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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Gritty in the Composition Classroom

I was introduced to Gritty, the Philadelphia Flyer’s new mascot, while scrolling through Twitter. Despite originally being from Eastern Pennsylvania and coming from (in the words of my dad) a “long line of suffering Philadelphia sports fans,” I first saw Gritty while reading this tweet from poet Eve Ewing in which she describes him as a visualization of a panic attack. My eyes widened in horror as I realized how absolutely terrifying this new mascot was. I immediately assumed that Gritty would go down as yet another notorious moment in Philadelphia sports history, like that time Eagles fans threw snowballs at Santa. Fortunately, Gritty was embraced by the city of Philadelphia as well as the users of Twitter. Why not embrace Gritty in the composition classroom as well? Since we are nearing the end of the semester, I have been trying to think of quick writing activities to help keep my current students interested while we review certain skills or my future students interested while they are learning these skills for the first time. So, in honor of the newest member of the Philadelphia sports community who has captured the hearts of many, including several of the contributors here at PALS, I have outlined two easy in-class writing activities, one that reviews summary writing and one that emphasizes the importance of using description, with Gritty as a focal point.

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Via @GrittyNHL/Twitter

Summarizing Gritty

My first activity that uses Gritty in the classroom was inspired by a piece of advice I received from a former colleague. He told me that when teaching developmental writing students how to read critically and summarize information, give them articles about weird topics, ones that will keep their attention. Colin Dwyer’s “Gritty, Stuff Of Nightmares, Has Been Officially Welcomed To Philadelphia” is an article designed to do just that. Its content is accessible, but it is presented in a way that might be tricky for students who are learning how to write summaries for the first time. This article, specifically, contains a lot of images and tons of details, both of which some students might over-prioritize when drafting a summary. As a result, working with this article about Gritty will help students practice how to determine and then write about an article’s implied main idea as well as its major supporting details.

To begin, I ask my students to annotate the article. After checking their annotations, I have students create an informal outline of the article’s most important points. Depending on whether this lesson is an introduction to or a review of writing summaries, we may stop the writing process at this point for a brief discussion. As a class, we talk through the ideas that students have outlined and write them on the board. Then we determine what the article’s main idea is, which details are too specific for a summary, and which ones should be included. Students then draft their summaries. After everyone has finished writing, I conclude the lesson by creating a class summary. To do this, students volunteer to read parts of their summaries out loud. Together, we then make sure that our summary clearly begins with the article’s title and author, states the article’s main idea, and describes the article’s major supporting details. Students check their summaries with what we wrote as a class and make revisions. By the end of this activity, students should have a clear understanding of how to write a summary, even if it is about the public’s reaction to a tall, goofy orange mascot.

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Via @GrittyNHL/Twitter

Describing Gritty

When writing a descriptive essay, especially in the first-year composition classroom, students must practice being deliberate with their word choice. That way, they are able to write about a person, place, or moment so that a reader, who has most likely not known this person, been to this place, or experienced this moment, feels as though she has. This activity uses images of Gritty to help students practice incorporating figurative language into their writing. First, each student is assigned a picture of Gritty. Luckily, Gritty’s twitter account is an excellent resource for a wide range of images. Students then spend class time writing a paragraph that describes the picture. The goal, I tell my students, is to have someone who hasn’t seen your picture be able to draw the image based on what she reads. What my students don’t know yet is that they are going to test how effective their descriptions are by actually doing this.

After writing, students are put into groups of two or three, where they trade paragraphs with another student. Everyone keeps their original images of Gritty. Students then draw Gritty, based on the paragraphs they were given, with the goal of having their pictures look as close to the original images as possible. This quick exercise shows students how important using detail can be. For example, if one student writes that Gritty is holding a sign that says he is a month old, but doesn’t include which hand he is holding that sign in, the second student might place the sign in the wrong spot. After giving students enough time to laugh and/or grumble their way through the drawing process, I have them compare, in their groups, what they drew with the original images. Then, as a whole class, we discuss any challenges students faced during the writing process as well as how we can apply what we have learned during this activity to writing with detail and clarity.

Analyzing Gritty

While the two activities outlined in this post could focus on something completely different, the use of Gritty highlights why it is important to, at times, use unexpected topics during writing activities. My next step for using Gritty in the classroom is to develop a lesson based on his cultural reception, whether it be close reading this Resolution, which was passed almost unanimously by the Philadelphia City Council, or thinking through the politicization of Gritty, as analyzed in this article from The New Yorker. A recent episode of the podcast Reply All could serve as supplemental material. Additionally, I would love to hear ways that other instructors have used surprising topics to help students practice different elements of the writing process. And remember, even though incorporating something like Gritty in the composition classroom might seem ridiculous, it is important to take risks, just as Gritty does every time he steps out on the ice with his t-shirt cannon.

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Via The NHL’s official page on Giphy