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 After all, I am not a real audience for them, just an example of an outdated piece of a machine that ruins any shot they have at real inteligence.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.
Now, back to my students. With the majority of them probably looking to further their educations beyond the walls of our high school and many of them moving on to AP-level English next year, I asked the AP English teacher what he expects when they show up next August. ”Well, they need to know how to write,” he said. With that, I took a glance at the syllabus from a community college class I took last semester and began plotting out a course that was based on student-led discussions as well as critical literature papers.
It was tough for them at first because the first paper was assigned by the end of the second week and when they were graded and passed back, many were not happy to see that they had only gotten a C. And as much as I was looking to set a particular tone there–the class may be fun and we may have a good time discussing the material, but they will be challenged–I also wanted to work with them to make sure they improved as we went along. That first C was not a set-in-stone grade, anyway. I handed back the papers and began troubleshooting, reminding them of my rewrite policy that states you have the choice to rewrite your paper and the worst thing that can happen is that the grade stays the same. They did improve with rewrites, for the most part, although I honestly was not much easier as the year went on because with each paper the minimum length requirement increased and my standards stayed high.
We have had some breakthroughs. After the first paper, I specifically addressed the fact that many in the class were writing in the first person and making an analytic paper into a personal opinion essay. We talked about, of all things, science experiments, matching up the thesis to the hypothesis, the experiment to reading the book and gathering the examples, and the conclusion to … well, the conclusion. At least one student told me, after a much-improved rewrite, that our discussion in the context of science is how she “finally got it,” and with the exception of a few moments, they’ve kicked that habit. From there, we have been working on bolstering arguments through evidence, properly quoting texts, and developing a personal sense of style.
I admit, it’s a few steps down a long road. Learning to write is something you never stop doing, and while I don’t expect all of my sophomores to emerge from my class being able to submit to the most important academic journals, I do expect them to be able to enter a classroom at a higher level, be assigned a paper, and not wave their fists at the sky cursing me because they never saw the business end of MS Word.