English Literature — Work Tips
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
One of my teacher’s teachers famously said (or it should have become famous) that one of the most difficult things in the world to do is to read a poem. Now, a few decades later, he might have broadened the scope to include the supreme difficulty of reading anything, or of focusing one’s attention. It may always have been easier in the field of literary study to trace sources and influences, to lecture on history or biography, and thereby avoid facing that poem directly on its own terms. But what about truly focusing on that poem or that play these days?
Currently, it’s a grim prospect. The physical fact of a book itself seems threatened in view of the assumed virtue of paperlessness. At one time not long ago it was automatic that one would bring one’s book to class; now it is not only not assumed, but not even common practice, in literature classes!
You can tell yourself you’ll save some bucks and read texts online. You’ll light upon the most accessible Shakespeare, for example: one of many irresponsible online editions that fail to include act, scene, and line numbers. You can tell yourself that you’ll read this crap.com edition of Twelfth Night and when it comes time for writing a paper you’ll consult some other responsible edition that does include line numbers, but you know you won’t: you’ll either leave out line numbers altogether and hope for mercy in grading, or you won’t quote from the play at all and just generate empty blab with no textual support.
You can tell yourself you’ll really read the crap.com version of Twelfth Night, but you start to suspect that instead of scrolling down a bit to get past the first twenty lines of Act I, scene i, since your finger is headed to the keyboard anyway, maybe, just maybe, only one or two clicks away is complete salvation! Maybe the perfect study guide on Twelfth Night, or something cool that will save tons of time reading and accomplish the same thing, whatever that is. Four and a half hours later when the sheer volume of the LadyGagaBlog freezes your screen, you realize how unfair it is to have to read so much for class. Besides, Delahoyde will probably show film clips from the required act, and that will delude you into thinking you’ve “covered” the material (vs. experienced).
Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell speculated that although people sometimes toss about the term “the meaning of life,” they don’t really want the meaning of life nor does that term make any sense. (“What’s the meaning of a flower?”) Instead, what people may be looking for is an experience of life. This makes sense to me. And it’s what is happening less and less often. So now one of the most difficult things to do in life is to experience … anything: a poem or a play included. The world crafted around us seems designed to tempt us to forego even the effort to experience anything. We know all those piles of information, all those texts and what “experts” think of them, are accessible “world wide,” if we do ever need to see that stuff. And that’s pretty much enough for us. If it ever comes to it, I’ll just google that stuff. But it’ll never come to it, and neither will you.
Read. For real. You’ll be astounded what happens with your mind and your soul.
I ask for frequent short commentaries — a couple paragraphs is usually expected — as we procede through the literature. I’ve always found online delivery of homework in the form of postings to discussion threads to be the most valuable kind of exercise, because students can respond to or build on what someone else has initiated; so repetitions are fewer than if I ask for individual hand-ins. Therefore each semester I set up an online discussion space for the class. When you know I’ve asked for a homework posting but something goes wrong with the electronics, connectivity, computers, or your access, the default always is not to blow it off with a computer excuse but simply to write out a commentary and turn it in at the start of the coming class period.
These homework submissions receive points, usually from about 9 to 12 points each. (Other points are accrued with in-class minor group work or sometimes the occasional vote.) A few optional extra credit options will occur during the semester, but really every assigned posting is an extra-credit option, since there is no real limit to the number of points you can earn. I occasionally find myself awarding something like 16 points on an 11-point assignment.
How is that possible for you?
If you seem to be earning only mediocre points for online homework, then aim to include specific and correctly documented quotations in your postings and to comment on these with some degree of intricacy or precision. By scanning others’ postings, you should be able to tell at least some of the contours of point-awarding. Some people post only a few lines and include primarily vague personal reactions instead of anything engaging. Some do little more, even far into the semester, than protest their ostensible confusion at the reading (and god forbid they should explore a little — even with obvious online resources — to understand the basics of the scenes). Naturally these kinds of responses earn only a couple points out of 10 or 11. Others, when prompted to focus on something from a coming act, choose instead to go backwards and quote something from a previous reading already discussed in class. And often these are mere repetitions of perspectives we’ve hashed out. The vast numbers of postings are better than this and gravitate towards key questions and issues. They usually receive 9 or 10 points out of 11 or 12. Truly superb postings for 12 out of 12 tackle something unique or unusual among the other threads, and do tend to be longer not because of filler but because of intricacy and analysis of the implications of certain quoted moments. People also receive lots of points who check in, post, check in later, join a threaded discussion, answer other people’s questions, do a bit of looking something up to add to the discussion, etc.
Since exams tend to be heavily quotation-based, you can arm yourself well by noting passages we spend time on. Those who bring their texts to class give themselves an advantage this way, more efficiently committing at least a visual impression of textual passages to memory as they check or mark passages discussed.
Since I can include only so much on any exam and since I want to avoid “trivial pursuit,” notes you take in class are the best resource for later exam preparation. Think of what seemed to be the one or two most important points during each class period; almost certainly those are the concepts I’m trying to have represented on the exam — and usually illustrated by a quotation.
In lieu of a “study guide” — and I’m baffled as to what such a thing would look like for a class such as this — my online notes, which consist sometimes of summaries, sometimes with lots of commentary and quotations, are said by students to be a very useful resource for exam preparation. This makes sense, since if a quotation is important enough for an exam, it’s almost certainly something I thought was important enough to include in my web pages.