Sunday, April 01, 2012

How to teach literary analysis: don't let students read ahead

As I've blogged about before, I hated and was terrible at literary analysis when I was in school. Despite getting respectable grades in lit classes in three languages, I just didn't feel that analysis added anything to the reading experience or understand what on earth it achieves apart from giving us fodder for academic essays. I'm done the story, why dissect it so tediously?

I didn't start to truly grok literary analysis until I entered the Harry Potter fandom. I started reading Harry Potter shortly before the fifth book, and people on fan sites were using literary analysis to figure out what would happen later in the series. That made far better sense to me: we're looking for clues to solve a mystery!

Back in school, as a diligent student and a voracious reader, I'd always read ahead in the books we were studying. But my Harry Potter experience made me realize that this actually made learning how to do literary analysis more difficult for me. I'd be far ahead of the chapter we were discussing in class and simply wouldn't care about dissecting it, I was more interested in finding out what would happen next. Or I might even be finished the book and on to the next while we're still discussing the early chapters, at which point I most often simply didn't care. I'm done the story, let's move on!

But in my Harry Potter fandom, we couldn't move on - the books we needed to move on hadn't been written yet! So we'd analyze instead. And it was fun! It was my happy place for years!

So how could this be duplicated in the classroom, to not only teach literary analysis but convey the purpose and pleasure of it?

My idea: don't let the students read ahead. Earlier on, in grades 9 and 10, this could take the form of not allowing the books to leave the classroom, and doing the actual reading (or perhaps listening to an audiobook and reading along) in the classroom as part of class time. Then, at the end of every chapter or at every logical break, go over discussion questions that are geared towards using analysis to figure out what happens next. The teacher would have to make it clear that you don't get points for guessing or knowing what will happen next, but rather for having a logical analysis. A thesis that turns out to be factually incorrect but is impeccably argued with the information on hand should get just as many points as a thesis that perfectly predicts the outcome. (This is a problem I had in school - some teachers liked it when departed from the standard interpretation and backed it up with cited evidence, but other teachers docked points for not coming up with the standard interpretation.) Once they've finished the book, the teacher could go back over what clues in the book should have made it possible to guess what was going to happen.

After doing one or two books manually in the classroom so students can learn what they're looking for, they wouldn't have to do all the actual reading in the classroom. Instead, they could move to a system where you simply have to answer some questions at the end of each chapter before reading the next one. This could even be achieved electronically - answer the questions on an online form that emails the answers directly to the teacher, and doing so unlocks the next chapter. This would enable diligent students and those who are enthusiastic about the subject matter to work ahead at their own pace rather than being held back by their peers. (I didn't have this option in high school. While I had the book and could read ahead - and, being a diligent student, did so - I had no idea what we'd be discussing in class so I couldn't keep an eye out for it. Then I had to go back over something I'd already read to look for symbolism etc., which made an already uninteresting process outright tedious.)

If they do this with several books over a period of years, gradually loosening restrictions on reading ahead, by the end of high school the students should get to a place where they're automatically noticing and questioning the right things as they read through, the same way that people notice clues and try to guess whodunnit when reading a mystery novel.

I know that literary analysis is not limited to figuring out what's going to happen, but focusing on what's going to happen next makes the subject matter far more interesting, relevant and compelling to those who aren't already interested. "Remus and Tonks are totally going to hook up - look at all the parallels in the scenes where they were introduced to Harry!" is far more interesting than "Let's compare and contrast the scenes where the supporting characters were introduced to Harry." It's the English-class equivalent of using casino games to teach concepts in stats class.


laura k said...

Three languages!! What was the third? #LeastImportantThing?

impudent strumpet said...

Spanish. Hardest thing I've ever done. The reason I never got my Spanish translation certificate is that it required two additional Spanish lit courses (the one I took was a prerequisite). Which is irrelevant to translation training. Reading in the language is good, cultural knowledge is good, but literary analysis abilities are irrelevant and don't reflect reading comprehension or cultural knowledge.