Denton Teaching Faulkner Article


Faulkner and Innovative Teaching: Using Digital Yoknapatawpha in the Classroom

Dr. Ren Denton
East Georgia State College

While attending conferences where digital humanity projects were debuted, I witnessed a number of professors argue that digital humanities is Humanities' thin disguise and attempt at staying relevant to today's STEM curriculum. Based on my observations, I concluded that, despite the growing popularity of digital humanities, some veteran professors, tenured and well-rehearsed in their engaging discussion-lecture based classrooms, generally resist the shift in pedagogy that caters to the millennials' expectation for technology-integrated classrooms. Committed to traditional models of learning, these instructors assert that technology distracts students with its bright screens and gadgets rather than teaching students to critically think, and they refuse to use a pedagogical crutch that panders to the millennials' technology addictions. They resist technology because they want to inspire their students to think independently rather than rely on search engines. In short, many professors do not see the value of technology in the classroom; thus, it is no surprise that digital humanities has had a mixed reception among professors.

The main concern is that using technology in the classroom may cause teachers or students to lose sight of learning objectives, as they become focused on the technology itself. Undeniably, there are instances where Humanities' technology-based lesson plans invite complicated technological challenges to overcome, inadequate methods of assessing student learning, and millennials seeing the activity as busywork or playtime rather than a legitimate opportunity to learn and push critical thinking. However, with purposeful consideration of pedagogical approaches, professors may be surprised at the usefulness digital humanities has in helping students reach new heights of learning, even as they build new systems of knowledge. In particular, Digital Yoknapatawpha (DY) is useful in promoting learning opportunities, developing new reading interpretations, generating discussions, pushing critical thinking skills, and developing job market skills for the twenty-first century.

Digital Yoknapatawpha is a digital humanities project that captures the essence of the relationship between locations, characters, and events within and across William Faulkner's works so that students and scholars may make new connections between Faulkner's fictionalized world and ours. Directed by Professor Stephen Railton at the University of Virginia (UVA), an international team of Faulkner scholars and UVA's technologists work together in creating a comprehensive database of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha narratives so that scholars and students can explore what digital humanities and Faulkner's art can reveal about one another. Though it is still a work in progress, the website already offers opportunities for connecting abstract ideas and provides visual aids designed to support students, professors, and scholars, at any level, in their thinking process regarding Faulkner's complex literary world and

As DY's teaching coordinator, I'm working with Railton to assist professors in using DY in their classrooms by helping them identify how the site can create or enhance learning objectives without creating new problems with learning assessments. My challenge is to help students and professors understand what they see when they use the site. I have to admit when Digital Yoknapatawpha piloted its site to a limited number of professors at teaching institutions, I had to overcome my own challenges. The site's goal is to allow students and scholars to visualize spatial relationship between characters and events while offering an interactive experience that fosters a deeper understanding of the texts and southern culture. I didn't see how these goals were being met without the pictures and history that will polish off the site when the project develops that phase. However, the advisory board thought that DY was ready for the classroom. On the surface, it didn't seem like the site was valuable at that incomplete stage. By trial and error, however, I learned where I was hasty in my judgment.

The first semester I used DY in the classroom, it was a small disaster that slightly tested my students' trust in me. With the gift of hindsight, I know that I didn't spend enough time with the site before I brought it into the classroom. I thought that because I helped input data I could confidently teach with it. I discovered, too late, that entering data is not the same as teaching with the product that the data creates. My freshmen and sophomore students (many first generation college students) were given a quick tour of DY's site and then let loose, unguided, to explore the site on their own. While an advanced graduate student may welcome an unstructured experience with DY, my undergraduate students did not. They complained. Like so many students across America, many of my students were good K-12 students who had grown accustomed to having tasks outlined for them.

Thus, the majority of my students are still on the level of needing tasks and objectives defined for them. They are not yet confident in trusting their own intuition to guide their research inquiries. Still conditioned by the American K-12 structures of education, they want to be told where to go, how to search, and what to find. They didn't know how to use the site; they didn't have time to do "extra" work to arrive at
conclusions that discussions would have more effectively rendered; they weren't as tech-savvy as the stereotypes make the millenarians out to be; they didn't understand the point and didn't have time to guess my learning objectives for that site. Truth be told, I wasn't clear on what I expected from the students either or what I wanted them to learn. I thought the site was interesting: they should have thought so too.

One student, in particular, was brutally honest when she wrote on the survey, "I was too frustrated to learn anything." Obviously, if I were going to use this site in my classroom, and if I was going to convince other professors to use it too, I had to critically think about what I wanted students to learn and how the site would help me teach my objectives. Clearly, I had to take a closer look at the site and my teaching methods. If my lecture technique is more effective and engaging, as some students said, then the site is unnecessary. I wanted the site to be necessary as a different learning experience, but I didn't want to throw technology at my students because technology is cool or fun or trendy or expected. I wanted them to connect to the reading materials and to Faulkner's world and the concepts that govern it.

I asked myself one question: Why should I welcome technology-based lessons as learning opportunities? According to pedagogical experts, technology allows students to interact with information instantaneously and on their own terms, which shifts their learning methods. Technology combines visual, audio, and tactile learning, even as it fosters inquiry-based learning. Using technology-based lessons that complement the course's learning objectives supports active learning and group learning in that the technology intellectually challenges students while providing experiences that build skills for the twenty-first-century labor market. With our calculated use of technology, students can become more actively engaged in course materials, even as they are exposed to a career possibilities related to building digital webs of knowledge.

However, often times, teachers are left on their own in their striving to create an effective digital-based learning environment that increases their effectiveness in their interdisciplinary teaching that core curriculums are demanding. The most common frustrations we teachers have with innovative teaching is that, without clearly defined techniques and objectives, assignments can be too trendy in pandering to the students' social sensibilities rather than achieving learning-intensive goals.

After critically thinking about DY's objectives and my goals as a teacher, I realized a good technology-based lesson plan allows students an interactive exploration of topics and concepts. The interactive activity should offer the learner layers of context and materials that complement class lectures. I looked at DY to see if it could do this. It does. Students click on "characters," "location," and "events" to learn key information that will deepen the students' understanding of the text, provoke inquiry, and encourage critical thinking. For example, one student said she did not realize that Miss Emily killed Homer Barron even after she read "A Rose for Emily" twice.

She thought Homer died of natural causes and Emily kept the body, but when she read the description of the drugstore, she realized that a mystery surrounds Miss Emily's purchase of arsenic and the last time the town's people saw Homer Barron. She was one of the students who had unstructured time on Digital Yoknapatawpha, and she was one of my more curious students who invested in her own education. In the beginning, I imagined all of my students having similar enlightening experiences, but the amount of information overwhelmed many students who were used to having more structure to their assignments. However, her epiphany made me realize that DY has pedagogical value if only students would discover the layers the site offers. My challenge was providing a structured activity that helped students peel back those layers.

I continued to experiment with teaching techniques. I used DY with my class. I stood at the front of the room with the DY map projected onto a screen. Together, we searched characters, locations, and events. Students saw the characters populate around the Grierson House more than any other location, which sparked discussions about small-town gossip and how would a single narrator know about all of the events told in the story. They realized that they had initially ignored Tobe's presence in their first reading, which opened up a discussion about how race and socioeconomic class can render one invisible. At this point, I was pleased with the level of critical thinking and close reading that DY provoked.

However, assessing what the majority of the class learned from that discussion was a challenge. The experience was not as inclusive as I had hoped. Too many students chose not to participate in the discussion, and I suspected some were overwhelmed with the site while others wanted more time to think about the visuals they were seeing. One student complained that I went too fast when presenting the information. To better assess DY's value in the classroom as a learning tool, I opened an online discussion board to encourage students to talk about what they learned. One student who had experienced DY in a different course the previous semester (when I failed at my vague objective) said that this new approach was much better because he was better able to understand characters like Ab Snopes. While the discussion board allowed for more critical connections and a higher rate of participation, I wondered how many of the students were reading each discussion thread. The thread also revealed that some students were not understanding why we "couldn't just talk about the story in class." While I was pleased with the experience, I was not yet completely satisfied with my method of learning assessment.

At this point, Professor Victoria Bryan, DY's teaching collaborator and Honors Program Director at Cleveland State Community College, presented me a structured activity that guided students through the website while focusing on the theme that the past is never past. The worksheet format was precisely what my undergraduate students needed, so I adapted it for a digital immersion experience. I modified the worksheet (available here) so that it taught students to use the internet to build their knowledge about their course materials. Students were instructed to look up terms and images as well as complete specific tasks on DY's website. I also asked certain questions that helped students see the movement of events.

For example, the worksheet for "Barn Burning" asks about the collaborators' interpretation of Snopes' migration moving from south to north. Students were encouraged to think about how such a movement could be a critique about the New South's relationship to the North since it would be a reversal of Sherman's fiery march across the south. The discussion proved that DY's visual of events and movement offers a golden nugget for discussion in the classroom since analytical thinking formulates many possible critiques about the meaning of Snopes' movement.

Another student said that until he explored DY he didn't realize Ab Snopes was a horse thief before he was a sharecropper. I suppose the details were lost on him, at first, because he lacked the cultural and historical understanding that would allow him to fully appreciate Snopes' shift from horse thief to sharecropper. He said DY gave him better insight to the story's themes because he understood the motivation for the barn burning was not completely different from the motivation to steal horses. To push his thinking, I wanted to know how that information and comparison could be used to determine if Snopes's actions made a statement about what kind of south the "new south" should be if the south was going to reinvent itself.

After the class discussions and reviewing the students' answers, I concluded that the worksheets were a success for my classes. Other professors who have used the worksheet or the worksheet's paradigm have said that their experience and their students' experience with DY was positive, engaging, and worthwhile. My students concur. For example, one student said that after she read "Barn Burning," she was confused until she read the biographies. She states in the discussion board, "Everything cleared up about the story. I didn't know what was going on besides a crazy man running around and burning barns down." Another student claimed that the experience helped her think deeper than when she read the story on her own. She particularly recognized with more surety the power dynamics at play within the story.

The worksheet provides a paradigm that can be modified to address themes, history, and cultural context. In fact, DY's most valuable aspect is how it allows teachers to select appropriate themes that fit into the course's topic or the professor's objective. For example, teachers can easily incorporate Faulkner's "Past is never dead; it's not even Past" common theme by having students focus on the movement of the timeline — how it jumps back and forth between past and present in Faulkner's stories. Students can visualize the narrative movement better, and when they realize Faulkner links the past events to present events, they understand why time and events seem to merge in the narrative.

Another teaching aid is the discussion model that Railton provides a paradigm for on the site. The model combines independent inquiry and a focused or thematic search. He offers professors a few ideas regarding how to use the visuals or supplementary materials as discussion prompts. For example, he talks about the collaborators' decision to list Tobe as a secondary character rather than as a main character (who was present but "invisible" for many of the events in the story). Railton asks about how Tobe changes the dynamics of the story and if he should be a major character rather than a minor one.

Furthermore, Digital Yoknapatawpha allows students to compare stories side-by-side. For example, discussions could include a comparison between Emily's motive for killing Homer and Snopes' motive for burning barns. The timeline and movement of events on the maps may prompt students to ask what is Faulkner saying about the inability to escape the past and the destruction going from South to North. Such inquires enable students and scholars to interact with abstract ideas as well as physical spaces.

However, I am the most excited about the visual of the forced directed graph. The visual shows a connection between characters and locations, and students easily can see characters and locations central to interpreting the story or understanding the story's power dynamics between race, class, and gender. This type of graph plots locations and characters quantitatively, in relation to each other, based on the extent of their linkages in the text and the database. On that basis, the graph positions the Grierson House as the central location of events in "A Rose for Emily." The visual illustrates more than a town's obsessive gossip about Miss Emily: the graph allows questions about the south's obsession with the southern aristocracy and how traditions, local economics, and social life revolve around "old money" or how traditions and old money serve as an obstacle to progression. The possibilities for discussion are numberless. In short, the computational output furthers cultural analysis of Faulkner's work and provoke critical thinking.

However, teachers don't need to worry that DY can serve as a reading replacement like Sparknotes. The editors are careful in deciding what information to enter so that students cannot use the site instead of reading the original text. The site complements the reading experience — it doesn't replace it. In addition to the computer-generated maps and graphs, collaborators are in the process of linking supplementary materials such as manuscripts, audio recordings, and interviews. Digital Yoknapatawpha claims that it encourages students to build their own knowledge through encountering visuals and information that help them identify concepts they may have missed in the initial reading. DY meets that goal very well, according to my students' feedback.

After heavily monitoring my students' reaction to DY over several semesters, I learned that a successful assessment begins with a clearly defined learning objective. In other words, teachers must define the purpose for the activity and focus their students on the visuals that work within their main objectives. DY's learning effectiveness may be assessed in a variety of ways. Discussion centered activities are helpful in gauging student enthusiasm and participation levels while writing assignments can assess the depth of investigation and critical thinking. However, DY is also good for assigning group presentations where each group presents their conclusions regarding a specific topic or theme they explored. This approach also allows for in-depth, hands-on experience with sophisticated digital projects, which introduces students to career possibilities in the field of technology.

In conclusion, I've learned that a good technology based lesson is a level appropriate one that meets students where they are and pushes their skills to a higher level. DY's site is layered so that it can be used at the students' level of learning. Therefore, teachers who know their students' learning styles and level can decide if they want a structured or unstructured approach or a combination of the two. We should not be afraid to "fail" while we are experimenting. Once I realized that my students are not as computer savvy as we say this generation is, once I realized that they have had structured tasks for twelve years, I succeeded when I focused their online experience on common thematic approaches to teaching Faulkner. The learning success was found in the fact that the worksheets keep the focus on what the students are learning rather than on the technology itself.

As I focused my students' attention toward a specific theme, I witnessed how Digital Yoknapatawpha allows students and scholars opportunities to examine physical spaces while making abstract ideas more accessible. Furthermore, teachers using Railton's discussion model for more confident and independent students may find that spontaneous discussions prompted by the visuals are worth the time to explore as a class. Discussion prompts enable critical thinking about the site's computational methods of cultural analysis as well as provokes new lines of inquiry. In short, any effective teaching method highlights DY's attention to learning opportunities, proving that DY does not pander to technology addictions but fosters critical thinking.

Related Worksheets

"A Rose for Emily
The Sound and the Fury

    Citing this source:
Dr. Ren Denton, "Faulkner and Innovative Teaching: Using Digital Yoknapatawpha in the Classroom." Rpt. from Teaching Faulkner (Fall 2016); Center for Faulkner Studies ( Digital Yoknapatawpha,
University of Virginia, (Date added to project: 2020)