I was reading another post on “The Innovative Educator” the other morning and in tune with most of the other posts on that site, it advocates for caring about students and making their experiences meaningful. They are hard things to disagree with, especially when you want your classes to care as much as you do about their learning. But somewhere on the way to proving her point, the post’s author implies that a critical essay about literature is not a worthwhile task; at least it seems that those teachers who assign such tasks aren’t doing enough.
I guess the critical essay does sound a bit luddite and wouldn’t really be an example of a meaningful task because when students hand in a paper they are doing for me to grade and not publishing to a wiki or blog or anything for the greater world to see. After all, I am not a real audience for them, just an example of an outdated piece of a machine that ruins any shot they have at real inteligence. At least that’s the impression I got.
Let’s set aside those things and look at the issue at hand, which is that there is still value to be found in a critical literature essay. I’ll make a bit of a switch and call it a “paper” instead of an “essay” because to me, “essay” implies either a piece of personal writing and not analytic writing, and I want to be clear that I am not referring to that scourge of high school English class, the five-paragraph essay. Furthermore, since the literature paper is still a viable form of assessment, then it’s right to consider that the teacher is still a genuine audience (then again, I’ll go out on a limb and say that teachers not being “genuine” is simply a label meant to denigrate the profession and harp on the already-tired “industrial model” talking point).
But why, if said paper may never go beyond the classroom or past my desk, do I consider myself a genuine audience for my students and consider their writing a paper a genuine assessment of what they have learned in the study of literature? I’ve touched on this subject before, but I did want to come back to it here and talk a little more about my experiences with the literature paper this year with my advanced sophomore English class. I know that many of them are considering colleges and having gotten to know a good number of the 25 students in that particular class, I can see several of them going after acceptance from a competitive school like Virginia or William & Mary (if this were my old high school, they would be applying to at least one Ivy). So, their immediate future more than likely involves a classroom or lecture hall and if they wind up taking a class in the humanities, they may wind up doing some sort of critical analysis by way of a paper. So it’s still a relevant way to use a skill that’s been labeled “21st Century,” although to be honest, the lit paper has been around for quite a long time.
And come to think of it, the idea of a “closed” audience, no matter how collaborative an environment you work in, is also relevant as well. I spent quite a number of years in sales support and marketing positions where my work was done for either my boss or someone in another department or a partner and the only people outside our company/firm who saw it were clients. So the idea that you are producing something that’s for a specific audience and not “published” in the sense that it is available for a mass audience is also important and therefore those types of audiences (your clients, your boss, your teacher), are genuine audiences. Read the rest of this entry »