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So, the first set of papers came in for my Lit and Comp course, and I have been walking around them ever since, nearly astounded.

You’ve got to note this:  this is not a remedial class.

And my students are NOT adolescents.

They’re adults with jobs and families coming back to get a degree.

Lit and Comp is a distribution requirement for these people, and it’s got all the drawbacks in design that I’ve noted before.

But what I want to note here is this:  on the very first day of the course, and then again on the day I made the paper assignment, I was very clear to give them the following instructions:

1) You NEVER EVER tell me, in an English paper, that something was “interesting.”

2) You NEVER EVER tell me that something was “good.”

3) You NEVER EVER tell me that you “liked” what you’re reading.

4) You write on a theme–the concept of evil in “Young Goodman Brown,” the extended metaphor of “A Rose for Emily.”

And, to make this even clearer, I included on our Blackboard page a sample of the kind of essay I was looking for.

What I got was book reports, liberally laced with “interesting” and “like” and all the rest of us.

And a lot of incredulity and indignation that they couldn’t tell me what they found “interesting.”

I also discovered something else.

In spite of my ALSO explaining this several times, they think that in any work of fiction or poetry using the first person, the narrator MUST be the author.

I discovered this last last night, when I found that they universally assumed that Robert Browning was writing about the death of his own wife in “My Last Duchess.”

Which made it at least understandable that they didn’t figure out that the narrator was talking about murdering the woman in the poem.  After all, they’ll all Googled Robert Browning, and found that he and Elizabeth Barrett were love birds all their lives.

I know I’ve said some of this before, but bear with me.

These are not esoteric literary constructions I’m talking about here.  The fact that the first person narrator of a story or poem is NOT the author but a character created by the author is about as basic an understanding of how fiction works as you can get. 

On top of it, unlike my remedial students, most of the students in this class read.  They read a lot. 

They read things like the Twilight series and the 50 Shades of Grey stuff, but they read.   They tell me they don’t want to think when they read, but they read.

It had never occurred to me, before now, that people who read on a regular basis would not know something as simple and basic as the fact that fiction in the first person is being told by a character and not by the author.

There is a lot of discussion here about whether or not we should include this kind of literature or that kind of literature in English classes, but that is much less important than this:

No matter what kind of literature you assign, you should be getting the basics of literary conventions across to the class. 

I should not find myself in the position of having to explain this kind of thing to people over the age of 30.

On the writing of English papers as being about what they found “interesting” and what they “liked,” I have a little more sympathy.

But only a little.

In that case, I know what happened.

That was the kind of English paper they remember having written in high school, and that most students still write in high school.  There’s no analysis.  There’s no working through ideas or technical structures. 

There’s just a recap of the story and comments about how this was interesting and that was interesting and they liked this other thing.

And, because they remember doing well enough in high school, they never read the sample essay.

They thought they already knew what they would see.

I find myself, once again, stuck at a place I don’t know how to negotiate.

On the one hand, these are people majoring in things like finance and human resources management. 

What they’re looking for is not an education but certification that they’ve been trained in their field and are therefore good prospects for employers looking to hire. 

They’re never going to need to write another English paper in their lives after they leave my classroom. 

I’m not sure what good I’m doing them to insist that they hand in standard college English literature papers.  I’m not sure if it matters if they know how to write them.

I am sure it matters that they understand things like the nature of narration, and that they understand that there are other ways of reading than skimming through the literal level and thinking whatever they want to think.

Yes, this is the same class that said writers write to “express themselves.”

And midway through the class last night, once we had figured out that Browning was not talking about himself in “My Last Duchess,” I listened to them conduct an amazed discussion of why anybody would want to do that. 

Why would a writer want to write a story in somebody else’s voice?  Why would he want to present a character’s ideas that were not his own–that he might even disagree with entirely?

It’s not just that they think writers are all writing to “express themselves.”

It’s that they have no idea why writers actually write at all.

I don’t care if they read Hemingway or Twilight.

I care that they understand what’s going on with the things they read, why the writers write, what the reader can get from the writing that isn’t just a lot of subjectivist mush.

Because, right now, it’s a very cramped and airless little world they live in.

Written by janeh

July 18th, 2012 at 9:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Interesting'

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  1. The course might be useful in teaching them to follow instructions and to avoid making unwarranted assumptions that they know what something’s about (or how it is to be done). Those are skills anyone, even people who will never write another English essay in their lives, might find useful.

    I am just astonished that many of them can’t understand that the narrator isn’t necessarily the writer. I can’t remember NOT knowing that! Surely that’s one of the most interesting and exciting things for a writer to do – to get inside someone else’s head and world!


    18 Jul 12 at 10:13 am

  2. Given the situation, would it be useful to read that sample essay IN CLASS, perhaps even out loud, and discuss how it differs from the “it’s interesting, I liked it, it has a good beat and you can dance to it” essay they all seem to find inevitable.

    Do a bit of meta analysis on literary analysis, I mean. Show them what the sample essay is actually doing that furthers the understanding of the piece it’s about. Of course they can still entirely miss the point and continue to operate out of what they THINK they know about reading and literature. But maybe you can knock one or two of them off center.

    You’re right about the cramped and airless world thing. It sounds as if the entire group is operating totally at the surface, appearances being the whole of a thing, stereotypes and “what everyone knows” making up their functional definitions. No subtlety. No depth. No concept that there might be secondary, tertiary or further motivations to any action.

    Sad. And I have to wonder, why is that ENOUGH for them? Don’t they all feel there has to be something more, in reading, in observing the world, in life?


    18 Jul 12 at 12:51 pm

  3. If I remember correctly, my teenage reading (outside of school)was mostly historical fiction and science fiction. There was no possible way that the first person narrator could be the author.

    As for essay writing, my professional writing all factual. Begin at the beginning, continue to the end and don’t leave out the middle!


    18 Jul 12 at 6:36 pm

  4. Hmmm. I refuse to be surprised at people not paying attention to instructions because they think they already know them.

    As for the author/narrator confusion, I’ve seen dust jackets with Robert Parker dressed as Spenser, “JD Robb” dressed as Eve Dallas and Sue Grafton done up as Kinsey Milhone. And didn’t Mickey Spillane once play Mike Hammer in a movie? Perhaps before we start in on the readers, we should tell the WRITERS that they’re not the narrators. At least Doc Smith never modeled a set of Unattached Lensman gray leathers.

    Comes the plug, of course. If they read a wider range, they’d soon figure out that the writer wasn’t really a cybernetic tank. Or an elf. As long as writers insist on “realistic” settings and main characters who are only slightly improved versions of the author, it’s no wonder they seem a little like politicians’ memoirs–not true, exactly, but still on the non-fiction shelves.

    The deeper purpose. Whether they SHOULD be put through English Lit to earn their degrees is not your decision. But having undertaken to teach the course, you do have an obligation to do it as well as circumstances allow. And the skills you teach are not useless. Understanding themes, narrative voice, symbolism and subtext will enhance their understanding and enjoyment of what they read for pleasure. Some of this–and close-reading especially–will be invaluable on any number of jobs.

    As for clearing away subjectivist mush in the early 21st Century, you’re fighting serious giants. Have fun, but watch the blades of the windmills.


    18 Jul 12 at 6:52 pm

  5. How to read literature like a professor by Thomas C. Foster might be helpful. He talks about common themes and symbolism and things like that. He ends with a story and you’re supposed to write your own essay about it–then he shares a couple of student interpretations and his own. I’ve studied literature a bit, and enjoyed it, and I made Derek read it in high school.

    I know, I know, you can’t require them to buy another book.

    Cathy F


    18 Jul 12 at 9:29 pm

  6. Oh, the story is The Garden Party, by Katherine Mansfield.


    18 Jul 12 at 9:31 pm

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