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Spotlight on First-Year Composition: Amy Smith and Hannah Soblo

Amy Smith and Hannah Soblo speak about the innovative ways they teach stasis theory and the debate analysis assignment in their English 101 courses.

Amy SmithAmy Smith is a third-year Ph.D. student studying Renaissance literature. She earned her M.A. in English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and her B.A. in English from Tennessee Technological University. Her research interests include drama, theater history, feminist theory, and gender studies.

Hannah SobloHannah Soblo is a second-year M.A. student with a concentration in Rhetoric, Writing, and Linguistics. Her research areas include second language writing, identity, and the ecology of writing.

 

The Composition Office recently interviewed them to find out more about how they use film clips from The Lord of the Rings to teach the debate analysis unit in English 101.

 

Our interview follows:

 

With the debate analysis unit being one of the most difficult for students to grasp, could you tell me a bit about how you introduce this unit to your students? How do you break down stasis theory so that your students can understand the assignment better?

Amy: My biggest priorities when working through the stasis unit are to break it into recognizable concepts as much and as early as possible and then practice, practice, practice by mapping it out many times in class. Emily Cope’s handout on the four types of argument is extremely important for the first part; I always walk them through the four types of arguments at the very beginning of the unit and then we spend several classes mapping arguments on the board so they can work on applying it.

For this unit especially, I think my students have to see the concepts at work and practice identifying them to “get” it. Mapping in class both provides a visual reference for students to refer to later if they followed along in their notes or took pictures of the board and provides a low-risk opportunity for students to practice identification before they sit down to do it in a homework assignment or for the paper.

 

Hannah: I introduce stasis on the first day of unit two. I first give a brief overview of stasis with a PowerPoint, including an illustration of the “stasis-case,” but not going into too much detail about all the potential sub-questions listed under each of the four questions. The main points I need them to take away are that being in stasis does not mean being in agreement, that there can be multiple stases in an argument (life is complicated), and that even when a rhetor appears to only be making a policy argument, they will have made some assumption about the other three steps.

The main part of this lesson is the “Council of Elrond” scene from The Lord of the Rings. Prior to watching, I group students into groups of three or four and assign each group a character with a speaking role (Elrond, Boromir, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli; it’s useful to have multiple groups assigned to Boromir and Elrond). Then, I provide them with a list of questions to answer as their character.

We watch the clip, which is about four minutes, and the students then discuss and answer the questions in a discussion board post on Canvas in their groups. I also give them a script from the scene on Canvas to reference while they answer the questions. After this, I ask students questions as if they were in character, such as, “Elrond, what is the most important issue here?”

 

What gave you the inspiration to use film clips as part of your class activity on stasis? Did a teacher or mentor inspire you? If so, how have you maintained or changed the activity from when you first encountered it?

Amy: When I was an M.A. student learning how to teach UT’s curriculum, my mentor, Kendra Slayton, often used commercials or film clips when she was teaching, especially in the first unit, as a chance for students to analyze something familiar before moving on to less familiar genres. I think she used a clip from Batman: The Dark Knight for teaching stasis, and it really stuck in my mind. I’ve continued using commercials and video clips in my classroom whenever I can because I think it’s helpful when introducing concepts for students to see an example from a less intimidating genre, and it helps them see that it’s not just something that only exists in their English class or in formal papers.

 

Hannah: I got the idea for this activity from Amy Smith, my mentor last year. I remember we were in South Stadium Hall with very questionable Internet, so we actually had volunteers act out the scene from scripts in front of the class. We mapped the debate as a whole class. I wanted to keep the acting element and also illustrate how complicated ongoing debates can be, so the modification I made was to assign students to character groups.

 

Why is The Lord of the Rings a good film for this activity? Have you ever used other film clips to help illustrate stasis theory?

Amy: I think the “Council of Elrond” scene from The Lord of the Rings is great for this activity because the purpose of the meeting is very clear: Elrond has called them there to figure out what to do about the Ring. Likewise, the arguments made tend to be very clear cut—Aragorn and Boromir, for example, argue about whether or not the Ring can be used by someone other than Sauron. Gimli is more concerned with not letting an elf have the Ring than with anything else, so the scene also provides examples of people in a debate that aren’t really talking about the same thing as everyone else (which Hannah’s version of the activity really emphasizes). It’s just a great first example all around.

I’m a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings, so when I was trying to think of film clips of people arguing, the council scene was the first one to come to mind. The Fellowship of the Ring is the only film I’ve used for this activity so far, but I think there could also be some good clips in recent superhero movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron or Captain America: Civil War. I might look into using those in the future.

 

Hannah: I liked The Lord of the Rings because that scene is so ridiculous when considered from a rhetoric angle. There is so much going on and it’s funny and engaging, especially at a point in the semester where they are all a bit brain-dead and nervous about their first paper. It seemed to work very well; the students got pretty into character. When I was writing a response from Boromir on the board, for instance, I could often just say “Elrond, response?” and get a good illustration of a debate not in stasis. Mapping the debate about Aragorn was good, too, because it showed how questions of a speaker’s ethos can impact stasis as well–Boromir throws the debate off track by questioning Aragorn’s credibility, which introduces Aragorn as a topic for debate.

Both my classes were split evenly between students who had and had not seen the movies, so it was a good instance to mention critical distance as well. The Boromir group who all had seen the films struggled with defining the Ring from his point of view, while the group who hadn’t seen it understood his definition right away. The other clip I considered was Star Wars, when the Jedi council debate whether Anakin should apprentice as a Jedi, but Yoda is just too good of a discussion leader.

 

How do your students typically react to this activity? Do you have any tips for teachers who might want to try this activity in their own classes?

Amy: It’s worked well for me as an introductory activity since the arguments are fairly clear and my students seem to enjoy getting to watch a movie clip in class, even if they aren’t Tolkien fans. I like to use it as a “fun” mapping activity in the first half of class before having them map out one of the shorter assigned articles from unit two in the second half. I would recommend providing a transcript of the scene so that students can mark things and look back over the dialogue without having to replay the clip. Having them work in groups can also be helpful since most of them probably don’t feel confident with the new material; it gives them a chance to get some peer reassurance before speaking up.

 

Hannah: The students seemed to really enjoy this activity. They were very talkative, and I got more laughs than I had all semester. I also recommend that instructors give them a script (this makes it much easier to ask for specific evidence during the activity) and provide headshots of the characters while assigning groups, because not all of them have seen it. I also said the name of each character the first time they spoke in the clip, and I would generally see that group suddenly sit up and take notes, so that seemed to work well too. My final tip is to really stick with the character-based responses; a lot of students seemed challenged by answering in character during the questions, but it definitely helped provoke disagreements during the discussion.

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