National Writing Project

Professor Sheridan Blau Answers Six Questions on Teaching English

Date: May 25, 2010

Summary: Professor Sheridan Blau, director of the South Coast Writing Project in California, answers questions about his approach to teaching English literature.


This interview initially appeared in the University of California Santa Barbara's Knowledge Base Wiki .

Facilitating Productive Discussion

If you had to name one thing that is most important for an instructor to say or do in order to insure a productive discussion of a literary text in the classroom, what would it be? Why?

Make the discussion real, addressed to solving authentic interpretive or critical problems presented by the text and experienced by the students in the class. Class discussions become most engaging when they are most real and most genuinely useful intellectually. In my classes this means focusing on passages or lines that have puzzled most readers and/or puzzled me, either because they are difficult to interpret or difficult to understand psychologically or morally. Usually I ask students to write about the problem and share their writing in small groups, where they discuss the issue and work toward solutions. Then I ask the groups to report to the whole class on their discussion, moving thereby to a whole class discussion.

Having described the way I organize discussions it occurs to me that I might have to revise my response to your question. The one thing most important to do to ensure a productive discussion is to have the discussion begin in small groups, where students are collaborating on solving a problem in groups or three or four. But, if the problem isn't an authentic one, the discussion won't be real and engaged even in a small group. So maybe I have to stick with my first answer that the discussion topic must be one that really needs exploration and illumination.

Addressing a Long Novel in One Section

I have one TA discussion section of only 50 minutes in length. This is our only opportunity to discuss an entire 300-page novel. How should I make the best use of my time?

My answer here is similar to the previous answer. I would select a couple of passages that seem to me especially difficult and puzzling (to me as well as to my students, even if they don't see the problems presented by the passage, as they often won't. The paradox of reading well is that the better you come to understand a text, the more problems you discover in it). In other words, I wouldn't try to discuss a 300-page novel in one class, except through the close study of some of its key and most problematic passages.

What you will be modeling, then, is how to read the novel, and what, ironically, you will be demonstrating is that no 300-page novel worthy of study in a literature class, can be given a literate reading in the one week typically allotted for it in a English class. So what I am also claiming here is that a course syllabus that asks students to read a challenging 300-page novel in one week is a course that asks students to read poorly and superficially and to become dependent on their teachers for their understanding of the novel and therefore to become the possessors of literary knowledge as hearsay. It constitutes instruction in a dangerous pseudo-literacy or false knowledge—knowledge that impedes further learning.

I also know that if we give students two weeks to read the novel, they might still wait until the last minute to read it, and do a reading that is just as superficial as it would have been if we gave them less time. That is a problem we must work to resolve by whatever strategies we can find to demand that students read carefully and make a good faith effort to understand a text for themselves before they look to their teachers to unravel it for them. I am as guilty as the next teacher of assigning too much in too little time, so I work hard to focus on manageable chunks in my teaching.

The Electronic Classroom

With the advent of electronic literature, which necessitates working in a lab or bringing computers into the classroom, how do you adjust your teaching strategies for the presence of the computer in the classroom?

I ask my students to post all their writing on an online forum (moodle). I also require them to post weekly commentaries on their reading and to post weekly responses to the commentaries of other students. I then use these postings and the interpretive and critical problems they address and reveal as the topics for class discussion each week. I read some aloud and print some up as handouts, and would love to have everybody online at the same time looking at some. Using student writing substantively as a critical text worth discussing raises the value of student writing for all members of the class and gives students the same kind of responsibility that scholars have when we write for audiences of our colleagues within particular discourse communities. Students take their own writing more seriously under such conditions and function as members of an authentic literary community. That is worth infinitely more to their growth as writers and as members of an intellectual and academic community than having them write clumsy imitations of PMLA articles.

Reading Quizzes and In-Class Writing

Given the brevity of most discussion sections, do you find it useful to assign in-class written work (group and/or individual)? Or should a TA concentrate on discussion alone? Are reading quizzes useful? Do these actually force students to keep up with their reading, or am I wasting my time?

I sometimes feel it necessary to give or threaten to give reading quizzes. But they are an embarrassment to me and I usually manage to avoid giving them. Instead I give out handouts that look like mid-term exams with serious open-ended questions on them, and ask students (without telling them that this is not a surprise-exam) to write responses to one or two of those questions and then discuss their answers in small groups, and then share their findings with the whole class. I don't collect these papers usually, but ask students to save them as possible starts on commentaries or essays they might post. I otherwise ask my students to write in every class, usually as a way of opening a discussion on a difficult text and as a way of focusing their attention on productive and challenging problems. By having students write before they enter a discussion we get them to invest themselves in thinking about the topic or problem under discussion. I also ask them to save such writing for use as a possible contribution to our class online forum.

The Silent

And speaking of discussion, what methods have you found useful for dealing with silent or very quiet classrooms? What techniques can be used to kickstart discussions if students are hesitant?

Always start with small groups, where three or four students are working on some real critical or interpretive problem that they can't readily solve on their own. Then have the students report out on their discussion. Quiet students will usually participate actively in groups of three or four. If they don't want to talk in the whole class discussion, I don't see why they should be forced to do so. But they are much more likely to do so, if they have already worked on a problem and contributed to a discussion in a small group.

Outrageous Interpretations

How do you suggest encouraging students to use their imaginations and make contributions, yet make it clear when some interpretations are just way, way out there?

My inclination is to take every interpretation as a possible one and ask the student who offers a far-fetched one to help me and the rest of the class see how it might be a plausible reading. When a class treats all readings respectfully, students are likely to become more responsible in what and how they offer their readings. When a student insists on his own far-fetched reading as the best one, I'll usually ask him if he sees how and why other students are reading the text differently. I'm not sure I have the right to ask more than that of a student who wants to argue for a reading that challenges the normative reading. I do try to emphasize that our job as students and critics of literature is not to agree on the one right reading, but to discover all the interesting and illuminating readings that might be plausibly proposed. Often a far-fetched reading reveals an interesting and informative element in the text that more normative readings tend to overlook.


I should add that most of my brief responses above are elaborated more fully in my book, The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and their Readers (Heinemann, 2003), a book that developed largely out of my teaching our English 10 course over a period of about a dozen years, from the time our department first instituted that course (initially as a course in reading poetry) as a lower-division requirement for the English major. We instituted the course originally to compensate for the removal (in 1990 or 91) of literary study as the content focus of our Freshman Composition courses.

Copyright © 2007 by UCSB Department Knowledge Base Wiki. Reprinted with permission.
UCSB Department Knowledge Base Wiki. 2007. "Professor Sheridan Blau answers six questions on teaching English." October 3. Available at UCSB Department Knowledge Base Wiki .

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