Dr. Mark Schoenfield drives discussion around difficult topics by breaking the class roster and course content into pieces for pondering.
Professor of English, Director of Undergraduate Studies for English, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN
PhD in English Literature, MPW (Masters of Professional Writing), BA in English and Philosophy
Existential angst is a constant companion for many first-year college students. Existentialism as a philosophy, however, is typically new to them.
The complex state of emotions in freshmen is one of the reasons that Mark Schoenfield, PhD, loves teaching his first-year seminar, Existential Fictions, at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “It almost teaches itself,” he says. “All I have to do is supply the defining terms, and off they run.” The seminar is consistently over-enrolled, and many students leave it eager to take more courses in either existentialism or fiction.
At heart, Schoenfield is an English professor, and what he truly wants is to help his students see how they can use fiction to help them process their existential anxiety, as well as to take literature and their own thinking more seriously.
An overview of Existential Fictions
The freshman seminars at Vanderbilt are taught by all different departments all over campus, but the English department teaches the most. The overarching goal of these courses is to give students a chance to have intensive experiences with faculty that will also provide a fair amount of writing instruction. The educators teaching these courses can focus on any subject they want, and they usually choose from outside of their area of expertise, which is how Schoenfield came to teach existentialism, even though his research specialty is romanticism.
In his Existential Fictions seminar, Schoenfield starts by looking at how different existentialist writers unpack their philosophy in their literature. Because existentialism has been such an international movement, he also looks for its influences in contemporary texts—and by writers who are not typically associated with the philosophy. This all culminates in a final project, in which students look deeply at a literary work that has been influenced by existentialism.
“I want [students] to take seriously the effectiveness of literary technique—not that someone is a good writer and a good philosopher and manages to do them independently but rather [they are] all part of the same package.”— Mark Schoenfield, PhD
Class description: Existentialism has been variously identified as a philosophy, literary movement, psychology, and political agent (most often on the left, but across the political spectrum). In this course, we will examine how works of classical existentialists—Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus—express concerns about the modern condition, especially with regard to the dynamic of freedom, social responsibility, and the construction of identity and selfhood. We will consider the themes that emerge from these works, directed in part by our own interests and in part by these authors’ obsessions. We will then explore how the ideas of these influential thinkers mold and find new expression in various writers and artists influenced by them. Works may include the film Midnight Cowboy, Philip Roth’s Everyman, and the poetry of Sharon Olds.
The inherent problems with teaching this course
One challenge common to practically all freshman-level courses is the wide range of students’ previous experiences. Schoenfield says that about half the class will have learned something about existentialism, so they come into the class feeling very confident. The other half is often intimidated by that, but they should not be, Schoenfield says: After all, the high school version of existentialism is not the version he teaches. His is much more technical and controversial, so he has to unteach some previous learning without bad-mouthing its source.
Schoenfield likens this to his own experience as a wrestler. Even though he excelled in high school, he had to completely revise his set of moves for college because nothing was quite good enough anymore. So, in at least that sense, existentialism is the college wrestling of the academic world.
There is also a challenge that is specific to (although not unique to) Existential Fictions: One of the unavoidable consequences of presenting students with a wide array of contemporary texts is that the works invariably include controversial topics such as violence, sex, and—a specialty of Sartre’s—dislikable characters with despicable views. These can be difficult for freshmen to process and discuss.
“As an educator, I need to always guide the students on how to work with that material and not just take it as shocking,” says Schoenfield. “For example, abortions come up quite a bit in existential texts, which makes sense for philosophical reasons. Students need to know how to deal with that, and the conversations need to remain respectful. You never know what other students have been through.”
Finally, when students break into groups and try to discuss subjects with one another—particularly controversial ones such as these—the discussion often peters out, and they are left looking to the professor for guidance. It was in trying to devise a new discussion method that addressed all of these problems that Schoenfield came upon the Jigsaw Method. One of many variants of a method advocated by Elliot Aronson in The Jigsaw Classroom, Schoenfield developed his own use in concert with the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching, which offers a helpful schematic for jigsawing in its “Group work” section.
See resources shared by Mark Schoenfield, PhDSee materials
Lesson: Drive difficult discussions with the Jigsaw Method
The Jigsaw Method lets Schoenfield’s student be both the learner and the teacher, a recipe for great in-class conversations. It also allows the students to get to know one another, which is great for the classroom dynamic and, in classes that use them, for final presentations.
To successfully “jigsaw” a class, the instructor starts by breaking the class into small groups, providing each group with a different set of discussion questions. Then the groups are left to talk for a while. Just when the instructor feels that they have made good progress, he or she “jigsaws” them, taking one member from each group and creating entirely different groups, which then share their earlier discoveries and use them to discuss new questions.
For example, the students might begin discussing particular philosophical questions focused on in different chapters. Then, because Schoenfield’s course has a literary component, he jigsaws the groups so that the new groups talk about a literary construct (e.g., flashbacks) in relation to the initial topics. Finally, depending on the time available, he might jigsaw the class once more, and each new group develops a potential thesis that combines one philosophical idea with how the literary construct from the previous round helps to develop that philosophical idea.
It is complicated, Schoenfield admits, but he says it works—and always gives the teacher a good sense of how the class is grasping various ideas. “I want [students] to take seriously the effectiveness of literary technique—not that someone is a good writer and a good philosopher and manages to do them independently but rather [they are] all part of the same package,” he says.
Here, Schoenfield offers additional tips to keep in mind when attempting the Jigsaw Method:
Keep the groups small
Schoenfield always aims for groups of three or four students. From a teaching perspective, he says that managing four small groups of four is easier than one big group of 16. He also finds that with a small number of students in each group, students find it less intimidating to ask one another questions and expand the discussion. The small number also makes it harder to “hide” or avoid contributing. “These [small] group discussions put students on the spot, but in a low-stakes way,” he says. “There’s a greater compulsion to step up and participate.”
Provide support judiciously
A main goal of the Jigsaw Method is to get students talking to each other under guided conditions. For that reason, Schoenfield always circulates around the room and even allows students to leave their group to ask him questions. Lest he be judged a pushover because of this, he adds that he will only give a partial answer, then send the student back to the group to dig deeper.
Avoid creating too many pieces
Schoenfield notes that you can have the groups re-jigsaw an infinite number of times, but that can quickly become too complex and confusing for everyone. He has found that it is usually best to do so only once or twice.
Have them assemble theories like a puzzle
As students become comfortable with the Jigsaw Method, Schoenfield starts to push them to develop their own mini theories, which can be brought together in different ways by the entire class.
Here is a simple example using a jigsaw to set up a whole-class writing workshop:
- Schoenfield gives each group a philosophical construct, such as Sartrean bad faith, or an existential view of temporality.
- The group explores the construct using discussion questions he provides.
- The groups are then jigsawed, with each new group asked to develop a tentative thesis statement about a particular character’s existential angst, using those philosophical constructs.
- Then the class comes back together and shares each group’s thesis on the board.
- A final class discussion takes place, in which they talk about which thesis they like most, which sections of the book they might use to argue for a given thesis, and how various of the groups’ theses could be combined to create a single, complicated thesis.
Schoenfield takes an activity like this and builds future assignments, papers, and class activities off of the group discussion.