In-Class Performance and Commentary: Guidelines and Hints

1) Choice of passage: importance to work/author/era/genre. (25 %)

        Before you read the passage, take time to tell us briefly why you chose the passage or short poem to represent the material we were assigned to read for the day. Why is it crucial or at least very helpful to our understanding of the work, itself, or of the author? Does the passage contain evidence which illustrates some essential issue or cultural value relevant to the era from which it comes? You also can draw relationship between the work in question and others of the same genre--is this pushing the generic definition to new levels, or is it a classical example of the form?

        Students in haste often neglect to justify their selections. Take your time and situate us solidly within the work, taking care to give us the page in the Norton, and act/scene/line or poetic line numbers, and give us time to turn to the starting page so that we can read along with you.  Provide context if you're excerpting--what has just happened and/or what is about to happen, and how does this excerpt connect to those things? Is that part of what makes this passage important?

        Above all, do not spend much time introducing "biographical background" of the author and plot summary of the work.  Get to the point of why you chose this passage for performance, and remember to make time for your analysis of it (part 3 below).  Especially avoid recycling all of the Norton's introductory material on your author or work, or what you might find in non-scholarly sources like Wikipedia or paper encyclopedias, or in amateur Internet sites.  The Norton material is considered assigned work, so you do not have to tell your colleagues what it says, and the encyclopedic and amateur sources are not admissible for graded work in this class or any other required for the major.  If you want to silently fill in gaps in what your high school taught you, I recommend a reliable encyclopedia (like the Britannica) or a professional dictionary like The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 

        Do consult the Library's online catalog and the MLA Bibliography via the Library's web site and tell us what recent scholars have published on your author, the work, and/or the major topics you see as important to understanding the passage you will perform.  See me for help if you have not used the MLA bibliography before; it is an essential tool of the trade for English majors.  JSTOR's "Language and Literature" database also covers some important journals though it does not give access to the most recent issues (which is why we need MLA).  You should have learned how to use these tools in English 200, but if you have not taken that course yet, be sure to contact me so that I can teach you how to operate them.   If your presentation makes significant use of relevant published scholarly research on your passage or or work or author, I will reward your use of it in the presentation with extra credit, but I will not expect every presentation to incorporate such support.  Prepare a web page or handout containing the bibliographic citations to aid your colleagues.

2) Quality of performance: accuracy, pronunciation, accent, rhythm, observation of punctuation, voice/spirit. (25%)

        This is the core of your presentation.  Think about how the passage can be read as if you were an actor playing the part on a stage.  Get inside the "persona" or speaking character of the piece, even if it purports to be non-fiction in the author's own voice.  You know that public writing involves the conscious or unconscious adoption and projection of personae (e.g., even the "ethical persona" I am trying to use here to convince you I offer wisdom for your own sake, as opposed to a more authoritarian persona I might adopt threatening doom to all who do not follow my orders).  Inhabit the situation in which the passage is set.  What emotional content does it carry and how can tone, rhythm, even body language be part of performing the text's emotional content? If you have a short passage, or if you can focus on a small part of it which seems ambiguous, you may perform it twice or even three times to help us understand the possibilities inherent within it.  Just make sure you explain what you are doing (part 3)!  If the passage is from a drama, you might want to think about how it should be staged.  You can hire actors to perform it with you or even for you, but you will be responsible for the actors' accurate interpretation of the text.

        "accuracy . . . observation of punctuation": First, take care to figure out where the sentences are, and don't make the mistake of starting in the midst of an on-going sentence without explaining that you're excerpting. Generally it's not a good idea to violate sentence unity when quoting unless you've a good reason (i.e., it's a two-page Miltonic sentence and you've only got 10 minutes). Rehearse it until you can read it clearly without dropping or mis-reading words and phrases, and pay attention to the difference between a poetic "pause" (comma), a poetic "stop" (semi-colon or colon), or a poetic "full stop" (period). At this level, it's like reading music--make sure you know the lyrics. Don't be afraid to ask me for help.

        "pronunciation, accent": If punctuation and diction are the lyrics, pronunciation and accent are the "tune" of English.  Look up the words and be careful you know for sure what you're saying. In specific, make sure you have looked at pronunciation guides for the English of the era. The language we're reading in changes at certain points of the semester. After the first class reading in translated Old English, we'll be in Middle English for a while, that fusion of Norman French and Old English. Use that Harvard U. web site to practice your Middle English vowels, to practice sounding the Germanic "k" and "gh" (k-ni-gh-t actually requires all four of those consonant sounds to be heard!). The final "-e" also is sounded unless it is followed by an open vowel (a, e, i, o, or u). I'd welcome the chance to help you "sing" Middle English. Give me a call or make an appointment for a short conference.

        "voice/spirit": This is the passage's "soul."  Literature for this period nearly always was intended to be read, and much of it is dramatic, containing or implying a plot and one or more personae who populate it. Even short lyrics often manage this in miniature. (Wyatt's "The Flee from Me" is a wonderful example.) If something's going on, you have to take part in it emotionally and you have to make your reading match the events in speed, pitch, and other aspects of delivery. In the end, getting "in-character" is rather more like an act of "spirit possession" than anything one can rationally describe, though rational preparation is essential to getting one's self ready to do the job. Think about the character, the situation, what has just happened (if narrative or drama), and the intent of what is being said. Intent reveals the persona's emotional makeup. The more you think about intent, and how that would be revealed, the more you can infer (by use of other parallel instances) about the persona's deep structure, what s/he/it is made of. This is a place where talking to the instructor can reveal important information about the text, things that can lead to papers and good exam answers (hint!).

3) Quality of commentary: accuracy, analysis, insight, application to the goals of the course. (50%)

        OK, nobody is going to be able to nail the performance perfectly, but we can explain what we were attempting to do, eh? Especially, we can describe the parts of the passage which were important (see #1) in greater detail, and we can apply those unique insights which are expressible only just after a complete performance of the passage in question.   Thematic repetitions of words, images, or ideas are among the most obvious artistic uses of language which might make a passage important.  Presentations should pay attention to word choice which reveals characters' inner natures, their unconscious drives (if they are psychologically realistic) and their use of irony, understatement, humor, etc.  Be careful to distinguish between the author and the narrator, and between authors and the characters their narrators describe.  The former of each pair is a historical human being with a gifted imagination and a good knowledge of previous poets' work.  The latter of each pair is a work of art, a fabricated being meant to instruct and to delight (or horrify) us.  Close readings of passages also can help us understand authors who push beyond the boundaries of genre and create new syntheses of older literary forms.  I do not pretend that this brief paragraph exhausts everything you might think of to do in the commentary portion of the presentation.

          You have to exercise judgment, looking for an insight which gets beneath the literal surface of what you've read, and you have to think about what we're up to in English 211. This, too, is another opportunity for you to get some one-on-one tutoring from me. Give me some lead time, and some choice of times to do it, and we can have a great conversation about literature, the course, the major, and your life.  Often, these passage presentations are sources for successful midterm and final paper ideas.

        For a basic introduction to the strategies used to achieve insight into a text's less obvious meanings and (hence) into the author's technique and intentions, read "In Defense of Hidden Meanings and Interpretation--Theory 101."   If you've taken English 215 but want to brush up on your interpretive theory and method, or if you haven't yet taken it and want to learn how to operate the tools of our trade, go to the English 215 web site.