Prism in the Classroom: Questions to Frame Discussion

Cross-posted on my personal site.

I have been touting the use of Prism in the university classroom for some time now, but a recent exchange with Annie Swafford suggested to me that it might be worth explicitly outlining how I would go about doing so. With that in mind, I’ve composed the following set of questions for how I might frame discussion of Prism in the classroom. I’ve admittedly only had very brief chances to implement the tool in the classroom myself, so the thoughts come largely out of speculation and conversation. It should be noted as well that I assume below that you have already chosen a text and categories along which it should be marked (I may write on ways to approach such choices at a later date). In what follows, I move from general questions that I think would be helpful in framing any discussion of the tool to a particular use-case in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The former questions inform and engage my latter use-case.

I prepare for class discussion by assembling a list of questions to be explored, and I would organize a Prism discussion around two lines of inquiry: tool-specific and visualization-specific. Some of these questions can be helpful for framing your own thoughts. Others could usefully be posed to the class as a whole as a means of framing discussion.

Tool-Specific Questions

How do the tool and our framing of it affect how we read the text? How is Prism’s mode of reading different from what we normally do? Is it the same that we’ve always been doing – close reading in a different form? What are the problems with the form? Can we really boil interpretation down to a series of numbers, visualize it, and move forward? Or is there more to interpretation than that? How do individual interpretations join in with the group reading? How much is the interpretive process encapsulated in the marking of a text? The visualization? The conversation that follows? How do the terms you choose for highlighting (the facets) guide the experience of reading the text? How do the explanations you provide for those terms affect the marking experience? When do the terms break down? If the terms propose a binary, what happens to that opposition over the course of the experience?

Visualization-Specific Questions

Which passages were marked the least for a particular category? The most? Why in either case? Which passages were particularly contentious, marked in many different ways? Where do particular categories cluster? How does the visualization show a relationship between the categories? How does your own interpretation link up to the collected visualization produced by the tool? Do the two visualizations tell us anything meaningful? Would we be able to find these meanings on our own? How does the visualization reflect the interpretive process? Why might we care more about a particular visualization for a particular reading? How is the quantified version of interpretation that Prism generates distinct from what we might learn from a discussion on our own? Can we imagine limits to this approach?

The primary job of an instructor using Prism is to help the students connect the results of the tool to the larger discussions encapsulated by the marking categories. Look at the results with a skeptical eye and ask how they can be meaningfully related to the ideas and provocations of the marking categories. My favorite early use of Prism asked users to mark James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man along the categories of “modernism” and “realism.” In a class, I would intersperse observations based on the visualizations with a discussion of the passage and the two marking categories. What do we mean by modernism? By realism? How is each expressed at the level of the text? What do we mean by literary experiment? By fragment? By realist details? What different genres does the text move through? Does the text construct a coherent narrative?

Putting realism and modernism alongside one another in Prism forces students to reconsider the binary, which quickly breaks down in practice. We can talk about whole novels or poems as belonging to one or another category, but can we do the same for individual sentences? For words? 80% of users at the time of this writing believe that the first word of the excerpt, “once,” is modernist. But why? If you look at the winning facet visualization, people seem primarily to be marking whole passages as one category – they are interpreting realism and modernism in chunks, not in terms of individual words. Readers tend to mark as modernist those generic changes where the excerpt suddenly adopts the form of nursery rhyme or of a fairy tale, suggesting that it is not any one genre but the shift between several in rapid succession that readers find to be modernist. The font size visualization suggests that those passages referencing physical actions by people are more likely to be associated with realist: “His father told him that story” and “When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold” are marked as being especially realist. With this observation in hand, why these details? Why are the body and the bodily detail markers of a realism? Why might an association with the family suggest realism? How do they come under pressure in the face of aesthetic experiment?

Obviously these suggestions are just beginnings for how to approach Prism in the classroom. Many other fascinating examples have already surfaced, particularly those that use the tool to teach basic reading and foreign language skills. Get in touch if you have used the tool in your classroom! I would love to hear how you did so.

Brandon is a 2012-2013 Praxis Fellow and a Ph.D. student in the Department of English. His research focuses on modern and contemporary fiction, especially on Anglophone modernisms and the novel in relation to sound studies and musicology.

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