by Vanessa Brutsche, French
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2017
One of the skills that I target in my Reading and Composition courses is the ability to read beyond basic content (plot and characters), and to move fluidly between the abstract and concrete levels of a text’s meaning. In literature-based courses, this entails training students to be attuned to what is going on conceptually in a text, and discouraging psychological projection about characters’ feelings or motivations. Most first-year students have only been trained to read for content and then to identify the themes that traverse literary objects (such as “revenge,” “love,” or “death” in Hamlet). Instead, I encourage students to ask “what is at stake” in a text – that is, what concepts or ideas it articulates, negotiates, and problematizes – and how these issues are manifested.
This semester, in my Comparative Literature R1A, “Haunted: Ghosts, Specters, and Revenants,” my students were particularly struggling with discussing texts on the conceptual level. This difficulty led to essays that were descriptive rather than analytic, outlining or speculating about elements of plot and character, rather than making nuanced, analytical claims about meaning and interpretation. In the case of Hamlet, for example, many students wanted to debate whether Hamlet was “really” insane, but found it much more challenging to examine the various ways that “madness” is constituted and performed in the play.
I turned to popular films to offer a different illustration of what it means to ask “what is at stake” in a text. Having spent two days of class on focused analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” I prepared my students for a more global, concluding discussion of the story. I announced that they would form small groups to discuss and formulate an answer to the (dauntingly broad) question: “What is this story about?,” with the caveat that they could not mention the plot or characters in their response. In preparation, I gave two examples – one simple, the other more complex – of the form their responses could take. “What is Star Wars about?” I asked. The class was silent, perhaps thinking it was a trick question, until one student timidly advanced, “Good versus evil.” Yes, this is exactly what I had in mind! Surprised to hear my approval of this seemingly obvious answer, a few students responded quickly to my next question, “What is Jurassic Park about?,” answering, “Dinosaurs!” This is a content-based answer, I pointed out, and offered a more conceptual version: Jurassic Park is about the confrontation between science and nature, or less broadly, how technology can problematize our definition of what is “natural.”
With these examples in mind, the students went on to discuss in groups what they thought the Poe story was “about,” referring to the structure of the models I gave (each stated a tension between at least two concepts). After formulating a concept-based response, they could offer concrete details in support of their claim. When the small groups shared their work with the class, the resulting discussion was the most productive one we had had up to that point in the semester. While the “X versus Y” model is certainly not the only way to describe what is at stake in a text, this exercise helped the class have a collective breakthrough about how to articulate their thinking on both the abstract and concrete levels.
In discussions of other texts later in the semester, I sometimes asked them to work with partners to develop two different, but equally compelling, answers to the question, “what is this text about?” The class also became more skilled at identifying what is stake not just in a text as a whole, but in certain paragraphs, passages, or sections. Overall, they developed a greater sensitivity to the ways in which literary texts tell us what they are “about,” and the skill of identifying the stakes without being bound to what individual characters think or feel. These advances have resounded in our class discussions, in the kinds of observations the students make in their reading response papers, and in their essays. Locating tension between ideas in texts has also allowed them to pursue the implications of conceptual tension in their own thinking, giving their analytic arguments the momentum to move forward and evolve.