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Mapping Poetic Word Choice to Discover Literary Themes

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Creating a mindmap of key words can yield a list of important themes
Image Credit: 

"Magnetic Poetry" via surrealmuse's Flikr stream

Brief Assignment Overview: 

The assignment allows students to discuss their literary close-reading essays with each other, while also attempting to coordinate those close-readings with larger thematic issues discussed in class. The idea is to use individual words to learn more about global concerns in a literary text.

Type of Assignment: 
Assignment Length: 
Pedagogical Goals - Writing: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

Research

Organization/Arrangement

Close reading

Assessment of literary themes

Required Materials: 

In-class computers (optimal but not strictly necessary)

NovaMind Pro (or one of several freeware alternatives)

Student access to a web browser and a printer

Document camera and/or computer-linked projector for sharing results (again, optimal but not necessary)

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

The assignment allows students to discuss their literary close-reading essays with each other, while also attempting to coordinate those close-readings with larger thematic issues discussed in class. The idea is to use individual words to learn more about global concerns in a literary text. In my case, the text was John Milton's Paradise Lost, and the activity asked students to use mind-mapping and word-cloud tools.

Each student has written a formal close-reading essay that focuses on a particular keyword in a passage from John Milton's Paradise Lost. Using a computer-connected projector or a document camera (a chalkboard will also suffice), the class creates a list of all the words used in their formal essays. (This should require no more than 5-10 minutes.)

Then, students are divided into smaller groups. Each group is assigned to articulate between three and five large thematic questions that preoccupy Milton's poem. The questions should emerge both from their independent reading and from our shared in-class discussion. (This will take some time, perhaps 10-15 minutes.) 

Next, students are asked to arrange the listed keywords under the question(s) that best suits each term. They must coordinate the small-scale focus of their close-readings with the major themes prevalent in the poem. How does the local (an individual word) fit within the global (a big thematic question)? (This is the crux of the activity and requires the most time, probably 20-30 minutes.)

My class used NovaMind Pro mind-mapping software for this activity. Working at an in-class computer, groups of 3-4 students mapped the major questions around the title of the epic poem. Then, branching off of each such question, they listed the keywords relevant to it. Then, as time allowed, they used other features of the software to write short notes explaining why they located each keyword where they did.
As homework for the next class, to continue this emphasis on individual words (but to shift it to considering students' own writing practice), I asked students to use Wordle to create a word-cloud of their own close-reading essays. They brought the results to class and showed them to one another. We then discussed what the word-clouds revealed. Which words were larger than expected? Which were smaller or nonexistent? What can these findings tell us about what our writing is emphasizing (as against what we think it's emphasizing)? (This conversation took up around 20 minutes at the front end of my next class session.)
Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

Given the reliance on a former assignment (the close-reading essay), this particular version of the assignment will require some advance planning/integration into the course schedule.  Additionally, you will want to familiarize yourself with the available mapping technologies.

Instructions For Students: 

[Class's list of at least 15 keywords, presented on a projector screen, would appear here.]

Write out at least three or four of the major thematic questions that Milton raises in Paradise Lost. Then use these words (as many of them as possible) as ways to illustrate or to answer the different questions. Think of the questions as umbrellas under which you can place the different words.

Once you're ready, log into a workstation (one per group), and I'll come around and show you how to begin in NovaMind Pro.

Evaluation Suggestions: 

I evaluated students' work on this task on a credit/no-credit scheme. I awarded credit on the basis of participation and completion, which thus required students' attendance and involvement over two consecutive class meetings.

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

My students seemed very engaged with the assignment, which provided an opportunity for coordinating out-of-class writing with in-class discussion. They also responded positively to the group dynamics required to complete the task.

As so often, I didn't allocate enough time to the mind-mapping activity. Rather than give it half a Tuesday/Thursday session (as I did this time), next time I will apportion the majority of a class session for this exercise.

Additional Resources: 

Here is an example of what one of these might look like: 

Screen shot of sample mindmap on Milton's Paradise Lost

Course Description: 

E 314L (Honors): Reading Poetry. Topic: Origins after Milton. “A good book,” wrote John Milton, “is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” Many poets have come to see Milton himself as a daunting master spirit. Indeed, Milton has inspired an entire tradition of criticism that sees all poetry as caught up in the quest to conquer one’s forebears. This honors section of E 314L: Reading Poetry will explore the kind of mastery poets (and also critics of poetry) try to attain by preceding their predecessors. Designed for potential English majors who are involved in Plan I Honors, the course will begin with Milton’s Paradise Lost. We will consider the work as experimental poetry, meant to contribute to an epic tradition by predating it. Even though he arrives later, Milton wants to come first.

The class will then trace this paradoxical struggle for primacy--pressing farther ahead by reaching further back--through a variety of experimental verse written over several centuries. British poetry will be central, but we will also look at some American and (in translation) European and Asian poems. Readings will move from Milton to antiquarian and spiritualist poetry of the 18th century, then to Romantic and Victorian originalism of the 19th. (This last group will allow us to consider connections between Darwin and poetry.) The course will culminate in 20th-century modernist poems, particularly canonical works by Eliot, Pound, and Stein.

We will read primary poetic texts carefully, cultivating sensitivity to their formal features. We will also enlarge our vision by examining works through such critical lenses as those provided by feminism, psychoanalysis, New Historicism, and theology. Secondary readings will be extensive and ambitious for this honors class, as will be our efforts to place each work in its historical context. Also distinctive about the honors section are its expectations for student research. Enrollees will learn to use electronic tools like the OED, the MLA Bibliography, and the DNB, as well as databases such as ECCO, C-19, and LION. These tools will help students to fulfill the course’s writing requirements and will prepare them for further study in the field of English.

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