I. Introduction for Reading Journal Assignment

[The two-page assignment handout I gave to my students follows this introduction. Following the assignment handout, I have included some of the ways I have used the reading journals and some advantages I see in the assignment. (Note: the sample entries on the handout’s second page were to give students a sense of what an entry might look like.)] 

I developed this assignment (a revamping of the venerable reading journal) to meet a couple of needs. First, I was looking for an alternative to the conventional one-page reading response paper, which I have found unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons.

Second, and more important, I have come to believe that one of the things students—as students—may need most is time and opportunity for consistent and solitary reflection on their reading. I think that they need structured opportunities to explore and engage their reading, to put it into the stream of their own thinking, to connect it to other aspects of their experience. I’m not sure that students are often taught the benefits of reflection.

The assumption behind this reading journal assignment is that brief but regular sessions of thought will allow students to become more invested in their own, independent thinking; and it will help them to achieve richer insights. My hope is that my students will notice how regular journal writing can open up a reserve in their imaginations for literary thought, and that by returning to this reserve they can deepen their sensitivity to our books’ unexpected textures.

Equally important, habits of reflection, imagining, and meditation on literature (and life) are arts that have to be learned—they don’t emerge by themselves. Another of the goals of this assignment is to give students a structure in which they can develop and practice these habits and arts.

The reading journal assignment as a whole is extremely flexible, and my students responded to it with considerable enthusiasm. (It turned out that many of them were unfamiliar with the idea of a reading journal.)

Reading Journals

Materials: You will need one full-sized, college-ruled spiral, composition, or loose-leaf notebook. This notebook should be reserved for your reading journal alone. (I.e., keep it separate from your lecture notes.)

What is a reading journal?: In our class, your reading journals will be a place to try out and explore ideas concerning our readings, lectures, and discussions without worrying too much about being evaluated. It is a place to experiment and to ask yourself, “How accurately can I explain or describe my/this idea?” The point of the journal is to develop a regular, habitual practice of figuring out what you think of our course materials. If you add to your journal consistently and regularly, you’ll find that your thinking, your ability to make connections and to have insights will deepen. Above all, these journals are for you (not for me)!

Requirements: You will make at least two kinds of entries in your journal: in-class entries and out-of-class entries. Each of these entries should be dated and given some sort of title or label (usually before you start writing). Here are some sample titles from last semester: “Canto 5 Dante’s Feelings for Francesca and Paolo,” “The War for Faustus’s Soul!” “The Sadness of Don Quixote,” “Imagining Aeschylus’s Rebuttal to Sophocles on the Polis,” “The Cost of Empire.”

1. In-Class Entries: In some of our sections, I will ask you to write for a few minutes on a specific question pertaining to our text, the lecture, or other course materials. We’ll use these in-class entries to stimulate or conclude a discussion.

2. Out-of-Class Entries: Every week this semester (including holidays) you will write in your reading journal at least three days a week. These entries should be at least one page in length (but, of course, may go over) and they should engage with the week’s reading. This should take 10-20 minutes. Sometimes I will provide a specific question to think about, but the topic for most of these entries will be of your own choosing.

What should an entry look like?: Please feel free to write in the first person. Possible approaches include: looking at a passage or episode that puzzles, moves, or upsets you; considering the significance or motivations of a character; comparing this week’s reading with last week’s; arguing with Professor Cantor, with me, or a fellow student about an idea. I also encourage you to connect the course to your other classes, books, movies, TV, current events, and your own life experience. Just remember to anchor the entry in the week’s reading. (Sample journal entries from last semester are overleaf.)

Grading: The journals will contribute to your participation grade. At three points during the semester, I will collect your journals and read a few entries chosen at random (or by you). In evaluating your journals, I’ll be looking for these things:

1. Regularity of Entries: Are there three or more entries a week?

2. Length of Entries: Are the entries a full page or longer?

3. Appropriateness of Entries: Are the entries relevant to the course?

4. Engagedness, Vitality of Entries: Do the entries make serious efforts to come to terms with an idea?

After I have read through your entries, I will write a brief paragraph in response to your writing and thinking.

Sharing your journals: Because we can learn a lot from each other, from time to time I will ask you to share sections of your journals with other members of the class.

Sample Entries from Last Fall


“The Sadness of Don Quixote” 12/2/03

            Don Quixote is indeed a very comic novel. But underneath its humor the river runs fast and dark. In all that is funny about Don Quixote, there is also something very tragic about him, as Cantor hints at in lecture by calling the story rather melancholy. When I previously read the entire book, I walked away with a feeling of great sadness concerning the knight of the Rueful Countenance. Dostoyevsky, in patterning The Idiot after Don Quixote’s character, calls the novel “the saddest book of them all” for its sense of disillusionment. By the end, Quixote has lost his imagination and, with it, all his desire to be a hero, to do good for the world. Carlos Fuentes made such an argument in a lecture on Don Quixote. . . . Quixote, though an older man, suffers the . . . loss of innocence. In attempting to be a modern day hero, he comes to understand the difficulties of being one. It seems that, with modern sophistication, no one looks for heroes any longer. They are a thing of the past and Quixote is, as Cantor says, a “walking anachronism.” We are meant to laugh at Quixote but also to sorrow for him. There is something noble in the man, something that seems to be forever lost when he discovers that all the books of chivalry are bunk.

“Reality Shaped By Language [in Don Quixote]” 12/3/03

At the end of Senior year of high school, I had to write an in depth paper of a work, and I chose Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury. I have no idea what connections can be drawn between that work and Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but during my research back then I came across a critical essay that commented on the power of language, and characters’ usage of it to try to shape their otherwise uncontrollable world. This has stuck with me, and I wish I could attribute a source to it. Regardless, I see the same thing happening in Don Quixote.

            Not only do we see the power of literature on the mind and values of the susceptible (a notion present in Madame Bovary as well, though it hasn’t been noted), but Don Quixote is continuously described in his adventures as “saying” something is something it isn’t. His noxious brew is called balsam (or is that the word? I can’t recall), and so it is automatically assumed to have certain characteristics. The windmills are called giants, and Quixote treats them as such (much the same with the sheep). And it’s worth noting that before doing anything, Quixote declares his intent and names those he addresses, before charging into battle. And of course, the importance of names can’t be stressed enough, as Quixote renames his horse, “his” Lady, and himself before he can set out on his questing. That Sancho Panza is not renamed is very interesting, though Quixote does refer to him as page and servant, cementing and asserting his role and expected actions.

            So what of it? That’s hard to say. Cantor tells us that this is his insanity, the inability to see things as they really are. But recall our discussion on Dr. Faustus, where the king, and Faustus, are so enthralled with the mere shades of Alexander and Helen. I argued that, for all that it matters to the characters themselves, Alexander is Alexander and Helen is Helen, because they exist as notions within the individuals’ heads. The characters’ emotions and reactions cannot be “deceived” and wrong, because they are acting toward a set of ideas that, in their mind, are very very real. Such is the case when Quixote explains “that all that has taken place here seemed to me to happen really: that Melisendra was Melisendra, Don Gaiferos Don Gaiferos, Marsilio Marsilio, and Charelmagne” (1182). Except for Quixote, his actions have very real consequences.

Sample Questions, Exercises, and Activities for Reading Journals

[The following activities are only examples; teachers will come up with their own ways of using the reading journals.]

In-Class Entries:

1) Start a discussion / class by asking students to write for 3-5 minutes on a specific question or topic. Ask a volunteer to read exactly what he or she has written to the class. Ask for additional volunteers. Use the different positions that emerge to form the basis of a class discussion. Here are some questions I have used:

·      Does Achilles change at the end of the Iliad? Why or why not?

·      What were Aeschylus’s hopes in concluding the Oresteia in a court of law? Did he express fears as well?

·      In Plato’s Symposium, what makes Socrates lovable?

2) Start a discussion section by asking students to write for 1 minute on what confusions or questions they may have (about the lecture or reading). Often students have difficulties with the same things. Ask for a few volunteers and see if others in the class had similar questions. Invite the class to discuss / answer the questions that come up.

·      What was the most confusing part of Professor Cantor’s lectures this week?

·      What was the most confusing part of this week’s reading?

3) Near the end of class, ask your students to write for 3 minutes in order to formulate some concluding thoughts on the class discussion they have just had. Ask for a few volunteers to read. This way you get a sense of what students are getting out of discussion, and your students have a chance to learn from each other.

·      What did you learn from today’s discussion?

·      What was the single most important thing you will take with you from discussion today?

·      What questions do you still have after our discussion? [A follow-up out-of-class journal entry can respond to these very questions.]

4) Put your students in small groups. Ask them to read one of the entries they have written this week. Ask them to compare and contrast their different understandings of the work.

5) At some point in the middle of class, ask your students to write for a few minutes on a question. This is an opportunity to break up the rhythm of the class, and to help your students refocus, if they have drifted off some.

[In each of these cases, students tend to feel quite safe sharing their thoughts because they have already been written down. The students don’t have to think on their feet. Encourage your students simply to read what they have written, without impromptu revision.]

Out-of-Class Entries:

1) To help students go deeper into a text or issue, or if you want them to write on a topic that you plan to discuss in section, assign a specific topic for an out-of-class entry. This is also an opportunity to suggest the kinds of questions students might consider. Here are just a few of the questions I have used:

·      What kind of civilization would we have today if it were based on Homer’s two epics—if Homer were our foundational text rather than, say, the Bible?

·      What is most important to you about the Greeks? What do the Greeks have to do with you?

·      In The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, Blake claims to have given us the Bible of Hell. What would be your next act if you took this to be your Bible? If you would not take Blake’s Bible of Hell as your Bible, explain why not.

·      Compare Emily Brontë’s ideas of innocence and experience with Blake’s. What similarities and differences do you see? Whose vision of innocence and experience is more hopeful? Why?

·      Pick one of these concepts: love, money, power, justice, virtue, art. What does this concept mean in the context of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus?

2) Ask students to go back and find the 2-3 entries of which they are proudest. Have them type these entries up on Toolkit. Have them read each other’s entries and respond (on Toolkit or in their journals) with these questions in mind (an assignment like this gives students the chance to engage with and learn from each other’s thinking):

·      How does the thinking in these entries differ from your own thinking?

·      What have you learned from these entries?

·      What approaches to our readings might you borrow from these entries?

3) Let your students use some of their entries to ponder or brainstorm their papers and essays:

·      What is the central claim I am trying to make in my paper?

·      What is the best single insight my paper will make?

·      What in my argument still needs work?

4) As the end of the semester approaches, students will see that their journals have become quite substantial. The journals will have become ample records of thought. Invite students to go back and read through their journals. Try questions like these:

·      How has your thinking on [such-and-such main theme of the course] changed during the semester?

·      What are the dominant themes that you have been attracted to in your journal entries?

·      What have you learned in this course?

·      How will this course change your life?

5) Encourage your students to connect their readings to other classes they are taking, or to their own experiences. It’s a way for them to put this course within the larger stream of their thought.

Some General / Potential Advantages of Using the Journals

First: Students think about the class on a regular basis.

  • Students engage consistently and actively with the material.
  • Journals create space for the class in the imagination.
  • Journals shift center of gravity of class towards the students.

Second: Students think independently about course materials.

  • In a discussion, there is not enough time to cover all of the students’ diverse interests.
  • Journals provide an acknowledged forum in which students can explore their own ideas.
  • So the scope of the class is enlarged.
  • The journals also become a reservoir of thought from which students can draw in a discussion. Students often said things like: “In my journal, I wrote about something similar…”

Third: Students can become more invested in their own thinking.

  • They are writing a book—that doesn’t disappear like a one-page reading response.
  • They have an ample record of the effort of their thinking.
  • They can show off what they know.
  • The continuity of the work is valuable—in a very physical way, their work remains visible and present.

Fourth: Journals provide a way for students to learn from each other.

  • The journals are for the students themselves, but they need audiences.
  • When students hear or read what other students have written, they are exposed to the sheer diversity of thought.
  • They can learn what undergraduates are capable of thinking (which is a great deal).

Fifth: Journals are a conversation between student and TA.

  • I get to know my students better.
  • I can acknowledge and respond directly to my students’ thinking.

Sixth: Journals are easy to evaluate, but they still reflect considerable work.

  • They are evidences of an intellectual life lived outside of class.
  • Evaluating them does not require the time and attention given to a paper.

Seventh: Above all they are an incredibly flexible teaching tool—a constantly augmenting body of thought from which a teacher can draw when necessary.

  • The work is always going on, but does not always need the TA’s attention.
  • At any point in the semester, you can dip into the journals.
    • By asking specific questions.
    • By asking students to share parts of their journals.
  • The journal can be the basis of a vast variety of assignments.