- Learning to Talk Back to TextsMultimedia Models for Students (and Teachers)
One of the most common writing assignments in college-level courses is the response paper. While instructors see this assignment as accessible and straightforward, students tend to struggle with it. What does it mean to "respond" to a text? What does that look like? What does one need to know to be capable of responding to a text? Thus, the invitation to "respond" to a text can be a fraught one for students. More often than not, early undergraduates come to our classes with little background and context to give them a foothold in the discussion. What is more, the rote memorization widespread in many introductory courses can further dissuade them from challenging and critiquing texts and professional writers. A lack of experience speaking and writing in formal, academic language, in my experience, can also be a barrier to responding.
As a result, I now aim to invite my students to "talk back" to the writers whose works we read. Where respond has a formal connotation that places the student in a position of deference to those writers, talking back implies conversation and suggests a more equal footing between student writers and the writers of the texts they encounter. In lieu of response papers, then, I have begun to draw on multimedia means of creating opportunities for students to talk back, and I invite them to use digital platforms in the process. In this essay, I present a case for that approach by reflecting on what I learned when I turned to a multimedia adaptation to help me to teach one of the best-known novels in the English language.
Digital modes of communication can open up space in a course for a wider range of voices—voices that have not yet been trained to speak in academic registers. I saw this firsthand when I started teaching Jane Austen's 1813 Pride and Prejudice alongside Pemberley Digital's The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012–13), a web series adaptation of the novel, in my first-year multimodal composition courses. In this pairing, I observed my students (mostly STEM and business majors) talking back to Jane Austen in sophisticated and [End Page 174] nuanced ways. The multimedia adaptation drew attention to the element of choice in authorship in ways that my prompting never did. Placing the novel and multimedia adaptation in conversation heightened the students' awareness that every text we encounter could have been composed differently. Even though Jane Austen did not have the Internet at her disposal, the students started to recognize that she did have choices, and this recognition led them to question elements of her writing for perhaps the first time. Before, when I had taught literary texts like Pride and Prejudice on their own, my students had struggled to respond to them, as if they were not allowed to question or critique the texts. The difference, I think, is that the web series, through its use of accessible platforms, put students on equal footing with Austen and gave them a means to talk back to her. In inviting my students to engage with multimedia texts alongside printed ones, and in giving the students opportunities to respond to texts using digital platforms, I began to see them reconsidering their relationship to the writers we were studying.
In The Lizzie Bennet Diaries Jane Austen's spirited heroine Elizabeth Bennet becomes a modern, educated, career-focused twenty-something living at home while she pursues a graduate degree in mass communications. With a mother who wants to see her married and who seems to have little understanding of her daughter's career aspirations, the series focuses on the way that Lizzie negotiates her home life as her final year of graduate school progresses. This updating of the social and cultural context is a common move for adaptations, of course. This move allows today's readers to see their own experience in what they are reading (or viewing) and more easily identify with the characters, which is especially important for audiences who are being asked to wrestle with race, gender, and class issues for the first time. The...