Friday, January 15, 2010

Literary Passage Analysis: Why I Think It's Much More Important Than Memorizing Facts

I work in a school where the motto has to do with teaching students what they will truly need to know in their lives.

I am down with that. Aren't we all, at heart?

I personally have little tolerance for busywork, or heaven forbid, for spending years memorizing facts that will never be relevant in my life. I am very good at memorization, so that has never been a problem for me--except that I know most of it will serve no later purpose, unless I am cast on a game show.

While I understand that students should be well-rounded and well-versed in a variety of subjects, I think sometimes schools and teachers focus too much on the "spitting back up" of quickly memorized (and just as quickly forgotten) facts.

What about deeper thinking? What about making connections? That's what I am interested in, myself.

I know many teachers are, too. I know that "critical thinking" is the current catchphrase, and we are all trying to ensure that our courses require our students to think critically.

But there is some lag happening, here. For years, schools have required rote memorization in order to ensure success and good grades and test scores.

Our students want to do well, and they are understandably unnerved by the sudden (or perceived as sudden) shifting of priorities.

To be told now, "There isn't always a right or wrong answer. Sometimes, you will just get credit for your insight, or for how well you phrase your argument," can often stun students for a while.

One thing we are doing in my American Literature classes is literary passage analysis work. This is a good example of an exercise which requires students to be slow, thoughtful and insightful. They may come up with something I personally hadn't thought of--and I will give them credit for that.

While there are certain answers that I--in a perfect world--will hope they know, I want to see what they can do, how far they can run with an excerpt of literature.

My students were, at first, semi-incredulous that there wouldn't necessarily be specific facts to memorize that will help ensure that they ace their midterm exams.

"No, it's what you can tell me about the passages of literature," I explained. "Don't paraphrase. Don't tell me what is happening here because first of all, I have read all these novels (The Scarlet Letter; The Great Gatsby; The Catcher in the Rye; Ethan Frome) about 20 times, no lie. And also, I can see from the passage what is happening. Repeating plot will not impress me."

"What can you say about the use of language?" I asked. (I got some blank looks, some blinks, but then they were Into It.)

They told me that Fitzgerald's use of the phrases "colossal vitality of his illusion" and "ghostly heart" are both oxymoronic.


My students said that Hawthorne lists the Reverend Dimmesdale's good qualities in a long line of phrases set off by commas and then tersely comments that having all these traits cause a "prick of anguish" in his daily life. The short diction--prick and anguish--plays off the long, complex syntax and both serve to emphasize each other.


So why is this important in life?

It all has to do with understanding how to effectively communicate with other people. How can we use language to our best ability? How did these great authors use language?

If we can appreciate literature, we will be that much closer to being able to create great literature (or even just coherent copy) ourselves.

For midterms, I am aware that some other English teachers might be requiring students to memorize when an author was born and when he died, but I am hard-pressed to understand how and why facts of this nature will be relevant later on.

Sure, we can test students on whether or not they were paying attention to our lectures, but shouldn't we actually be testing them on what they can glean from all the reading they've done, and on how well they themselves can write?

It is good to know that Hawthorne lived in the 19th century, but I wonder: isn't it more important to understand why we still read The Scarlet Letter, and what this novel has to say about what it means to be human?

There is so much Hawthorne says (as well as Fitzgerald, Wharton, and Salinger). It would be a shame to miss it.


  1. Reading this with my morning coffee and man do I wish I had seen this before my department wrote our midterms. Next time...and hey, are you involved with educational policy? Because you really should be.

  2. Thanks, Tom, and sorry for the terrifically late reply. I just got swamped.

    Hmmm...policy. Sounds interesting!