Professor Beckwith’s English 101S – Arts of Attention

Photo of Professor Beckwith teaching

During the Spring 2022 semester, Professor Sarah Beckwith was asked to teach one of Duke English's gateway courses. "When the department asked me to teach a 101 class, I knew I wanted to call it ‘Arts of Attention, stated Professor Beckwith. 

We are living in an "attention economy" where our attention is grabbed, bought, and sold. It is a commodity. Our interests, desires, and preferences are data mined for advertising and are funding a new generation of unscrupulous media enterprises. And it is making us all distracted and very easy to manipulate. I have long thought that we need to address this issue in our pedagogy, and in this class, I chose to tackle the question head-on. How can we cultivate the art of attention in our writing and pedagogy, criticism, and reading?Professor Beckwith 

Beckwith designed the course so that her students would have an opportunity to observe how poets, novelists, and dramatists of various historical periods noticed the world while learning to read – skillfully and with insight – while giving thought to what they are doing when they themselves read. How do writers do things with words? How might these arts of attention provoke her students and inspire them to express themselves in their writing? 

Junior English major Jake Piazza, a member of the class, commented:  "It's just an all-around great class. I read in a much deeper, richer manner now because of the way Dr. Beckwith taught our class to really observe and notice things as we read." 

During a visit to Professor Beckwith's class, I observed a discussion of Charlotte Bronte's, Jane Eyre. Beckwith and her students looked at the different perspectives of how the novel is written and debated whether the novel's ending concluded as they expected or not. Students openly shared their thoughts about whether the words written by Bronte had greater significance than what they straightforwardly said on the page. They discussed elements of Bronte's writing that they perceived as symbolic, dissected passages of the novel for more profound meaning, and compared characters. They even analyzed the possible puns that the author may have meant for readers to consider by naming the primary character name "Eyre." It was apparent that Professor Beckwith was achieving her desired goal for the class. "Art of Attention" seemed to be a haven for her students to cultivate and regain the focus that often appears to be lost in modern society's reading efforts. Beckwith stated, "I wanted a class based on slow reading and what the critic James Wood calls ’serious noticing.’ And I wanted skills sometimes disdained in literary criticism—paraphrase, description and so on to come to the fore, as well as the experience and responsiveness of reading." 

Professor Beckwith Teaching English 101S course “The Arts of Attention"
While the class discussed their thoughts on reading Jane Eyre, Professor Beckwith diagramed the connection between different elements of the novel.


The course TA, Shirley Li, shared some of her thoughts on the class and working with Professor Beckwith: 

I've loved TAing for this course! Sarah doesn't want to teach the students a method or how to sound smart. Like the course title says, she wants them to pay close attention to our texts and their responses. It's simple but profound. Students often have wonderful insights when we work from that starting point.

When asked how she would describe this class, Beckwith said, "In this course, we are attending to attention and exploring our own experience of reading in ways that fully acknowledge that this is an achievement, and one to cultivate. I want to help students think through the literature they read and not simply about it." 

In the Fall of 2022 three sessions of English 101S – The Art of Reading will be taught.  Professor Marianna Torgovnick will teach English 101S.02 - “Making It New” a class aimed at helping one engage their voice, brain, and emotions that leads to writing experiences that enhance critical thinking and creative expressions.  Professor Priscilla Wald’s English 101S.03 - ”The Strange, the Weird and the Marvelous” that will take students on a journey into the strange, the weird, and the marvelous across oceans and continents through encounters with literary imagination.  The third session, English 101S.04 - “How Novels Think” will be taught by Professor Nancy Armstrong.  This class will take a look at the proposition that the human being is a thinking being and examine how the proposition was put on trial in classic novel during the period of 1719-1958.