marginalia and Pedagogy from Virginia Woolf to the Confessional Poets (Routledge, 2020) and editor of This Business of Words: Reassessing Anne Sexton (UP of Florida, 2016). Her research and teaching interests include American and British literature from the nineteenth century to the present, modernism, poetry and poetics, literary archives, composition, and the digital humanities.