An Academic Thursday: The Introduction to Literature

Do you teach a late sophomore or early junior level introduction to literary genres in a language other than English?

This is the course in which you learn to scan poetry. You learn to do close readings of four genres. You learn to formulate an analytical thesis statement. You learn all sorts of rhetorical terms. You learn to write expository prose in that language.

I am thinking that some of these things should now be taught later. I am thinking that the thesis statements and expository prose have to go. Perhaps all the assignments should be much more exploratory and creative, and this course should not be writing intensive in the traditional way.

I have my reasons for thinking these things, but none of them is that “the students are less good than they were.” What do you do / what do you think?


7 thoughts on “An Academic Thursday: The Introduction to Literature

  1. I do teach this course in Spanish and I can’t tell you how hard I have to struggle against this “I-need-to-formulate-a-thesis-statement” obsession that my students bring with them from high school. They are taught this formulaic approach to writing that becomes so deeply ingrained it’s impossible to teach them it isn’t necessary.

    When I tell thim it’s ok to forget about the formula and take a more creative, personal approach to writing, they often don’t believe that I actually mean it.

  2. Thanks for the heads-up, Clarissa!

    I just wish I could get them to form a thesis statement!

    Mine want to:
    a) summarize
    b) regurgitate the author’s biography
    c) repeat what they were taught about this author/this text in the middle school courses they took on patrimonio nacional
    d) talk in general on the issue raised (i.e. if they are to comment on an essay about contraception, they don’t realize they should comment on the essay. They take a remark from it and go on about how and why they agree or disagree, and evade discussing the rest of the text at all!)

    That’s why I’m thinking that trying to get them to be analytical in the way I expect is too advanced. (I also can’t get them to believe me that a thesis or focus isn’t something you are going to “prove,” it’s the point of departure for an exploration.)

    But suddenly, reading your comment, I wonder whether I am too thesis driven myself and whether that might be a source of some of my own woes. Interesting.

  3. I force them to learn how to write an “explicación de texto” in which there is less emphasis on the thesis statement and more on “what does this mean and how do you know, in the order in which it was written?” when they can do that acceptably, they write a thesis driven thematic essay, at the end of the semester. I allow them to make a kind of summary or descriptive statement at the beginning, but they are really discouraged from generalities and obliged to provide textual evidence for all assertions. Since we are still in language-learning mode, paying attention to things like adjective endings, verb tenses and pronouns helps them bridge the gap between their general impressions and the need to be specific.
    Those who have already learned some writing skills in English usually are able to transfer them, but large numbers have been poorly taught.

  4. Such a timely topic since I just read 35 intro lit essays, 10 of them plot summaries or random jottings about how much they liked or disliked the story.

    I’ve nothing to add since I go back and forth on what to do in a gen ed lit class where I want them to write about the stories. A variety of writing assignments? Maybe one thesis-based, one creative re-visioning, one research context?

  5. This is (of course) a little off the subject, but I find that reader response is probably the first thing that could be demanded. Then they would get it that they were supposed to be responding to the piece.

  6. This is fun!

    Yes. I have them write a journal for that reason. Someone lazy just alleged to me that she is “afraid” to write it before hearing what is said in class for fear it might be “wrong.”

    For part of the journal, they are supposed to respond to explicacion de texto type questions. This is also what we talk about in class.

    But: what two good students recommended today was:

    – daily quizzes on explicacion de texto type questions
    – 2 creative response type papers or projects: creative writing, personal essay, art work with artist’s statement, video, etc.
    – 2 expository / analytical / argumentative essays (perhaps give a choice between explicacion de texto and others: have the default be a formal explicacion de texto and only let them do thesis driven pieces if they have a reason to, something they just must say)
    – when the essay is due, have peer editing and part of the grade is their critique of someone else’s paper, so they have to show they’ve read something they didn’t write on
    – final exam as now, theatre performance where the grade is on, how well did the decisions on how to stage the piece reflect a serious consideration of the text?
    – at the final, the audience writes commentaries on the different performances, so they have to be able to speak cogently about plays other than the one they ended up working on (they have to know those texts too)
    (The plays are very short and there is more than one group staging each.)

  7. My students do that thing with random generalities sometimes. It’s weird.

    Some of them especially like to introduce their essay with a paragraph of inane generalities, or sometimes to introduce each paragraph with a sentence. Something like, “Most would agree childhood innocence is something to be cherished.” Then they go on to discuss a specific bad thing that happened to a specific child.

    And I’m like, huh? I don’t really understand what they are trying to do when they do that.

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