Literature 1 helps students systematize the learning of critical thinking, reading, and writing.

How can we systematize thinking, reading, and writing without over-determining what students learn?

This question gets at one of the central conundrums of most if not all classrooms, especially in interpretive courses like literature. Classes often get caught at one of two poles. If we don't systematize critical skills, we end up writing broad comments that use vague phrases to suggest what students need to do, such as "make your paper flow more" or "more critical reading needed here." On the other hand, we can over-determine student learning by writing assignments that task students with listing the "facts" we covered in a class, such as "Write a paper describing three reasons why Hamlet goes mad." 

My experience tells me that teaching critical reading and writing can in fact be systematized in ways that open up possibilities rather than foreclose them. We can name and order the component parts of these critical skills, and we can create a common language that directs our readings, discussions, assignment sheets, and evaluations. We can articulate specific goals that wind up producing as many different papers as there are students. 

The key, it turns out, is having both a number of ways to approach a text and a number of texts to approach. That is, we can systematize how students approach a text but not determine what they end up noticing in it or saying about it.   

Let's take a closer look at how this happened in Literature 1 in our first block. Specifically, we used a foundational document that defines different kinds of "problems" with which scholars typically work. The document essentially breaks down the iconic ways scholars across all kinds of fields, from English and history to biology and computer science, think and write analytically.  

What makes this document successful isn't just the fact that it breaks things down into nine approaches to thinking, reading, and writing. It's also because the document focuses potential problems in a text, issue, or topic. Here are three examples:

  • The standard view or a published view about a text, issue, or topic needs challenging or qualifying.
  • A seemingly tangential or insignificant matter is actually central or essential.
  • The text, issue, or topic has an interesting wrinkle or complexity that requires an explanation or an ambiguity that needs an interpretation.

There are three main notes to make here. First, the "problems" suggested in these examples focus on how others might read or interpret a text, and therefore make us consider an audience for our ideas. Second, the problems suggested in these examples don't tell us what "seemingly tangential" matter to focus on or what complexity might need interpretation, and therefore they require students to still do some heavy lifting. And third, they all suggest that solutions are important but don't prescribe what those solution are, why those solution might be important, or how they might change our understanding of the text, issue, or topic.      

So what, exactly, did we do in class with all this material? I wanted students to engage this document with both their heads and their hands. We first paraphrased each iconic "move" scholars tend to make, and we then broke up into teams with a simple goal in mind: re-order those nine iconic moves into more intelligent groups, giving each group a name that describes the essential characteristic of the group. 

For Proofniks, the hands-on nature of the activity and the small group work were a natural fit. But what really made sense for us was the focus on defining a potential problem in the poems we've been reading. The activity itself replicated the need to define and intervene in a problem: the list I initially presented to them was numbered but not ordered, and giving them order was a way to give them meaning.

I'll note that each group came up with different groupings for those nine iconic ways scholars think and write. It showed us that by creating the possibility for many roads to a common goal, each student could use the road that made the most sense to him or her. 

Beyond this, we also winnowed the possible scholarly moves we could make this block, given we were working with a single source. They couldn't use, for example, a move that required them to do research or to intervene in an existing debate. We categorize that list of nine moves even further: those that they could adopt wholesale, those that would not apply to an analysis of a single text, and those that they could use if they intelligently adapted them.   

You may be wondering how all this played out in the students' first papers. The quick answer is: rather well. Each student chose a poem about which to write and each student chose one of the iconic scholarly moves they saw at play in the poem. One student showed me a Neruda poem that seemed to have an internal conflict between what it was saying and how it said it; another student, using the same poem by Neruda, used a different iconic scholarly move and argued for an entirely different problem in the poem; yet another showed me that a poem by Carolyn Forché seemed to capture an amalgamation of two iconic moves.

Where literature classes often have all students writing the same paper but alone in their turrets, in Literature 1 each student is writing a different paper but in the company of their peers.  

This year, we will look at other elements of writing in a similar, systematic fashion, focusing on providing a solution to the problem we define (thesis); on analyzing evidence (using a document that identifies the iconic ways scholars use and position evidence); on structuring complex arguments (using model essays that can be color coded for their various parts); and on revising for a specific audience (transforming papers into presentations).

Just for fun, I reached out to a few of our math-inclined faculty to help me figure out the total number papers that could have been written this block, given 30 poems and, after the winnowing activity, five iconic moves from which to choose. The answer was 150; that's more than 11 times the number of kids in the class. This is what I mean by systematizing how we learn to think, read, and write analytically. It's a system in which there are various but limited ways that structure and give access to learning, but which have many possible outcomes.  

-- Zachary Sifuentes