Monday, November 10, 2014

Attitude of Gratitude #10: Humor in the Classroom #HTGAWM

I'm new convert to Shonda Rhyme's television universe. Grey's Anatomy held no appeal to me. By the time I heard about Scandal, I missed too many episodes to catch up, and my Netflix queue is already packed. So when I heard that one of my favorite actresses, Viola Davis, would star in the latest addition to the Shonda-verse, How To Get Away With Murder,  I knew I had to watch. 

I did. I am hooked. Completely. 

Admittedly, the plot strains belief, almost cartoonish, The characters tend to stock. But the show is, after all, a gussied-up soap opera, think Larry Hagman's Dallas meets The Paper Chase

Davis' character, Annalise Keating, knocks me out. She a hard-boiled D.A. and law professor, a huge success in her professional life. But her private life is in shambles I fantasize about being as career savvy as Keating is. And the way she "motivates" her her students . . . ahh, only in my dreams! She's my fantasy teaching alter-ego.

The members of her law firm, ice-princess-with-a-secret Bonnie Winterbottom  and Lothario Frank Delfino, serve as Keating's teaching assistants, further complicate her grad students' lives. 

So what does all this have to do with the prompt for today's gratitude blog challenge, the one that asks me to share a humorous story from my classroom or career? I'd like to think the way I incorporated my obsession with How To Get Away With Murder into a rhetorical analysis project assignment is kind of humorous. It made me laugh. And given how tough my audience can be, I'll settle for a self-induced chuckle. 

So I took my prompt for the rhetorical analysis of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and hacked the characters from HTGAWM into the assignment, setting up a sort of a written role play. I created a scenario: Professor Keating's been asked to help author a book about Frederick Douglass - by someone she "owes".  She assigns the research portion of one of the chapters to her grad students (the students in my class), one on Douglass' rhetoric.

The grad students/my students must explain to a fictional "design team"  how and why Douglass chose to wrote his autobiography they way he did. What was his purpose? What discourses of the time was he writing against? What assumptions can we infer he made about his readers? The design team handles the actual craft of writing; my/grad students only provide the raw material, which adds a layer of inferences my students have to make: how to appeal to then design folks, the team charged with crafting the research into the chapter. 

I supplemented the written instructions with three "explainer" videos, each addressing a "chunk" of ideas, featuring Professor Keating. Here's the first: 

It went over well.  The students who are fans of Shonda Rhimes enjoyed it. And other students thought it was kind of clever to have a role-play assignment. But there were a few who felt isolated or left because they weren't in on the inside-joke. Only one student out of three sections felt the clip was patronizing. Not bad. Anything I do is a gamble! 

But all the students appreciated the way the visual medium of the clip helped clarified the assignment - and the learning goals embedded in the woexpainers. I plan to continue experimenting with visual iterations of written prompts. Not just to make it clearer for students, but to open up a discussion about what the  different media/genres I use says about my assumptions about the readers - an object lesson in content, purpose, and audience. 

Here are the links to Explainer #2 and Explainer #3, featuring Winterbottom and Delfino, respectively. I used Powtoon to create the clips.

A concern I do have, and will think about when I revise this assignment, is whether or not I do an injustice to the content, i.e., Douglass' narrative and rhetoric. Am I taking it too lightly? Did I cross a line? Does the HTGAWM conceit detract from Douglass' rhetoric or, perhaps more importantly, from the issue of slavery? I'll pose those questions to students when they get to the meta-commentary/self-evaluation section of the assignment. 

I'd appreciate your comments. 

I'd also love to read how other people inject pop culture reference or role-playing into their written assignments. I know it isn't my job to entertain students, but it is my job to do my best to hook students, within reason. And if I can leverage another lesson (content/purpose/audience) and have a laugh, why not?  Does anyone want to share?