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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"

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