Dr. J. Jennifer Jones on Leveraging Technology to Teach Poetry Out Loud

Associate Professor of English J. Jennifer Jones has always had her academic eye on the past. A scholar of British Romanticism specializing in British literature and culture from the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century, in pre-pandemic days one could often find Jones teaching introductory-level courses in poetry and literature. When COVID-19 hit the U.S., however, Jones, like so many others, was forced to think almost solely in the present. “The transition to distance learning in the spring of 2020 was crisis-ridden in every possible sense,” Jones says. “I prefer to call it a period of crisis learning, not online learning.” After listening to what her students needed, Jones found a way to get them the human interaction they desperately craved while in isolation. “Voice was the mainstay of my pedagogy in those circumstances,” she says. “It was with great thanks to Dean Riley in the College of Arts and Sciences that I was able to purchase an online sound-engineering platform called Soundtrap that enabled both me and my students to record, edit, and share our voiced recitations, commentaries, critiques, and musings last spring.”

Then came the summer, and everyone’s minds began to shift from the present to the future. This fall semester Jones will be teaching ENG 120: Poetry Out Loud synchronously online, having taken advantage of the training URI has provided its faculty to prepare for course instruction via Zoom and on URI’s new digital learning platform, Brightspace. “In English 120, students will be able to study poetry primarily as a spoken artform rather than as a written artform, as is usually the case in my classes,” she says. “I have long been a proponent of bringing poetry to life with our voices in class with in-class reading and memorized recitations.” While the first half of the semester will see students learning the basics of poetry, Jones has exciting plans for the remainder of the course. “In the second half of the semester students will choose a specific poem, deepen their knowledge of it, and then learn to perform the poem with consideration for physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, evidence of understanding, and accuracy,” she explains. “At the end of the semester, we will hold a Poetry Contest, the first round of which will be a submission of a memorized recitation in an audio-visual format and the second round of which will be live on Zoom. We will have student judges, faculty judges, and guest judges, and I aim to publicize the top three performers across the URI community in December.” 

With varying levels of uncertainty still looming at seemingly every corner, Jones has chosen to focus on the positive, having full faith in the plans for Fall 2020. “If I have a single takeaway as I look back on the past six months and forward to the semester to come, it is that we are doing the right thing to reopen universities and to leverage digital technology to do so,” she says. “This is for the good of all of us as individuals and for our institutions and communities. We will use digital technology – and use it well – in order to ensure the very best experience of Fall 2020 while also ensuring maximum safety and health for all members of URI, as well as their families and friends.” And yet, Jones remains aware that although online learning is not a perfect compromise, it is the best option that fits these unprecedented times. “Nothing can substitute for the beautiful, intentional yet spontaneous, humane, artful engagement of faculty and students in a classroom together to pursue knowledge, skills, and the unending work of self-realization and community building,” she says. “This basic truth, to my mind, stands to dispel anxiety and strengthen flexibility, fortitude, and commitment to the demands of the present for students and faculty alike, because it propels the work of doing our best now even as we look forward to returning to our classrooms in the future, when it is safe again.” 

ENG 120 is currently available for students to enroll in for the Fall 2020 semester.

~Written by Chase Hoffman, Writing & Rhetoric and Anthropology Double Major, URI Class of December 2020