by Andrea Zemgulys, English
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2000
The Problem: One of the most difficult and important skills I teach to my Reading and Composition students is that of moving from descriptive writing (what amounts to plot summary in an English literature class) to analytic writing, to writing that communicates the student’s ideas rather than the studied author’s ideas. By the middle point of the semester, students for the most part have understood how to present a central argument for their papers, but they do not write in such a way that their argument pervades the essay assignment. Because composition teachers rely on a distinction between arguments and evidence, students often do not see how their evidence (the bulk of their essay) can be anything but descriptive, non-analytic, and transparently factual. For example, students often present characters’ speech as communicating their own (the students’) ideas rather than the author’s: that “Bill says ‘x’” satisfies the student as an argument, presumably because they’ve selected out a useful sentence for quotation. Of course, finding suitable primary evidence for an argumentative thesis is itself a worthy achievement on the part of the student, but it is not the end to learning the essay form. Students can learn to use “support” sentences as mini-arguments in themselves, ideally (though not necessarily) as mini-arguments that further the paper’s overall thesis.
Teaching Strategy: The skill of analytic writing is not only difficult for students to learn, but difficult for the teacher to communicate without suggesting that students douse their work with high-faluting or apparently argumentative words (such as “hence”). My aim is to show students how the thoughtful use of simple language can transform descriptive sentences to analytic ones. To this end, I have prepared two similar worksheets that require students to produce their own analytic sentences, and that offer models of plain but argumentative thought. The worksheets define plot summary for the students, and make clear why it is so undesirable in an essay: because the task of college writing is to articulate fully the whys and hows of an argument, plot summary is simply a waste of precious space. At the same time, I make clear to students that they can (and often should) situate their ideas in relation to the events of the story, but that they should emphasize their ideas rather than the fictional events. The worksheets then offer examples (like the following based on Camus’ “The Guest”) of both plot summary and analytic writing:
- Description (plot summary): The men walk together, but then a bird rips the sky into two, and Daru is happy. Daru rejoices in separation.
- Analysis: Daru still plays host to the Arab as they walk over the land. However, Daru will soon separate from his burdensome guest, and so he rejoices when the bird splits the sky into two parts, signaling separation.
As we read through this example, I draw the students’ attention to how the meaning but not the language has become complex in the analytic statement. We then discuss what useful ideas the analytic statement adds: that Daru is a host in this relationship, that the splitting sky mirrors the men’s impending separation, and that Daru is made happy because of this meaning.
The second half of the worksheets break this writing down into a three-step process: first, summarizing or describing a quotation, second, interpreting that quotation (“close reading”), and third, transforming one of those interpretations into an informative, idea-filled sentence that also relates the necessary plot information to the reader. Because I want to encourage students to move quickly from descriptive to analytic writing, the worksheets at various points offer interpretations to the students, and ask that they turn these readings into mini-argumentative statements; at other points, the worksheet offers the argumentative statement instead of the interpretation, and leaves it up to the student to fill in the interpretation that would mediate between the text and its analysis. Finally, the students are asked to perform all three stages on their own as a homework assignment.
Assessment: Though I usually prefer a looser, more creative approach to teaching literature, the prescriptiveness of these worksheets does pay off. I collect and review these worksheets, and have been pleased with the students’ comprehension of the task put before them, and with the analytic writing they produce. More importantly, however, after these worksheets have been discussed, plot summary almost disappears from the students’ writing, and their own ideas take its place. My students have commented in their evaluations on an improved understanding of writing theses, and I believe these centerpiece worksheets have been fundamental to this improvement.