It usually happens towards the end of the semester. A student approaches me after class: “I was watching a movie this weekend with my friends – for fun – and suddenly I started analyzing and interpreting the movie.” Such encouraging moments remind me of my goals as a teacher: not to transform students into literary critics but to help students practice interpretation so that their analytical abilities become more habitual, rigorous, and active. These casual moments after class or during office hours demonstrate the lasting impact of a challenging and exciting literature class.
To reach these moments of analytical awareness, my strategy is simple. In teaching literature, we sometimes forget the joy and central importance of problem-solving, which combines logic and creativity. Such a combination is important not only in art and literature but also engineering, science, philosophy, and mathematics. I avoid reducing literary analysis to rhetorical persuasion. Though a persuasive argument is necessary, it is meant to serve as a solution to an interesting problem. First and foremost, I teach my students to notice problems.
Together with students, I stage textual exegesis by working through multiple layers of complication. After a few initial observations about a text, I move towards an unexpected question by bringing their observations together: “If ‘Adam’s Curse’ seems to be about the joy of ‘creating something beautiful,’ as you say, why does Yeats avoid perfect rhymes?” The question is often followed by an inevitable pause and inquisitive glances back at the poem. It is a productive moment of silence. I watch their brows furrow as they wrestle with an apparent inconsistency or anomaly. Then, with building momentum, students begin to work towards interpretation. A sharp student notices the poem’s title. They begin to realize that “beauty” in Yeats’s poem is cut through with fatigue and inevitable failure, yet this failure produces beauty by undermining the idealized perfection of love, poetry, or even the world itself. In this process of experimentation, I’ve found students produce more valuable insights than I ever expected; such discussions help me learn more about the work I love. As Gramsci writes, the most critical and lasting component of education is the “spirit of re-creation” that benefits from missteps and failure. It allows “items of information to be assimilated and fused [. . .] into a flame burning with new individual life.”
As an instructor, I experiment with different teaching styles. At times, I’m a fellow participant in discussion, and other times, I’m a coach who encourages disciplined logic and rigor of thought. However, one trait always remains. Students are surprised how animated and passionate I am when analyzing texts with them. I’ve found that this intellectual enthusiasm can be incredibly contagious and, over the course of the semester, it builds an open and committed classroom atmosphere. Most importantly, I hope my passion challenges the anti-intellectualism prevalent in our culture and leaves my students encouraged in their own analytical capability.