The Brownings Assignment

For classes this week (week three already), we’re doing the prep work for our first official assignment of the semester: the question/answer assignment. All too often, undergraduate studies in literary analysis teach students how to develop smart and sophisticated answers to research questions or essay prompts. My worry is always that students do not really know how to ASK smart and sophisticated questions that challenge them to think beyond what they already know about a text after reading it a few times. So, with this worry in mind, I’ve devised this assignment.

In a nutshell, here’s how the assignment works. Students come to class on Tuesday with two rough questions about any particular aspect of Robert Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi” or Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “A Musical Instrument.” The questions must be 50-75 words in length — just enough space for a contextualizing prompt followed by a specific question. We’ll discuss “Fra Lippo Lippi” in Tuesday’s class and then break into groups, where students will share their questions with each other. I’ll then talk about the importance of developing strong analytical questions before students spend some time in their groups revising and editing their questions. In preparation, here’s a recent piece from the Los Angeles Review of Books that encapsulates some of my interests in this assignment, although within the context of teaching critical theory (look out for my theory course next year!!).

By the end of class on Tuesday, each group will have formulated a pool of questions. Each individual student is then free to pick two of their group’s questions and write rough 250-350-word answers for each of them by Thursday’s class. In the past, some of my students have worried that there’s some dishonesty in choosing to answer questions that other members from their group composed. My way of thinking is that there’s a collaborative component in the asking of smart questions, and that this collaborative component is a good thing. Rest assured, students will be answering their selected questions on their own.

On Thursday’s class, students will break into groups again and share their answers with each other, making revisions and edits, where appropriate. I’ll then talk a little bit about Barrett Browning’s “A Musical Instrument.” At the end of class, students will have one week to finalize questions and answers before final submission.

In the past, this assignment has worked incredibly well. I find that students’ writing skills are far more effective and engaging in such shorter assignments than slightly longer traditional essays. My goal fundamentally in this assignment is to help students prepare for the first essay of the semester – a passage analysis essay. In both of these early assignments in the course, students ask and answer the questions that actually interest them about course material. I require students to respond to one of two works of poetry in the question/answer assignment so they can work collaboratively with their groups on the same texts. The passage analysis essay will give students complete freedom to select both the text and passage for their assignment. I believe this transition from one assignment to the next provides students with a good balance of structure and freedom in their working through of course assignments.

So, why “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “A Musical Instrument” for this question/answer assignment? In my own research on Victorian textual and cultural representations and narratives of dysfluent voices, I routinely come back to the Brownings because of their mutual interest in metaphors of stuttering, and the radically different ways in which they develop their aesthetic theories from those metaphors. While the two works of poetry I’ve selected for this assignment don’t relate specifically to stuttering and/or stammering, they do nevertheless engage with broad aesthetic questions through different vocal registers. Robert Browning’s speaker is necessarily imperfect, embodying the frenetic pace of a voice in a state of panic and rushed excitement. In contrast, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem is profoundly musical in its stanzaic refrains and their references to the river. While both poems emphasize elements of embodied sexuality in their explorations of art and aesthetics, they do so in contradictory ways. The ugly/imperfect and the musical/eloquent contrast each other in these works. More broadly, the distinctions at work in Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning play out in provocative ways if we consider them as exemplars of early Victorian literature’s concerns about aesthetics and the role of art in society.

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