Monday, April 14, 2014

Back to the Fifties

My students are working on a project where they pose a question having something to do with our class, and then try to find an essay published in a peer reviewed journal that helps them understand the question or an answer to some extent.  They read and write an analysis of the essay.  It's a stepping stone (see, I chose a different metaphor) along the way to other research.

We're talking through the questions now, and I'm struck again (as every time I've done this) by how often their questions feel very "fifties" to me, where "fifties" means that it feels critically old fashioned.

They tend to want to know if Hamlet is really crazy, for example, or if Lady Macbeth had kids.  These aren't bad questions, but they feel out of step with questions most critics these days are asking and pursuing.

My goal is for them to be able to find a useful essay, so I help them modify and look for stuff, so things usually turn out okay.

Some of them are carrying over from high school questions, it seems.

Others, of course, are asking much more fun (from my point of view) questions.

What sorts of questions do your students ask?  How do the questions change across course levels?  (These are first and second year students, mostly, so they really are early in their development as college students.)


  1. Shane in Utah3:20 PM

    Teaching in Utah is like going back to the 1950s in all sorts of ways, and yes, old-fashioned literary reading practices is one of those ways. Left to their own devices, my students tend either to discuss the motives and emotions of characters as if they are real people, or to relate the experiences depicted in the novel to something in their own lives. The online study guides posted by publishers or high school teachers tend to ask those sort of questions, as do the mainstream media, to the extent they ever talk about books at all (Oprah Winfrey, Diane Rehm). One pedagogical goal of mine, then, is to get students to see texts as constructions by the author, written with particular goals in mind (rhetorical, aesthetic, philosophical, and/or political) but also containing meanings and layers unseen by the author.

    1. That's a great goal, Shane!

  2. OMG, I have just been commenting on final paper proposals for the Shakespeare class, and I am SO relieved to know it is not just my students. (I don't actually object to "old school" questions per se, but the real problem with both of your examples, it seems to me, is that they're not actually answerable with textual evidence. Well, OK, the Lady Macbeth one has an actual, historical answer, and I suspect a really sophisticated student could do something with the fact that Shakespeare seems to have known she had a child from her first marriage but, perhaps deliberately, leaves out all of the details about that child and his eventual fate. But "Is Hamlet really crazy?" and "Are Romeo and Juliet really in love?" are perennial non-starters.)

    Also, my students always seem to want to write about imaginary, hypothetical texts instead of the ones that actually exist -- "How would Othello be different if Roderigo had a bigger role?" or "What if Hamlet had decided to kill the king in Act 3?" (I worry that I might be guilty of encouraging this, because I throw out the occasional "how would this play be different if this scene or speech weren't there" in class discussion -- but when I do it, it's always aimed at figuring out what the actual, existing text DOES, and not pursuing a random hypothetical.)

  3. "Did Shakespeare really write these plays? I heard it was someone else."

    Any version of the authorship question makes me crazy, and really, it's irrelevant if I asked you to do a literary analysis paper.

    "Why does everyone have to be named Henry or Edward?"

    It's a history play -- it's not like Shakespeare picked the names and got lazy.

    My students also want to write about hypotheticals a lot -- like, "How would it change the play if the genders were reversed in MND among the four lovers?" I don't know. How would the world be different if the sky were blood red all the time? I mean, jeez... ask a question you can answer with the text.

    Oh, another wrote a paper last year about whether or not the music parts were important in Shakespeare's plays. The one-word answer, "yes," took 8 pages to come out. :-/

  4. My students don't seem to be after hypotheticals. Huh. I wonder if they're not encouraged that way around here? Or in their high schools?

    For this assignment, students are looking for what a critical essay has to say, rather than making an argument themselves. I'm trying to teach them to read well and carefully, and to recognize that critical essays are making an argument. Ultimately, I hope this helps them get away from quote mining. (I'm not certain it does, but I've had some students tell me that it's changed the way they read critical essays.)