Beyond the Literary Analysis Essay: Autobiographical Literary Criticism

vintage typewriter
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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Creative Writing Pedagogy in Literature Courses: A SSAWW Roundtable

In November I went to the Society for the Study of American Women Writers (SSAWW) conference in Denver (which, if you have never attended and study American women writers you should because it is the best mix of scholarly rigor and friendliness that you will find). I gave a presentation on a panel about capitalism and labor in the 19th century and also was lucky to be invited to be on a roundtable about teaching creative writing in the literature classroom. I want to write a little bit about this roundtable here. It was organized by Angela Sorby and featured scholars from grad students to full professors and from literature scholars who don’t identify as creative writers to poets, fiction, and non-fiction writers. It was nice to have perspectives from scholars in different positions and also to have some time to open up discussion with the audience.

Since I’m writing this in December, I’m not sure I have the memory to give detailed overviews of everyone’s presentations but here were some of the main assignments that were discussed by the presenters:

  • Anthologies of poems that included original work by the students
  • Imitation poems where students write in the style of a poem studied in class
  • Dialogues to respond to song lyrics
  • Multi-media texts to accompany a piece of literature
  • In-class outlines of stories using the conventions of plots

While all of these approaches were different, in my opinion, the general consensus was that such projects are fun but they aren’t just fun. By giving students permission to create, they flex their intellectual muscles in ways that just consuming literature does not allow them to do. They are more inspired, more engaged, and more clearly able to understand what it means to create the works they are studying. From a teacher perspective, it seemed that many of the panelists and audience members felt a sense of freedom when they challenged themselves to think beyond the close reading paper and were occasionally surprised and often happy with the projects that students came up with in their nontraditional assignments.

That doesn’t mean that adding creative writing literature assignments is not without its challenges. One of the big topics of discussion was assessment. Do you assess the students creative writing as a piece of creative writing? Or are there other means of assessing the projects? The approaches to the assessment varied. Some of the panelists do assess the creative writing while others assigned tasks like reflection papers with the assignments and gave more weight to those in their assessment. Regardless of the means of assessment, there was agreement that what was being assessed needed to be clear to the students. It should always be apparent to the students why they are doing what they are doing. This is the case in traditional and nontraditional assignments. A great piece of advice that I once received was that you need to teach your students how to do the assignments that you are asking them to do. This is especially true if you are asking them to do a little bit out of the norm of what they expect.

Because creating new assignments can be, for lack of a better word, scary, we also discussed how to mitigate some of the potential pitfalls of the assignments. One of the biggest tips would be to think through the assignment not only from your perspective as the teacher but also from the perspective of your students. How might they see it? What are outcomes that you might not have thought of that they could come up with? I would also add that you will make mistakes, and you might not fully be able to anticipate those mistakes, but if you add time for your students and you to review the assignment and think through their plans, then some of those difficulties can be averted.

via alyssa

Two of the individual roundtable presentations had their origins in PALS posts. I talked about how I stumbled upon the idea of using creative writing assignments in the classroom when I created an in-class activity for my introduction to literature students that involved writing the plot to a detective story. I wrote about this activity for PALS here. The students that I did this activity with were mostly taking the course for a general education requirement, so I didn’t make the connection that they would want to explore their potential as writers. I didn’t make this connection even though I had already spent years telling my composition students that they were all writers. This was obviously a failure of my imagination. I think of this as my “aha” moment of how fun and useful thinking like a creative writer can be for students.

The second PALS post that was represented in the roundtable was this piece by Melissa Range. Range talks specifically about using imitation poems in the literature classroom and writes about the concept that “placing yourself in the writer’s position allows you to think about each decision she has made in crafting her work.” Additionally, Range was one of the panelists to advocate for having students write a reflection about the process of their imitation, including comparison of their work and the original.

Finally, Angela Sorby, the organizer of the roundtable, was kind enough to provide an overview of her presentation for this PALS post. Please find her explanation below:

Like Marla Anzalone (a co-presenter), I assign curated, themed micro-anthologies in a lower-division genre course for non-majors. Part of my aim is to get students to engage with poetry across historical time periods, so I require that they include—along with an original poem and three from contemporary sources—one Emily Dickinson poem. These disparate poems must form a thematic group; when I last taught the course, one young woman chose the theme “body dysmorphia,” while another, a nursing major, chose “hospice care.” Students are asked to title their anthologies; to choose illustrations; to write headnotes for each poem (including their own); and to compose an editorial introduction. This project generates a small, accessible conversation with no outsiders: the student, the chosen contemporary poets, and Emily Dickinson are all posited as working poets, jointly exploring a common topic through language and form. Rather than groping for a “correct” reading of Dickinson, students are empowered to find what they need in her poems. This is not a traditional scholarly approach to Dickinson, but it mirrors the way many passionate non-academic readers (and some poets, even in the academy) tend to read poetry.

PALS would love to hear more from you about how you teach creative assignments in the literature classroom. Feel free to leave a comment here or find us on twitter @PedagogyAmLitSt.