Reflection on Randall Allen’s work
by Professor Holly Bailey-Hofmann, West Los Angeles College
Teaching World Literature classes at the community college is a unique experience. Some of the students are English majors, but most aren’t – many take the class to fulfill a humanities requirement, and some, like Randall, for the sake of interest.
It’s a challenge to make the class fruitful for as many students as possible when, among them, they have so many different goals, and not least, different backgrounds, ages, and interests. But the knowledge that those who intend to transfer will do their upper-level major work somewhere else gives me a great deal of freedom. I try to balance some theoretical underpinnings with a Formalist-meets-Reader-Response approach. My biggest goal is to have students make connections between the texts and – well – anything! but especially history, philosophy, music, art, and of course, their own lives. I believe it is the connection-making process that fires the synapse and cements the concept into the learner’s brain. All my discussion prompts direct students to identify connections between our texts and various other texts, concepts, mythologies, etc.
For essay assignments, I started off with the conventional academic prompts. But at some point, I started offering “creative” essay options in addition to the conventional ones. My rationale was that, if a student’s goal is to, for example, recreate the Tao Te Ching element by element for modern times, the student will have to scrutinize those elements one by one in order to do so, thereby inscribing it into memory. The positive response was overwhelming. 100% of students who chose the “creative” option submitted their essays, 95% on time. The rate of submission for those writing the conventional, thesis-driven options remained static (approximately 70% on time, 15% late, 15% never submitted). Furthermore, the students who chose the “creative” options nearly all thanked me (profusely!) in the online submission screen. Students are still accountable for course content in class discussion and on the objective final exam.
Randall is such an exceptionally talented writer. His conventional essays were flawless, models to his peers, ranking in the 1% highest quality in all my years teaching, so I didn’t need to be convinced by one more conventional essay that he knew how to support his assertions and format citations properly, etc. I was excited when he felt safe enough to take the experimental route. Although neither “Me and Sinclair” nor “More Than Two Dead Flies” exactly matched even the creative prompts for those assignments, the content was compelling and original. He was wrestling with important ideas, ideas that are only being swatted at in contemporary discourse in the Academy. I immediately encouraged him – as I had done the prior semester, with his conventional essays – to seek out venues for publication. I can’t wait to see what he writes next.
Holly Bailey-Hofmann earned a Master’s degree in English from the University of Cincinnati and now teaches grammar, writing, critical thinking, creative writing, and literature at West Los Angeles College.