Experiencing New Texts for the First Time Alongside Our Students

As our semesters draw to their staggered ends, we start planning our summer reading list and writing groups, along with our physical and mental rejuvenation activities to commence upon our recovery from the intense end of the semester grade-a-thons. PALS contributor Catherine Hostetter shared her first few summer reads with us last week. My pile is already well into the double digits with contemporary lit from my book club, pedagogy texts, and some classics–I may have downloaded all of the volumes of Clarissa to my Kindle (wish me luck!). Finally, we may have some texts in that pile that we are considering adding to our syllabi next semester.

My suggestion: take a leap of faith or make an educated choice. Either way, pick a new-to-you text to teach next semester and set it aside in order to read it for the first time alongside your students.

Course Design to Empower Students

Depending on the course, I like to switch out at least one novel or a whole group of texts in order to keep the class fresh for both my students and myself. Every semester that I have taught a literature course, I have chosen a text that was previously unread by me to include. This is an intentional move.

This is also not something I came up with on my own. I remember the first time I took a class during my undergraduate career where my professor pointed to a novel on the syllabus and stated that she had never read it before. Of course, the rest of the syllabus was an old shoe for her. The majority of my professors taught texts they knew inside and out, texts they had taught many times before, texts they had read plenty of criticism about. The experience of reading a new text with my professor was an especially empowering one.

PALS contributor Caitlin Kelly recently reflected on what happens when we don’t over prepare for class and follow students’ lead in an attempt to silence ourselves instead of silencing them with our knowledge of the literature. Reading a text for the first time alongside our students changes the dynamic. We don’t have our normal prior knowledge of the text nor do we have previous experiences teaching it to draw upon nor do we know how it plays out. Moreover, we get to share affective responses with students that we may have moved beyond by our 5th, 10th, or 20th read.

The Classics – Pick Canonical Works to Feel Safe

Last year in a post about teaching students to read through dislike or boredom of texts, I referenced reading Jane Eyre for the first time with my students in the late survey of British literature. I knew what happened in Jane Eyre despite never having read it. I had read ample criticism that referenced it. And I had attempted and failed to read it multiple times. So after the first 150 pages, it was a new-to-me novel, and I got to experience it for the first time with my class. Those who loved it showed me new ways of seeing it, and those who disliked it made me work harder to see it and approach it evenly for the sake of teaching it responsibly.

In addition to Jane Eyre, I have also finally read Moby-Dick because I put it on my syllabus. I had considered reading it at different points, but I had never really moved beyond purchasing it. I love the ocean, grew up in a west coast beach town, and am a surfer. I had read other 19th century sea literature with varying degrees of appreciation. However, anticipating the whale taxonomic classifications and the like moby-dick-brian-brainawaiting me made me want to clean my house instead of read. So I placed it on my early American literature survey course’s syllabus and charged through it with my students. We all had different chapters and sections of the novel that spoke to us. When one would question the relevance of a certain part, another would step in with the value for the work as a whole. We had several graduate level seminar discussions that thoroughly impressed me. I prepared most activities and discussions based off of what they posted to our online discussion board before class, but we also had the Norton critical edition to offer us additional critical support. 

In both of these examples, I chose to include novels–long 19th century novels–that did not appeal to me aesthetically or content-wise. I went on the journey with my students and came out with at very different appreciation than I would have arrived at if I read them on my own.

New Releases – Have a Little Faith

The other situation I have found myself in is waiting in anticipation for a book’s publication date. Last spring semester, I chose Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir for my developmental composition course. Its release date was one week before the start of the semester. I placed the order in November and waited patiently for it to arrive at the end of January.

BLM MemoirChoosing a new text by an already established writer comes with some security, whereas I went in relatively blind with my choice, relying on the reviews of those who had read advanced copies. I chose Cullors’ memoir because I repeatedly experienced classrooms where the majority of students had little to no knowledge of the black lives matter movement. I wanted students to hear about BLM from one of its founders. It was beyond the perfect choice for my course. It tied together all of the scholarship and writing assignments from across the entire semester from social media to communication to mental health to black lives matter. Cullors’ memoir is a goldmine of topics for students to explore. Students also found it to be a page turner. They were reading ahead and connecting deeply with Cullors’ life.

Not Canonical, Not Awaiting Publication

Finally, I have chosen to teach an entire short story collection based on previously reading and teaching a single short story from it. After wandering through a series of Kentucky Club.jpgtexts looking for a short story addressing immigration, I came upon a recommendation for one of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s short stories from Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. I included one of his short stories in an online Intro to American literature course. Due to the overwhelming responses to that short story from my students, I place the entire collection on my syllabus and read it in its entirety with my students. It ended up being students’ favorite text of the semester once more. Again, this was an active decision to not read it before the semester. However, I was familiar with one of its stories, and trusted him to deliver with the rest of the collection.

If this is intimidating, go small. Start with a short story, a few poems, maybe a novella. Go with a canonical novel that has never made it to your “already read” list, but that you know is going to deliver. If you are feeling brave, choose a text that doesn’t have that prior seal of approval. Take that journey through a new-to-you text with your students and enjoy the unknown!

Advertisements

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!