When students walk away from my classes, the most important thing I hope to have taught them is to innovate – that is, to create novel and relevant contributions to ongoing discourses. I believe that the skill of timing, or kairos, drives student-led innovation. To teach timing and the practices of innovation, I move in the course of the semester from highly structured individual assignments to flexible, student-led group projects. I invite students to shift from the internal audience of the class to a more public audience of people who might benefit from their work.
To help students develop analytical thinking, early in the semester I present them with challenging texts and clearly defined problems. For instance, in “Defending Society” I asked students to read Philip Sidney’s Defense of Poesy (1595). The work was alien to them both in form and content, as it followed a classical seven-part rhetorical argumentative structure. Collaboratively, we identified and listed the individual elements of the argument, such as opening anecdote, thesis, and counterargument. Then, students individually wrote short genre imitation papers: defenses of specific works of fiction of their choice. Not only did this exercise provide them with an alternative to the five-paragraph format, it also gave them experience with finding the internal logic of an unfamiliar text and ordering it. This initial sequence gave them the confidence to approach later assignments of higher stakes and greater complexity.
I model the habits of innovation by being transparent about instructional challenges and walking students through solution-building. For example, due to a dearth of secondary resources, students found themselves confused by the complex character relationships and plot lines of Ben Jonson’s notoriously convoluted Bartholomew Fair. Across my three sections, I assigned small groups to each of the play’s 30 scenes. In each group, students identified the scene’s characters, its basic action, and posed discussion questions with paired academic articles for further research. Together, with the help of a software engineer who volunteered to create a user interface, we developed an online resource mapping character relationships and providing a scene-by-scene synopsis with reading questions, freely available at http://ben-jonson.gitlab.io/outline/. Their own need for a solution to a real problem drove our class’s creative activity. The project reinforced the course’s philosophy of research: there is no innovation without the “new,” and the new is contrastively legible through the old.
I use individual research papers and group projects to train critical timing for my students by asking them to consider when as well as why an idea is relevant. By the end of the semester, students have developed the necessary skills to pick a topic, study available resources, identify a gap in the resources, and develop a contribution to fill the gap. For example, in “Hobby Histories,” students researched a hobby community of their choice. They explored the resources available to the practitioners of that hobby, and then they developed a 30-second elevator pitch to deliver to their classmates to enlist them in developing a new resource for that hobby community. After the pitches were delivered, the class voted on the top five ideas, which formed the basis of their project working groups. For example, one group created a website for the Ultimate Frisbee hobby community designed to promote the recruitment and retention of female players: https://womenwhofrisbee.wordpress.com/.
I recognize that curiosity is the first step towards innovation, and that expressing curiosity poses more difficulty for some students than for others. I promote an inclusive classroom through the way I scaffold in-class discussion time. In group activities, I frequently use the “think-pair-square-share” sequence to bring quiet students into full participation. This sequence begins with students writing down responses to a prompt, which they discuss in two-person groups, then four-person groups, and then with the whole class. Individual students feel more ownership of group discussion as their personal contributions assume greater and greater importance relative to the size of the group. The sequence improves my students’ confidence, ultimately leading to a livelier, more fully engaged exchange of ideas.
Whether my students are innovating around Ultimate Frisbee or Shakespeare, my classes aim to empower them to apply the processes of successful invention and the skill of timing. My students respond well to the opportunity to make a novel contribution to a body of thought, and they find that the strategies they learn in my courses are portable and valuable to life contexts outside the literature classroom.