Beyond the Literary Analysis Essay: Autobiographical Literary Criticism

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So over the literary analysis essay.

I am so over the traditional literary analysis essay.

The thesis-driven literary analysis essays we assign in composition and introductory literature courses are difficult for even advanced undergraduate English majors to write. Think about it: We ask novice students to produce “original” (whatever that means in the undergraduate classroom) arguments about literature but to completely distance their writing from their personal responses to the text. Of course that results in subpar student writing that we dread to grade and that students hate to write. And let’s face it, the traditional literary analysis essay, even when assigned in college courses, can barely deviate from, and actually relies upon, the much-maligned five-paragraph essay format.

No student takes a literature class or becomes an English major because they want to write lab reports about literature. If we believe the value of the humanities comes from the transformative power of literature, reading, and writing, we should develop writing assignments that reflect and allow us to assess that. Indeed, several pedagogy-focused panels at the Society for the Study of American Women Writers conference highlighted instructors of American literature who regularly assign innovative alternatives to the traditional literary analysis essay. Essay prompts that depart from the literary analysis essay can still promote the deep, critical thinking about literature that supports our course and department student learning outcomes.

Autobiographical literary criticism is a genre of academic writing that weaves personal narrative, a type of reader response criticism, and textual analysis to allow students to come to deeper insights about literature. It crosses the boundaries between “criticism and narrative, experience and expression, literature and life.” With autobiographical literary criticism assignments, we provide students with the opportunity to be transparent about the values, “beliefs[,] and formative life experiences that inform their response” to and analysis of literature. While the format, topic, and structure may vary depending on your pedagogical aims, autobiographical literary criticism assignments integrate (but do not rely solely upon) personal narrative with the purpose of achieving deeper textual analysis and insight into literature.

Autobiographical Literary Criticism in a Capstone Course on American Transcendentalism

I recently assigned an autobiographical literary criticism essay in my capstone course for English majors entitled “Secrets, Lives, and Legacies of American Transcendentalism.” I developed the course after attending the 2017 NEH Summer Seminar on Transcendentalism. The course considered how lived experience formed the philosophy, writing, and creative expression of Mary Moody Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott. Autobiographical literary criticism seemed an especially appropriate method to probe the Transcendentalists, who, in their own writing, breached the boundaries of “criticism and narrative, experience and expression, literature and life.”

I assigned a 13-15 page autobiographical literary criticism essay as the final paper in the capstone course. Students were to focus on one author and primary text and “[c]ritically examine [your] own experiences in relation to a work of literature.” Although this assignment encouraged a more creative and personal approach to literary analysis, students were instructed that the essays still needed to include a thesis or “focusing” statement that would address what the literature is doing as a work of art or what it is trying to do in the world.  As I instructed the students, “Your thesis statement, or major claim, isn’t about you—it is ultimately about the literature. But your personal narrative can illuminate the significance of the literature (as well as your interpretation of it) for others, including, if relevant, your own students or future students.” The essays were to include layers of textual analysis, scholarly voices, and cultural/historical research stitched together with the student’s narrative voice.

Throughout the semester, the students had written several scaffolded assignments that they could integrate into their final essays including weekly response papers and a long book review of a literary biography of the author they were writing about. We used several class sessions to discuss and workshop the essays. I also provided examples of autobiographical literary criticism from the volumes The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism (Duke UP) and Private Voices, Public Lives: Women Speak on the Literary Life (U North Texas P). I read my own autobiographical literary criticism in class not only to provide additional models of structure, organization, and format but also to cultivate trust and community among the students by sharing my own personal writing.

Student Responses to Autobiographical Literary Criticism

Students were excited by the opportunity to link their lives and experiences with the literature, but even the most enthusiastic struggled with incorporating personal narrative. A common lament from the class sounded something like this: “We’ve spent the past 15 years learning to not use ‘I’ or talk about personal opinions in our essays, and now you are telling us we have to!” Students had various levels of comfort revealing personal responses and finding authentic ways to connect personally with the literature. Showing them several models and approaches helped, and I gave them the option of deciding how and to what extent to use personal narrative in their essays; some wove it throughout, others used it to frame the introduction and conclusion, while others limited it to just one section of the essay.

One student wrote that he initially hated Thoreau but came to love Walden after our class hike at a local pond, our 21st-century, rural Texas version of a Walden experience. Another student wrote about her struggles with her family’s sexism and her goal to become a writer in relation to Margaret Fuller’s strict, patriarchal upbringing and authorial aims. An essay by a devout Catholic student compared her spiritual diary with the religious practice expressed by Mary Moody Emerson in her Almanacks. The president of our campus’s student environmental organization wrote an essay that examined how Thoreau’s life and writing can guide environmental activism today. And one student narrated her journey from business major to English major through the lens of Emerson’s Nature. This assignment pushed many students to original and unexpected insights about literature, such as the student who passionately developed her claim that Louisa May Alcott, although sometimes a harsh critic of Transcendentalism, was the most “transcendental” of all the Transcendentalists.

Overall, the students said they liked writing the autobiographical literary criticism essay and were proud of the writing they produced. Those who struggled with integrating personal narrative admitted that they usually have difficulty with developing content in general, no matter the assignment. Like all essays of this length, some students had issues with cohesion and sustaining consistent prose and ideas throughout the essay. But overall, I was satisfied with the high level of sophistication in terms of content, structure, and writing style that the autobiographical literary criticism assignment inspired. Students produced essays that made claims about literature, demonstrated textual analysis, and commented on the significance of literature in their lives and in the world. What more can we ask for as teachers of American literature?

Would I Assign it Again? Yes!

Compared to traditional literary analysis essays, I found these essays easier to read and more enjoyable—yes, I said enjoyable!— to grade. I plan to assign a shorter autobiographical literary criticism essay in the 300-level class I will teach this coming semester, and I realize that if I ever assign this type of essay at the introductory level, I would have to spend a lot of time helping students balance personal narrative with textual analysis. Assigning autobiographical literary criticism as an alternative to the traditional literary analysis essay was a success, and I encourage others to experiment with this genre in their own teaching and writing. I am creating online resources and plan to organize a Google chat about teaching and writing autobiographical literary criticism later this spring. Please contact me if you would like to participate!

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What Worked, What Didn’t: Course Reflection for the End of the Semester

Reflective writing enhances student metacognition and learning, which is why many of us integrate reflective assignments into our American literature and composition classes. Similarly, reflective teaching provides an opportunity for instructors to articulate their course’s strengths, identify areas for improvement, and strategize for the next semester. We spend so much time designing courses, organizing content, and crafting student learning outcomes that the daily yet significant details of what worked and what did not in terms of assignments, readings, discussion prompts, pacing, etc., may be lost in the shuffle from semester to semester. Course reflection is important because it ensures that our “big picture” pedagogical goals and values align with our everyday teaching practices.

Yet while many of us may assign a reflective essay at the end of this semester in order to reinforce students’ deep learning, very few of us will take the time to reflect on our own teaching practices–what we and our students accomplished and what we would do differently next time. The end of the semester is such an exhausting time and reflective practice requires the higher-order thinking that many of us may lack after grading stacks of essays! But setting aside just a few minutes at the end of the semester for course reflection might help you–and your students–as you return to your syllabus after the holiday break.

Books-and-red-wineIf you have just 10-15 minutes, make a cup of tea or pour a glass of wine. Think about and write responses to these questions:

  • What was the best moment in the course? How can my students and I have more moments like it?
  • What was the most challenging moment and why? How will I respond next time?
  • In what ways did my students surprise me this semester?

These questions might help you consider which assignments and readings to keep, cut, or change. Of course, not all aspects of a course are in your control. But what elements are? What changes can you make to enhance student learning?

If you have more time, pour another glass of wine, look over your syllabus and assignment sheets, and reflect on the various course components:

  • Syllabus
    • Policies to add or change
    • Student learning outcomes to change or add
    • Reading and assignment schedule: Is it coherent? Did the pacing work?
  • Writing assignments
    • Clarity
    • Assignment scaffolding
    • Did each writing assignment promote student learning?
    • Is there a writing assignment that could be cut?
  • Reading assignments
    • Pacing
    • Sequencing
    • Which readings to keep? To cut?
    • Which texts/authors worked?
  • Class sessions
    • Best lecture/worst lecture
    • Class discussion: What made them talk?
  • Did you try something new?
    • What made it effective?
    • What would you change?
    • What did you and your students learn from it?

Your future self will thank you for taking these notes while the semester is still fresh on your mind. And your future students will thank you as well: instructor reflection promotes student learning and improves the classroom experience.

Now, pour another glass of wine and celebrate the end of the semester! You’ve earned it!

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