From time to time, I get concerned about teaching students to write about literature, especially in core classes. Writing about short stories or novels or poems is not a skill they’re going to need to get a job at some point, and they will never do it again in their lives (as they complain about math classes). I’m teaching students who will become nurses and ministers and business owners, as well as psychiatrists and speech pathologists and botanists, and they will never have the need to write an analytical paper about a work of literature.
Of course, one could make the same argument about reading literature, which helps explain K-12 schools’ push toward reading nonfiction. However, most people can easily see a transfer that occurs in skills from reading literature to reading anything. Reading literature makes people improve at reading, in general, as it slows them down and makes them look past a surface level of reading. Writing about literature doesn’t have that obvious transfer, so I become a bit bothered when I feel I’m not helping students learn skills that will help them in college and in life.However, I always come back to finding such writing assignments to be quite valuable, mainly for one reason. Writing about literature teaches ways of thinking that they are not used to. Certainly there are obvious ways it does that, in that in requires students to gather other people’s opinions on the stories, then synthesize those with their own and the text to form a coherent argument. Any type of writing does that, though.
What separates writing about literature is that it requires students to read at a level that goes beyond an understanding of the facts, which is what writing about nonfiction requires. It demands that they not only present other people’s readings of stories, but that they can analyze those interpretations, then apply those analyses to their own analysis of the work of literature to create an entirely new argument.
Those habits of thinking (or habits of mind) trickle over into the rest of their thinking, ideally. That’s at least how it happened for me. I remember watching Dead Poets Society just about halfway through my college career. Spoiler alert: stop reading now if you haven’t seen the movie, as I’m about to reveal an important plot point. I had become an English major the summer before, and I had been writing Humanities papers for a couple of years. I was not a particularly good English major, especially at the beginning, but I was working at it. My friend and I were watching the movie, and I saw the scene just after Neil’s suicide when the boys are walking through the snow. I yelled out, “Snow. Snow. That represents death.” Granted, this insight is not particularly deep, but it was the first time I remember interacting with any medium beyond the surface level.
That approach to life will stand students in good stead, not only in their jobs (where we do need people in every occupation who can look past the surface), but in life. While it might not help them to be able to see symbolism in a rather mainstream movie, it will help them to think about their own choices, to think beyond the surface of who they are and what they want to be, to be able to read their story at a deeper level.
I’m never sure that the writing I ask my students to do get them to this point, but I hope it starts them on the path (or takes them one more step down it). I see too many people who only see the surface of life, who want to see the material world as all there is, then make their choices accordingly. I want to live in a world where more people see that there is more to this world, so I spend some nights and weekends grading papers about literature. That seems a fair trade to me, most days.