An Essay Asks a Question and Tries to Answer it: Introducing American Lit Students to Contemporary Forms of Creative Nonfiction

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When I introduce my field—nonfiction—to students of literature, I begin by setting simple yet strict ground rules. First, we use different vocabulary in referring to forms of fiction than in referring to forms of nonfiction. Therefore, the following terms are not interchangeable:

A story links a sequence of events. (Genre: “fiction.”)

An essay asks a question and tries to answer it. (Genre: “creative nonfiction.”)

In other words, the genre of fiction includes literature in story-form and novel-form. The genre of poetry includes literature in poem-form. And the genre of nonfiction includes literature in essay-form. What we study in this unit are essays, and I begin by coaching students to refer to them as such.

Genre

Of course, hard and fast definitions are a great point of entry to discussion as (perhaps all) definitions are problematic. My advice for the classroom: call genre into question as time allows. Then reiterate the above ground rules and stick to them, at least in this introductory sequence (hybridity and blending coming soon!).

Once we’ve considered the boundaries of truth and imagination and agreed the fiction/nonfiction genre divide might be a site of entangled expectations and double-entendres, I ground our discussion in history. This portion of the lesson goes, roughly, like this:

Q: why divide creative prose into genres at all?2460028088_a0baeb592e_z

A: for shelving purposes at the library.

(Read about the origins of the term “nonfiction” here: in short, the term is an organizational strategy by which to organize the relative placement of books on a shelf. Looks like it originated in Boston in 1867.)

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You can slow down your genre discussion by providing a list like this one that reviews all the genres covered in the course…

In an American literature course, it is important the students realize the truth debate (my take here) takes up much of the discursive space surrounding nonfiction. However, because I don’t find this conversation to be particularly rich, I choose not to linger on the topic. I remind my students of Robert Bringhurst’s argument (see how his thinking can figure in to teaching American literature here) that “myth is a theorem about the nature of reality,” and I suggest to them that writers of all stripes are concerned with reality.

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…and names the main form associated with each.

But I try to be transparent: it’s in my own thinking life and studies of literature that the dichotomy that [fiction=fake] and [nonfiction=true] isn’t particularly useful—others   find it an exciting area. So we could, in this course, give a great deal of attention to the central question of the genre, “how true is true enough?” However, limiting our discussion of genre affords us more time to plumb the depths of form. This course’s unit on nonfiction thus does not scrutinize the truthiness of nonfiction and focuses instead on the question, “what is an essay?”

So…what is an essay?

Essay: from the French, un essai – an attempt.

Or essayer to try.

16th-century France: Michel de Montaigne asks, what do I know? In his attempt to answer this question… he creates the foundation for the modern essay.

The essay often involves paradoxes, self-doubt, a winding path, and contradicting answers. The essay uses experience, research, and reflection. And the essay can use any and every literary tool under the sun. Including narrative.

But an essay is not a story. A story connects events. And an essay asks a question and tries to answer it.

(Students, by now, will get antsy: this definition is elusive and they want more solid terms on which to understand the form. But I keep repeating this formulation like an adage—an essay asks a question and tries to answer it—because this is the key interpretive frame they’ll use for close reading. I find it helps them interact with essays as essays, and sets them up for a more complex read than they produce about “true stories.”)

Survey of forms

I keep this part simple, giving brief definitions. And I make sure to let students know that the department at our university offers a three-course undergraduate sequence in nonfiction (intro, intermediate, and advanced) to emphasize that what we’re doing in this unit just scratches the surface.

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Here’s a sample overview showing five forms of essays and advancing a brief definition of each.
Texts we read in class

What I really want students to get out of this unit are the tools by which to approach and interact with any piece of literature that calls itself an essay. Since this is my priority, I don’t feel I have to dip into or expose students to all essay forms like a tray of hors d’œuvres. Students are best served by approaching just two essays: one in which it is relatively “easy” to discern the question the essay is asking (and relatively “easy” to locate its answer, as incomplete as it may be)—and one in which it’s much harder.

Gloria Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” and Barry Lopez’s “The Raven” (both included in the Norton Anthology, if you use it) make one viable pair of essays for the above exercise. Beginning with Anzaldúa’s essay, I ask this sequence of questions (good for freewriting, for small groups to hash out, for the class to consider as a whole, or some combination of these):

  1. What is the core question this essay asks?
  2. What are some of the text’s restatements or variations on that question?
  3. What seems to be the essay’s answer? What gaps persist in its answer?

It’s not that Anzaldúa’s piece is “easy” per se, but students do find traction with these questions and generate solid answers.

Barry Lopez’s “The Raven,” on the other hand, is harder. It’s more difficult to pin down as common_raven_2a text that asks a question and attempts to answer it. This isn’t surprising: “The Raven” was initially received as a story, but is now generally understood to be an essay (lots to unpack there from a lit studies perspective). And the author’s own remarks also complicate this unit’s approach to “The Raven” as an essay.
Either way, reading “The Raven” as an essay means we must listen for the core question it seems to ask, and listen for the answer it seems to offer. Students have to stretch their interpretive faculties to figure out how to apply this interpretive frame. Some find it frustrating. Others find it exciting, as making discoveries in a challenging text often is. We then briefly revisit notions of nonfiction-as-truth, and note how flat interpretations of “The Raven” become when we point out what’s true and attempt to describe the essay’s significance based on its use of factuality.

An enjoyable follow-up exam question: Pretend a friend from outside this class just read Barry Lopez’s “The Raven.” How would you teach them to think about the piece specifically as an essay?

Pairing “The Lottery” with The Hunger Games to Teach Critical Thinking Skills

One of my favorite moments as an instructor happened in 2011 after a composition class. During class, we analyzed Vincent Bzdek’s 2005 Washington Post article “More Powerful than… Ever” before watching clips from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in order to determine if the latest portrayal (at that time) of Batman and the Joker also proved Bzdek’s claims. Before leaving, one student stopped to tell me, “You know, you just ruined The Dark Knight for me. Because now I won’t be able to watch it without thinking.”

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This student’s response was exactly what I wanted to hear. Even though I jokingly apologized to him for “ruining” one of his favorite movies, I was excited that my plan for expanding my students’ perceptions of what a “text” is had worked. When lesson planning, I often pair assigned readings with texts from popular culture as a way for students to reflect on how they think about these texts. This type of pairing is a great strategy to not only, as my PALS colleague Brianne Jaquette discussed in a previous post, bring “some excitement to the classroom,” but also to teach students critical thinking strategies. 

I decided to pair Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” with The Hunger Games in my Literature and Composition class after hearing repeatedly from students how often they thought of this movie while reading Jackson’s short story. In many ways, this pairing is quite obvious: both texts literally depict a lottery that results in dangerous consequences for its winners. I knew, though, that I wanted to focus my lesson on how finding and discussing important details in each text can lead to a richer discussion of both texts’ larger themes. The rest of this post will outline a group activity that has students compare “The Lottery” with part of The Hunger Games in order to help them develop critical thinking skills.

“The Lottery”

I start this lesson by placing students into five groups. Using “The Lottery,” each group’s main task will be to find and write down at least five sentences or phrases from the story that relate to one of the following:

  • The Mentioning of Stones
  • Details about the Rituals Surrounding the Lottery
  • Details about the Black Box, Specifically
  • Descriptions of the Townspeople’s Behavior
  • Any Dialogue that the Townspeople Say

black-box-2I emphasize to my students that each group should pay special attention to word choice. I also tell the class that after completing this part of the activity, they should, while still in their groups, discuss the point of view that Jackson uses in “The Lottery.” During this discussion, their goal is to determine how the point of view influences the ways that readers perceive the village and how the ending might read differently if it was told from a different point of view.

I initially created this group activity because “The Lottery” is almost always the first short story I assign since it is both accessible and popular. However, some students often become fixated on its ending. When taken into consideration with the fact that this may be the first short story many of my students are critically analyzing in some time (or possibly ever), I realized that it can be hard for some students to think past that final scene. Instead of focusing on why Jackson wrote this ending, I want students to first understand how she constructs the plot to foreshadow the ending.

This part of the activity thus enables students to practice close reading and taking notes as ways to engage with the rest of the text. In each group, students determine which examples are the best to share with the class. In addition to requiring students to critically think about the text by finding and selecting these examples, this activity emphasizes how even one word can hold great significance. For example, Jackson reveals Mr. Summers and Mr. Adams “grinned at one another humorlessly and nervously” before participating in the lottery. The use of the words “humorlessly” and “nervously” clue readers in that this lottery may not be one that someone would want to win long before the story’s ending.

When each group reports on their findings, I usually write shorthand notes on the board while directing the class to take note of each specific example as it appears in the story. After each group has shared their examples, we have a class discussion that focuses on the role of tradition in “The Lottery.” Using the examples on the board as evidence, students answer larger questions: Why did the lottery start in the village? Why does the lottery remain a part of the town’s tradition?  What does the lottery say about the people who allow it to continue? And what about the fact that they also willingly participate in it?

The Hunger Games

While the students are still sitting with their groups, I show the first eighteen minutes of The Hunger Games, which concludes with Katniss and Peeta being named the Tributes for District 12. Before turning on the movie, I assign each group one of the following categories: 

  • The Characters’ Clothing
  • The Design of the Buildings
  • How Characters Talk About the Reaping
  • Why the Reaping Exists
  • Anything the Seems Odd or Out of Place in District 12

Each member is expected to take their own individual notes on the assigned topic, which they will then discuss with their small group. It’s important to note here that none of the topics above relate directly to comparing the Reaping with Jackson’s lottery or discussing the plot of the movie. Instead, they are designed to have students think about the atmosphere of District 12. Most students who have seen The Hunger Games will remember Katniss yelling “I volunteer as Tribute!” as the climax of this scene. Students also usually catch the elements of foreshadowing, such as Primrose’s nightmare, and mention them during class discussion. The goal of this activity is for students to think beyond plot. I want them to consider how director Gary Ross uses certain visual cues for the same purpose that Jackson uses word choice: to construct a society that is familiar, but also one that enables traditions like the Reaping or the lottery to exist.

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Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games (Copyright Lions Gate Entertainment Inc.)

After discussing what examples they wrote down while watching the movie, I have each group determine the three best examples that relate to their assigned category. I again write these examples on the board as each group shares their findings with the rest of the class. Students often cite the old fashioned clothing, the decaying buildings, the appearance of Effie, the fear that Primrose has for her first Reaping, and the video from the Capital as just a few important examples. These lists then become the starting point for our larger discussion about District 12. How, for example, can these people be “free” if they must sacrifice two of their children each year for the games? Why are the Hunger Games called a “pageant” in the opening description of the movie? Throughout this discussion, I have students point out how their examples connect to the movie’s larger themes of power, freedom, and tradition. We then conclude the lesson by making connections between District 12 and the village in “The Lottery.”

Using a familiar text like The Hunger Games in the classroom is a way to make a more “difficult” text, even one that is taught as frequently as “The Lottery,” more approachable for students. Not only does this lesson help students to make connections between the literary and the popular, but it will also help them to practice their note-taking skills and critical thinking abilities. By the end of this class, students will leave with a better understanding of  “The Lottery” and The Hunger Games as well as an deeper awareness of why it is important to think about how they analyze texts, regardless of the text’s medium or popularity.