Atomic essay #1: conversations with fragments in English

I'm still thinking a lot about the subject of my last post: how treating English as a discipline at secondary stage might help unlock student engagement with the subject.

Atomic essay #1: conversations with fragments in English
Photo by Edge2Edge Media / Unsplash

I'm still thinking a lot about the subject of my last post: how treating English as a discipline at secondary stage might help unlock student engagement with the subject. However, having thought about this more (including some thinking in public, thanks to Twitter), I've realised how little I know about the discipline of English Literature.

However, I believe this might work to my advantage, because it helps me empathise with my novice students. I wanted them to know that English was a young discipline, and that academics often couldn't agree about what should be studied, how it should be studied or why it should be studied. I wanted them to know that they could be part of the making, parsing and transmitting of meaning:

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Firstly, we did a bit of recall with a difference. Here's my second slide:

Each student scribbled down whatever they could. I did likewise. I then asked them for a few things they'd written down. What came back were fragments: themes, ideas, scraps of contextual information, quotations. The students noticed that they had thought of some of the same things as other students, but many had only been recalled by them. We all added to our scribbles accordingly. What was left was a messy page of fragments.

Next, I went back to the idea of a conversation. I told them to make their fragments have a conversation with each other. They did this by picking a starting fragment – something that resonated – and connecting it to another fragment. They didn't need to explain why – they just needed to keep making connections.

When we discussed, I asked them to discuss what the conversation between the fragments might be. One student noted that their first five fragments were pushing the idea of the futility of war, before moving on to the fragility of masculinity. He visualised his thinking as two mind maps, joined by a common thread. The next student, though, thought in a manner akin to a giant winding snake, stacking image on image like beads on a rosary. The students looked at each other. They were thinking about thinking. And it was their thinking. And that thinking was worthy of consideration.

This atomic approach worked because it was low-stakes: students just needed a fragment, then to connect it to another fragment. The analysis then – to an extent – did itself, because they weren't trying to isolate something from the text and pin it down. Everything was being discussed in relation to something else. We see this in the Zettelkasten system, in which knowledge is at its most useful when it is connected. Connections are where new insights are born. For better or for worse, I'll close with Steve Jobs:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something.”

We see new things by having conversations. And to do that, we just need one thing. And then we make it talk to another thing.

My second atomic essay will see me elucidate by discussing how I've recently taught Duffy's 'War Photographer'.