by Bristin Jones, Comparative Literature
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2018
In my first semester teaching Reading and Composition (R&C) in the Comparative Literature department, I realized that one of the most significant challenges undergraduates face in engaging with literary texts is producing thought-provoking thesis statements and arguments. After years of standardized testing, students are scared to postulate exciting or innovative literary interpretations, opting instead for straightforward arguments that summarize the overall significance or overarching themes of the text at hand. How could I motivate my students, many of whom are not humanities majors, to move beyond bland argumentation and take a creative risk in their essay writing?
To solve this problem, I devised a multi-step activity that encourages students to brainstorm various literary interpretations that initially seem daring or outrageous. I introduce this activity by explaining that while determining a text’s overall meaning is important, doing college-level literary research is both more fun and more difficult than that: just as a scientist aims to discover something new in the lab, a literary scholar’s goal can be thought of as discovering previously uninvestigated aspects of a poem, short story, or novel. In a brief lecture, I teach students five specific strategies for brainstorming creative thesis statements (e.g., the “one word” thesis, the “new angle” thesis, the “seemingly insignificant” thesis). For homework, I have them use these methods to come up with three interpretations of their own about texts we are currently reading. We then workshop these interpretations in class the next day. During this workshop, I demonstrate that it is much easier to “reign in” a seemingly outrageous or hard-to-prove literary interpretation than to make a bland argument more interesting.
In contrast to thinking of the “big picture” and focusing on overall significance, this activity teaches students to “think small” and to pay attention to the text’s minute but intriguing details. Their creative thesis statements might be inspired, for example, by the curious repetition of the word “white” in Clarice Lispector’s “The Buffalo” (a “one word” thesis) or a particular sentence about cannibalism that caught their attention in Julio Cortázar’s “Axolotl” (a “seemingly insignificant” thesis). Most importantly, coming up with a new and exciting interpretation of a literary text is both more enjoyable and more rewarding, and students inevitably spend more time and energy on their essays when they feel excited by and invested in their topics.
I am able to track the positive effect this activity has on students’ textual insights by the improvement I see in the quality of their interpretations compared to the diagnostic essay assigned at the beginning of the semester. The students continue to hone and refine their interpretive skills through daily bCourses posts and their two main essays, each of which includes brainstorming assignments, a draft, and a final version. Cultivating creativity improves students’ engagement in the classroom and is fruitful to every career path. This activity has been so successful at helping students to produce more perceptive, challenging, and original literary interpretations that I have continued to use it every semester in my R&C courses.