By Dr. Melissa Lenos, Assistant Professor and Chairperson of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Donnelly College
I held up a paperback and met 13 pairs of uneasy eyes. It was hard to keep the excitement out of my voice as I explained, “We’re going to read Bleak House together and we’re going to read it as it was originally released—in serial form. We’ll do one installation a week over the course of the semester.” My excitement was two-sided: Bleak House is one of my favorite novels (I reread it every winter break), and I was nervous. I typically teach freshman writing courses, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to teach a hefty novel. I felt rusty, and also worried that the scale of the text might intimidate my students.
Classroom demographics at Donnelly College tend to be unlike those of other schools, and this semester is no different. This “Great Books” designated section of Comp 2 has no young men and is majority Latina, majority English Language Learners, and almost entirely first-generation students, in keeping with Donnelly’s core student population.
Donnelly’s student population often arrives underprepared for college, due to continuous disruption and economic struggle in the local school districts. In my 6 years of teaching here, I’ve found that students sometimes fall behind in the first 4 to 6 weeks and then simply give up. With a 900-page novel, I wanted to create some failsafes to keep that from happening in this class.
Reflecting back on my first semester of the ACUE course, I decided to build regular “Fishbowls” into the syllabus. In the ACUE course, Dr. Tara Lineweaver describes the Fishbowl activity as a “close-knit conversation among four students” seated in the center of their classmates, who form a circle around them. The students in Dr. Lineweaver’s class prepare a short paper based on the readings, and then during class, she pulls four names from a fishbowl, and those students discuss the assigned articles for 20 minutes. The rest of the students listen, take notes, and have an opportunity to comment after the discussion has ended.
In my Comp 2 course, every Friday the students would come prepared to discuss one serial segment of the novel. We would randomly select three or four women to discuss the novel for 15 to 20 minutes (depending on the length of that week’s segment) and then regroup for a whole-class discussion. I also created a large, adaptable concept map to help keep track of the novel’s 50-some characters and myriad intertwined themes.
Friday was our most recent Fishbowl—each student has participated at least once at this point. We’d spent the past week discussing contradictory perspectives on the text. Several of the students are writing term papers addressing some aspect of the representations of women in Bleak House. The students found sources that argue for Esther Summerson’s powerful agency and determination, while other sources dismiss her as weak and uninspiring.
This week’s Fishbowl participants drew this previous conversation into their discussion, identifying moments that could be interpreted as supporting each point of view and considering how their perspectives of Esther have changed now that they’re halfway through the novel. They debated what Dickens intended the audience to think or feel about Esther based on how Esther, in her first-person chapters, describes herself and how other characters speak to and about her. The students then helped each other sort through one particularly confusing scene in the week’s reading and spent the rest of the Fishbowl debating developments in the overarching mysteries threaded through the novel.
Based on Fishbowl participation, whole-class discussions and their reading quizzes, I can tell that—6 weeks into the semester—every student is current on the reading. In a typical section of Comp 2, 10% to 15% would be dangerously behind, consistently absent, or otherwise struggling at this point in the semester. More than that, when I come into class at 9 a.m., they are often already chatting about the week’s developments: Lady Dedlock’s shady behavior and Mr. Tulkinghorn’s ominous looming. Last week they were particularly outraged by Mr. Guppy, greeting me with “Esther has a stalker!” Another warmed my heart, grumbling, “I wish Esther wouldn’t act so dumb when she’s not.” My students are pulling out interesting themes (Dickens’s portrayals of marriage, philanthropy, the legal system), noticing narrative trends, and asking compelling, complex questions.
This week, as we approach midterms, I had the students reflect on their Fishbowl experience so far in a 10-minute “Exit Ticket” for the class, which is essentially a prompt they must respond to before leaving. I asked them to reflect upon what they feel is working well with the Fishbowl exercise and what they might change or do differently through the end of the semester. They all agreed that we should continue with the exercise—that it keeps them accountable to themselves and their classmates. Several mentioned that keeping up on the reading and taking thorough reading notes feels more important if you know classmates “might be counting on you” to help lead a discussion. At such a small school, most of these students have multiple classes together and check in with each other during the week.
I find that every week’s content in the ACUE course impacts my teaching, but nothing has disrupted my personal pedagogy as much as the Fishbowl. I realized that I too frequently underestimate my students, that I jump in to “help” them too quickly, and that given control of class discussion, students will generate smart, provocative conversations. In restructuring the rhythm of my classes, my students have been given additional space to approach ideas from multiple perspectives. Every day that we have had a Fishbowl this semester, my students have surprised me.