Experimenting with Democracy/Anarchy and Experiencing Poetry Publicly

Set of multicolored poker chips in case


Bo Jacks

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For as long as I can remember, I've been disturbed by the autocratic necessity of the classroom, and perhaps more so as I began noticing the mystifications attempted to obscure this component--the circular "learning" tables, the walls removed from classrooms (this was in elementary), the countless "cooperative" activities.  As I began teaching six years ago at UT, this problem became even more personal: how does one talk about democracy or any kind of radical politics while standing at the front of a mass of students dictating what is expected--what they must do to earn some grade, or make themselves a better person/citizen/subject, or do something for the greater good?  Even now, I don't have an answer that is comforting but I am trying different pedagogical tactics to, at the very least, bring this problem to the level of visibility for students, while also recognizing and confessing to them that their instructor is ultimately the sovereign, or the one who decides on their grade and the exceptions.  

This semester I had another pedagogical problematic that I hoped to tackle in tandem with the teacher/student or sovereign/multitude problem: poetry memorization.  Whenever it was that pedagogy turned from the rote memorization of facts in favor of concepts, some elements of knowledge building were thrown out necessarily--one of them being the mass recitation of poetry in front of an audience.  While I find this practice vital to preserving poetic practice and interest in prosody, I didn't want to revert to the older model where students were compelled to memorize Casabianca or Hamlet's soliloquy.  Thus, I decided to structure a reward system where memorizing and reciting a poem in class would be done initially for the extra grade bump and later to impress their peers.

The lesson plan is a semester-wide project that asks students to help guide the direction of the course voluntarily and to create content as we proceed. From the first day, I stated that anybody who would come into class and recite a memorized poem or 7lines of a long poem would receive a poker chip worth 1/2, 1, or 2pts toward their final grade.  Significant conceptual contributions as well as particularly insightful commentaries on the website forum would be treated similarly.  This project was explained to them as a way of bringing poetry back into a public space without making it entirely compulsory.  The caveat, however, was that as instructor I ultimately make the decision about what is worth a chip and that cannot be questioned.

Thus far the experiment has led to some very lively discussion and some sweet moments where students shared an outside poem that they otherwise would have kept to themselves.  At moments, these recitations have given us the opportunity to reconsider how prosody and thought in general work through different technologies, whether we watched that machine of the brain take in a poem and retool it, used eComma to collectively comment on a poem, or watched the social machine compete for attention in a limited public.  

The problem still remains of how to broaden the decisions outward into the classroom, but this small attempt at pulling back from dictation/indoctrination has been helpful in clearing some of the mystification away in this semester of English 314L Reading Poetry.

Here is a link to the lesson plan:

Public Poetry and Democracy in the Classroom

And one cool moment in this experiment where a student spontaneously brought in his guitar to sing/recite a poem not on the syllabus, but related to the previous class:


Creative Commons License
All materials posted to this site are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. We invite you to use and remix these materials, but please give credit where credit is due. In addition, we encourage you to comment on your experiments with and adaptations of these plans so that others may benefit from your experiences.


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