Thursday, March 21, 2013

Part I: The Use of Narrative Assignments in Introductory Literature Courses

In my Introduction to Literature classes, it's the critical thinking skills that matter. I achieve results through the use of the narrative essay.

"Discussion" was really just a moment of silence.

I had not been teaching a year when I realized I wasn't teaching our Introduction to Literature class effectively. Students were plagiarizing or purchasing papers, and others were submitting mostly mind-numbing cookie-cutter essays that hadn't been revised in the slightest. Worst of all, "class discussion" was really just a moment of silence while students waited for me to tell them what the literary work they were supposed to have read for homework was all about. For the most part, they weren't reading. I vowed to turn it around, and in my search for answers I read Sheridan Blau's The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers and Allen Mendler's Motivating Students Who Don't Care: Successful Techniques for Educators. They both helped me change my habits.

It is the ability to think critically that's important in my class.

Having been an English major, I had a preconceived idea about what an academic essay about a literary work should look like and how it should read. But as an English major, I already knew how to think and analyze my way through a piece of literature. I was already determined to do everything I needed to do in order to understand a piece of literature better. With my students, non-majors, I had to go back to what was missing. I had to find a way to draw their attention to the experience, not the assignment. I realized that it is theability to think critically that's important in my literature class. The assignment, the product, is just that - the product of the experience. Therefore, I eliminated my expectation for students to write traditional expository and argumentative essay assignments,  and I shifted the focus of the assignment from the mode of the essay to the goal of the essay.

The goal of the essay is for students to be able to prove they can use primary and secondary sources, reason and logic, and theoretical methodology to support an interpretation of a literary work; in essence, an argument about the meaning of the literary work.  Then, I encourage the use of narrative paragraphs, chronological paragraphs, to teach students how to experience literature.  This assignment, with the requirements in place for the students to think through the literature and come to interpretive conclusions deductively, has made all the difference in the world in the development of their critical thinking skills.

Their outlines become planned actions.

First, asking students to tell me the story about what they did to understand the reading better drives them to take ownership of their own understanding. Because of the narrative format, their outlines become planned actions. Student papers are then full of action verbs, such as "chart," "list," and "compare." More importantly, without research being directly required, I have data from assessment projects that show more than half the students consistently use not only general research sources, but theoretical and literary research. Students are more likely in the narrative essay to want me to know they've used research because they are reporting to me what they did, not merely what they already know, or worse yet, what they think I think they should know. This makes it more likely they will introduce the evidence smoothly and cite it properly. Without being asked directly to do so, students find creative ways to meet the requirements of the assignment, which makes for genuinely interesting and creative prose. In this, real learning is taking place.

They begin to think in the abstract.

Another benefit to using the narrative essay for literature class writing assignments is that there's less pressure on the student to find "the" answer to what a work of literature means. Again, this makes for interesting prose and creative analysis. I find that as students begin answering their own questions about literature, not questions derived from the anthology or from my own ideas, they begin to understand the concept of literary theory. As we discuss their own questions during class and within their writing, I can point them, individually, to literary approaches I can see already might interest them. They begin to think in the abstract and formulate their own systems of thought.

Students evaluate their own thought processes.

As a final example of how the narrative has helped me shift the paradigm in my literature courses from product to process, I can say with certainty that students who are loathe to revise have begun to do so. Getting students to revise their writing, in my experience, has been a losing battle. However, because students cannot possibly have thesis statements and complete topic sentences until after the experiential process has been completed, they must go back to the rough drafts at some point to revise, at minimum, those few sentences. Unlike the argumentative essay that asks students to evaluate the ideas of others, the narrative requires students to evaluate their own ideas.

As I continue to revise and restructure my Introduction to Literature courses, I find there are benefits to using the narrative assignment that are too many to list here. Of all of those, however, the most astounding benefit to my own students has been a noticeable increase in their ability to think critically about the works of literature they are actually, now, reading.

Read Part II: The Use of Narrative Assignments in Introductory Literature Courses.

Want to read more about narrative essays?


Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

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