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SITUATED LEARNING: Red-Eye Milton and the Loom of Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The article below looks at a process called "situated learning,"

carried out via the method of "legitimate peripheral participation."

Although the focus is on literature, there are obvious implications

for teaching in many other disciplines as well.

The author, John V. Knapp, professor of English at Northern Illinois

University, has been educating English teachers for over thirty

years. This work is based on what Knapp calls. "my second Ph.D., my

"leisure-time" degree. His first Ph.D.

first was completed in 1971, in British and American literature at

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. *Red-Eye Milton* was done out

of Educational Psychology at U. of Wisconsin-Madison. According to

Knapp, "I found -- later in my career -- that the research

collaboration at UW with such

scholars as Leona Schauble (my Director, in Ed. Psych), and Martin

Nystrand (UW English Department) to be the essence of what the Greeks

called "leisure" -- scholarship whose ultimate goal was as much

development of the soul as practical publication."


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Yes Virginia, There Is A Big Difference Between Cooperative

And Collaborative Learning Paradigms

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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by John V. Knapp

Northern Illinois University, DeKalb


Tomorrow's professor may be surrounded by all sorts of high tech

wonders to aid in his/her teaching, but it would be a mistake to think

that the old tried-and-true lecture method, however tarted up by

electronic sophistication, will necessarily remain as the primary vehicle

for developing students' minds. Recently, I conducted a study of

professorial expertise in humanities teaching by employing a "situated

learning" model, the results of which suggest that tomorrow's expert

university teacher of earlier imaginative literature may instead be more

like a dream weaver, employing experiential practices actively to engage

students in a cognitive apprenticeship (Knapp 2000). The professor's

ultimate teaching goal: students learn (in this case) enough about 17th

century British culture and the writings of John Milton to argue back with

the teacher as they jointly create an in- class narrative.

Cognitive studies of teaching expertise at all levels may be found

in great profusion in the disciplines of math, several of the sciences,

history, and literature at the primary and secondary level, composition at

the college level, but, until recently, there have been very few detailed

studies of the process of teaching literature at the university level.

For most professors, literature is usually taught via one of two rather

generalized methods (Langer, 1995; Probst, 1992), each within its own

theoretical framework: "small groups in face-to- face interaction" or

"well organized classes presented by dynamic lecturers" (Nelson and Watt,

1999, p. 282). Many tacitly assume those ends of the spectrum are somehow

both largely (and mutually) exclusive, and ultimately, with minor

variations, comprehensive.

The study just completed suggests that these polarities should be

seen more as areas of choice in a teaching mosaic rather than opposite

ends of a linear plane, since both have well-discussed weaknesses.

Briefly, those employing the lecture model are rarely concerned,

theoretically, for the process of student motivation, while the reader-

response (RR) model has no theoretical means of accounting for the

structured impartation of crucial and detailed information in an efficient

manner. Each approach is, by itself, inadequate to account for English

professor expertise and optimal student learning.

Easier Said than Done

The key issue in the current study is *how* students' skills,

insights, and motivations are developed during a typical fifteen week

semester. I selected an NIU professor, called Prof. J., who was thought

of as an expertise both in Milton and in teaching Milton and video-taped

each of his classes for a semester, collecting students' writings and

interviewing both professor and students. Although previous studies have

detailed the conclusions of what good literature teaching might reveal

(Knapp, 1996; Langer 1995; Brooks 1947; Smagorinsky and Whiting 1995),

none described, from the perspective of situated learning, a semester-long

process of how an expert teaches Milton -- one of the major three

canonical writers including Chaucer & Shakespeare -- by using his

knowledge of both subject and pedagogy to enable students to think and act

like proto-experts themselves.

By employing the "situated learning" model developed by Jean Lave

(1988); Lave and Wenger (1991), and others (Brown, Collins, and Duguid,

1989; Rogoff, 1990; 1992) for this study, I found that students learn best

via what Lave calls "legitimate peripheral participation." Looking at

Prof. J's expert "knowledge-in-practice" with his college-student novices,

I have described below the characteristics of an expert teacher of

imaginative literature at the university level.

I. Class structures:

Prof. J. structured his semester's work into six steps or

sections corresponding to a combination of texts studied, literary skills

to be mastered, historical/biographical information to be added to the

students's knowledge base, as well as a set of texts that were initially

organized chronologically according to Milton's life and writing.

Further organizational structuring devices included both the growing

complexity of each text's genre(s) and, most importantly, the students'

evolving mastery.

II. The Snakes and Ladders of Abstraction:

Prof. J. emphasized assisting students' negotiation up and down

what I have called the "snakes and ladders of abstraction." The student

skill of moving from the single word or image level through intermediate

characterological and plot developments up to the highest levels of

character analysis, genre, and theme and then back down again may well be

one of the major accomplishments of any sophisticated reader of

imaginative literature.

III. Student's Knowledge Base and Prior Knowledge

One of Prof. J's earliest and most important tasks was to expand

his student's knowledge base of vocabulary and syntactical rules to

support the ordinary process of decoding a text written in an unfamiliar

(early modern) type of English (Baugh 1957), set in a past (1608 - 1674)

remote from their own experience, and exhibiting values distant from

students' own assumptions. J. often started, for example, with the

literal meanings in The King James Bible and then moved into Milton's

imagistic borrowings by reading out loud, getting students to hear the

sounds from an excellent reader, and by asking questions, comparing sound

patterns, and posing suggestions for alternative interpretations.

IV. Emotional Identification

Prof. J. considered the first 26 lines of PL so important, for example,

that he asked all students to memorize them and to be able to recite them

back to him (privately). This memorization helped students to "own" that

piece of the poem and so quite literally make it part of their conscious and

even unconscious thinking. As Brand (1994) suggests, it is "naive and

inaccurate to believe that all ways of knowing may only be represented

intellectually" (p. 3).

V. Reoccurring Assignments

Tasks were often identical to Milton's college assignments, so in

one case, J. asked students to prepare a rhetorical exercise exploring,

"Which is better, day or night?" and then asked them to compare their own

writing to Milton's "homework," an orally read piece known as a Prolusion;

hence assignments included both rhetorical practice and emotional

identification (Bartholmae and Petrosky 1986).

VI. Milton's Language into Student-Speak

J. also regularly insisted that students turn Milton's language

into a calculus of their own understanding. During the Comus summary, for

example, J. asked students to paraphrase in their own words the rather

arcane thoughts and language in the debate between Comus and the Lady over

chastity and virtue, constantly joking and using the language of

undergraduates to translate 17th century masques into accessible thoughts

for students. As the semester progressed, students' earlier one-line,

semi-incoherent responses became more elaborated, even using the language

of the 17th century at times, in part because J's rather generalized

prompting required students to create a mix of Milton's language and their

own elaborations.

VII. Fostering Personal Identities with the Milton Class

J. demonstrated that expert teachers take great pains to weave

connections between students' own lives and the text(s) under discussion.

To do that, the professor needs to know something about students' lives.

So, early in the semester, Prof J. started class with a lengthy roll call

of some fifteen minutes, during which he memorized student's names and

faces in combination, joking with many, and asking for and then himself

telling little anecdotes and stories. The seemingly casual and leisurely

pace of these roll-calls masked their serious purpose: first "develop

trust and familiarity between individual students and the professor" and

among the students themselves to conduct a class of active participants

(Sizer, 1996, pp. 91-95).

VIII. Bridging Mechanisms

In order to connect the materials from a culture and a poet

distant in both space and time from the students's own lives, he

constantly searched for bridging mechanisms such as J's evoking the

students' raw emotion from the shock of Princess Diana's untimely death --

then only three weeks earlier -- and connecting students' emotions to the

eulogy and the specific example of Milton's "Lycidas."

IX. Attunement to Students' Literary Growth & Development

J. constantly reinforced the sense that mistakes were part of

students' learning by drawing attention to his own mistake (on a handout)

and used that as a tool to teach what he called a word du jour: St

Augustine's peccata forte (means `sin boldly') if one is going to make a


X. Narrative Collaboration

By midterm, it was clear that both teacher and students had begun

jointly to weave a class narrative, albeit though the Loom-master was

largely still Prof. J. By late in the semester, J's focus shifted again,

from questioning techniques to motivational statements and outright

exhortations woven into the class fabric, signaling to students that their

insights had triggered new thoughts about Paradise Lost in him, the

expert, and if they could do THAT, then the conversation was a mutual

exploration of the difficult masterpiece.

Expert Professor of Literature

So, What ultimately identifies an expert professor of literature

at the college level? To paraphrase an old popular song: the professor is

a dream weaver. Prof. J's teaching employs the metaphor of weaving ideas,

motivations, historical information, student learning, and J's energy and

exhortations into a fabric of class activity. Thus, professor expertise

in English teaching cannot be characterized by any one descriptor, but

rather by a systemic sense that the whole ultimately emerges from the sum

of its parts, greater than but constitutive of them.



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