What is Strange about Fiction?: Embracing Contradictions in Literary Texts to Improve Critical Thinking and Analytical Writing

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Kate Driscoll, Italian Studies

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2019

In teaching Reading and Composition courses, I have found that students—many of whom come from disciplines outside the humanities—often search for the “right” answer to literature, expecting the black and white colors on the page to correspond to black and white “correct” and “incorrect” interpretations of a text. From as early as their Diagnostic Essay, students tend to avoid textual tensions, contradictions, and ambiguities, preferring to cast instead a generalizing net over the text that keeps them from witnessing and engaging with multi-layered meanings. The more secure shores of broad claims and absolute certainty in student writing (e.g., “the text definitely shows that x” or “it cannot be argued otherwise that the character is y”) confuse the voice of confidence with narrowness of interpretation. But how do instructors explain this problem to students? How do we show our students that literary texts can (and often do) communicate contradictory ideas? In what ways can we encourage students to grapple with ambiguities and help them discover that these nuances lead to more complex critical thinking, in both their formal writing assignments and classroom discussion?

I came to a solution in my R5A class on Italian Comedy by creating a multi-step activity designed for students to deconstruct on their own the myth of the “right” answer to a text. Step one asked students to read the first act of Carlo Goldoni’s play The Servant of Two Masters and to come to class prepared to defend which single word, found in the text, unlocks the meaning of the work (in their opinion). In class, I assigned students to groups of three and announced that each of them had one minute to make the case for why her or his specific word communicates the “correct” meaning of the text. Once each student presented their arguments, groups were asked to reach unanimous agreement upon the one, unique word that best captures the text’s significance. This is where the fun began. While one classmate showed how “imprisonment” is key to the text’s meaning, another student indicated how “liberation” is a distinct, yet complementary term that reveals further complexities inherent in the play. During these conversations, students encountered the limitations of the “one word” approach to literary analysis, allowing them to realize that I had guided them towards an unexpected insight: the assignment’s purpose was never to reach a coherent conclusion that stood boldly by a single word, but to listen to one another’s interpretations and think together about how different elements of the text—even individual words that might seem to cancel each other out—disclose previously overlooked complexities that had remained hidden due to the interpretive “blinders” under which I had asked students to operate. Next, we came back together as a class to discuss the restrictions of this method of conducting literary analysis. Students shared perceptive remarks about how this process allowed them to see for themselves the analytical trap of generalizing certainty that, when imposed on a text replete with nuances, limits critical thinking rather than stimulating it. For homework after class, I asked students to post to bCourses clusters of contradictory words (like “imprisonment” and “liberation”) and to reflect in a one-page free-write on how these individual words offer unique ways of interpreting the text, and how, when analyzed together, they point to interdependent thematic and conceptual relationships.

Rather than telling students to go find ambiguities in literature—a task most R5A students do not know how to undertake—this assignment allows for textual complexity to arise directly out of student-produced written work and classroom discussion. Marking the success of this assignment, students’ improvements in their formal papers, requests that we repeat this activity, and positive feedback on mid-semester and final course evaluations reassure me that it is both an exercise geared toward enabling students to engage more intellectually with literature, and one about critical thinking on a larger scale that is applicable to students’ personal academic paths and career goals beyond Berkeley.