Guest Post: Standing in My Students’ Flip-Flops

The essay below was penned by Assumption College’s Richard Bonanno, a professor of Italian, describing a package of new strategies he has used to help his students master a difficult text.  Prof. Bonanno will be working more closely with the DCTE in the 2018-2019 academic year as one of the participants in this year’s Course Innovation Academy.Bonano_1

The subject matter and learning goals of my courses may have changed throughout the years, yet a simple guiding principle has remained, for the most part, steadfast: putting myself in the shoes of my students. Let’s refer to it from here on as the Ugg Jordan approach, which consists of mining my memory banks for lessons learned from my own education and channeling not only the wisdom of my mentors but, perhaps more importantly, the cadence, timbre, and inflection of their voices. If, for example, Prof. Guido Guarino’s raspy discussion of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron was so deeply moving to me during my graduate years, then my students at Assumption College would not only learn as much as I had but also marvel at my dramatic reprise of the structure of his seminar and his delivery of the subject matter.

But in recent years the Ugg Jordan approach has begun to fail me. For example, in Spring 2013, when I last taught the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, giving life to my inner Prof. Franco Ferrucci was leaving students in a state of somnolence. Why weren’t they responding to the supplicatory fiddling of the fingers of my outstretched hand as I glossed verses in a seductively silky voice a la Ferrucci? Despite how well I knew my Dante and how ably I mimicked my mentor, my course objectives were not being fully met. I came to realize that my fundamental approach—like my courses—was in need of serious reinvention. Fortunately, I am still committed to thinking critically, resisting complacency, and considering my trade seriously, even though such processes often create a considerable amount of extra work.

I had been putting myself in my students’ shoes with the best of intentions in mind, but it became increasingly clear that they were essentially receiving what was best for me regarding my experience as student. Despite wearing their Uggs or Air Jordans, I was formulating my courses according to my needs. I was seeing with my eyes, hearing with my ears, and learning according to a traditional model that had always worked for me: the lecture. What had essentially been an exercise in self-absorption needed a dramatic shift of perspective so that I might better meet the needs of a new generation of learners.

How, then, could I apply the new and improved Ugg Jordan approach to my Spring 2018 offering of CLT 225: Dante’s Comedy, which dares to present a 700-year-old epic poem to a class of Snapchatters, Instagrammers, and Tweeters? The languorous nature of Dante’s journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven toward his ultimate beatific vision is, indeed, anathema to the snap, the instant, and the tweet that characterize the quickness and brevity of the media that comprise the majority of our students’ reception and transmission of information, but plenty of old-school learners also find reading a text like the Divine Comedy challenging. It would have been a particularly long semester had I not carried out some major changes to my traditional delivery of the course, and chances are that the Ugg Jordan approach, with its novel adjustment of perspective, could be applied to courses in other disciplines. Below are some of the changes that helped make the course a success:

1 – Keep it real: My graduate instructors had never found it necessary to review the learning goals in their seminars; I was in class quite simply because I loved literature and hoped to someday share my passion in the classroom. However, from day one in my course on the Commedia at Assumption College, we spoke about developing a general understanding and appreciation of the text, and students were encouraged to consider their own lives in light of Dante’s journey of self-discovery. Prof. Giuseppe Mazzotta of Yale University has written at length on the Divine Comedy, in particular on the author’s presentation of a “circle of knowledge” and of the notion of a liberal arts education as a means by which individuals free themselves from tyranny. I applied Mazzotta’s lesson to the course and, more broadly, to the education offered at Assumption College, encouraging students to reflect on its meaning in their lives, and much as the poet comes full circle in his voyage, we ended the semester as though it were a new point of departure.

Dante bookmaking workshop
Bookmaking workshop with Prof. Spani.

2 – Balance theory and praxis: Instructors clearly need to communicate important content, and lecture format is what many of us know best. However, interactive class meetings that get students on their feet or using their hands have clear merit and, quite frankly, can be particularly memorable. My students developed a much deeper appreciation for the Commedia during a bookmaking workshop led by colleague Prof. Giovanni Spani of the College of the Holy Cross. They found that making your own ink out of raspberries and writing even a few words with a properly-trimmed feather are extraordinarily time-consuming tasks. It was easier for them to see how difficult it must have been for a Benedictine monk to transcribe a medieval text, and when they reflected more deeply on the exercise, the genius of Dante and his text came into sharper focus.

3 – Think outside both the lines and the campus: The teaching load at Assumption College often makes it difficult for instructors to design novel class meetings or plan excursions, but there are some excellent resources available to those of us willing and able to take our shows on the road. Students of the Commedia seemed to enjoy the scavenger hunt that I prepared for a class meeting in the Worcester Art Museum (you can see the instructions for the hunt here: Dante Scavenger Hunt). Groups of three students had an hour to connect a series of textual clues to works of art located throughout the museum. Though challenging for some, the activity fostered a deeper understanding of the text and gave all students the opportunity to explore the museum in a truly interdisciplinary way. We ended class in the Chapter House, which had once been part of a Benedictine monastery; this was especially captivating because we had recently spoken in depth about the importance of monastic communities as centers of learning in the middle ages. Are you interested in carrying out the scavenger hunt at the Worcester Art Museum? Download the text here, bring your annotated copy of the Divine Comedy, and give yourself one hour. Buona fortuna! If not, consider finding ways of tapping into the richness of WAM as a teaching resource.

4 – Be an on-line arbiter: The allure of the internet for immediate answers to all our questions is undeniable, but the course instructor has the power to steer students toward the best digital resources. Nancy O’Sullivan in the D’Alzon Library did a wonderful job of helping me create an on-line study guide for the course; it was a valuable point of reference for students, one that helped me ensure that their on-line sources for the writing assignment would be among the most reliable and that they were familiarizing themselves in general with the authorities in the digital world of Dante Studies.

5 – Make the assignments memorable (and keep ‘em real): I am not averse to assigning essays on the most popular scenes or themes in the Commedia, but students seem to gain more from writing assignments or exam questions that encourage greater self-reflection. For example, students were required to compose a brief essay on one of three topics in the last part of the final exam. Two questions elicited an impersonal response involving textual analysis, while a third was worded as follows:

You are camped out beneath an umbrella on your favorite beach during your annual summer vacation with family. Seated next to you is your favorite uncle, who works as an auto body repairman in your hometown. Despite never having attended college, he is hardworking, bright, and curious, and wants to know more about what you have studied this semester. How would you describe the Commedia to him?

If the 18 students enrolled in the class are able to provide an evocative description of Dante’s journey through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso as it relates to their realities, then I will have more effectively put myself in their shoes (or flip-flops in this case), but this time with a greater sensitivity toward how the sand feels between their toes, not mine. And perhaps my Ugg Jordan approach will be ready for the mainstream.