Teaching poetry in modern languages degree programmes

Date: 21 April, 2009
Location: University of Exeter - Streatham Campus (LT7 - Queen's building)
Event type: Conference

Programme | Event report

students in class

Past event summary

This one-day conference is organised by the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in collaboration with colleagues from the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Exeter.

The conference will bring together colleagues interested in the teaching of poetry as part of modern languages curricula to share good practice in this area. The day will address such issues as:

  • different approaches to teaching poetry and training students in formal analysis
  • using poetry as a way to engage students with literature
  • setting up a poetry module and bringing poetry into existing courses
  • teaching different forms of poetry.

Plenary speaker: Professor Axel Goodbody, University of Bath

Presenters include: Helen Bridge, Katharine Hodgson, Aileen Logan (University of Exeter), Ben Bollig, Francesco Capello (University of Leeds), Thomas McAuley (University of Sheffield)

Workshop fee

There is no charge to attend for employees and postgraduate students of publicly funded UK educational institutions. The fee for employees and postgraduate students of private institutions/organisations and non-UK institutions is £40. Lunch will be provided. We reserve the right to charge a £50.00 non-attendance fee.

Travel bursary

A travel bursary is available for this event.

Programme for 21 April 2009
Time Session
10.30 - 11.00 Registration and coffee
11.00 - 11.15 Welcome
Professor Valerie Worth, University of Exeter
11.15 - 11.45 Plenary address
Professor Axel Goodbody, University of Bath
11.45 - 12.15 Real or made up? The challenges of biography and interpretation 
Francesco Capello, University of Leeds
12.15 - 12.45 Routes into Languages: Poetry for school leavers
Aileen Logan, University of Exeter
12.45 - 13.15 Some thoughts on teaching Latin American Poetry to undergraduate students
Ben Bollig, University of Leeds
13.15 - 14.00 Lunch
14.00 - 14.30 Teaching political poetry in German
Ruth Owen, Cardiff University
14.30 - 14.45 Tea
14.45 - 15.15 Poetry Criticism doesn’t have to be boring! Using the format of the Uta Awase (Poetry competition) to teach Japanese Waka
Thomas McAuley, University of Sheffield
15.15 - 15.45 Teaching a poetry module – two case studies
Helen Bridge and Katharine Hodgson, University of Exeter
15.45 Closing comments

Event report: Teaching Poetry in Modern Languages Degree Programmes

by Marián Arribas-Tomé

Poetry as part of the modern languages curriculum was the focus of the attention in this very stimulating event, where all the presenters highlighted in one way or another the crucial and inspiring role that poetry can play in the teaching and the learning of a modern language and of its cultural wealth. Poetry, as was pointed out by Professor Valerie Worth in her introduction, is given an important role in both primary and secondary education, although at GCSE level poetry becomes slightly more marginalised. This marginalisation may translate into some reticence on the part of students enrolling in modules at university which include poetry as a way of learning a modern language.

Plenary address

Axel Goodbody emphasized that poetry is an essential curricular element in Modern Languages. It is one of the best ways of practising textual analysis, and learning a language by using a manageable amount of text. Reading poems in a foreign language enhances sensitivity towards language features that go easily unnoticed when reading becomes an automatic task. By de-automatising the process of reading and by encouraging slow reading of poems in a foreign language it is possible to offer a meditative experience encompassing language as well as culture and history. Professor Goodbody also pointed at some difficulties in including poetry in modern languages teaching, for example the possible lack of suitable sources, or failing to overcome student’s uncertainties about what is expected from them.

Real or made up? The challenges of biography and interpretation

Francesco Capello talked about his experience in teaching 20th century Italian poetry in a second year module at Leeds University. He addressed the difficulty of moving beyond the purely subjective and biographical and overcoming certain relativism in the interpretations of the poems by his own students. On the one hand there is a need for an intuitive approach to the poems, which allows the students to feel less intimidated by this particular type of text; on the other the need to acknowledge and identify certain objective elements which indicate particular meanings and exclude others. Articulating both approaches by empowering his students allowing for their emotional readings and responses and by encouraging a meaningful interpretation sustained by the text itself, is the challenging task of the tutor as a mediator between the students and the poetic text.

Routes into Languages: Poetry for school leavers

Aileen Logan spoke about her two contrasting experiences presenting two different poems to school children in two consecutive years and how she learnt from some of her mistakes. Her paper illustrated the importance of the choice of poetic texts for teaching purposes as well as of the design of questions that truly help the students to anchor their attention, their interest in the text and their understanding of it. Failing to do that, for example by not realising in time how difficult the language really is, or by providing only very specific questions that do not facilitate the grasping of the general meaning of the poetic text can result in a very frustrating experience for the student as well as for the teacher. By scaffolding the difficulty of the texts and by providing the students with time constraints for brainstorming, pair work and introducing a comparative approach, with two text varying in difficulty, she made it possible for the students in a short amount of time to move from a fairly easy text to a much more complex one. In her second experience she turned the classroom into a collaborative environment, where the teacher learns too.

Some thoughts on Teaching Latin American poetry to undergraduate students

Ben Bollig´s paper was concerned with the questions of how to make a space for poetry within the field of Latin American Studies and of how to make poetry relevant for his students. Since the emergence of Latin American Studies influenced by the Cuban Revolution and the so called Latin American literary boom of the 1960s, the attention in literature has been strongly focusing on prose and prose writers. There was a further development in Latin American Studies which turned the focus onto Latin American cinema. Both films and prose are believed to be easily accessible, and are much more familiar whereas that “myth of facility” is denied altogether to poetic texts, and specially to Latin American ones, which are much less known and spoken about. Nevertheless Latin American poetry is fully charged of philosophical and political meaning, therefore potentially appealing and revealing of cultural and historical content, which the students can fully engage with if presented in a relevant way. From this point of view the question of how to make his own research in poetry meaningful for his students is a pressing one.

Teaching political poetry in German

Ruth Owen argued how in a “prose world” it is important to focus on how poems work before one starts to look into what poems are trying to say. She teaches poetry for poetry’s sake but also she does use it for translation purposes. In any case the types of poems selected are of a political nature, and they make the references to cultural and historical context also relevant. She teaches students enrolled in European Studies where students take a modern language as well as modules in political studies. The background knowledge that each student has may vary and she finds that in such mixed-ability groups working with a poem can be a rather accessible and a rewarding experience. The provisional identification with a different experience by reading a poetic text in this context becomes a process of discovery from both the linguistic and the conceptual points of view.

Poetry Crticism doesn’t have to be boring! Using the Uta Awase (poetry competition) to teach Japanese Waka

Thomas McAuley teaches Japanese Studies in Sheffield University, and introduced the audience to the unfamiliar Waka, a type of Japanese poem that doesn’t present the features that we are used to find in Western poetry, for example it is written as a single line and there is nothing that would help us to identify it as a poem other than a set limited vocabulary, certain recurrent topics like love or the seasons, or some conventional imagery. In the historical context where Waka poetry was originally produced poetic competitions, or Uta Awase, where regularly organised. Once Dr McAuley explained in detail the characteristics of such events he made clear how the conventions typical of these competitions could be transferred to the context of language teaching in a modern classroom. Participants in an Uta Awase were divided into poets of the right or the left; so would present day students. Then they would engage in discussing merits of assigned poems in Japanese for a number of weeks, until the students get familiar with the different types and eventually they create their own and recite them in class.

Teaching a poetry module – two case studies

Helen Bridge teaches second year modules on German lyric poetry and Katharine Hodgson teaches 19th century Russian lyric poetry, both at the University of Exeter. They both stressed how their students gained linguistically by exploring the language of short and memorable texts. The skills developed in dealing with short texts provide them with confidence and are equally applicable to longer texts. The textual analysis and a critical reading covers a whole set of canonical authors. Also broad cultural knowledge is facilitated in the modules. The work is based heavily on the text though, and the contextual explanation is not normally done in the classroom, but in some instances is needed to have a more complete understanding of the text. They are both mainly concerned with how to read poetry. They work on one poem at a time and not in a comparative way, although the students are given handouts regarding how to write a commentary on a poem, and how to do it comparatively in preparation for the assessment. Dr Bridge would provide her students with secondary literature in German for background reading, and Dr Hodgson uses a parallel translation, although the commentary is done mainly looking at the original Russian.