On Friday, March 13th, I received the email. In response to the rising coronavirus pandemic, we were moving to one week of online instruction. Five days later, one week became the rest of the semester.
I was not worried about the technicalities of remote instruction, having taught nine classes online in the past five years. But this was different. Students didn’t plan for remote learning; neither had I. How could I keep my students engaged in the midst of a global crisis? A glimmer of an answer appeared in the class where I least expected it.
In January 2020, I stepped into the first day of my Oral Interpretation class, a course focused on analysis and performance of literary texts with communicative intent. In the past, I had relied heavily on a traditional textbook, such as the classic Oral Interpretation from Timothy Gura and Charlotte Lee (2009) or Communicating Literature: An Introduction to Oral Interpretation from Todd Lewis (2012). Surely my students will engage easily with such clear, thoughtful approaches to the subject! Silences during reading discussions told me not everyone agreed.
In spring 2019, desperate for something other than blank stares, I assigned a reading list of short stories, drama, poetry, and literary case studies to which we applied concepts I had lectured on. It was a bit rocky but the feedback was encouraging. January 2020 was round two of no-textbook-teaching in Oral Interpretation. I narrowed the reading list, choosing depth over breadth, asking students to engage more with fewer pages.
As I trawled through possible texts, I kept reminding myself to pick only the strongest literature to teach each particular lesson. I looked for pieces which held high literary merit, based in Gura and Lee’s (2012) touchstones of universality, individuality, and suggestion. I left behind classics, such as Shakespeare or Woolf, standards of innumerable English and literature classes, opting instead for modern pieces from authors like Roxane Gay, Tommy Orange, Sara Holbrook, and Celeste Ng which students may not have encountered before. I kept track of the authors and characters in each selection, seeking to represent diverse standpoints, experiences, and writing styles. The reading list was a lesson in itself, a manifestation of the multitude of voices in the written word.
I had planned to use a nontraditional set of readings from the beginning of the spring 2020 semester. However, as the second half of the semester rolled into online inevitabilities, I feared student engagement would plummet. Performance classes thrive on “live” energy. What would happen knowing we would never meet and perform in our physical classroom again?
Much to my surprise, my Oral Interpretation students remained more engaged than any of my other courses. Their responses to discussion boards and journal prompts were detailed and interesting. Their final performance of short fiction highlighted thoughtful, interesting choices. Apart from the expected technical difficulties of performing virtually, little had changed. In their final reflections, many students expressed joy at readings which were not from a textbook, happy to have explored literature they otherwise would not have. In a semester full of darkness and unknowns, these readings were a consistent bright point.
Non-traditional readings are not ground-breaking pedagogy, but converting to online learning environments in the face of a pandemic gives new meaning and relevance to this choice. It is hard to say definitively the choice of readings accounted for the Oral Interpretation students’ relative ease of engagement. Perhaps it was the students? Perhaps it was the subject matter?
But it should not be surprising that the class reading fiction, not textbooks, found online engagement more easily, even if it is just a correlation. Poet and literary critic Robert Penn Warren (1986) explained in The Saturday Evening Post that our willingness to read fiction is rooted in enjoyment. “Even when we read, as we say, to ‘escape,’ we seek to escape not from life but to life, to a life more satisfying than our own drab version” (para. 6). Perhaps in the face of a “drab” global crisis we should be wary not to dismiss “fun” readings. As Emma Pettit (2020) noted in The Chronicle of Higher Education, students and professors alike are struggling to focus on reading due to the generalized stress of…well, everything related to the pandemic.
And, for many students, access to textbooks was not an option. At my university, the move online occurred over spring break. Textbooks were locked away in dorms, unable to be retrieved for weeks. However, with access to the internet, a plethora of fiction, blogs, YouTube channels, news articles, speeches, and other sources of information could be moved from supplementary materials to primary, options which are more accessible and, yes, perhaps a little bit more fun to read.
Non-traditional texts may not be an option for all classes, but it is for many and could be an important factor consideration for online student engagement. When textbook access is not a given, when ability to focus on readings of any kind is no longer a given, perhaps our opportunity to break an endless cycle of expected textbooks, anthologies, and articles is here not by choice but by necessity.
Chris Outzen is an incoming lecturer in Communication + Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and will additionally serve as the director of UWEC Forensics. Prior to this transition, Outzen served as an instructor and forensics director at Truman State University from 2014 to 2020. In 2015 he was awarded American Forensic Association Outstanding Thesis/Dissertation Award and in 2018 received the Bob R. Derryberry New Forensics Educator Award from Pi Kappa Delta. He has previously been published in Winning Orations, Speaker & Gavel, and The Forensic of Pi Kappa Delta.
Gura, Timothy and Charlotte I. Lee. Oral Interpretation (12th Edition). Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2009.
Lewis, Todd V. Communicating Literature: An Introduction to Oral Interpretation. Dubuque: Kendall-Hunt, 2012.
Penn Warren, Robert. “Why Do We Read Fiction?” The Saturday Evening Post, July-August 1986. http://oconnorjeng4ui.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/65669577/Why%20do%20we%20read%20fiction_Robert%20Penn%20Warren.pdfpdf
Pettit, Emma. “A Side Effect of the Covid-19 Pandemic? Reading Got a Lot Harder.” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 20, 2020. https://www.chronicle.com/article/A-Side-Effect-of-the-Covid-19/248568