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branchandroot: butterfly on a desk with a world in a bottle (butterfly glass desk)
[personal profile] branchandroot
And it is work. This is what I think a whole lot of people miss when they go to take their required literature course:

A lit class is not a class in art appreciation.

It is a class in analytical skills.


It doesn't help that a whole lot of lit teachers don't realize they need to say this out loud because a) it isn't explained anywhere else and b) they're sending all the wrong signals to their students. Lit teachers, in addition to taking up that field because they enjoy analysis, have also chosen a particular period to study--one that contains the writers they like best. And so they teach the writers they particularly enjoy and appreciate, and that comes through, and their students get the signal that this is a class where they're supposed to enjoy the reading. Being skilled at this game, most will at least fake it.

"I enjoyed it" makes for a pretty pathetic paper, though, so most students wind up writing book report style "This book was about X" papers, and are confused and resentful when the professor, quite likely in despair and not knowing why no one is getting this, tells them that they're supposed to be analyzing the text!

You have to tell people up front what the agenda is. And, in a lit class, while many professors will have an emotional agenda of enjoying the reading, the academic agenda is to learn how to interpret and analyze a text. Not just appreciate it. The ultimate point is to use these skills on any story one encounters whether that be Shakespeare, John Grisham, or the next political ad campaign.

Alas, this is rarely made clear for people. And, of course, it isn't an historical universal either. Literature used to be a lot more about the art appreciation, when formal education was the purview of the upper classes and being able to quote epic poetry from memory was a part of one's class-recognition signals along with the fancy clothes and food and the guff about how appreciating the art right shows one is morally elevated and therefore has the right to all this luxury. That has, thank goodness, changed somewhat, and it helps to actually point this out out loud.

Of course, the authors themselves don't always want it to be about analysis, which is how you get such lines as "A poem should not mean / But be."* and "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."** Compare these claims to the authorial protestations of Racefail and Mammothfail and draw your own conclusions about whether that's a useful approach for the reader to actually take all the time.

In fairness, both those lines are also usually taken wildly out of context, their context being, in the first, how to write a poem and, in the second, how frustrating it is to desire context for artifacts from a dead culture. Nevertheless, there is a definite thread in both poems that beauty is somehow natural and unconstructed and that every reader will, naturally, find the same things beautiful. Which is direly self/ethno-centric and gets us right back to Fail.

Your literature class is there to help you not Fail.

There is a time for appreciation. And there is a time for analysis. Skipping either is usually an injustice to the work and to yourself. Appreciation, however, is not usually something that can actually be taught very well.

Analysis is.

Classes, therefore, may be usefully assumed to focus on the latter. Try it that way around and see if it helps.


* Archibald MacLeish, "Ars Poetica"

**John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn"

Date: 2010-03-17 08:09 pm (UTC)
the_rck: figure perched in a tree with barren branches (Default)
From: [personal profile] the_rck
I ran into trouble in lit classes because, by temperament, I'm more inclined to anthropological analysis of a text than literary analysis. In high school, being able to do either put me ahead of most everybody else, but college classes were dreadfully frustrating. I kept wanting to explore things that had nothing to do with what the instructor was trying to communicate.

Pity I didn't realize that while I was still an undergraduate.

Date: 2010-03-17 08:49 pm (UTC)
the_rck: figure perched in a tree with barren branches (Default)
From: [personal profile] the_rck
Fortunately, I was lucky in that the program I was in (University of Michigan's Residential College) and had a lot of lit classes taught by people who were interested in things I could understand and communicate about. Looking back, there were two classes that were utterly frustrating and several where I found things I could write about and explore.

Taking drama classes to study plays rather than lit classes to study them helped. The drama classes focused on interpreting plays for production rather than as literary constructs. I think studying Brecht and Ibsen as literature would have frustrated me as much as studying Shakespeare as literature did (the professor for that last class was excellent as a lecturer. I just had trouble with the papers).

Date: 2010-03-17 08:16 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
This reminds me of someone (lit student) who complained about the feminist theory they had to cover because they "just wanted to read books"... um.

Date: 2010-03-17 08:17 pm (UTC)
firstlight: (Default)
From: [personal profile] firstlight
(...sorry, that was me. Thought I was logged in.)

Date: 2010-03-17 08:28 pm (UTC)
firstlight: (Default)
From: [personal profile] firstlight
I also think this whole thing has something to do with the number of people I've heard say that studying literature destroyed reading for them. I haven't studied literature past A-level, in fairness, but do suspect this has something to do with some hugely incorrect assumptions being made... still suspect I might enjoy the whole thing given half a chance, but then, the number of things I think I might enjoy studying is... large. *g*

Date: 2010-03-17 08:16 pm (UTC)
dianavilliers: self portrait (Default)
From: [personal profile] dianavilliers
Ya'know, it would have been nice if someone had actually explained this to me in high-school. I may not have spent two years thinking my English teacher was an idiot for not being able to express what it was he actually wanted.

The incident where he announced to the class that the aliens must be quite close because radio waves move at the speed of sound didn't exactly go very far in convincing me that he wasn't an idiot, either.

Date: 2010-03-17 08:28 pm (UTC)
dianavilliers: self portrait (Default)
From: [personal profile] dianavilliers
Nope. Not a shred of irony. Irony would have been an error of judgement, this was an error of fact.

Date: 2010-03-17 08:55 pm (UTC)
dianavilliers: self portrait (Default)
From: [personal profile] dianavilliers
That was pretty much my reaction at the time, yes.

Date: 2010-03-17 08:58 pm (UTC)
annotated_em: KHR manga - adult!Reborn - "Those who can, teach" (teaching)
From: [personal profile] annotated_em
Yeah, this. I think that (in the humanities, at least; can't really speak to the other departments so well) there's often a large disconnect between the ostensible purpose of the class, the teacher's agenda for the class, the teacher's expectations for the class, and the students' agendas and expectations.

And it only gets worse when things like scholarly expectations are implicit and unrecognized.

Date: 2010-03-17 10:41 pm (UTC)
hydrangea: A winterscape under a wintersun. Sitting on a table surrounded by deep snow. (me: vardag)
From: [personal profile] hydrangea
Having just come off my first lit course, I can say that my professor was rather upfront about the fact that we were going to analyze the books/texts/whatevers. He also made clear that for some people, this might ruin their ability to read without analyzing the work meanwhile. Then he continued with cheerfully admitting that he had favorite authors and that they were going to feature heavily when we covered those time periods. After that, he helpfully told us that if we didn't have the time to read all the literature, studying up on everything about them and reading other analyzes would do great.

In hindsight, it was rather a weird course but my did I enjoy it, picking favorite poems and books into pieces and all. He was right that I can't stop analyzing stuff now though. As proved when I idly spent a play I attended wondering if the change from men's style clothing to a flowing white dress at the end of the second act was a reflection of the inner journey portrayed in the actress' songs. Um, it made more sense back then.

Date: 2011-08-31 09:45 pm (UTC)
ext_136215: yellow kobato bird (Default)
From: [identity profile] shadowpup88.livejournal.com
[lurker here! just sifting back through your old entries, heh, because they're simply fascinating]

oooh, now is this essay in the public domain? aka can I Google it and read it? *A*

Date: 2010-03-18 02:57 am (UTC)
maat_seshat: Shuurei seated at a desk, studying, with Kouyuu leaning in behind her. (Shuurei studying)
From: [personal profile] maat_seshat
Huh, interesting. The best advice I've always gotten has been to start with something I enjoyed, then pick something about it to analyze, which I suppose adequately splits the "appreciation" and "analysis" segments. For me, at least, when I go straight for analysis without thinking about enjoyment, I tend to write very facile papers.

But my high school did literature and history as purely discussion-based classes, and it quickly became terribly embarrassing to have nothing more to say than, "I liked it," so we learned that we had to read by analyzing.

(Also, is there any chance you could point me in the direction of that BS essay? I'm curious.)

Date: 2010-03-18 03:25 am (UTC)
maat_seshat: Winged Maat sitting (Default)
From: [personal profile] maat_seshat
*grin* Since, yeah, you're probably never going to like everything from any given historical period, but still need to understand it all. One of my favorite professors had us do reaction papers and made a point of saying that he was giving us readings that he disagreed with, so feel free to say we hated it or were bored silly by it as long as we could analyze why we were bored.

(Ah, so BS in a classroom, rather than a paper. *shamefaced* I've definitely done that before.)

Date: 2010-03-18 03:14 am (UTC)
afuna: Cat under a blanket. Text: "Cats are just little people with Fur and Fangs" (Default)
From: [personal profile] afuna
Huh. This would have been very useful to know back when I was in university (highschool was all grammar and reading comprehension, university was a jump to a different level of analysis altogether, but I never quite managed to figure out what I was supposed to do in that class, other than try not to flail too badly)

Date: 2010-03-18 02:22 pm (UTC)
esmenet: Little!Anthy with swords (Default)
From: [personal profile] esmenet
I will forever be grateful to the Shoujo Kakumei Utena fandom for teaching me that yes, analying is a) necessary and b)fun.

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