Students aren't all that excited about most of their assignments. Given the chance not to write papers, not to take exams, or not to complete group projects, most students would happily take advantage of the opportunity. But those are all assignments they're used to, ones about which they feel a certain degree of comfort. How about an assignment you know they're going to dislike—such as having them memorize and recite a poem?
That's the assignment Nichole DeWall has been giving students for years. In addition, the assignment has them teaching classmates about their poem and writing an informal low-stakes essay about the experience. Her students' reactions are what you might expect: “anxiety, dread, annoyance, and outright indignation” (p. 78).
DeWall readily admits that memorizing poetry is no longer the rite of passage it used to be in education. She quotes others who uses the terms “antiquated” and “outdated” to describe memorizing poetry. She's aware that anyone with a smartphone has a digital storehouse of poetry at their fingertips, but still she insists on the assignment. “I believe it is the surest way for students to build lifelong relationships with literary works” (p. 78). DeWall continues, “Reading a poem from a smartphone screen is a categorically different experience than having a poem surface from memory” (p. 78).
She adds other arguments based on the learning propensities of the millennial students she teaches. “Memorizing poetry asks millennial students to practice a deeper, more sustained kind of attention than is required of them online; it won't tolerate the ‘continuous partial attention' that millennials define as multitasking” (p. 81). The assignment also requires “students [to] practice the covert skills of persistence, patience, and delayed gratification as they pursue learning their passages by heart” (p. 83). As the assignment unfolds, students both monitor and discuss their learning—identifying which strategies do and don't work when memorizing poetry. Theatre majors are invited to class for a roundtable discussion in which they describe how they commit lines to memory.
But the most interesting argument DeWall constructs is the one that makes this relevant to every teacher, most of whom are not going have students memorizing poetry: the extent to which we use assignments that take students out of their comfort zones. Summoning others, she writes about the tension between “meeting students where they are” by accommodating their “preferences” and “tendencies” versus demanding (at least some of the time) that they meet us where we are. And DeWall is no Luddite when it comes to recognizing the role of technology in learning and life. She uses Blackboard's Discussion Board feature and Facebook to communicate with students and organize events. She has students track Twitter hashtags to analyze their rhetorical contexts. Even so, DeWall sees value in assignments that cause students some discomfort. “It is neither necessary nor desirable for the classroom to feel like a seamless extension of our millennial students' native worlds” (p. 80). Transformative learning experiences take students to places they've never been, and there's always a bit of unease associated with unfamiliar destinations.
While DeWall doesn't discuss this in the article, one concern to those considering assignments that take students outside their comfort zones is the degree of discomfort students, be they beginners or majors, can constructively handle. In DeWall's case this is a small assignment; the rationale behind it—the value of memorization, the learning skills it develops, the understandings that will result—is discussed in detail, and all of this is shared with students up front. Is that enough to make students fall in love with the assignment? No, but that isn't the goal. She's after a learning experience that puts students and literature in a different relationship.
She concludes, “I continue to ask my students to commit verse to memory every semester, despite their objections (and, often, my colleagues' bewilderment). As college instructors, we should make many efforts to meet our students where they are, to accommodate and celebrate their particular ways of learning. But we should also, at times, challenge our student in new ways, and give ourselves permission to be unfashionable” (p. 88).
Reference: DeWall, N. (2016). Millennials by heart: Memorization as an active learning strategy for the SparkNotes generation. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 27(4), 77–91.