An Overview of Humanities 101.

This paper was presented to the Annual general Meeting of the Association for Core Texts and Curriculum, Temple University, Philadelphia, April 13, 1997.

1. Outline of the problem:

I assume that most of us are here, at this conference, for the same reasons. Faced by a lowering of standards in reading, writing, critical thinking, analysis, and a background knowledge held in common between professors and students, we have all decided, one way or another, to emphasize these aspects of learning in an interdisciplinary or crossdisciplinary course which focusses on developing those fundamental skills which we feel are most lacking in our first-year students.

In addition, we probably feel that certain core texts, the Ancient and Modern Classics, should not only be read and understood by our students, but also be seen as central to the process of education. My purpose in this paper is to place three arguments before you:

  1. that an Introduction to the Humanities and hence to University Studies is becoming essential to a quality education in the Liberal Arts;
  2. that it is valuable to have a first year Humanities course designed so that reading, writing, and the development of critical and analytical skills are central components;
  3. that A Room With A View, the text I chose to teach in Humanities 101 last year (September-December, 1996) is a Modern Classic and is a worthwhile text to present to incoming students in first year.

    I will not trouble you with the paths that led to the establishment of Humanities 101. In all probability, we at St. Thomas University made a similar passage through the labyrinth of university bureaucracy as you made in getting acceptance for the courses you are teaching. Suffice to say, that stepping carefully through the bureaucratic labyrinth, our successful path marked by an unwinding ball of red tape, the course was eventually accepted and finally taught. What I would like to do now, however briefly, is to outline some of the components of Humanities 101, so that you can see clearly the framework within which I was working.

2. The components of Humanities 101:

Humanities 101 responds in part to a passage from our Mission Statement that reads as follows: "The liberal arts, and the principles of liberal education, stand at the core of St. Thomas University. Finding new and more effective ways of studying the liberal arts is a priority" (St. Thomas University Calendar 1997-1998, 20). Humanities 101 was designed by interested faculty on the First Year Committee (myself among them) to respond to "finding new and effective ways of studying the liberal arts"; in addition, it was designed as an introduction to university studies. Another first year course, the interdisciplinary Aquinas Program, was also designed with the approval of, and in consultation with, the First Year Committee. I have taught in, and received much pleasure from, both courses.

The key components in Humanities 101 were

  1. the reading and understanding of a central text;
  2. becoming familiar with the basics of critical analysis and thought;
  3. writing a research essay;
  4. offering an introduction to the university library;
  5. giving an introduction to computers, with reports later written by electronic means;
  6. writing the Myers-Briggs Test with a follow-up explanation and workshop;
  7. a workshop on examination techniques;
  8. a detailed study of how a book is turned into a video; and
  9. an introduction to cultural life on campus and in the local community, with visits to the theatre, to concerts, to lectures, to poetry readings again written up electronically and distributed on a class listserve.

3. The reading and writing processes:

These went on simultaneously and it is very hard for me to differentiate between them, especially as the critical thinking and analysis was tied so tightly to the reading and writing process. I will try to explain. One of my favourite authors, Juan de Valdés wrote in his book El diálogo de la lengua, composed in voluntary exile in Naples between 1535 and 1536, that if people could speak the Spanish language, they could write it, for people must learn to write as they speak and must learn to think carefully before doing either.

"Think before you ink!" was the adage I placed before the class. My goal then, was to help the students avoid free writing and guesswork and to assist them in formulating their thoughts, encouraging them to speak openly before a group, and then persuading them to put pen to paper, only when they knew exactly what they wanted to write. This, I argued, would lead to clear and informative writing. A Room with a View served as a constant focus point and inspiration in this process.

3a The structure of Humanities 101:

In Humanities 101, each section was divided and sub-divided as follows: A one hour lecture on Wednesdays (whole class); and two seminar groups, further sub-divided into small working groups, which met for ninety minute tutorials on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

In my section, rather than lecture, I used the lecture time for group discussion (20 minutes), oral reports on the group discussion (20 minutes), and a question and answer period which could be student or faculty driven (10 minutes). Wednesdays provided us with the reading and critical analysis segment of the course; in the Tuesday and Thursday tutorials, the small work groups concentrated on the actual writing and revision process. In these work groups, written work was read both to the group and by the group, it was annotated by members of the group, and then revised by the original author before presentation to the professor.

3b The writing process:

The writing process began with a discussion on group protocol; this centred around 4 main questions:

  • What peer comments do you wish to receive?
  • What peer comments do you not wish to receive?
  • What peer comments would be most useful?
  • What peer comments would be least useful?

The protocol feedback helped establish the following norms:

  • Positive Feedback
  • Positive constructive criticism (this included spelling, grammar and punctuation, though there was a very lively in-class debate over whether these were in fact important or not; that all three were important was established by a very narrow democratic margin!);
  • Always emphasize 3 good points (this included strengths, weaknesses, areas in which improvement could be made and the writing strengthened); the demands here were "Be specific" and "Be encouraging"!);
  • Offer a general opinion of the work (I found it interesting that students would want this overall impression; the request was almost unanimous: "Tell us that you like or dislike the writing, and tell us why");
  • Ensure that the sentence structure makes sense (We had done enough work in class on reading skills for students to realize that the exact communication of meaning is extremely important; incidentally, this seminar took place early, September 22/24, in week 3 of the course);
  • Ensure that the student has accomplished the objective of the assignment (The in-class reading and discussion sessions had strengthened the realization that it was necessary to stay on topic).
  • Negative Feedback
  • Don't be rude, insulting, or write negative criticism (Along with the avoidance of snide or undermining comments, this included two further requests (a) that the word "garbage" disappear from our vocabularies! and (b) that the concept of "no-hopers" also be eliminated since every student in this class appeared to be full of hope and willing to work);
  • Don't be overly critical (This was achieved by requesting 3 good points while allowing only one critical judgement in the "don't" category);
  • Don't be cryptic and blunt (Above all, students wanted explanations; they didn't want to see ticks, or words like "agree/like" or "disagree/don't like"; they wanted fuller explanations);
  • Don't be subjective (Students were happy with objective statements about their work but refused to accept any comments that dealt with them personally or with their way of thinking).

Once this protocol had been established, there was a great deal of confidence in the exchange of information sessions. Looking back on the course, I believe that this long discussion was at the very heart of the class's desire to work and achieve in partnership together. Incidentally, and it was not an isolated event, this discussion made us overrun our class time even though we had invited an outside and independent moderator so that opinions could be freely expressed in a non-judgmental situation.

Teamwork was further strengthened by the taking of the Myers-Briggs Test. Here I must emphasize that it was not just taking the test, but it was the explanation, the discussion, and the groupwork that followed which helped break down barriers.

The skeleton of the actual writing process contained, step one, a "gut reaction" essay (IE a reaction to the first reading of A Room with A View, no research permitted). This was due in an early tutorial, two weeks after term began. My reasons for asking for a reading of the book and a presentation of written work this early were twofold: (a) to make the initial task clear: read the book! and (b) by giving everyone who handed in the "gut reaction" essay full marks (I did not announce this in advance!), I tried to encourage the expression of opinions by underlining that students would not be penalised, at this stage, for the way they expressed what they thought and felt.

If students had not completed the book, I encouraged them to write about the chapters they had read. Fortunately, many students completed their initial reading in the first two weeks and those who had not rapidly learned the lesson that, without the initial reading, little further work could be done as references, quotes, background, themes -- the very basis of communal knowledge -- were all missing.

It seems tragic that such a seemingly simple lesson should have to be taught in a first year university class: yet, for many of my incoming students, A Room with a View was to be the first novel they had ever read from cover to cover. I did not realize this when I optimistically stepped into the classroom on the first day. Nor did I realize that the essay with which many of them struggled throughout the course, was, in all too many cases, the first essay they had ever written.

These are sad comments on the state of our education system. It is even sadder that, as senior academics, we are forced to deal with such gaps in education at the first year university level. On the other hand, Humanities 101 was a pleasure to teach and the break from my routine of teaching Spanish language, culture, and literature was a welcome one, this ranking as one of the "funnest" course I have ever taught.

In step two of the writing process, we moved to an annotated bibliography of A Room with a View; this was tied in to the library tour and was based on follow-up exercises accomplished in groups of four, one member of each group being requested to roam the stacks, another to search the periodicals Index, a third, to search the computerised bibliography, the fourth to check the availability of bibliographical items listed in certain books. Group members were then asked to compile their results and offer a single, group bibliography.

In this way, we began the notion of working together in a team, each member contributing something to the knowledge and skills of the other three. Although research was accomplished in groups, all writing was produced as an individual exercise, annotated by other members of the team, and then revised always by the original author.

Step three, a draft outline, was one of the key components in the way I worked in my section. Each student had to write an outline, circulate it to at least three members of the tutorial group, receive comments, revise the outline, then defend the outline orally before the whole class. A (re)revised outline was then presented to me, and when I returned this (re)(re)revised outline, it was then expanded in such a way that the main components of the essay (including the infamous thesis sentence, painfully worked and reworked in many cases!) were all present in expanded note form.

Step four, the first draft of the essay, was a mere filling in of the blanks left in the enlarged outline; this first draft (read, annotated, and signed by three group members) was rewritten and handed in to me. When I had completed my reading of the essay (with notes and commentary, of course), each student was then ready for the final step: the revision of the written essay and the handing in of a formal, final essay, typed neatly, with annotated bibliography according to the standards of thethen current MLA Style Sheet.

3c The reading process:

"In the beginning was the word" and with the word we began. It was obvious, right from the start, that many students were struggling with the meaning of the words on the page. Our first exercise in the reading process was to divide the class into groups, to give each group five difficult words or phrases from chapter one, and to allow each group to discuss the possible meanings of these words. There were six groups and the first three groups discussed the meaning of the following:

Whereas we are now looking at these words out of context, the students of Humanities 101 had already read this chapter and had been given ample time to look these words up in a dictionary. Their failure to do so meant that when we discussed these items in class, it was immediately obvious that no sense of meaning was present. Dictionaries became obligatory and the order "Look it up!" was frequently passed from student to student.

It should be noted that at this early stage I emphasized what for me became a Golden Rule: "There is no shame in not knowing; the shame is when you are afraid to admit your lack of knowledge and to raise your hand and ask." As a result, the search for definition of meaning began early in the course and continued throughout, with many arguments being started with the phrase, "Now you've used this word...; what exactly do you mean by...?"

In the second week, having established that there would be language difficulties and that dictionaries would be necessary, we continued our analysis of A Room with a View. We had settled on five working groups and while the whole class was asked to read and prepare chapters 1-5, each working group was given a chapter to analyse in class.

The analysis was broken down into two parts:

(1) a summary of the main points of the chapter; and (2) a theme for discussion. The themes were as follows:

Already by the end of September, discussion was becoming deeper and more meaningful. Several students had by now rented the video of A Room with a View and were using the video to help them understand the text. The themes for the discussion groups on September 25 (Chapters 6-10), were as follows:

4. The Introduction of Broader Themes

Each group was asked to discuss these themes (a) as they were related to the novel and (b) as they were applicable to a wider audience. Thus, for example, English vs. Italians and the concept of the OTHER was expanded into a lively debate which began by focussing on incoming, first year students as the outsiders who did not belong, moved to the values and prejudices of groups and cliques (known locally as "clicks"), travelled through the realms of English middle class snobbery to those of the St. Thomas computer lab in which assistants took a drubbing for their impatience and arrogance towards incoming students who repeatedly asked for simple directions on how to use the equipment. Humanities 101 students were annoyed by the speed with which the computer lab assistants demonstrated or answered, as it showed little or no care for the capacities of beginners to follow rapid and often confusing instructions! Our discussion of the OTHER continued with an even livelier debate (which spilled over into the corridors and cafeteria) about the linguistic and cultural rifts between Anglophones and Francophones, each of whom saw the OTHER as the OTHER. At this point, I should emphasize that New Brunswick/Nouveau Brunswick is the only bilingual province in Canada. In my classroom were Anglophones, Francophones, students who were bilingues / bilingual, and students who were nilingues (a person who is nilingue has been raised at times in both official languages, but does not really dominate either of them; there is a confusion as to which is actually their first language, French or English; and although orally fluent in both languages, they often write incorrectly in both English and French). Clearly, then, the topic of the OTHER was very lively in this case.

On this point, I should add further that the themes generated (however clumsily) in the "gut reaction" essay were often the ones to which the students returned in the final essay, this time with considerable more skill and understanding. Thus another Golden Rule was formed: "This is not a generation that lacks intelligence! What it needs are role models, guidance, and nurturing."

5. Preparing for examinations

Humanities 101 was scheduled to give its mid-term examination well before other courses so that students would have time to observe themselves under pressure and then to study how to take examinations. The examination paper that I set stated very clearly that "Students should read the whole paper before they began"; very few did. There were questions in which students had to answer 3 topics from a selection of 5; many students answered all 5. I suggested students plan their time carefully and leave 5 minutes at the end for revision. Many students had not completed the examination and some students did not manage to get past one or two questions. In the post-examination inquest, we went through pre-examination preparation schedules (a) intellectual preparation and (b) physical preparation; this latter included exercises and sleeping and eating schedules. Then I circulated a multiple choice questionnaire of do's and don'ts. This seemed to have some effect, as did the relaxation drills which the whole class performed together: walking drills, breathing drills, concentration drills, relaxation drills, and simple stretching exercises which release tension while sitting at a desk writing an exam.

6. Hands on approach

One of the reasons why the course was so successful was the survey sheet which I circulated every two weeks. Students had a chance to write to me in complete anonymity stating what they felt was going well and what they felt needed changing. This allowed the students to control many of the things that we did and it gave me immediate feedback on what was going right, what was going wrong, and where changes were needed.

7. Why A Room with a View?

Instructors were encouraged to choose their own texts; other novels taught in Humanities 101 included George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon; Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park was taught the following year. I chose A Room with a View for several reasons. It was one of my daughter's favourite novels when she was the same age as the incoming first year students. The film won several awards. I was not teaching in my specialist field, yet I knew a little about the author, the society, and the time period. In spite of this, I had read many of Forster's works and had seen recent films of A Passage to India, Where Angels Fear To Tread, and Howard's End.

More to the point, I felt that Forster, in A Room With A View, examines and questions many aspects of English Society that were applicable to our own society. He stood up for Women's Rights at a time when few men did so; he attacked the English system of snobbism and class stratification; he stood for intellectual honesty and freedom of thought and speech; he stood against hypocrisy; he understood the ability of the artist to create and live in a private world; as a homosexual, living outside polite society he was able to understand the OTHER who is our brother or sister; further, he stood up for the rights of the individual to self-determination and freedom of choice. Finally, he uses language beautifully and emphasizes the necessity of putting the right word in the right place at the right time.

What more need be said?

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