Students in Dr. Amy Murray Twyning’s fall 2020 course Literary Field Studies quickly discovered the class wasn’t going to match their assumptions about what they thought a literature class would be.
Instead of writing a formal paper on each book they read or being told exactly how to interpret the texts, they found themselves in a supportive, interactive community of fellow learners.
“Literature often seems like an individual thing,” said Dalia Maeroff, a sophomore psychology major, also pursuing English literature and linguistics minors and public and professional writing and Latin American studies certificates. “But this [class] really does focus on the group emphasis and how to interact with other people when talking about literature.”
Literary Field Studies is a foundational class for English literature majors and minors, but students can also take the class to satisfy general education requirements. The name of the class points to its dual goal: both to teach students how to engage in literary criticism but also to get them out of the classroom and think about reading literature as an activity done in the real world, explained Twyning.
In the past, Twyning has asked students to go to a talk, reading, or literary activity going on in their community. With Covid-19 restrictions, that isn’t possible, but she does still encourage students to get out of the classroom, “at least mentally.”
Like many fall literature classes, Twyning’s got students out of the traditional classroom by engaging with virtual sessions of the Black Study Intensive organized by the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics. The class’s theme of engaging with anti-racist texts lined up with the CAAPP events, too.
By training a Victorianist and post humanist, Twyning revamped her usual class theme, inspired by “the urgency of the moment.” This time around, she taught texts written by Black authors and that both require and teach anti-racist approaches to literature.
“Students are engaged in a way that this is enabling them to think about other things going on in the world,” Twyning said.
The literature itself is challenging and innovative, which kept students’ attention. One text that students responded to was Harryette Mullen’s collection of poems in Muse & Drudge. The text invites collaborative reading and interpretation, Twyning said.
“I’m excited to come talk about the poems I’m reading and hearing other people’s interpretations of the things we’re reading,” said Veronica Gibson, a sophomore psychology and business major and administration of justice minor.
Gibson admitted the material was challenging, but she also appreciated “poetry with open-ended responses and not one interpretation.” She added, “It’s eye-opening to see different pieces of literature.”
The class’s theme made it particularly relatable for Gibson, who praised the class’s timelines.
Sarah Bacha, a sophomore neuroscience major also pursuing chemistry and museum studies minors and conceptual foundations of medicine certificate, said the work of the class was challenging.
“The requirements can make it seem intimidating, and it requires work, and you have to collaborate but develop your own thoughts and come to conclusions,” she said.
Even with her STEM emphasis, Bacha said she did not feel out of place.
“You don’t have to come in with any prior knowledge,” she said. “That’s the thing, how easy it was to get in and join the conversation.”
Twyning said the conversations were part of the point. Mullen’s poetry requires what she calls “collaborative reading,” Twyning explained.
The reading of the text should happen “as a kind of communal reading,” with the goal “not to master it, but to engage with it,” Twyning said. “In that sense, we’re kind of reading our contemporary moment through it.”
Students’ assignments included an annotation of an article or book chapter students found during research, a record of their research, several close-reading assignments, close engagement with archival material, and a multimedia interpretation of Mullen’s work.
Twyning said the class’s structure and assignments are reflective of the goals of the English major. Students are prepared to write literary criticism that could prepare them to attend graduate school, but they are also, importantly, taught to take what they learn in an English literature classroom outside into the world.
“We’re trying to create habits of thinking, methods of investigating,” Twyning said, adding that these skills are important inside and outside school.
Bacha, who took the class to satisfy general education requirements in literature and writing, said she thinks the skills taught in the class would be useful for anyone, regardless of their major.
“Because this class is perspective-heavy, it gives you an appreciation of other ideas and other ways of thinking,” she said, “This is a class everyone should take.”
Reading together, as it turns out, also builds community and friendships. Students got to know each other, despite only meeting over Zoom.
Disha Satapathy said the class offered “a really nice creative outlet to go to after my STEM classes.” Satapathy, a sophomore majoring in biology and business and minoring in chemistry, said she was initially nervous because of the discussion component. That dissipated, however, after Twyning encouraged her to share her insights more often.
The plurality of voices was part of what made the class memorable. Satapathy said she appreciated the different interpretations that came up in the class.
Twyning, initially a bit nervous to teach the course with a new theme, was pleased during the last week of the semester with the insights the students had gained during discussions.
She appreciated the students’ willingness to dive into the tough topics surrounding racism in America.
“I was pleasantly surprised and continue to be amazed at students’ insights,” she said.