Literary analysis assignment (English 358, Fall 2012) reflection

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

In a previous post, I promised I would provide reflection on the changes I made to my English 358 Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences class this semester. In doing this, I am working backwards with the most recent assignment reflection posted first and then will reflect on the changes to the job packet last. But in between I have the literary analysis assignment, which I briefly made mention to in the post linked above. So I will do my best to talk about the literary analysis assignment in this post, even though I am tired today and feeling that end of semester exhaustion, and so I hope what I say makes sense.

One of my English majors from my 11am class asked me why I chose to do the literary analysis assignment in 358. I didn’t really find that an odd question from her because, to be frank, she seemed bored throughout the three weeks I taught it, mostly because she has taken a literary theory course and she is in her last semester of coursework for her BA in English. She pretty much had this information down and could have given a great mini-lesson to the class on Lacanian Psychoanalysis, which is an area I am not as strong in. (I know the Freudian concepts much better, mainly because that is how I have usually approached it and I am not a Lacan kid).

In reply, I told her I taught this for two main reasons. The first reason involved the surface level analyses I see from students in my English 358 courses. While I spend a lot of time teaching analysis, and even have a course textbook devoted to analytical writing, I still notice students are not strong with analysis in my course. I felt that by teaching a literary analysis unit for non-literature majors, would be beneficial to many students. The second reason is because I think theory is important and I had noticed that quite a few theories we teach and learn about in English overlap with theories taught in many of their majors, most notably psychoanalytic approaches, queer approaches, and Marxist approaches. While I wasn’t expecting analysis at the level that a literature major junior or senior would write, I was expecting more thoughtful, analytical discussions about the book we had read for the class using one or more of the theories I taught. And I only taught theories I felt would be appropriate to the book we were reading and theories that I felt would also be overlapping with information taught in previous classes in their majors. Most of this, I think, worked out and happened. I had a number of students tell me they “had heard of” these theories in their classes before, but most often didn’t “have to directly apply them.”

As I stated previously, my 11am section did a fantastic job applying one or more of these theories and giving good evidence and analysis. While in some cases analysis could have been stronger or more developed, everyone had a good thesis statement (or at least a good focus throughout their paper, even if their thesis remained a little weak, which is slightly unnerving to know that this still happens in a 300-level writing intensive class made up of juniors and seniors in college, some of whom are graduating). Everyone in this section of the course also knew how to apply these theories to a text and used their theories effectively. While I cannot say the same for my 12pm section (one student actually started to write a freshmen level rhetorical analysis halfway into his paper), those students did all right, too. Like 11am, they also understood the theory they chose and knew at least some ways to apply it to the text, at the very least.

I do have a few criticisms of this particular unit, however. One criticism is that it is a very time-consuming unit for me as a teacher of two classes and also a student finishing up the last year of my PhD coursework. I not only had to read the novel for the class, I had to do a lot of preparation to find resources to help students not only understand the theories, but engage with them as a class. To do this, I had them read a selected Grimm’s Fairy tales, and one that had been adapted by Disney to better familiarize them, and had them in groups each day analyze that story through the theory we had looked at for that class day. For example, I had them analyze Pinocchio through Queer theory, as well as look at the He-Man intro and how that had been re-conceptualized through a Queer reading in this video. I also had them look at Cinderella through a feminist lens in groups during the class period devoted to feminist analysis. So with these exercises, I felt they had a good amount of practice in analyzing each theory.

Another criticism is, of course, some students just didn’t leave the surface level analysis and honestly, I was kind of expecting this from some of them. And it isn’t always because they don’t know it, as during our class exercises, these students said really smart things about the texts we were analyzing. They just didn’t seem to want to do it in their paper or decided to write their paper last minute (even though I required drafts of this assignment) or whatever it was. They just didn’t want to do it and I will admit that was a little frustrating, especially because I had seen them do it before. And every teacher I have ever talked to has told me about his or her struggles with getting students to actually do something we all know they can do.

When I teach this again, I am considering having students in groups give a presentation on a theory they select or are assigned and then try to teach a lesson to the class regarding that theory. Since I have so many Education majors, I think this could be a fun lesson for them to do and would give them teaching practice, even if it is teaching practice on their peers. And I could split them up so there would be a couple education majors in each group so now one feels “lost” in doing this. This would also cut down on prep time for myself, which while I finish my PhD work is something I always need to consider, not because I am lazy, but for time-management purposes.

Overall, the new assignment went over well enough and I learned a few things from it. I learned that teaching any type of theory is really a lot of work. While I knew this going in, I had no idea how much work it would be and how time consuming it would be. If I were to have them write papers again, I would also ask for a proposal. I didn’t do that this time because I had already scheduled a proposal for their final projects. But I have had students write proposals for the literary analysis before (for example, in my summer section of English 358) and the proposals I noticed always helped them to better understand exactly what they were doing before they started doing it, which is always a good thing.

In the next reflection about my class this semester, I’ll post about the job packet unit, which I taught previously, but expanded. And if any of ya’ll have any advice on teaching a critical theory unit, please share. I enjoyed teaching the material, despite the criticisms I had about it. If I didn’t teach theory, I would have instead taught a Forum Analysis, which I have taught before and always seem to get good responses from students.

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