It’s a new dawn and a new day for the 2019 – 2020 school year! I have new groups of students and new classes to teach, and for those lucky enough to be enrolled in my literature seminars, that means new papers to write, coming up fast.
I always begin literature seminars by assigning short stories so that students can get a sense of the level of depth I expect in their annotations. (A lot. I expect a lot.) Per last week’s post about the importance of concrete nouns in strong writing, I will be asking my students (naturally) to focus their first writing assignment on how great writers skillfully wield the power of concrete nouns.
For example: the students in my seminar on mysteries are starting off with Susan Glaspell’s feminist-detective story classic “A Jury of Her Peers.” (Full text available here if you’re interested.) Detective stories are great for teaching the importance of props because they are chock full of objects heavily imbued with meaning. Clues left behind. Red herrings to distract us. Trails of blood and fingerprints. Stolen money and jewels. In Glaspell’s case in particular, she calls our attention to a series of objects at the scene of the crime – the murder of a husband by his abused wife – of which only the women in the story recognize the meaning and significance. It’s something of a metatextual experience for the students, because they get to analyze a story about characters performing an analysis. Look at this passage, from early in the story, once the characters have just arrived on the crime scene:
“I didn’t see or hear anything. I knocked at the door. And still it was all quiet inside. I knew they must be up–it was past eight o’clock. So I knocked again, louder, and I thought I heard somebody say, ‘Come in.’ I wasn’t sure–I’m not sure yet. But I opened the door–this door,” jerking a hand toward the door by which the two women stood. “and there, in that rocker”–pointing to it–“sat Mrs. Wright.”
Everyone in the kitchen looked at the rocker. It came into Mrs. Hale’s mind that that rocker didn’t look in the least like Minnie Foster–the Minnie Foster of twenty years before. It was a dingy red, with wooden rungs up the back, and the middle rung was gone, and the chair sagged to one side.
The rocking chair in the kitchen has grown old, broken, and dirty – it even sags, giving it a defeated look in our minds’ eyes. It doesn’t take the students long to piece together that the rocker is itself representative of Mrs. Wright – known to her long-ago friends by her maiden name, Minnie Foster – and that it’s one of our first clues that poor Minnie has been suffering mightily for a long, long time. Twenty years, in fact.
That leads us to their first analytical paper, which I call “Noticing,” because, well, that’s what they’re doing – they’re writing about something they noticed. “What if the thing I pick to write about isn’t important?” some of them will ask. “If it stood out to you enough that you want to write a paper about it,” I reply, “it’s important enough.”
They are to choose an important object in the story – a prop, a physical thing – and write about the different ways in which the story imbues it with meaning. This is a common literary analysis prompt, but it’s often given a much more abstract phrasing – analyze the symbolism. The more concrete phrasing makes a difference, because students respond to its clarity and approach the assignment with a clear picture in their heads of their task.
I want to come away from reading your paper, I tell them, believing that whatever you chose is the absolute most important thing in the story, that the story would lose its meaning without that thing. And much of the time – here’s the beauty of it – the story would lose a little bit of its meaning in that way. William Carlos Williams put it as well as anyone ever has: no ideas but in things.
Students are amazed at what they can do with such a simple prod in the right direction. I have received delicious essays that have made me look at stories I’ve read a hundred times in completely new ways. I read one last year about the black box in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” arguing that the box functions as a reverse coffin, by unleashing death onto a community instead of keeping it safely contained the way a coffin does. It’s the kind of idea I wish I’d had myself.
Even better, noticing is one of those skills that my students don’t leave at my classroom door. They start to take inventory of the objects they keep around themselves. Some of them become more observant in their science classes, which at their core are all about noticing and explaining the significance of cool stuff. They gain new respect and appreciation for the objects that other people have imbued with significance and meaning. Since I believe that one of literature’s greatest powers lies in readers’ discovery of their commonalities, I consider that not bad for a day’s work. Now it’s the weekend, and I’m going to bed.
You can email me at email@example.com to request a template prompt for the Noticing paper.