Stop and Write


In her classes, Professor Judith Ryan uses colored index cards to initiate discussions.  

Usually, this occurs after the class has already talked a bit about literary texts or other kinds of cultural materials. Judith hands out the cards and asks the students to write a sentence about what they have discussed. For example, she might tell them to write what they think is the most important word in the poem. In general, she tries to get them to respond to some problematic aspect of a literary text, like an ambiguity or a question that the text does not answer. Or, she might prompt them with something that is more impressionistic, like how they liked the text.

Whatever Judith's prompt, students answer it on the card leaving off their names. Because the card is small (but not too small), there is a limit to how much they can write. After answering the question, the students give the cards to Judith who, assuming it is a seminar, quickly looks at them and reads two. She then asks the students to come up with supporting arguments for the statement on the cards. Students then get into a discussion of how they would back up the statement with some evidence from the text. This is a nice way to get a discussion started

In a larger class, Judith takes a few glances at the cards and then reads the rest at home. She follows up on the cards the next class; she notes certain types of trends. These trends might spark a debate or prompt some partner work where students discuss answers with their neighbors.

In the past, Judith taught a course called "Live Ruined by Literature." In this course, she used the index card activity to help introduce basic techniques of reading like close reading. For example, she used this to get at the difference between a theme and a motif.  She prompted the students to write down one motif and why they think it's important in the novel. For instance, if they were reading Madam Bovary they might write about rays of light. With this prompt, some students accidentally name a theme, not a motif, and this leads to an interesting discussion that firms up the students' understanding of the difference between the two devices.