Teaching Analysis


Ugh, here we go, back to Things I Have Trouble With. In both senses of the phrase – I have a lot of trouble with how schools do it, but that’s second only to the amount of trouble I have actually doing it myself.

Analysis isn’t so much a skill as it is a way of thinking about things, which is about the hardest thing to teach there is. There isn’t much you can do to teach a perspective except give examples and hope the other person picks up the general idea.

Here’s the thing that it’s sometimes hard to grasp: Literature has spent over two thousand years building up to today. Novels have only really been around since the early 11th century, though, and novels in English only took off a bit under three centuries ago, with some wiggle room for borderline cases. If you’ve ever tried to write dialogue, you’ll see how easy it is to fall into a strange trap where characters have to sound ‘natural’ but can’t actually talk like real people. As Harrison Ford famously said to George Lucas, “George, you can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it”. That goes both ways – often, you can indeed say that shit, but you sure can’t type it.

When you read a work of literature, you’re drawing on every work of literature you’ve read before that. Just as when you’re watching a show, you’re drawing on your experience of all the shows you’ve watched before, and ditto with video games. This manifests itself in a variety of ways – the most obvious example I can think of is the use of video game controllers. If I sit down to play any first person shooter on my console, I can make pretty good guess that if I press the right trigger, my gun will fire. If I sit down to a game in the same genre on my computer, I’m even more certain that if I press my left mouse button, the gun will fire. How do I know that? Because in all the other games with similar mechanics I have played, firing the gun has been connected to either the right trigger or the left mouse button.

On a more complex level, say a story introduces us to a large man named George who hates mice. The author probably expects a significant portion of the audience to be able to make a connection to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and we’ll view the character through the lens of drawing similarities between the two Georges. Going back a step further, anybody who was familiar with Robert Frost’s poem should be pretty prepared for Of Mice and Men’s ending, because they’ll be able to draw the connection to the full line from the poem: “The best-laid plans of mice and men gang oft agley” (or, as it’s often re-rendered: “The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft astray”).

When we teach analysis, we’re really trying to cram as many points of reference into students’ minds as possible so that they can recognise them in things they read and watch later. This is very hard – a lot of it seems disjointed and unrelated, and further, the student is also required to be at a reading level where they understand what they’re reading or seeing adequately to retain it and make thematic connections.

You don’t teach symbolism by handing a pre-teen a copy of Ulysses and telling them to have fun, is what I’m saying.

I tend to teach analysis in layers. The first layer is writing technique – short sentences, long sentences, alliteration (no matter my opinions on the subject it is useful to know), different points of view, first, second and third person and so forth. That’s easy to teach – you can give examples quickly and succinctly, and they generally have one or two effects that can be easily discussed. The second layer is tropes. Tropes require a broader knowledge of the genre the student is reading in, but can also be taught with a few succinct examples and are easy to discuss. They also connect more to the context of the story, so they either require or generate historical knowledge. Then you get to motifs and imagery, which tend to be a bit harder, since you only pick them up if you’re looking for them, and usually require more oblique references. An animal motif in a story is not only going to be conveyed through a series of adjectives scattered throughout a novel (if that – a character who has ‘wild hair surrounding their face’ and growls when angry could be going for a lion motif, without the word ‘lion’ or even ‘animal’ ever being mentioned). A tarot card motif might be obvious to pick up, but how many people do you know who can list the major arcana, let alone what they each mean? Finally, there are the historical and literary references, that you need a grounding in at least the genre, if not a whole body of ‘classic’ literature or centuries political and psychological ideas to pick up on most of the time.

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