“‘TRUE!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?’”
-Edgar Allan Poe “The Tell-Tale Heart”
Students often expect the first day of class to be “syllabus day.” They are not always prepared when I hand them a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and then perform a dramatic reading of the text. They are even less prepared when I then ask them to get into small groups and figure out why we should show sympathy toward the narrator. Most stare at me wide-eyed, and undoubtedly, a few hands shoot up to explain to me that no one should feel sympathy for a murderer. “It was premeditated,” they might explain. “Nothing excuses that.” I ask them to proceed anyway, to struggle with the story, to question the things the narrator says. When we reconvene as a class, I’ll ask students to share what they uncovered. We discover that the narrator’s actions and speech contrast with his words: we contemplate the use of dashes, of question marks and exclamation points, of short sentences mixed with long ones. We note that the narrator claims to be sane, but our discussion leads us to believe otherwise. And then we must struggle with our initial reactions: is it socially responsible of us to judge an emotionally unstable man the same way we would a stable man? How do we dole out punishment when we know the perpetrator of a crime suffers what appears to be a mental illness? This interactive activity sets the tone for the whole semester: I consistently ask students to approach the literature we read with a questioning mind to vary their approaches to reading and to analyze the socio-political implications of a text.
As I emphasize to students, whether in a literature or composition class, true analysis is a process of questioning what we think we know, how we know it, what that says about the world around us, and ultimately, what that says about ourselves. The only way, in my opinion, to come to a fuller understanding of a text is to undergo this process of questioning full force—and discussion helps us to open our horizons, push ourselves out of our comfort zones, and become more willing to see things from different points of view. My emphasis on engagement with peers, texts, and extra-textual ideas pushes students to move beyond an initial emotional reaction. Instead, I challenge students to contemplate why and how an author may do something, and ultimately, to discover what an author’s language does to us as readers and thinkers. My Composition students engage in this close engagement with a text when they write a rhetorical analysis on Chris Kluwe’s fiery blog response to Senator Emmett Burns’s homophobia. Some students may not agree with Kluwe’s very liberal views on gay marriage, and other students may be offended by Kluwe’s language, but to write a rhetorical analysis—to understand how Kluwe attempts to persuade his audience—students must suspend their judgment of the text’s ideas. I encourage students to respond to these aspects of the text, but I also challenge them to forge ahead and continue reading, and through class discussions and group activities, we as a class came to certain conclusions about the text—and in particular, about Kluwe’s arguments—that we reached through analysis of the language and rhetoric of the text itself. Only through this deep engagement and struggle with a text can we suspend our judgments and come to a more nuanced understanding of said text.
To compel my students to engage with language, I ask them to approach texts in multiple ways: through close textual reading, interactive group activities, and historical or cultural contextualization. I find that physical, dynamic interaction in the classroom often leads to a more nuanced and long-lasting understanding of a text. When my literature students read Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, we’ll spend time closely analyzing various book covers and discuss the choices artists must make when representing a novel. Next, I’ll ask my students to get into groups and create their own book covers for the novel. Through this activity, students learn how to focus closely on a small aspect of a text in order to make an overall argument about that text, and they learn how to justify their choices by using textual evidence when they present their adaptations to the class. Similarly important is the historical context of a text; when students delve into the context, a text comes alive in a different, more dynamic way. My composition students partake in this dynamic reading of a text when they read John Fire Lame Deer’s “Talking to the Owls and Butterflies.” After exploring the text and the rhetorical choices Lame Deer uses, we’ll subsequently analyze several legislative movements, like the Clean Air Act, in order to understand the various aspects of the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In so contextualizing Lame Deer’s text, we begin to understand the connections between genres and social movements, and when I task students with writing a synthesis paper that includes sources from various social movements, they are prepared to analyze connections they may not have noticed before. In both of these instances, students must ultimately return to the author’s language and illuminate that language through active engagement with the texts.
These above examples demonstrate my emphasis on a careful analysis of an author’s textual choices, and the same commitment to rhetoric that propels my research also inspires my teaching. As a researcher, I approach texts by analyzing how language works on a reader: how does nineteenth century American protest literature work to persuade a reader to adopt a more socially inclusive mindset? In a similar fashion, I consistently ask my students to analyze how an author does something. Whether this takes the form of a rhetorical analysis, an essay I assign my Composition II students, or a close reading essay, a staple in my literature courses, the goal remains the same—through questioning and discussing the language in front of us, we can more fully understand how language works on a reader or a listener.
My ultimate hope is that students will take their skills in close textual analysis into the outside world and realize that the reactions people have in life are informed primarily by judgments, which too often lack critical thinking. Consequently, my students will have the skills necessary to move away from their initial reactions and to instead think deeply about the world around them, question their own assumptions and the assumptions of others, and arrive at a conclusion based on close analysis and critical thinking. Gwendolyn D. Pough invokes this idea of responsible social thinking and action when she claims, “it is our obligation as people who do language, who understand the power of words, to not just train our students to write and speak pretty words. We have to teach them to think about what they hear. To listen, really listen. If we do that, then we will really be helping to create a critical thinking citizenship.” If I can teach my students anything, I hope it is that the work we do with language paves the way for a more thorough understanding of the world outside of the classroom.