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CASLL-L  July 1998

CASLL-L July 1998

Subject:

Re: writing about literature (fwd)

From:

Sandra Dueck <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

CASLL/Inkshed <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 21 Jul 1998 10:20:22 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (90 lines)

Hi Will

This discussion is very interesting to me. Speaking as someone who neither
reads literature nor writes lit crit when she can avoid it, I nonetheless
find the skills I acquired from writing lit crit essays as an undergraduate
are fundamental to most of my current work, in a variety of ways--as
writer, teacher, editor.

Cathy touched on some of the skills that can be acquired from writing
student lit crit, but the ones I'm thinking of must be viewed as too
common-place and basic to ever grace the pages of any theory-based approach
I've read--be it post structural, feminist, grammatical, semantic,
rhetorical, or whatever. These skills have not got much to do with either
personal growth or socialization (i.e. publication or teaching), but
directly with the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake. Specifically
what I learned from this apprenticeship is how to represent reasoning
processes in written language. Some examples:

What I learned in school:
1) When you introduce a quoted passage, you need to explain why it is
significant to your argument. The quote doesn't speak for itself and it
requires your intellectual labour to show why it connects to your
analysis/interpretation.

2) When you want to compare two passages or concepts, you not only need to
explain why the second example is similar to the first, but you also have
to account for any residual ideas which are not parallel to the first
passage, and say why either they are not significant, or why they are.

3) When you analyse passages, stories, texts, you are looking to make
generalizations about patterns and relationships. and conversely, when you
make a generalization about a pattern, you are required to support it with
evidence from the passage, story, text.

I learned these skills by trial and error, and because I wanted to know
them. Perhaps if this information was put to those students who don't "get
it," who don't care if they get it, but who are required to take literature
courses and who rank "writing lit crit essays" in the same category of
desirability as "becoming a professional dishwasher," they might start to
understand its relevance to their interests.

They could use these skills in this third-year business communication
course I'm teaching,

What I have to tell my students:
1) When you introduce a method or finding, you need to explain why it's
significant to your research report. The method or finding doesn't speak
for itself and it requires your intellectual labour to show why it connects
to your analysis/interpretation.

2) When you want to compare two findings or categories or criteria, you not
only need to explain why the second example is similar to the first, but
you also have to account for any residual ideas which are not parallel to
the first finding, category, criteria, and say why either they are not
significant, or why they are.

3) When you analyse data you are looking to make generalizations about
patterns and relationships. and conversely, when you make a generalization
about a pattern, you are required to support it with evidence from your
data.

These are only a few examples, I can think of lots more. The skills
required to accomplish these tasks can be transferred directly from lit.
crit. courses. It would make it easier for me to demonstrate this
connection if I knew students already had the basic conceptual vocabulary
in place, which could potentially be provided by a textbook such as you
propose--you could show how writers in the lit crit genre use these
features of topic structure to demonstrate reasoning processes which are
used in other academic genres as well.

Using Kieran Egan's model, outlined in The Educated Mind (which is a nifty
little tool, actually) you can tell a story about this process: In order to
develop the complex reasoning skills required of them, students need to
recapitulate the stages of symbolic learning--they need to construct simple
narratives (mythic understanding, and not something most adults are
comfortable doing), then they need to read and write about the singular and
the particular (romantic understanding--acquired from reading stories,
among other things), and eventually to make generalizations and draw
inferences about these singularities (philosophic--which is probably the
desired outcome of such study).

I can't think of a discipline or a genre in a better position to do the
work of leading students through this process than English and the lit crit
essay. But this approach is about features of the text,, not about personal
growth or career development. Perhaps it is a more instrumentalist approach
than you had planned to make.


Cheers
Sandra

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