On Explaining Literary Devices
either Before or After Reading the Text
The first night in my most recent creative writing class (English 161: Advanced Poetry Writing), the professor dedicated the entire class—all three hours—to an abridged lesson in grammar with a special emphasis on the independent clause. At first, I was a little perplexed as to why we would be spending so much time in an upper-division writing class on things so fundamental. Surely, at this level, we all knew what constitutes a complete sentence and how to punctuate between multiple independent clauses in a single sentence. To my surprise, most of the class was at a loss when it came to commas and coordinating conjunctions, semicolons, colons, and dashes. Then I thought about it: had I not been a writing tutor for the last several semesters, I probably would not have known the concrete differences between those modes either. We began that class making sure that the primary tools with which we would use to express ourselves were well understood by all. Once those tools are acquired and widely used, it becomes easy to take your craft for granted—this is why it’s of paramount importance to discuss the tools of literary discourse both in advance and as they come up in the literature itself.
For me, the question becomes to what degree should literary students be given a “heads up” when it comes to the rhetorical content of the literature they’re about to read. For example, in English 102 we lately read “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. On the one hand, I wonder if it would have been a good idea to explain the concept of irony before they read the text. On the other hand, this would have risked corrupting the reading experience for the students because, chances are, they would have been so focused on finding examples of irony that the rest of the piece would have sat on the back burner. The next option would have been to discuss the concept of irony as it came up during the discussion in class. The immediate temptation would have been to ask, “Does anybody see the irony with the narrator, being a runaway slave, giving this speech at Pilgrim’s Point?” Now if Alanis Morissette and the mainstream media are any proof, the general population has an inaccurate picture of what irony really is, so this tempting question would come at the risk of assuming that the students—and this goes even for English majors—actually knew what irony as a literary device is. So here I see two extremes with potential risks: On one side, you may explain irony and make the students aware of its presence in the text before they read it at the risk of them reading only for irony; on the other side, you may bring up the concept of irony as it comes up in the text during the class discussion at the risk of the students still not having a clear perception of what irony as a literary device is. The two median solutions are clear: one ought to make sure to thoroughly explain the literary device in question as it comes up in the text thus avoiding the trap of assuming that all of the students know (by giving a silent nod and blank stare) exactly what the device in question is—or, alternatively, plan the rhetorical-side of the discussion ahead of time and frame the discussion by explaining the literary tools after the students have read the text but before they discuss it. I feel that the latter is especially preferable because it gives students an anchor point for discussing the piece using the new literary discourse tools they’ve just been provided in real time.
With my section of Shakespeare and Twelfth Night on the horizon, I foresee some challenges with maintaining this balance of giving a “heads up” and challenging students to see things in “real time.” Given the goals of the syllabus and the limited amount of time we have to cover Shakespeare, I feel like the best option lies with allowing the students to get their feet wet with the first act or two, that way when I frame the discussion with the literary devices that are more specific to plays and Shakespeare, there will be some context in advance. Again, this goes back to the idea of allowing the students to explore the text on their own first then providing a rhetorical framework before the discussion of the actual text comes into play.
Grant DempseyFebruary 20, 2012 at 9:23 pm
Interesting post, Jeremiah!
This is a broad hermeneutical problem as much as it is specifically a pedagogical one. We can pretend, as we improve our skills as readers, that we rise above any interpretive position given which something like recognizing a simple literary device or a genre would somehow compromise our capacity to engage a text. But I think to a large extent we actually never rise above such positions. I think we’re always preconditioned as readers and our interpretations are always compromised by our particular goals in reading, even if those goals aren’t imposed on us.
I’m thinking of the reading responses we wrote for Dr. Jenkins throughout Victorian Literature. Maybe you had a different experience with them (I’d be interested to know); I certainly noticed patterns that ran through my own, patterns which exposed tendencies of mine as a reader: to pick out particular themes not because they were always “the most important” in the works but because they were apparently important themes to me and as such generally constrained my interpretations by directing them; to “receive” texts broadly in particular ways, such as by relating them even if unconsciously to other works I’d encountered (even if those other works weren’t, say, historically relevant) and even to other areas of my life; etc.
I think it’s important to develop an awareness of the extent to which reading involves meaning making and doesn’t—can’t—consist cleanly of meaning “recognition.” And I think at least one great way of doing that is assigning reading responses and then specifically encouraging post-discussion reflection on those reading responses. It gives students a way to begin to recognize, maybe appreciate, themselves as distinct interpreters (which they are) and yet also challenge themselves to expand those distinct boxes in which they individually think. Allow the students personal journeys to complement the collective education they get from the course, so that it’s not just about introducing them to new data and new tools but also about bringing them into consciousness of the experience of reading.
Jeremiah HenryFebruary 21, 2012 at 12:23 pm
Speaking to the reading responses / journal entries, I know exactly what you mean. Of course, I find them 100% helpful, and since I first did them way back in 2007 for Dr. Moses at Fresno City College, I’ve made a habit of keeping a reading journal (whether for credit or not). The trouble is that we all know we’re going to end up having to write term papers–sometimes more than one–so the crafty student will use all the resources at their disposal to their advantage for those papers: for me, this usually amounts to reading specifically for things that I feel will work with my arguments, journaling about those, and perhaps overlooking other important moments that may not be directly related to my theses. With Middlemarch, for example, I was reading specifically for issues that related to communication and taking special note of those instances while, perhaps, not paying quite as much attention to other aspects.
Here’s what I really like:
Damn straight. I’m reminded of a great College Humor video…
If you can dance, you can cast spells. If you can rap, you can cast spells!
That’s right. Reader response theory is for everyone, and everyone is a valid interpreter.
Jeremiah HenryApril 09, 2012 at 6:02 pm
In a later article, I discuss how the results of “looking ahead.”