Waltzing Toward Literary Analysis

At the start of any introductory literature class I teach, I usually raise several questions that we’ll return to throughout the term, and that I hope will engage those students (usually a good 25 out of 50) who are in the room because there was a seat left, as well as those students, usually about 10 out of 50, who are possible English majors, or the others who are not Lit majors, but who have read an entire book sometime in the last few years: What is Literature? Why do we study literature? Who decides what IS American Literature? How does studying literature in a classroom differ from discussing literature with friends or in a book club? What is literary analysis and the varieties of literary analysis?

All of the questions lead to interesting discussions, except, usually, the last one. For that, I get dead silence.

During class two, we do what Kathleen Yancy calls a “pop up” exercise, slightly altered.  I have students read and annotate Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” using blue or black ink. Then, after discussing their responses with a partner, I ask them to add to their annotations in another color. Then, after discussing the poem as a class, they add more notes in another color, summarizing how their responses to the poem changed, and discussing the varieties of responses, from personal to psychological, for example.

I then show them how I’ve annotated the poem, giving them another model of what they can do to read actively, and usually filling in some other varieties of literary analysis that may not have come up during class discussion.

Then I ask them to do the same thing to the opening chapter of whatever novel we are reading.

We return to the “close reading times three” exercise many times during the quarter. I love this exercise because it allows all students to engage in the literary work, from whatever level they are at, in a nonthreatening way.  And I’ve always started with ‘My Papa’s Waltz” because it so easily leads students to two divergent interpretations–the trompe l’oeil I try to draw on the board usually makes them laugh, too. We discuss why some students are drawn toward one interpretation at first, and while others see the other. We discuss biographical criticism, close reading (so many students see “romp” as a negative word these days, I’ve noticed), and new historicism.  We discuss point of view and setting and character.  It’s a quick tour of literary analysis, without emphasizing any of those terms (though they leave class with a handout overview of those terms, and we’ll discuss them throughout the quarter).

And then, I almost always get an email like this one after class discussion:

Dear Professor:
 I wanted to comment on this poem, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing so in class. My father was a verbally abusive drunk. But I loved him dearly. This poem hit real close to home. I saw it as the waltz of a drunken father with the son who loves him unconditionally, but it was the fun side of my dad that I saw in the poem.

This from a recently unemployed 50 something year old man who is both excited and nervous about being in the class.

I love teaching literature classes. Our classes are too big (I think I’m down to 43 students rather than 50 now, having scared off at least 7 with the reading list), but what a rush I get when such a large class of students seems actively engaged for the full 100 minutes, and students don’t start packing up early, even though it’s nearly 7:30pm and the rain outside is icy. And, when I get e-mails like the one above.

10 responses to “Waltzing Toward Literary Analysis

  1. I stumbled onto your blog through a weird link on mine, but I am so glad I did! I teach American Literature as well, and I love this exercise, and the way you express your love for your profession and students. Thanks.

  2. Hi Ravyngurl (great name!). Thanks for stopping by AND commenting.

    You have wonderful tastes! From the Mixed Up Files….truly and exciting and inspirational novel for me as a young girl. I wanted to BE Claudia: smart, beautiful, adventurous, kind and sarcastic at the same time;-)

  3. Some days and nights I feel great, sometimes absolutely scattered and unintelligible. I love this part of the term when we’re all still on a honeymoon: I love teaching (and then the en slaught of paper grading begins: sigh).

    Ink, don’t forget I want a review of that Bedford anthology after the term is over. Although this is my last time doing the survey for a while (I’ve been THE 2nd half of the survey course prof for 15 years now–BIG sigh), I’m sure I’ll return to it (I have a couple of new lit courses brewing: Memoir, Contemporary American Fiction, more Women Writers).

  4. Thanks for commenting, Lance. And yes, I have read “How to Read Literature…” (and his other book “How to Read Fiction….”): both were fun to read, and helped me find new ways to teach general education students about literary analysis.

    But since I’m trying to be anonymous, I’ll just say I teach at a community college;-)

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