Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Literature but Were Afraid to Ask the Saturday Evening Post: or, How Literature is Like Math

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Mayumi Takada, English

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2004

After teaching a few semesters of the English 1 series, I noted a startling discrepancy between the intelligent insights students provided in class and in office hours and the poor critical papers they wrote. I could, for example, successfully engage them in sophisticated conversation about what the break down of language represents in Toni Morrison’s Beloved; yet students were unable to recognize the logical steps they had taken in their own minds to come up with their points. This omission was evident in papers, where they often came up with interesting ideas without any convincing supporting arguments. In the language of high school math, they simply wrote out answers without showing their work. They were incapable of doing a close reading, the building block of literary writing and analysis.

Presenting close reading exercises and using short, pithy Emily Dickinson poems to teach close reading met with various levels of success: the former, too boring, the latter too intimidating. At the beginning of my course “Contemporary (East) Asian Literature: Narratives of Disguise,” I decided to take a radically different approach: By beginning the course with a disarmingly simple exercise that forced the students to break down their preconceptions about the very act of reading. On the first day I handed out an old advertisement for a luxury car that ran in the Saturday Evening Post, dated from the 1920s.

On the first class meeting I required each student to make the most basic observation about the ad. As I predicted, most students made interpretive points — “buying the car makes you classy” — rather than observational — “there is a wealthy man and woman in the center of the ad.” At this juncture I jocularly reprimanded the student for being too smart or too interpretive, encouraging their comments to be more obvious, more basic, more stupid. I wrote each observation on one side of the blackboard.

As observations amassed, I encouraged inferences based on others’ observations. Thus, noting that “the keys to the car are pictured in a jewelry case” led to the inference that “cars and jewelry are interchangeable.” I then suggested inferences of inferences–that car keys, not jewelry, are an appropriate Christmas present for young and rich couples–which became steps toward further interpretation — that the car is a status symbol for young, independent women, though the car must still be offered by the man of the house. By thus mapping the step by step process of analyzing any text, the students could see the process of close reading as no longer just a question of language, grammar, tone, and metaphor–the tools they came armed with from high school. This exercise had the added benefits of forcing each student to hear herself speaking from the very first day of class, thereby making even the shyest more confident. The group effort at building up analytical points encouraged students to discuss and collaborate on ideas together as a class.

Throughout the semester I continued to hone the students’ close reading skills through weekly homework assignments, easing them from visual advertising to assigned literary passages, to finally requiring them to find interesting passages on their own. From advertising, to poetry, essays, novels, film, and even conceptual art, the class learned to apply their skills to a wide variety of media. Because of this first exercise, I found students easily recognized the complexity in seemingly simple narratives like Sara Chin’s short story collection Below the Line. My texts increased in difficulty, ending with an excerpt from DICTEE, a tremendously difficult, experimental prose-art piece by conceptual artist and video/film maker Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Though students were baffled at the text’s opacity, they nonetheless felt confident enough in their analytical ability to dig into this indecipherable, collage-like text, able to pinpoint why and what angered them–to interpret and conjecture on the critical upshot of Cha’s grammatically incorrect sentences, sentence fragments and her uncited images. My introductory exercise thus gave them the tools to not only “show their work” but also to come up with more sophisticated answers.