by Lael Gold, Comparative Literature
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2003
Despite in-class instruction and a detailed handout on the subject of thesis and essay construction, the first batch of essays from students in my comparative literature course on literary depictions of woman warriors shared some fundamental shortcomings. My two chief concerns, overly simplistic thesis statements and arguments insufficiently grounded in the details of the text, were, to my mind, related. Because this course was an elective seminar rather than a composition class, I aimed at remedying these writing problems in a manner that would simultaneously deepen our engagement with the work presently under consideration, the fantastical Renaissance crusader epic Jerusalem Delivered.
After a class devoted to jointly analyzing the language and themes of this work via the detailed interpretation of individual lines of the poem, students were given the homework assignment of selecting and preparing an analysis of the two consecutive lines of the poem they found most mystifying or intriguing. I explained that they should prepare written notes and expect to present these close readings to their classmates during the following class. As indicated by slightly excited comments and questions, this further instruction markedly heightened their investment in this assignment.
Before the beginning of the next class, I placed variously colored signs on five desks spread out around the room. Each sign was labeled with an abstract theme prevalent in Jerusalem Delivered, ranging from “war and violence” to “physical beauty” to “motherhood” to “religion and faith” to “romantic love.” Again, questions and comments, as they entered the room that day and took their seats, indicated that these signs had captured my students’ attention. Before taking roll and going over class business, I asked students to consider under which of the five categories their own chosen lines and interpretations best fit. When announcements and other class preliminaries were over, students were polled by a show of hands to determine how many close readings belonged to each category. Because of the obsessive nature of this poem, which returns again and again to a few main themes, all students had a clear sense which one or two categories most related to the lines they’d prepared. On this basis, students sorted themselves into groups by arranging their desks around the relevant theme. Because of the flexibility that thematic overlap provided, groups were manageably sized, ranging from three to six in number.
Paper clipped to the inside of each folded sign was a set of written instructions which we went over together. Firstly, students were to present their close readings to their fellow group members. Then, collaboratively, they were to construct a thesis statement based on what their discussions of these lines had uncovered. This thesis was to address the group’s abstract topic and fit into a formula with which they had prior experience: “Although . . . nevertheless . . . because . . .”
Twenty minutes before the end of class, each group read to the class the thesis it had created. This was a moment of continued instruction as well as assessment, for students seemed aware when a thesis still needed work, and were likewise unanimous in their approbation of especially elegant and suggestive offerings. With good humor, we reflected together on the relative merits, in terms of clarity and complexity, of each. I mentioned that taking small segments of the text as their starting point can provide direction for an essay’s body as well as its thesis, since these same close readings will serve as supports. The most telling assessment of my instructional strategy came with the arrival of their next set of essays. Happily, these showed near universal, dramatic improvement in the areas of thesis development and detailed textual analysis.