Wednesday, March 07, 2007

What part of "be more specific" don't you understand?

This semester I'm teaching a section of RU's "introduction to literary study" course, which is billed as the gateway to the English major--and I gotta say, I totally love it (this is my war-themed class, for those of you who are keeping track).

For one thing, it's my only new course this term (the others are, to be honest, getting a little stale), and I love all the texts we're reading; it's also, reliably, my best class, full of mouthy, smart, high-energy students with great classroom chemistry.

But I also think that I find this particular kind of teaching rewarding, especially given the student population(s) that I teach. It's just so nice, after teaching so many survey-style classes (whose defining characteristics are speed and volume--cramming as much as possible into 15 weeks), to be able to slow down and think about what it actually means to be a reader and a literary critic. My class size is small enough, and we're reading few enough texts, that it's possible to assign four essays, lots of short assignments, and to devote class time to activities that are all about moving from a single good idea or insightful observation to a paper that expands on that idea, does it justice, and (most importantly) communicates it clearly to a reader.

Maybe I'll find the process tedious after a while (I found composition to be similarly stimulating the first time I taught it, and that enthusiasm has noticeably waned), but right now it's proving an interesting and useful intellectual process for me.

I was talking about this over dinner last night with my grad school acquaintance Augustana, who just started a job at a local R1--and who I think I can now call a friend. Augie got through grad school in a hurry and had never designed or taught her own classes before this year, so when we've gotten together, we've tended to talk a lot about pedagogy. We both agreed that this part of teaching is like puzzle solving in reverse: trying to piece out exactly what it is that we do when we close read, or write a paper, and how to break that down and explain it to someone to whom the process is unfamiliar.

Augie was an undergrad at INRU's Big Rival (I know! AND she's the kind of person who gets up every morning at 6 a.m. to go running, AND she doesn't drink more than a glass of wine at a sitting. . . clearly, this is a doomed friendship), and we agreed that in college no one ever taught us how to write a literature paper, or even really taught us, in any explicit way, how to analyze or talk about literature: we were just supposed to intuit it, gradually divining general principles from what went on in the seminar room and from the minimal feedback our essays received, and applying those principles to our writing.

And we did intuit it, eventually, and most of our peers must have, too--but I clearly remember being a college student and feeling as though I had no control over my own essays: some of my essays were better than others, I knew, but I had absolutely no idea what made them better or worse essays, or even what it was that I was doing when I wrote one. With each grade I got I was looking for confirmation either that I was a total genius or a fucking fraud, and I don't think that it was until relatively late in grad school (once I started teaching, actually) that I fully understood that at least half of being a good writer is about mastering a set of very definite, and very learnable skills.

I was embarrassed once I realized the degree to which I had mystified my own writing process, and I think I now feel personally invested in demystifying the process for my students.


So that's the awesome, affirmative, don't-I-love-my-job part of this post. And it's true enough--but this weekend I had an email exchange with one student that nearly made me throw myself out a window (as the shouting capital letters that start to take over my email messages may testify). This student is a thoughtful, perceptive woman with a good intuitive ear for language, but no discipline whatsoever. She says smart things in class, but ultimately she's more attracted by a pretty phrase than by a precise one. She also, apparently, has no idea what "be more specific" means.

This is the draft thesis that she emailed me for the close-reading essay that was due this week:
Whitman's exquisite use of language in [poem] transports the reader to [situation]--not [A], but [long, flowery-worded B].
I wrote her back, in part:
You need to explain/specify what you mean by "exquisite use of language"--that's an example of a phrasing that doesn't describe so much as it obscures meaning. Once you specify what this exquisite language IS, you might also want to revise the last part of your thesis, too. I like the distinction that you make between the expected nature of [the scene] and the one that we actually get, but again, you may wish to be more specific about what that MEANS in this poem, specifically.
A few hours later she returned with this thesis:
Whitman's exquisite use of language in [poem] transports the reader to [scene]--not [A], but [long, flowery-worded B]. Throughout the poem, word usage is the means by which [situation] is transformed into [restatement of B].
Okay, I thought--she's sorta getting it, but not really. So I wrote back:
You still need to be more specific! What does "word usage" mean? Are you talking about imagery (in which case you'll want to say WHAT KIND OF imagery)? Are you talking about the aural effects of the words (in which case you'll want to say something closer to that)? Are you talking about *word choice,* or diction (in which case, again, you'll want to specify what *kind of* diction you're talking about)? Or is it some combination of the above (in which case you'll also want to say as much)?
Bless her heart, she came back with this:
Whitman's exquisite use of language in [poem] transports the reader to [scene]--not [A], but [long, flowery-worded B]. Throughout the poem, imagery through evocative word choice is the means by which [restatement of B].
I stared at my computer screen for a good long while, trying to figure out what could possibly be going on in her head. Then I replied:
I know I'm sounding like a broken record here, but what KIND of imagery? (i.e., of money, nature, darkness, light, whatever.) And what on earth does "evocative language" mean IN THIS PARTICULAR POEM? "Evocative" of WHAT? In what WAY?

Look up the word "evocative." All it means is that something evokes (or suggests or points to or reminds us of) something else. It's that "something else" that you are stubbornly NOT DEFINING.
She was very sweet about it the next day in class, thanking me and confiding that she'd known she needed to work on her thesis-writing--her high school English teacher had told her as much--but I don't know what her final thesis looks like; I haven't yet read the resulting paper.

Honestly? I'm kinda afraid to.


timna said...

you are a very patient person, flavia, and your students are fortunate that you remember the frustrations and randomness of getting writing right.

Anonymous said...

I teach a music course that is heavily writing intensive and see the same type of problem that you are describing. Here are my thoughts on what is (not) going on:
1) Student doesn't really understand that she is not supposed to simply re-state your suggestions in her thesis. The idea of re-thinking and revising is not clear for her. For some students, a demonstration of how you go about thinking through and developing an answer for your questions is very helpful.
2) Students tend to believe that if they are vague and general they have less chance of being wrong. I try (not always successfully) to convince my students that I would rather have a well-written paper that leads to an incorrect conclusion, than a general paper that says something "right."
3) Have you gone over the use of evidence in writing? Even my students who are able to find/articulate evidence in class discussions, struggle with putting it into their papers. Connecting brains and pens seems very difficult for them.

Best to you and your student.

rageyone said...

I think it is great that you recall your frustrations with the writing process as an an undgrad and through grad school. I think that makes you a more attentive teacher when it comes to your own students, which is seen in the e-mail exchnage.

I wonder, though, if that was done in person would you have achieved a quicker outcome. I suspect, yes. That is one of the instances where meaning in text gets misconstrued and difficult to understand. For your (sanity's) sake, I hope her writing improves. :)

muse said...

Wow! Sounds like she would have been better served meeting with you face to face. She's really working hard on it, but she doesn't seem to get the main principle of interpretation, which is to say what something means, and how. Sounds like you're taking her from "exquisite" literature appreciation into a more specific analysis. I wonder if she understands that difference?

I find a lot of my junior and senior students have basically BSed their ways into writing long, seemingly elaborate and critical papers that merely appreciate the text on a more sophisticated level, rather than interpret it. I'm thinking about making a point of the difference at the beginning of each of my classes next semester.

Flavia said...

Thanks for all your thoughts, guys. Believe it or not, she actually wrote a damn decent paper (with a viable thesis)--much better than her first one.

If this progress continues, I'm definitely going to recruit her for my upper-division classes next year: nothing like having a smart student you've already broken of her bad habits!

slantgirl said...

bloody hell you're nice!
i had a student who didn't understand that he was making a historically inaccurate claim by using the term for a socil process which occurs many centuries after the one he is writing about. i kept trying to explain it to him, and he kept gettying nastier and nastier in his emails back.

i wrote long, detaile, kind ones ONLY because i feared he would contest the grade, and that i'd have to submit any communication between us as part of the process.

in the end, he sent me an email 2 days before the paper was due and said that i was 'rite,' and that he'd changed his topic. and also that he'd been very stressed out and upset that week.

we'll see what the essay looks like...