I’m teaching an Introduction to Literary Studies course this term, and one of the early assignments in the class asked students to create a “collage that reflects your perspective on literary study”. To explain the assignment, I developed a handout that explained what collage artists think they’re doing and other requirements for the task. When I passed that around the room, I projected a graphic of a collage I’d made once on the No Child Left Behind Act, and explained my creative process…reporting how I discovered the theme along the way, and suggesting that the collage still meant more than what I intended it to mean.
I was thoroughly impressed by what the students came up with for this homework assignment. Many of the students went far beyond my expectations, and I asked a few if I could share their work here.
I liked Melissa Kaufold’s collage entitled “How Do You See Me?” (above), because it interestingly represented the identity of an English student, with competing voices (mostly negative) surrounding the figure — who herself is a multifaceted construct (the four-fold face) ostensibly holding an armload of books that obscure the rest of her body. A very colorful thought balloon reveals the value in her thoughts about literature, impervious to the onslaught of negativity espoused in the “external” world; the strength of these thoughts is reinforced by the thick black boundaries lines that protect these “thoughts” from interference and keep them relatively cohesive.
The collages of the class as a whole seemed to inherently lean toward conflicts like these. In her collage, “Transcendence” (below), Julia Leksell took an artful approach to semiotics, employing negative/white space in an intriguing way that differed from many of the other collages the students created. Here, she took control over the bricolage of symbols to add her own imagery to the piece, where she portrays a dove-like ascent or emergence from what seems like a pile of abandoned and contradictory signs and symbols:
The diagonal lines in Leksell’s postmodernist piece make me imagine that the pictured bird is hefting a weighty net of language, struggling but succeeding to rise. I like the positive message here.
Attempts like these to come to some cogent “perspective” on literary studies opened up the floodgates of discussion in class, and allowed everyone — whether creative writer, journalist, or literary scholar-in-training, to participate on a fairly equal plane.
I followed up the assignment by having students swap collages and write up analyses of them. We discussed this process as one inherent to both artistic production (crafting sense out of found language and fragments) and criticism (analyzing the whole by breaking down the structure into its parts). This two-pronged approach to the assignment created a dialogue between creativity and criticism in a really successful way, I think. It both raised the question, “What is literature?” and unveiled that it is, if anything, a conversation that meaning-making demands.
[POSTSCRIPT: After posting this entry, Dr. Davis from Teaching College English asked if I’d share the guidelines. They’re relatively specific to the context of my class syllabus, but I’ll gladly share it here, if it helps in any way: