Our First Foray: ‘Tis New to Thee

I spent a while thinking about what might be a good topic for a first real post.  How about: the first thing that occurred to me to write about?  Good a starting point as any.

Today’s topic is: when do you know a student has brought you an excellent paper topic?

In Act V of Shakespeare’s final play The Tempest, the sorcerer Prospero’s daughter Miranda – who, until the day on which the play takes place, had never seen another human soul besides her dear old dad – finds herself suddenly surrounded not only by her new boyfriend Ferdinand, but by a cadre of other men from the ship that crashed onto their island in the play’s titular storm.  As she takes in the sight of all these humans all at once, Miranda delivers her most famous lines (thanks, Aldous Huxley) from the play:

O wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is!  O brave new world

That hath such people in’t!

Less well known, but equally important, is Prospero’s fond response to his star-struck daughter:

‘Tis new to thee.

Every person in this crowd is someone Prospero knows, and knows well.  He’s spent lots of time with them. He has, in fact, been stabbed in the back by most of them, and he has spent most of the play seeking revenge on them – they’re only just beginning to make peace with one another.  But Prospero is wise enough to know, and to let the audience know, that Miranda shouldn’t give a rat’s diseased hindquarters about his experience: she feels a near-indescribable sense of wonder because to her, it’s all brand-new.  Heck, she’s probably not even listening to him. There’s no point in trying to disillusion her right now; it’s far better to let her have the joy and feeling of limitlessness that comes with being young and inexperienced.

The same is true of student papers, especially when it comes to student literary analysis.  Every English teacher knows the feeling of dread that mounts when she realizes she’s about to read twenty papers on variations of the same topic.  The river in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  The pig’s head in Lord of the Flies.  Eppie’s gold hair in Silas Marner.  Why we should really be on Satan’s side in Paradise Lost.  The eyes of Dr. TJ Eckleburg, which I will actually go insane if I have to read about ever again.  You’ve read it all before a thousand times.  You’ve read it good.  You’ve read it bad.  You’ve read it finished nine minutes before the start of class.  You despair of ways to get them to please, please, please write about something that’s a little more interesting.

But all of those things are interesting.  At least, they were the first time you read about them.  (Except the eyes of Dr. TJ Eckleburg, because Gatsby has never been that interesting.)  So…pretend it’s the first time you read about it.

How do you know when your student has brought you an excellent paper topic?  She’s excited about it.  And she’s excited because you’ve given her room to be excited by letting her discover it anew.

Much is made, when it comes to paper topics and thesis statements, of “originality.”  Your student must bring you an original argument that “makes the reader think.” Mostly, this comes from the need to prevent students from just regurgitating plot summary for five pages and thinking they’ve said something about the book.  And yet, I think we place a little too much emphasis on originality for its own sake. My favorite student papers aren’t necessarily the ones that make me think the hardest – in fact, the ones that make me think the hardest are usually the ones that are so unnecessarily abstract and muddled that I can’t tell what in tarnation the student is trying to say.  My favorite student papers are from students who got deeply attached to something in the text they read – a character, a relationship, a setting, a particular passage, an important object, even a similarity they notice to one of their own favorite stories – and ran like crazy with it. When your students are excited, they want to do the work, and they care about doing right by themselves and by the thing they are excited about.  You might still have to work with them on the actual quality of their writing, but the days of immediate and univeral eye-rolling when you assign their next paper will be over.

Let’s say that you are teaching – just to pull out a random example – The Tempest.  How many things that could be said about The Tempest, one of the most famous plays in the Western world, do you figure have not been said yet?  How many of those things do you – an English teacher who has read The Tempest at least once and probably closer to a dozen times – figure you have not already thought about?  The chances that your student is going to cause you to see The Tempest in a whole new light are very slim.  (It’s not impossible – I’ve had students do it – but if you expect it from every student in your class every time, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.)  But the chances that your student will find something in this play that causes her to see it in a whole new light?  If you’ve given your students room to explore, room to get and stay excited, it’s not only possible, it’s probable!

Excitement comes from a discovery of something new – even if it’s only new to you.  The middle of that moment of discovery is the worst possible time to tell your bright-eyed student that there have already been five hundred papers written today about Prospero being Shakespeare’s self-insert or Caliban as a metaphor for colonized subjects.  If he’s excited, encourage him to pursue it, and what’s more important, be excited with him.  Your students can sense your response, and knowing you are excited to see what’s coming will motivate the hell out of them to turn in their best work.

The result?  Instead of the usual dreaded pile of papers that all look and sound the same and make you want to dig up Shakespeare and kill him again, you’ll have a stack of genuinely interesting papers from students who threw a little bit of their own hearts into the writing.  You’ll learn about your students and how the text looks through their eyes. And you might have a few Prospero-like moments of joyful, self-reflective nostalgia when they remind you what it’s like to happen upon the brave new world for the first time.

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