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NEH FUNDED ARISTOTLE AND A WORLD OF WONDER: ARISTOTLE'S POETICS AND ITS USE IN ENGLISH 102
(Writing about Literature)

by Dipo Kalejaiye
(Associate Professor, English)

Introduction:
As a participant in the Aristotle’s Seminar, I wanted to use some of the ideas from the seminar in my English 102 class (Writing about Literature). The first challenge was to determine where my interests lie out of the many topics treated by the scholars and seminar leaders. As an undergraduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, my interest in Aristotle’s Poetics was kindled by my then Professor of Theater History (now Professor Emeritus), Professor Dunbar H. Ogden. From then on, I had been interested in Aristotle’s Poetics. So, when I attended the seminar, I knew that I would be more interested in the Poetics than any other topic presented at the seminar. Now, as a poet and playwright, the Poetics continues to engage my interest and fascination.

Aristotelian Concepts and the English 102 Syllabus:
 The next challenge for me was how to relate this fascination and interest to the syllabus of English 102, and how to get the students interested in the project I had in mind. Finally, I decided to incorporate the Aristotelian concept into my syllabus under the segment for drama. Under this segment, the class would read a classical play and a modern play. To get things moving in the right direction, I chose Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. This play set the stage for imparting some of my knowledge about Aristotle to the students.

I began by incorporating Aristotle, and the classical Greek Theater, into the syllabus, which I then presented to the students in a series of "simple" lectures they could understand. Next, they were required to read the play Oedipus the King, which became the focal point for understanding Greek Theater and Aristotle’s criticism. Since Aristotle referred to the play as the best, and as an example of a "well made play," it was worthy of our study. We discussed Greek concepts such as "hamartia" – the tragic flaw, "hubris" – excessive pride, "logos" – reason, "ethos" – character, and the Greek "cosmos," or universe. We discussed these concepts as they related to Oedipus the King. I also spent some time explaining the "cosmos" and its relationship to the concept of the gods, since that was a good tie in to the major religious, philosophical, and political bent of the play.

As we discussed these concepts, I took care to use the famous Aristotelian six elements of drama, namely action, character, thought, diction, music, and spectacle. I tried to explain to them how these elements might have worked in the play during the classical Theater of Dionysus, where the play was first produced. Then, as a class, we tried to figure out these elements in the text of the play. For example, the fifth element mentioned by Aristotle was "music," which would have worked quite well in the semblance of the chorus who, during the classical Greek Theater period, would have actually "sung" their lines!

Another element of the play was "thought," or dianoia. As a class, we tried to see how this was handled in the play by Sophocles. We used the example of the quest for the killer of Laius by Oedipus. The search was logical, and each character concerned with the search used sound thinking, or dianoia, to buttress their points. The students seemed excited by all these, but I was not satisfied! I wanted them to get a "feeling" for what might have happened during the production of the play some five thousand years ago.

Group Project (Oedipus the King):
So, I decided to institute a project. The class was divided into five groups. Each group consisted of a maximum of five students. I asked each group to pick a scene from Oedipus the King. The scene would then be presented in class during examination week. That would be their final examination. The scenes were not supposed be more than ten minutes in actual playing time, and each member of the group was to participate either as an actor, a director, a mask maker (you ought to see some of the masks they made!), a prompter, a stage manager, a set designer, or a costume maker. Of course, some of them had to do two or three tasks, depending on the scene, the scene requirement, and the level of cooperation within the group. I told the students that their scenes would be videotaped. They had about six weeks to practice and prepare for the scenes.

Occasionally, I would allow them in-class time to rehearse and work on their "Greek masks," which they found interesting and challenging. They found out quickly that a "tragic mask," such as would have been worn by Oedipus, must look "sad"! My intention was not to require that everything be perfect and excellent, but to check for the level of participation, feeling, enthusiasm, commitment, and knowledge of the Greek theater I had been trying to give them. I also hoped that all the excitement generated by their scene presentations would translate into excitement about writing and critical analysis.

Finally, I had to consider the issue of how to grade this assignment. I wanted to make sure that the assessment was fair and that it properly reflected the nature of the project. So, I decided to have two types of grading criteria. The first would be a "group grade." In this category, I was looking for the following:

1. Preparation: (Does the student appear to be prepared for all these?)             10 points
2. Masks: (This is to check the level of "commitment/effort")                             20 points.
3. Costumes: (Commitment/Effort)                                                                   20 points
4. Delivery: (Combination effect of masks, costumes, movement, speech)         40 points
5. Overall: (Overall impression)                                                                        10 points
                                                                                                            Total 100 points

The second set of criteria would be for an individual grades, and contained the following"

1.  Preparation:          20 points
2.  Tasks:                   80 points
            (a)  Nature (of the task - hard to easy)
            (b)  Cooperation
            (c)   Length
            (d)  Reliability (Rehearsals/Meetings with group members)
            (e)  Excellence
            (f)  Multiple tasks
            (g)  Attitude/Effort
                         Total  100 points

These criteria allowed me to monitor the students in two ways, and to evolve a proper overall grade for the project.

 

The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 19, No. 1

Fall 2003