That Which Moves: Affect and Analysis

Categories: Teaching Effectiveness Award Essays

By Kyra Sutton, Rhetoric

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2023

As a rhetoric instructor, I have found that undergraduates enter my courses having learned to subdue their feelings about academic texts. Whether they like the text, they have learned in high school, is beside the point; they are here to analyze it. This imagined taboo on discussing one’s relation to a text in the classroom often manifests in silences during discussion sections at the beginning of the term: unsure of their analytical skills and reluctant to share what they consider to be an inappropriate or naïve reaction to a text, students are reticent to contribute much at all. How, I wondered, could I help them to unlearn this high school mythos, demonstrating to them that their affective responses to texts were not only relevant to our course but critical to the development of their analytical practices? Rather than repressing or relegating the space of affect, I sought to convey to my students that beginning with that which moves us—whether positively or negatively—is often most generative.

To help my students register the insights to be gleaned from their reactions, I began implementing an exercise during discussions: after close reading a passage together, I asked the class to take two minutes of silent freewriting to reflect on the initial reactions, impressions, and feelings the passage evoked for them. We are not yet analyzing; I stressed here. The students were to write down anything that came to mind: were they bothered? Moved? Did they find the text funny? Did they hate it? Did they find it confusing, convoluted? Poetic? Perhaps they might want to jot down images, associations, resonances the text conjured for them. The activity was intended to be low-stakes, a sort of automatic writing, and the silence was designed to create time for closer reflection where ordinarily there would be less, as well as to make the discussion more accessible to students with different learning needs—those, for example, with slower processing speeds, or those who might need silence in which to think before feeling comfortable to share publicly. After the two minutes, I asked students to slowly, gradually begin sharing their impressions and reactions with the class. As students—many of whom were not frequent contributors—began speaking, I gathered our collective affective experiences and reactions on the board, creating a list for all to see. Once this list grew, and a conversation about students’ relationship to the text was flowing, I then asked the key question, the “how” question: how does the text enact X on us? If, for example, a student had found the passage suspenseful, what in the passage contributed to the suspense? If someone found the text to be frustrating, irksome, why? Was the text operating in tauntingly impenetrable prose? Was there something alienating in it, and if so—where, precisely? What terms, what formal features, seemed to contribute to that alienation? And so on, and so forth. Together, we began to move from affect to analysis, beginning to pose the sorts of questions that would eventually generate a scholarly claim.

The frisson of excitement that this exercise produced was immediately apparent: students felt liberated to share instincts and feelings they had formerly kept to themselves for fear that they were not “academic enough”—everything from “Genesis 22 reminded me of a mystery novel,” to “Kierkegaard cracked me up,” to “I couldn’t stand this” was fair game. But more interesting was that our conversation moved organically, even before my having introduced the “how” question, to matters of analysis: students began to offer analytical observations, to reflect on how and why the text had produced certain impressions in them, before they were instructed to. What this reveals, and what I emphasized to my students, is that affect is an important guide: attending to and reflecting on our affective reading experiences can lead to key sites of analysis. Part of what my students learned from this exercise was how to cultivate this practice of moving from affect to analysis, and in turn, of generating the research questions and claims that might guide future papers and inquiries. This was visible in their self-designed paper topics, which gained in stakes and motivation, and their papers themselves, which homed in on the affective dimension of textual form. By creating a space in which we constantly journeyed from the register of the affective to the formal and intellectual (themselves intertwined), moving from feeling, to analysis, to assertion, the process of analysis became demystified for my students, and discussions became livelier—one could say, both more affecting and effective.