“Introduction to Narrative”: A Collaborative, Experimental Intellectual Adventure

“This course should be undertaken as an experimental, collaborative, and hopefully thrilling intellectual adventure into the processes of meaning-making in our lives,” my syllabus advised students at the beginning of the spring 2015 semester. This past semester I taught 23 Queens College students in “Introduction to Narrative,” a course taken primarily by non-humanities majors in order to fulfill their writing requirement. I identified several learning goals for this course including

1.     To develop critical reading strategies that attend to tensions, nuances, discrepancies, and details of narrative texts

2.     To better understand language as a form of power, and learn to use language creatively and persuasively

3.     To discuss contemporary conditions of injustice and inequality, and the ways in which these are mediated through visual, textual, and sonic narratives

4.     To improve digital literacy by learning how to use the online technologies that are becoming our dominant modes of communication

In this blog, I discuss the ways in which student-centered learning, public writing, collaborative final projects, and student-designed evaluations helped us work towards these goals. When possible, I’ve tried to include students’ reflections on these activities.


Course Overview

I designed “Introduction to Narrative” in response to the non-indictments of white police officers following the murder of unarmed African Americans, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. “How is this a problem of narrative?” I asked my students. “What can literature do to address conditions of injustice?” As a class, we explored how stories persuade a reader, subtly changing how we think and feel, in a way that is different from statistical data, and even historical facts. We discussed how media representations, news, and our understandings of history—things that bear the connotation of “truth,”—often contain more fantasy than we like to think. We read literary works by Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Adrienne Rich, Jamaica Kincaid, Nam Le, Junot Diaz, and Saidiya Hartman, which I contextualized alongside commercials, podcasts, and news articles such as Ta-Nahisi Coates’ immensely important essay, “The Case for Reparations” and This American Life’s recent podcast about segregation and schooling, “Three Miles.” By navigating back and forth between these diverse forms of narrative, students learned to use the techniques of literary analysis, such as close reading, to better understand how we experience, analyze, evaluate, and create narratives.

We spent a large portion of the semester learning to ask questions about literature, my version of Paulo Freire’s (1970) problem-solving (as opposed to banking) model of education. And in fact, pedagogy served as a way for us to see connections among literature and other forms of narrative, both the ones they were reading, and the ones they were writing. “What is this text trying to teach us?” I repeatedly asked my students, “How is it trying to teach us?” And when they wrote, “What are you trying to teach your reader? How are you going to teach it to them?” Often, I’d start class by asking students to write on an index card what most interested them within the text we were reading—what words stuck out to them, what patterns they observed, what emotions they experienced at a particular moment. This is part of my sustained effort to teach students how to read well, and to identify their intellectual investments within our course material. The connections that students drew between the literature we were reading and their lives beyond the classroom guided our class discussion. Then, at the end of class, students would flip over their cards and formulate a question that they thought the novel was raising, or could be used to answer. Collecting the cards allowed for formative assessment: I could see how our discussions shaped their thinking, and also what concepts still needed clarification. Through different versions of this activity, they learned to identify tensions within literary texts, and to connect these to historical, social, and political tensions in the world beyond the text.


Student-Centered Learning

Research has shown that students learn best when they have to teach a concept to another student, rather than listening to a lecture. Student-centered learning experiences can be frustrating. Often we wish that the teacher would just give us the answers. However, developing strategies for making sense of difficult material is one of the most valuable skills that a college education can provide. In these situations, students develop leadership and learning skills that extend far beyond the classroom.

According to Rebecca Moore Howard (2001), good collaborative projects are assignments that can best be achieved by a group, rather than an individual. Our course focused on student-centered learning activities including an in-class debate, grammar and punctuation presentations, group work, extensive peer review, crowd-sourced class notes on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” and the use of the SoundCloud platform to annotate the This American Life podcast, “Three Miles.”


Annotating This American Life, “Three Miles” on SoundCloud.

Read our conversation here.


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Crowd-sourced Class Notes on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations.”

See the full class notes document here.

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Student reflections

·      Elena Danginis: “I believe that if you are able to teach a concept to someone it means you have a full understanding of it, as opposed to simply memorizing it. I found it useful that our course focused on student-centered learning. In my psychology courses the professor just lectures and we take notes, this can make the class boring and students can lose focus. I find that I was more engaged in this course because of the student-learning structure.”

·      Peter Caravousanos: “The students had a huge part in teaching each other rather than the professor standing in front and rambling on like many other classes.  This method made it much easier to comprehend the content we were learning, due to the fact that we had an active role in not only understanding the content, but also helping our peers in understanding it by teaching them as well.”


Public Writing – Research Response Blogs

Read the assignment here.

This semester we discussed how, in our lives as learners, leaders, democratic citizens, and employees, we need to learn to communicate effectively in a variety of rhetorical situations (emails, cover letters, business reports, protest chants, tweets, editorials, etc.). Communicating effectively involves writing with an awareness of audience, purpose, genre, and rhetoric. For this reason, we experimented with a number of different rhetorical situations including posting final research response blogs to HASTAC, so that they could be read by a large public audience, rather than just the instructor. We did this to practice writing for a public audience, and in doing so, having to confront questions of assumptions, evidence, voice, etc.

Tova Engel, “Are Charter Schools Charting the Right Course to Educational Equality?” Read here.

Zachary Breland, “CUNY Tuition: A Monetary Climb, A Public Fall.” Readhere.

Hurriya Hassan, “Islam: In the Eyes of Media.” Read here.

Read more undergraduate writing on HASTAC “Scholarly Voices” group.

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·      Peter Caravousanos: “I’ve done many research projects throughout high school, as well as college before this class, however I’ve never made a research blog and posted it for the world to see and criticize.  It was a different experience all together. There is certain nervousness about knowing that your research on a subject is going to be public for anyone to see.  That pressure forces you to be as meticulous and detailed as possible in making it the best thing you’ve ever written.”


Collaborative Final Projects

Read the assignment here.

For this course, I assigned literary texts that were about the possibilities for collective liberation from conditions of injustice and inequality. Because this is such an important theme throughout the course (and in my scholarship), I also aim to teach students how to work together. Unlike many group project assignments that tend to go awry and leave students feeling traumatized, I am committed to facilitating the collaboration process, giving students the support and guidance they need in order to produce a final project together. Every class involves some form of peer knowledge production, from peer review and group quizzes, to filling out a crowdsourced Google Doc as a class. For some group activities, they are assigned specific roles (recorder, reporter, manager, researcher) so that everyone has a stake in the group’s success.

Informal, low-stakes group activities provide the foundation for their final project, which students design, design the rubric for, and evaluate. My only requirement is that they work in groups to produce this final project, which can be a website, digital timeline, podcast, video, etc., whichever medium is most suitable for the narrative they want to tell. “I cannot know for them what it is they need to free, or what words they need to write; I can only try with them to get an approximation of the story they want to tell,” writes radical poet-scholar-teacher-activist Adrienne Rich (1979), about her experiences teaching in the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) program at City College, CUNY during the era of Open Admissions. Together, we work to tell their stories. While most students initially grumble about having to work together, by the end of the project they see that they’ve collaborated to create something infinitely better than what they could have come up with alone.


“The Bumpy Road to Higher Education” by Zachary Breland, Canfeng Chen, Tova Engel, and Alexandros Ladas. Explore their project.

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·      Tova Engel: “In choosing to present our research through a timeline, by navigating through various policies and protests, we hoped to avoid the “danger of a single story,” and visually express how our present conditions have developed over time (1)…By combining our individual strengths as researchers and editors, we pooled our information on Google Docs and Spreadsheets in order to form a cohesive story that could then be interwoven on the Tiki-Toki timeline. I was very pleased with our communication throughout the process, and how prepared each member came to class and to presentation day.  Learning to collaborate with my peers is a new skill that I am leaving this class with, and I know that it will greatly benefit me as I engage with future peers throughout my college career.”

·      Zachary Breland: “This semester introduced to me, for the first time in college, to a group project. In none of my other classes in any semester have I had to participate in a group presentation. I very much enjoyed this aspect of the course, and I could not have asked for a better group to work with. I was able to practice labor division and leadership skills.”


“Revolutions for Changes” by Hurriya Hassan, Jhojan Pajoy, Wilson Paul Muñoz Gordillo, Helivett Ramirez, and Edgar Rivera. View their video.

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·      Hurriya Hassan: “Although we had difficulty putting this project together, it was really fun and amazing to meet the people in my class I barely spoke with and be comfortable with working with other classmates. This experience has built up my confidence level and has helped me collaborate with people around me rather than always work alone.”


“Knowledge is Priceless, Education is Not” by Kristina Aganova, Kadlif-Rashid Bactowal, Elena Danginis, Kimberly Galeano, and Katrina Glowatz.Explore their project.

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·      Kadlif-rashid Bactowal: “I learned a lot from this project experience. The first thing I learned was how to develop a website on WordPress. The next thing I learned was a little about each of my group members, and where they come from. Finally the most important thing I learned was how to work together and be responsible for a part of a whole presentation.”

·      Elena Danginis: “In general I prefer not to work in groups, unless I am able to choose my group members. In this course we were grouped together based on topic. Since my topic “Education Inequality” was popular there were three groups for this topic. Although I was not able to pick the people I’d be working with, this was a good experience. In the past I have worked with group members who don’t communicate with each other and fail to contribute to the project at all.  This project has made me have a different outlook on group work. I am satisfied with the website we created, and I know on my own I wouldn’t have been able to do it… We wanted our voices, as students, to be heard. We first decided we would all include our own personal stories about our college experience, and add a photo to put a face to it. We then were faced with the question so what? Why were we sharing our stories, what were people going to get out of it? We came to the agreement that we should write about why we are all here, in College. We included statistics and the importance of a college degree and where it will get us. As a group we not only wanted to share our personal experience, we created a tab “Your Thoughts” to hear from other students on their thoughts and ideas.”


#BlackLivesMatter video project by Karen Morales and Thomas Lada.

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“Education and Inequality” by Peter Caravousanos, Kristen Cercone, Shannon Dunning, Rosamaria Portaro, and Rodney Rosario.

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Student-Designed Rubrics

It is important to me that students shape the class: that they are given an opportunity to decide what we will read (for at least a portion of the semester) and that they have a say in what their assignments will look like, and how they would be evaluated. This semester, students demonstrated their knowledge of what makes a good narrative by designing the rubric for their final project. They also practiced providing evidence to support all claims by filling out the rubrics–they had to justify any score with specific examples from the project, just as instructors have to justify any grades they give. Every time I’ve done a version of this, without fail, students come up with more rigorous criteria, and grade each other with more scrutiny than I ever would.

My student-centered classrooms are deliberate efforts to challenge the educational experience of “stultification.” According to Jacques Ranciere (1991), the idea that students are dependent on teachers is a belief that in fact, produces this dependence. Instead, by trusting the students’ ability to learn and giving them the responsibility (for once!) to determine the criteria by which they will be evaluated, we can begin to undo some of this stultification, and encourage students to see themselves as active learners, as participants in institutions and collective social life. It is training for engaged citizenship.

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·      Rodney Rosario: “As a class we decided what elements should be included in our projects. Filling out the evaluations while the groups were presenting was a good way to grade them based on their knowledge of their topic. As a future physical education teacher I could use the idea of student evaluation. My students can grade each others level of skills and performance. By doing this students can be able to improve them self using a evaluation sheet.”


Works Cited

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Tr. Donaldo Macedo. New York: Continuum, 1970.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Collaborative Pedagogy.” A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Ranciere, Jacques. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991.

Rich, Adrienne. “On Teaching Language in Open Admissions.” On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York: Norton, 1979.


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