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Author: Kevin Brown

In Slaughterhouse-Five, the narrator explains why Ilium is a good place to be an optometrist. The General Forge and Foundry is in Ilium, and every employee is required to own a pair of safety glasses. With 68,000 employees, that “calls for a lot of lenses and a lot of frames.” The next paragraph is one sentence long: “Frames are where the money is.” After having taken students on a two-week trip to England, I've been thinking about frames—not the optical kind, but the kind we use in teaching—and how important framing something appropriately is to teaching and learning. When I was reading students' journals, I noticed that almost all of them talked about the contrast between the new and old in London, how one can be in the middle of the financial district, walk around a corner and see a portion of the wall the Romans built almost two millennia ago. I was not surprised when I read this, as I had told them about this juxtaposition before we left. Because they had been set up to see it, they believed they had noticed it on their own. My framing gave them a way to see London they might not have discovered independently. Similarly, the best tour guides were those who set up some sort of narrative frame for their presentation. Our guide at the Canterbury Cathedral structured his talk around the four different architectural styles found in the cathedral before leading to the murder of Thomas Beckett and the pilgrims who came to see his shrine. He ended at a point where we could see three of the four styles, with the fourth directly below us, and he used that structure to remind us of all he had told us. While most of us do provide such structure, or framing, for upper-division or graduate-level courses, as course titles such as We're All Monsters: The 19th-Century British Novel imply, we often ignore such frames when it comes to introductory or core classes. Focused on the material we need to cover, we forget that much of that material is new to our students and it comes without context. They would do much better in those classes, in terms of both grades and learning, if we found ways to frame the content. Such framing can exist on the micro level of a single class session, across an entire course, or, best of all, both. A beginning biology class could be structured around how one defines life, with the content covered tied to various types of reproduction and varieties of ecologies. An art history course could be structured around perspective or even the line. An algebra class could use types of equations as its frame. Of course, using a particular frame does not preclude discussion of other content features. The approach simply gives students a way of organizing new material that often seems disconnected from what has come before and will come after. For example, I teach a survey of US literature that ends in 1865. I used to teach the class chronologically, but I found that students were not able to clearly connect the ideas from the Puritans with those writers from the American Renaissance, despite my regular referencing of those connections. Several years ago, I shifted the class to a thematic approach, centering on religion, individualism, and slavery. I explain on the first day that I want students to see that the same debates we have today (such as the church and state relationship) were also present at the beginning of our country. I still use a largely chronological structure, but using these themes to frame the material means that students read Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Ralph Waldo Emerson's views on religion all in one week, not more than a month apart, as they did in the previous class. They can see how the religious views of the country shifted from the Puritans to the Deists to the Transcendentalists, then make the connection to how all those ideas are still prevalent in current discussions of religion. They can see how the communal approach to faith conflicted with the views on individualism and how that argument continues today. Even in a class on contemporary fiction, where I do cover the material chronologically, I provide students an overall frame for the course to show how the literature has developed and changed. We begin in the 1960s with the postmodern writings of someone like John Barth, who seems more interested in literary trickery than anything else, ending with writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, who use postmodern techniques for a very different purpose. Although we don't put “frames” on content because there's money involved, frames are important in all our classes, not just those at the higher levels. They keep students from viewing material as just one more thing they and we need to cover. Frames give students a way to hold what they are learning together and a way of seeing how knowledge in our disciplines holds together. Contact Kevin Brown at kbrown@leeuniversity.edu.