We’re deep into the reading in all three of my courses now. On Monday we ‘wrapped’ The Moonstone in Mystery and Detective Fiction; we’re finishing up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in The Victorian ‘Woman Question’ tomorrow; and in 19th-Century Fiction we’ve moved on from Persuasion to Vanity Fair. Those hours spent in the classroom actually talking with students about these fabulous novels are my favorite hours of the day–better even than the hours spent rereading the novels.
In recent years, and this term especially, I’ve been trying especially hard to make explicit what I think I (we) are doing in our classroom time. In particular, I’ve been commenting explicitly during class discussions on ways I see those discussions as models for the kind of work I want the students to do on their own. I have always thought of my class time as “exemplary” in this way — that is, as providing examples. When I lecture, sometimes I am delivering information and context, but more often I am offering an example of literary interpretation, building observations from the text into an organized “reading” of the text. In class discussion, we go through this process together: I pose questions and solicit the students’ observations and ideas, collecting them in a loose way on the whiteboard, often in the form of lists of words or phrases–and circles and arrows and many lamentable attempts at drawing. Then I encourage them to look over what we’ve come up with and think about what it means. My role at this point is to help the students appreciate the significance of what they’ve noticed, and to lead them to make explicit things they are already more or less aware of. I try to do this in an open-minded and open-ended enough way that it builds their confidence: they are noticing important things, they can discover patterns and connections, they can develop their own interpretations based on careful reading and thinking. At the same time, especially early in a course, I don’t proceed entirely randomly! I ask about aspects of our readings that I know will prove interesting and fruitful to analyze, and in that way I try also to model the kinds of questions and approaches that are appropriate to the class.
But until fairly recently I had basically assumed that it was obvious what we were doing and why. It isn’t, of course, at least not for students who aren’t already somewhat experienced in the process of moving from reading and taking notes about what’s on the page to finding an interpretive framework that makes sense of what they’ve noticed. Gradually (and perhaps I was just obtuse in not having realized this much earlier on) it occurred to me that the mismatch between my expectations and students’ work could be attributed to a mismatch between what they thought I / we were doing and what I understood us to be doing. The more I thought about this, the more I noticed that, for instance, lots of students busily write things down when I’m talking but not the rest of the time–waiting for me to deliver the information, rather than engaging in the process of analysis. In their written work, they often weren’t transferring ideas or practices from the examples “covered” in class to other characters or situations or features of the novel. Often, they were reiterating plot summary in answer to questions about why things are significant, rather than making that move from observing the plot to thinking about what their observations meant. In other words, many of them were approaching our class time as the time when I would tell them what things meant, rather than showing them how to figure out meaning. Of course, sometimes I do tell them what things mean, but the purpose is to show them how it’s done (when I lecture more formally) and to show them how to do it (when I summarize and synthesize their observations during more open discussion).
One factor in making me more aware that it would help to talk more explicitly about method and process was teaching a lot of non-majors in the Mystery and Detective Fiction class. I began to adapt for it some of the assignments but also some of the commentary I use in my first-year classes to orient students in the methods of literary criticism–not just addressing terminology but also things like how you identify what a theme is in a literary work, how you get from the literal words on the page to a reasonable idea about what else the book is about–and how you know when you’re going too far (not that there are strict rules for this, but I think all English professors are used to complaints that we are “reading too much into it,” so it’s helpful to be as clear as possible about how you legitimate an interpretation, about the kind of evidence as well as, frankly, the kind of experienced intuition that leads you to say that this, but not that, is a good “reading”).
I don’t know for sure whether my new meta-commentary is really that helpful, but I hope it is doing at least a little to clarify that literary criticism isn’t really that mysterious a process, and it’s certainly not something that I should do while they watch (and then write down the results). It’s what they are supposed to be learning and doing, as much as they are also learning what the contexts are for their readings and what the books are like as reading experiences.