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!


Dear College Professor: On the (Un)Ethical Use of Technology

Clay Zuba is very excited to make his first post as a regular contributor to PALS. Zuba is a teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona. He writes about his prior experience in the college-level classroom and asks higher education professionals to consider how to best serve the teaching needs of incoming students.

In this post, Zuba informs us of how high school and early college students often inadvertently use technology in ways that harm their learning process. For more from Zuba, you can find his nonfiction and fiction writing about House of the Seven Gables here

Face of Laocoon in the Vatican via Livioandronico2013.

Dear College Professor,

You’re not going to like what I’m about to tell you. It’s going to make you uncomfortable. I daresay it may terrify you if you’re reading this blogpost near All Hallow’s Eve. But I’m going to tell you anyway. Because I care.

You and your students have vastly divergent conceptions of academic honesty.

I’m a high school English teacher. But as I’ve mentioned before, I used to teach college writing and literature. Because I have served as a university instructor, I can anticipate your expectations. Yet as a high school teacher, I have first-hand knowledge of how your incoming students will actually go about completing the tasks you will assign them.

Because at this point in the year you might be feeling pretty good about yourself. Approximately two months into the semester, you may be congratulating yourself over how your students, on only the second day of school, discussed Ethan Frome as an example of realism. You may regale your colleagues with a story of how, only three seconds into group work, one student had identified the climax of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. You may marvel at how well your students comprehended the plot of The Sound and the Fury before even discussing it in class!   

If any of these scenarios describe your classroom this semester, I have bad news: your students are cheating.

IMG_0429 via Xavier R. Chen

The Problem

This isn’t the kind of cheating you and your Dean have been concerned about. When a college professor thinks of cheating, she usually thinks of plagiarism. Or of students writing notes on the inner surfaces of their arms and legs, or using their Apple Watch, to answer questions during a test.

In this case, I’m talking about using online sources to replace their readings of the text. Or simply as a substitute to avoid thinking about the text. In a sense, you may not think about this type of behavior under the umbrella of academic honesty. Certainly, it falls under the category of unethical use of technology. Still, you might not have thought about it as cheating. But I want to suggest that you should.

Because your students do it all the time.

I have found that when confronted with a particular literary question, high school students consult the internet as a matter of course. For instance, when I teach Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” I also teach how Thoreau uses irony as a literary device. I cite the author’s famous adage “the government is best that governs least” as an example. I help students see how by its very definition the function of a government is to govern. And that when he concludes that the best government is the one that governs least, he contradicts reader expectations. This is what makes it irony. I then ask students to work in groups to identify other examples of irony in the text of “Civil Disobedience” and to explain how Thoreau is using irony to persuade.

Invariably, if I divide students into groups of four, two of them will open their laptops, open their browsers, and ask its search engine to help them identify suitable examples of irony. It is their instinct. It is how they have been learning since they learned to ask questions. “How do I tie my shoe? What is the capital of Denmark? When was the War of 1812? What are some examples of irony in ‘Civil Disobedience?” And they will use the examples they found on the internet, rather than doing the work to find their own, as the basis for your class discussions.

They are not bad people. They do not think of this as cheating.  They just don’t know the difference between using the internet for research and using the internet to read and to study. They do not recognize that they are using technology unethically.

My students resort to the internet almost automatically as part of the act of reading. Having trouble with Margaret Fuller’s vocabulary in “The Great Lawsuit”? Finding it hard to follow Hawthorne’s byzantine sentences in The Scarlet Letter? Your students can find help on the internet. Even for understudied authors like Fuller, reading aids abound in the form of sites like Sparknotes, Cliffnotes, Gradesaver, random Prezi’s created by other students (many of them high school students), and their go-to-source for everything: Schmoop. They love to look it up on the Schmoop.

And if you assign your students The Golden Apples, I promise that left to their own devices (see what I did there?), your students will consult the Schmoop after reading the first three sentences rather than puzzle together the plot themselves. And after they start with Schmoop, you will be lucky if they read Welty’s text alongside an online reading aid. And they will come into your classroom having prepared themselves to discuss Welty based on their reading of some anonymous stranger’s reading of the novel (which that anonymous stranger probably pieced together from other online resources).

Heathers via IMD

The Damage

Besides the fact that all of these behaviors I have described should fall under your school’s definition of Academic Dishonesty, unethical use of technology harms your students and prevents them from meeting the objectives of your course.

First of all, when your students look up answers to literary questions on the internet instead of doing the intellectual labor necessary to answer them, when they confuse research with study and interpretation, they are cheating. You might not like to think of it this way, but they just are. And they are plagiarizing because they are taking the ideas of others and representing them as their own.

Secondly, unless you curb unethical use of technology in your classroom, your students will never learn to think. I want to take a moment here and use Schmoop’s analysis of one of my favorite American novels, The House of the Seven Gables, to illustrate my point.

FireShot Capture 002 - The House of the Sev_ - https___www.shmoop.com_house-seven-gables_themes.html
Actual Screenshot of Analysis of House of the Seven Gables via the Schmoop. #notjoking.

As you can see from the above screenshot, the supposed knowledge that sites like Schmoop offer our students ranges from the inane (“You can’t really talk about the Puritans without talking about religion”) to ridiculously dumbed down: “The House of the Seven Gables is all about how families can mess you up. The Pyncheon family is a bad one – maybe even a cursed one – and it passes bad blood down through the years to perpetuate generations of badness.” You can only be thinking one thing right now, reader: “O. M. G.”

After reading Schmoop our collective heart beats faster. Not with joy, but with panic. For one thing, the Schmoop here vastly oversimplifies, even distorts, the theme of the novel. The House of the Seven Gables is certainly not “about how families can mess you up.” The novel is about how, to paraphrase the author himself, the collective sins of one generation pass down to the next. We know this, William Faulkner knew this, everyone knows this, but if our students take Schmoop’s analysis as fact they will adopt this gross misinterpretation of the novel as their own.

Furthermore, analyses like the one above teach our students “bad” writing. Because seriously, the writing on sites like Schmoop is bad. So bad, reader. I’m not going to even waste our time together by explaining it to you. But unchecked, your students will learn to write based on the example of these sites. And in doing so, will learn to write badly.

Because they may have not comprehended the novel, or may have skipped parts, or not read it at all. Your students are browsing sites like Schmoop because they believe that the anonymous writers on sites like Schmoop are smarter, or possess greater expertise in literature, than they do. And as students, they aspire to achieve expertise, or at least imitate it. So when your students sit down to write their analytical essay on Gertrude Stein, they will remember this writing and consider it a template.

Sites like Schmoop are one reason I advised you that you need to teach writing, a lot. You need to make sure that you and capable others like you become your students’ model for writing analysis, not random anonymous people on the internet.

If your students use the internet as a substitute for thinking and reading, their critical thinking and reading comprehension skills will not grow through your teaching. And it is especially important for you to challenge students to grow when they enter your classroom at ages 18 and 19 because their brains are still developing. Now more than when they grow older, they can become better readers and better thinkers.


4 Suggestions for Teaching Ethical Use of Technology

  1. Include unethical use of technology in the definition of Academic Dishonesty on your syllabus. In my own syllabus, I attach this additional rider to the boilerplate language on plagiarism provided by my school.

Note: in addition to the examples of plagiarism in your Student Handbook, using online sources such as Sparknotes or Schmoop to demonstrate reading and reading comprehension also falls under the category of academic dishonesty and constitute an unethical use of technology. Do not use such sources to answer questions in homework, group work, or class discussion. Do the work. Perform the intellectual labor necessary to meet the course objectives.”

  1. Explain the challenges that technology poses to your students’ learning in class. I usually do this on the first day of class, and again whenever I teach how to cite sources correctly and avoid plagiarism (and if you don’t teach citation, and I’m not telling you what to do, but OMG). Tell them how, and why, the websites they habitually use when they read literature harm them and constitute plagiarism.
  2. Police unethical use of technology in the classroom. At the very least, walk around and see what students are doing during lecture and group work. Call students out when you see them on Schmoop and Sparknotes and Gradesaver. At most, prohibit laptops, tablets, and phones from certain class discussions.
  3. Become familiar with the most commonly consulted internet sources for information about assigned texts. This is not as difficult or laborious as it sounds. Just type the name of the text your students are studying into the Google and read the first few search engine hits. This is what your students do. You don’t need to get too deep into the results, or any more complex in your queries.
Teacher Appreciation Day via Karen Hedge

You are their teacher, not their friend

Even if you give your students guidelines in Rules 1 and 2 above, they will try to get around you. Your relationship with your students is by its very nature adversarial. It is your role to create and enforce rules, and their tendency, when the going gets tough and grades are at stake, to come up with ways to circumvent them.

They will conspire against you. Not in any sinister way, but they will work together to find the quickest means to complete reading and other assignments because they have overextended themselves between school, work, family, and extra-curricular activities. They will share their cheats and shortcuts with each other. They will circumvent you while you willfully remain blind.

Future cohorts of your students will ask your current students how they ever got through The Sound and the Fury in the two weeks you give them to read it, along with their Fundamentals of Inorganic Chemistry class, the accompanying lab, their social lives, helping take care of their younger siblings, etc. And unless you stop it now, your future students will arrive in your classroom equipped with the workarounds necessary to ace your class without the time, effort, and critical thinking that you expect of them.

I know that you don’t want to do this. Snooping around their most probable internet crutches makes you uncomfortable. I mean they’re your students! The should be able to trust you! You should be able to trust them, right? Resorting to such lengths to uncover their furtiveness does not conform to your idea of yourself as their Kool Professor. It does not fit the idea of the Kool Professor that your students, as long as you don’t push them too hard, allow you to believe yourself to be.

But you’re not their friend, and that’s not your job. You have to remember, your job is to help them, in some cases coerce them, to become their best selves. They are not your buddies. They are someone else’s children, and it is your job, it is your privilege, to intellectually, and to a certain extent emotionally, nurture them.

They are our future citizens and leaders. If you value literacy and critical thinking as I do, you will agree with me that the future of the human race, quite literally, depends on our vigilance in the classroom.

So you have to make them do the work. They deserve this from you.

It’s not too late. You can still make a difference.

orange clay


Clay Zuba is an English Teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches American Literature and writing. In 2016, he was awarded a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Delaware. His acclaimed blog about Nathaniel Hawthorne is a precursor to his upcoming historical novel Love in the House of the Seven Gables.