Research-Led Language Teaching: Designing a new ‘Language and Style of Crime Narratives’ module

Crime fiction, English language, Stylistics

crime_fiction

Author

Dr Christiana Gregoriou
School of English
University of Leeds

Summary

This case study describes an undergraduate English Language option module, ‘Language and Style of Crime Narratives’, derived from my own stylistic research. I contextualise the module, before detailing its content in the form of activities (seminar, workshops, group presentations), assessment, and student performance/feedback.

‘Language and Style of Crime Narratives’ is an innovative, research-led and cross-disciplinary module which aims to introduce students to the stylistic and generic make-up of popular and contemporary crime narratives, ranging from fictional and factional to factual texts. As the module is ‘cognitive poetic’ in orientation (Stockwell, 2002), it is concerned with our reading and reaction to contemporary crime narratives, and the textual analysis of this genre’s style. It, therefore, brings together a range of theories crossing disciplinary boundaries, from literary criticism to philosophy, and from social theory to linguistics. Students were asked to take the module whilst reading my monograph on Deviance in Contemporary Crime Fiction (Palgrave, 2007), and selected chapters from my textbook on English Literary Stylistics (Palgrave, 2009).

Background / Context

‘Language and Style of Crime Narratives’ is a semester-long option module and, like all such modules offered by the School, is run in the form of 10 weekly interactive seminars. It is worth 20 credits, which normally corresponds to one third of the students’ overall workload for the semester. The option was taken by 15 students when it ran for the first time in semester 2 of 2008-9, the majority of them being final year English Language specialists. Students were split into two seminar groups, and were given a further 5 one-hour workshops to attend, the additional sessions being for students of both groups.

In composing a list of models I could incorporate in my teaching, I reviewed a number of undergraduate textbooks, such as those by Short (1996), Simpson (1993) and Toolan (1998), to give me a sense of the main subjects and topics that my module could address. I had to be selective in narrowing down the models I was to introduce in relation to the different blocks of texts covered in the module: fictional (novels and short stories), factional (true crime books) and factual (media) crime narratives. I had to exclude a few models that are introduced in the slightly overlapping option module I run in semester 1 (‘Stylistics and Literary Pragmatics’), particularly since many ‘Crime Narrative’ students had taken both my options in the same year. I eventually restricted myself to a maximum of one-two frameworks each week. Research shows that too much detail and too many topics work against students’ learning the material (Beard and Hartley, 1984). I estimated that I scaled down my models to a challenging yet ‘workable’ list.

Activities / Practice

Preparation sheets were distributed in advance of each session. The students would start off each seminar by presenting their response to the previous week’s task, and I would take over half an hour or so to introduce the new models/ideas, alongside a number of worked-through examples. Though students would mostly work alone, they were expected to work in teams for presentations, so were encouraged to get to know their classmates and come prepared to contribute in the weekly seminars. Group presentations would feature in the seminars of weeks 5, 7 and 10 and, though unassessed, were nevertheless compulsory. Students would be paired up the week before, and give 10 minute presentations of texts they had chosen, read, and stylistically analysed, using ideas introduced in the preceding weeks’ classes. The last session would mostly be devoted to essay consultation and feedback, and would deal with the analytical problems that students may have faced.

By the end of the module, through weekly preparation and assignments, students were to gain in understanding and analysis of individual crime narrative texts and extracts. They were to be enabled to apply appropriate methodologies in analysis, understand and analyse specific stylistic features and integrate descriptive, analytical, evaluative and critical skills, not to mention make meaningful connections between technical analysis and contextual discussion.

In the course of the module, we introduced and discussed a number of stylistic models applicable to crime narratives. In defining the genre, we used Wittgenstein’s (1946) family resemblance theory, the prototype approach to sense and defamiliarisation. In doing so, we questioned what ‘resemblances’ crime novels share, what features a ‘prototypical’ crime novel would have, and how ‘defamiliarising’ such stories need to be. When narratologically engaging with the genre, we applied Brémond’s (1966) narrative cycle, Labov’s (1972) narrative model, and Propp’s (1975, 1984) narrative morphology. Among others, we discussed the ordering of information in crime stories, categorised dramatic personae, and considered the sort of ‘narrative cycles’ particular exemplars had.  In exploring crime fiction worlds, we used Ryan’s (1991) possible world theory and Werth’s (1999) text worlds, while in investigating crime fiction frames, we employed Emmott’s (1999) frame theory. These models help explain how we cognitively interact with the material in crime stories, how we keep track of where each character is at, what they know, and where they want to get to, and how conflicts between different characters’ agendas are needed to generate plot. Finally, in considering the linguistic portrayal of criminals, we applied the notion of Gregoriou’s (2003) Criminal Mind Style. The notion helps us understand how criminals are, conceptually constructed through language (i.e. lexical choices, metaphors, grammar),: how they see and rationalise the world and their actions in relation to it. The module also introduced a uniquemodel of ‘the metafunctions of deviance’, directly exploring the three aspects of deviance that contemporary crime narratives manipulate: the linguistic, the social and the generic (Gregoriou 2007).

The submitted work for ‘Language and Style of Crime Narratives’ was expected to demonstrate students’ early grasp of some technical stylistic matters in relation to crime narratives, but also their ability to write good, properly (Harvard-) referenced academic prose. The module’s intended learning outcomes draw on a focus on the development of both analytical/practical skills alongside theoretical/critical skills, and I decided that the method of assessment should reflect this combination. Students need to appreciate that actual text analysis and critical model review are both equally important in the discipline of stylistics. Students were ‘tested’ on their ability to understand the models and related theories, their skills at linguistic analysis, their argumentation, and their ability to engage with their findings, not to mention question the usefulness of concepts. Not all of the students performed well on all levels from the start of course, but, following my substantial feedback, their skills did improve on each level.

This option module was assessed by two essays (like most comparable modules in the School): one essay of 1700 words (1/3 of the mark for the module) and one of 2750 words (2/3), both of which were to be blind second-marked. Such continuous assessment, as Rust (2002: 149) claims, is almost certainly more likely to achieve a non-threatening and non-anxiety provoking system, as opposed to one in which the assessment ‘that counts’ all comes at the end. Also, such assessment can be said to be both formative and summative, since it provides ‘an opportunity for students to be given feedback on their level of attainment’ (i.e. it is formative) as well as counting ‘towards the credit being accumulated for a summative statement of achievement’ (QAA Code of Practice, May 2000).

To deter plagiarism, the first essay comprised a stylistic analysis and discussion of a crime narrative (a short story or novel) of the student’s own choosing that would not feature or be analysed in the relevant academic literature, and had not been discussed in class. The essay would include a brief account of the stylistic (linguistic or narratological) model or framework used, and a discussion of literary interpretation in the context of stylistic analysis. Topics were to be specified in consultation with the tutor, but the student was to choose the text as well as the model/s.

The students performed relatively well on this assignment, with grades ranging from 50 to 66, though most (10/15) achieved marks in the 2:2 classification range. Most students analysed short stories rather than novels, but few students did enough background reading. Some were good at describing the texts using the models, but not as good at analysing the findings they reached, and many failed to explain what it was about the text that drove them to analysing it the way they did. Students were given extensive written feedback on their annotated scripts, and each discussed their essay with me in person, to disambiguate my comments and clarify points.

Without drawing on the same models/texts they used for their first assignment, students had a number of options for their second essay:

  1. Undertake a detailed analysis of some of the aspects of deviance relevant to the reading of a fictional crime narrative of your own choosing. You should find a fictional crime narrative which is obviously deviant (i.e draws on linguistic, social and/or generic deviance) in some way. Using insights from models introduced in the course of this module, account for its meaning and impact.
  2. Having collected a number of comparable true crime narratives (these could be as long as books OR, alternatively, shorter stories published in books/journals), investigate thoroughly, and identify some of the linguistic and/or narratological features typical of the genre you chose.
  3. Collect ten crime novel titles, related back cover blurbs and associated 2-3 page openings and closings. Carry out an in-depth analysis of all four using linguistic and narratological models of analysis in order to explain these text types’ form, function and effect in relation to the novels in question.
  4. Any other topic which you persuade me to accept. I would especially welcome your own proposals, but keep in mind that these MUST be discussed with me first. Needless to say, your chosen topic must be demonstrably related to the themes of the module.

I felt that this list of options both reflected the module’s learning outcomes and allowed for a variety of student approaches to the subject, hence addressing considerations of equality and inclusivity. Most students favoured option no.2, and wrote essays on the representation of Josef Fritzl (a notorious criminal case, accounts of which were prolific at the time) in media texts, while most of the rest analysed novels via the Deviance model (option 1), such as Lethem’s (1999) Motherless Brooklyn, a novel written from the perspective of a detective who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. Very few students opted for option no. 3 (though these performed rather well), and even fewer opted for their own topic (option 4). I like incorporating topic 4 in most of my module assessment tasks. This option can enable the most creative of students to pursue that idea or thought raised in the module that had proved most fascinating to them personally, and which a limited selection of topics might not allow. One of those who opted for option 4 analysed Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ children’s series, another looked at detective novel pastiches, a third analysed real life killer autobiographies’ mind style, and a fourth looked at the multimodality of graphic detective novels.

In essay 2, grades ranged from 54-78, with 6 students in the 2:2 range, 7 in the 2:1 range, and 2 rather high firsts. The grades improved for the overwhelming majority. Since I engaged in marking moderation, I suppose that this was the case because students improved. I expect that the feedback I gave students proved beneficial, as did the fact that, by the time they came to write essay 2, they had a much better idea of what a crime narrative stylistic analysis entails (hence the value of essay 1 is here reaffirmed).

Questionnaires are handed out in the last week of teaching, completed in class and returned to an administrator, where they are retained, in confidence, until all marks for the module have been agreed and recorded.  In questionnaires, students admitted that they found the module “difficult” as it was ‘a mixture of language and literature’ that some did not experience before, but they nevertheless ‘really enjoyed it’ and found it ‘very interesting’, and certainly ‘different’ and ‘new’. They thought workshops were usefully spread out every other week or so, and some even asked for more such sessions.

Conclusions

Whilst engaging in module marking and reading the relevant questionnaires, I was generally pleased to see the main ‘Language and Style of Crime Narratives’ objectives fulfilled: the students enjoyed familiarising themselves with a range of models and stylistic skills, whilst critically engaging with theory surrounding crime narratives and their related ideology. I will consider using students’ own work to get ideas on how to develop essay topics for this module in the future. I could relay good current student ideas to future students by putting together a databank of essay topics. Students can thus be given a ‘free hand’ to good questions. Students wanted sessions to be even more interactive, and found that their writing was heavily scrutinised in my essay feedback, which is why I will also opt for even more interactivity in class in the future, and give students more guided help when writing their essays.

On the whole, I was pleased with this experience, and feel I gained a lot from it. Working on this new module gave me a clear idea as to what kind of factors are to be taken into account in the design process. For instance, the students’ previous familiarity with the field need be considered, as does their willingness to engage with theory, and adequately prepare for each class. Moreover, as I am currently writing a new monograph on Language, Ideology and Identity in Serial Killer Narratives for Routledge’s Applied Linguistic series (forthcoming 2010), it was useful to see students interacting in a lively way with my own research, giving me useful feedback and angles of approach, whilst also generating ideas I could put in practice myself. In that sense, I feel that I have learned as much from the students as they have from me.

 Bibliographical References

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