Diary of a VAP week 11: grammar and poetry

I give reading quizzes in my classes, at least those classes that consist mostly of freshman and sophomores, or survey classes where part of the point is to read widely. Quizzes provide students with an incentive to do the reading, and they give me a sense of how manageable it is, and what parts of the text students struggle with. They are designed to be easy: I consider it a successful quiz if most people get 100%, but maybe a couple get 20% or less, with few or none in between; over the semester the class average is like 95%. A quiz tells me very quickly who read, and who didn’t. Based on midterm evaluations, past classes, and informal conversations, students seem to like the quizzes, which reward them for doing the reading and give them some sense of the important parts of the texts.

I always find it hard, though, to give a quiz on poetry. Some poems have details I feel comfortable expecting students to know: how does the duchess appear in Browning’s “My Last Duchess” (in a painting)? Who cuts Belinda’s hair in The Rape of the Lock? Why is the lime-tree bower a “prison” for Coleridge? Students who have read the poems should know these details, and I’ll often make the questions multiple choice.

But when we read several poems for a class, students understandably struggle to keep them straight — discussion helps, but I give the quizzes at the beginning of class, before they’ve had that benefit. If we read, say, “Childe Roland,” “Dover Beach,” “Goblin Market,” and “The Lady of Shallot” all at once, it’s not surprising if a student can’t remember which of those poems had the mirror in it, and which had the creepy horse skeleton.

So how to give a quiz during parts of the syllabus when we’re reading mostly poetry? One solution is to not — to wait for days when we’ve read a novel, or at least a narrative poem. But I’ve also tried another solution: providing a passage and asking an easy question about it. A question like, “what is the grammatical subject of this verb?”

Except, these turn out to be the hardest questions. Here are some examples I’ve given (the verbs in bold are the ones for which I ask students to give the subjects, here underlined):

Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
— Arnold, “Dover Beach”

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
— Coleridge, “Kubla Kahn” [I gave students the hint that this is passive voice, and that girdle means surround]

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
— Tennyson, “Ulysses”

                                                  I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed.
— Browning, “My Last Duchess”

These aren’t the easiest sentences — that’s kind of the point. But I’m consistently surprised that these questions have a lower success rate. Since it’s my job to teach, not just to lament that students can’t do something, we’ve been working on this skill. In the Arnold poem, lots of students said “waves.” So we worked on crossing a line through the prepositional phrase, which helps. And we talked about making sense: waves do not really “begin.” The Browning example seemed a problem of vocabulary: they didn’t know what “munificence” or “warrant” meant. So, we talked about parts of speech, and about using a dictionary.

One thing I’ve definitely learned the past couple semesters, is that teaching poetry requires teaching grammar (even more than teaching writing requires teaching grammar). Students are sometimes better at writing sentences with subjects and verbs than they are at reading them.

Do you teach poetry in your classes? Or do you teach grammar as part of reading? How do you do so?

4 thoughts on “Diary of a VAP week 11: grammar and poetry

  1. Thanks Jack. It does seem that grammar courses have that reputation even (or especially?) at the college level. There’s an “editing essentials” course taught by a colleague here, with a similar reputation. I fall into the category of those who didn’t learn a lot of grammar in K-12 — I picked it up in college and graduate school (without the benefit of a specific course, but assisted by some excellent and famously detail-oriented teachers, David Foster Wallace among them.)

    I go back and forth about whether I want to go so far as diagramming sentences. I’d have to brush up the visual aspect of it myself — and in literature classes it does take away time we need to spend on other things. I haven’t, in the past, included “basic grammar” among my learning objectives — but I do list “close reading,” and grasping sentence structure is the building block of all reading, let alone close reading. So maybe I should specify? I’ll think about this as I work on my syllabi for next semester.

    Perhaps ironically, I wouldn’t consider this for my composition courses — in those classes I want students to focus on argument and evidence, and to think beyond grammar.

  2. Great post. I teach the English Grammar in Use course at my university. The course is famous (er, notorious) for being the hardest in our program (the most pre-midterm withdrawals and the most second attempts). Lucky me. 😉

    Sometimes I have to really stand back and remember that I can’t assume that my students have the same meta-awareness/knowledge of grammar that I had at their level. Many K-12 English programs don’t teach grammar as explicitly as they used to. So, I have all these students who want to teach English abroad or are already teaching middle school English, but they don’t know word classes (parts of speech) let alone anything more complex like relative clauses, appositives, complement clauses, etc. The way I test them is their grammatical knowledge is to parse/diagram given sentences, similar to those we have covered in class and they have done in homework, which come from different registers (academic writing, conversation, newspapers, etc.).

    Even though it seems way old school, these grammar “trees” really act as useful tools to be able to see and talk about grammar. To visually break down what had been put together. Hmm, might not work for poetry class . . . but maybe (?)

    I would be curious about grammar quizzes in a poetry class, in general, though. I suppose from an assessment perspective, such quizzes make sense if that is what is being covered in class. For the sake of validity, one should assess what is being taught in the class and what is described in the learning objectives and outcomes.

  3. Thanks Melissa! The one-sentence gloss is a great idea. I often use multiple choice but forget that matching is a good option too.

    I’ve had similar experiences talking about grammar with regards to student writing: they appreciate and expect it. I’ve never assigned a site like that, but maybe I will next semester (putting together a syllabus now). As we’re trained, reading and writing are interconnected — writing as a study of readers, etc. — and I think it would be just as valuable in a lit course!

  4. An easy objective poetry quiz might be matching authors and titles, since ostensibly this is easy for them to commit to memory (if they know to expect it) and constitutes part of the content of the course to be gleaned through reading. I also like providing, say, three one-line summaries that are quite distinct and asking them which best fits the poem.

    Your grammar-inflected quizzes are excellent preliminary close reading exercises, even more basic than the usual first step of paraphrase. Grammar ignorance frequently has become a teaching point for me when close reading poems in class. I haven’t thought before, though, of building a way to address it into a lit class. This is a good warning for me as I plan two poetry courses for next term.

    I am also a fan of reading quizzes, and will likely sub them in next term for some of my current daily pre-discussion writing exercises.

    For dealing with grammar instruction without having to spend too much class time on it, I have had some success using the Bedford St. Martin’s Exercise Central site in my writing classes this year and last; you could assign the exercises there to be completed outside of class as a way to “brush up.” In my brief experience of teaching grammar in college writing classes, I’ve found students are incredibly receptive to it and grateful for it, even as we all acknowledge this is stuff they should already know.

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