Kerouacking the Classroom and Talmudic-Style Annotation of Poetry

The first page of the Vilna Edition of the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot, folio 2a. By, Public Domain,

I teach a final year seminar called America With[out] Borders, and among the required readings are long poems by Lorna Dee Cervantes and Claudia Rankine. I have taught Cervantes’s “Bananas” and “Coffee” in other modules previously, but have rarely been satisfied with the lectures. These are challenging poems that require deep, well-researched readings. Students rarely enter the classroom with the amount of history, political, religion and pop culture knowledge needed to understand the intertextuality of the poem. This means I either have to spend the majority of a two-hour seminar talking them through the myriad of references in the poem in order to help them make sense of the piece as a whole, or find another way. Given that this is a seminar, I refuse to spend two hours lecturing them in lieu of more active learning strategies.

Kerouac’s Manuscript and Talmudic Annotation

Initially, I considered asking the students to mind map various sections of the poem. After an email conversation with my colleague, Mike Cosgrave, I decided to take up his suggestion of collaborative annotation. Mike originally suggested digital annotation, a practice I have not tried in-class, but often encourage postgraduate students to incorporate in their research strategy. Mike mentioned Talmudic annotation styles, and paired with a loose idea around Jack Kerouac’s On The Road manuscript, I decided to trial a print-based assignment.

One of the “scrolls” re-annotation. Photo: Author’s Own (30 Jan 2016).

Kerouac’s meandering manuscript was in my thoughts given that Cervantes’s “Coffee” is an example of what Jahan Ramazani refers to as “travelling poetry.” She takes her reader on a transnational journey via poetics and content across time and space in order to construct and layered and intricate narrative that critiques global agri-business. So, combining the principles of Kerouac’s manuscript and Talmudic annotation, I taped large sheets of paper together, and layered copies of the poem down the centre of them to create linear scrolls. I think the visual impact of the poem laid out in its full length with thick strips of empty space on either side gives a full sense of the amount of work that needs to be done.

The Manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road on display in the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in Paris, May-Aug 2012. Source: By Prosopee – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I framed the assignment with a quotation by Margaret Randall, a hemispheric American writer, poet and photographer:

“As we re-search our histories, we rediscover multiplicities. Frequently these many-layered discoveries of self are contradictory; there is, then the tendency to grasp a single thread at the expense of others, in an effort to go deeper. Infrequently there is exploration of a complex, uncharted terrain and some new mapping happens.” (8)

“Re-search” is the operative term here: asking us to conduct research and re-examine. This is reminiscent of Adrienne Rich’s quest for “re-vision.” In “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” Rich states that

“Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.” (On Lies 35)

These acts of re-search and re-vision are imperative when working with a text like Cervantes’s “Coffee.” The postcolonial and feminist acts of recovery described in these quotations dovetail with the intertextual project of Cervantes’s long poems, providing a road map for the students in terms of why such in-depth critical annotation is important. Such complex poetry challenges them to push their critical skills further, and doing so collaboratively turns this into a mutually beneficial activity.

The Process and Some Conclusions

To turn to the assignment itself, the sense of travel evoked by Kerouac’s approach to the paper on which he wrote his book, and the layering of reader’s responses encouraged by Talmudic annotation serve both aesthetic and methodological needs here. I divided the students into small groups and gave them a scroll each. I put a slide on the screen containing a list of suggested intertextual aspects they might wish to focus on, and put them to work. I had instructed them to bring laptops or tablets to class in advance in order to facilitate the “research” side of “re-searching.” I left it up to them as to how they would organise their groups in terms of “re-search” and annotation. I waited for about 7 minutes before going around to each group to discuss their strategies and offer some hints as to how they might develop their initial ideas about each section. Then I left them alone for another 7 minutes and repeated my sweep of the room. I repeated this again, and then we collectively reviewed each group’s annotations.

The benefits of this assignment include an emphasis on close reading, a skill that final year students of literature should have honed to a decent standard. These are poems that beg for forensic eyes. Putting these into practice in a collaborative mode ensured that there was a pool of different strengths in terms of close reading. This led to a blend of stylistic and contextual commentary in the margins. Much like Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, which was nominated for American Book Critics Awards in both the poetry and criticism categories in 2014 (a first in the history of the awards; winner in the poetry category), “Coffee” is what I describe as “poetic origami” (Alexander 137). By this I mean a text that folds, unfolds, expands and overlaps in stylistic, generic and contextual ways that can overwhelm and confuse an untrained eye. A cacophony of critical voices helps to navigate these layers.

Eavesdropping on their conversations as they studied their scrolls, I heard them querying each other’s choices and attempting to develop critical connections between the sections they chose to work on, googling certain key words, and offering their own prior knowledge as possible ways into understanding the poem. Aside from the academic benefits, this activity kept the students alert. This can be a challenge when your seminar is scheduled on a Wednesday evening, right in the middle of the proverbial hump day hill. The long scrolls required students to stand up, move around and lean over the text. In my experience, Wednesday is often the most challenging day in the classroom. Students are lethargic, hitting the first heavy wave of tiredness as midweek falls upon them. I have always favoured teaching on Mondays and Tuesdays when students seem to be at their peak in terms of alertness and brain power. If this assignment has proven anything, it’s that activities that ask students to get up out of their seats can access some untapped energy reserves before the midweek slump takes over.

The room in which I held the assignment also played a part in this. Originally the seminar was in a very small classroom, overstuffed with chairs, and little room to move around. I moved the class from there to the Digital Humanities Learning Space. Aside from the many digital benefits of the room, it’s openness, unfixed furniture, and choice of work spaces are conducive to a more creative teaching and learning environment. One group chose to work in one of the booths, while others worked around tables in the centre of the room. This, along with a range of other teaching experiences that I have had in this room really emphasises the idea that a sense of autonomy regarding individual space in the classroom is salubrious in terms of critical thinking and concentration levels.

I would make some changes if I were to use this assignment again. Firstly, I would extend it over the course of a two two-hour seminars. We did run out of time, even though was much more to discuss. I would also form them into larger groups. As it was this time, there were 3-4 students per scroll. I would double that and restructure the approach: first one half of the students would annotate while the other’s carried out some “re-search”, then they would swap and layer the first round of annotations. I would repeat this cycle several times until the white space around the edges are brimming with notes. Even though each group made concentrated attempts, each scroll still has a lot of space left over. However, this also means that I could reuse these scrolls and invite future students to annotate their precursors’ efforts.

I intend to experiment with this method some more in other modules to investigate different formats, and maybe even different kinds of texts. However, I do believe that the origami-esque compression of poetry is particularly suited to this approach that asks students to unpack, not just the text, but each other’s notes as well.

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