Herbert Trios

Today I went to town with George Herbert, and I mean that literally: I sat down in three separate cafés with three groups of students to talk through three separate poems. And yes, there happened to be three students in each group.

The idea of these “Herbert Trios” came to me the hard way. When I directed this program in 2018, we read a handful of Herbert poems each week—as we are this semester—and I asked students to pick one on their own and write a critical analysis of it by the end of the term. Four of those analytical essays—20% of the entire group—turned out to be plagiarized. I made a note to myself that, if I ever ran the program again, I’d need to test their understanding of the poems in person, where I could look them in the eye and ask follow-up questions.

I chose to do that in trios and not individually, however, not just to save time but because the students in this group are the single greatest teaching resource at my disposal. Their energy and camaraderie is more powerful than anything I can manufacture, and my most common mistake in teaching has been to talk too much on my own. When they talk, the real education happens—mine included.

So I simply split them into groups of three and asked them to suggest a poem and a café where I could buy them all a cup of tea or coffee to have as they walked me through the text. I did give them some suggestions about the kinds of things to look for and the kinds of question to ask, and I did require that everyone in the group contribute equally to the conversation.

And I spent a good deal of time with each of their poems on my own, marking them up, tracking down words and references, reading notes in scholarly editions. I did much of this work in the fabulous Picton Reading Room in the Liverpool Central Library. 

Looking up from the book at one point, I realized that this grand room looks and feels like a good poem feels once you’re inside it: ordered but open, cozy and vast.

My agenda with the trios was simple: I asked them to read the poem straight through out loud, then describe to me the process by which they had analyzed it, and then to walk me through the text however seemed best to them.

Each student had very good things to say. They talked freely without reading pre-written sentences and paragraphs. They laughed a lot and responded to each other. Their talk was far less polished than a written paper would be (I’ve read my share of those, so I know), but also far more genuine. The sharp literature students did about the same level of analysis I would have expected in a formal essay; the non-literary types did much better. I mostly just sat and listened—sometimes biting my tongue to keep myself from jumping in. 

I had prepared questions for all three groups, and I listened especially for students who were hanging back and letting the other two do the work, because those would be the first students I’d ask. But everyone was fully present, and by the time each group finished, they had already answered most or all of my questions on their own. I didn’t agree with everything the groups said about the poems, but every group had clearly engaged a difficult text in a meaningful way.

Throughout these meetings, I felt like a grateful guest in two kinds of space: one literal and the other intellectual. The literal spaces were, in two cases, cafés that I myself hadn’t been to but students have been visiting for months. They were inviting me into their places. But I was also a guest inside the poems themselves, hosted by jovial scholars who were quite willing and able to show me around.

I left the three sessions with a headful of Herbert and a heart full of quiet joy. (Although that might have been because I had a lot of coffee.)

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Happy husband since 2001, proud dad since 2010, diligent English professor since 1995. "And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche."