How I screw up the literary analysis essay

[This article appeared first in The Journal of the Virginia Writing Project‘s winter 2008 issue.  I have made a few minor changes to it for publication here.  My thanks to the Project for permission to republish.

I discuss the philosophical underpinnings of my objections to the prevalence of literary analysis essay assignments in high school in my article “The Tyranny of the Secondary School.”]

You’re back in ninth grade.  Take a moment to reorient yourself, and then say these words out loud, slowly: “Literary.  Analysis.  Essay.”  Repeat.  How do you feel?

Hmm.  Maybe you don’t remember ninth grade.  There were those moments when your mind showed signs of catching up to your body.  In them, you laid claim to adulthood. But there were those other moments – moments too protracted to be “moments” – when your disorganization, your concrete thinking, or your lapses in behavior made you look like a misidentified middle-school student.

Reoriented now?  Let’s start again.  Your English teacher introduces you to something his county’s ninth-grade pacing guide describes as a “literary analysis essay.”  If you’re an academic student, you write two of them that year.  Double that if you’re in honors.

Snap out of it.  Now you’re the English teacher.  Oh, all right: I’m the English teacher, and I might as well switch to the less theoretical, more confessional past tense.

Last June I wanted a little affirmation from my departing charges before I hit the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s summer institute, so I read some of the responses to my end-of-year survey.  Peg, an honors student and one of those sweet, positive, and brilliant kids you’d like to stock your classroom with each year, wrote the following as part of her response:

Though I enjoy writing and reading, I don’t like analyzing what I read. It loses all power and becomes boring and hateful. I once liked the story of Romeo and Juliet. I now despise it. Many of the poems we read that would have been rather enjoyable turned into crummy pieces of literature upon analysis.

Peg (not her real name) was kind enough, though, to make clear that I wasn’t alone in screwing up literature for her.  She perceived it as a trend in her language arts and English classes over the past few years.

I started the institute a week after exams with Peg’s words still irritating me.  After three years of teaching ninth grade, am I still messing up this essay assignment, this chief manifestation of all the wretched analysis Peg complained of?  In the process of meeting my county’s benchmarks, am I alienating kids from the very subject I love?

This is not the story of how this summer’s NVWP institute changed all that.  Here’s my thesis: Through my three-week immersion into writing instruction theory and practice at the institute this summer, I discovered that I was not alone in opposing the literary analysis essay’s prominent role in the ninth-grade curriculum. I also learned some new strategies in teaching that essay, and I met with some success and some failure in trying out those strategies this past fall.

Ninth grade is a big year for literary analysis in Loudoun County.  Peg’s past language arts teachers introduced her to most of the literary terms I use, and Peg has been writing essays since at least fourth grade.  But I introduce my kids to formal essays analyzing literature.  From the written analysis standpoint, then, it’s zero to sixty from middle school to high school in my county.

Peg was one of my few students to get the literary analysis essay this past year, or at least she figured out how to write one.  Most of my students’ first drafts sound like book reports – long plot summaries sandwiched by superlatives such as, “This story will make you hold on to the edge of your seat with excitement.”  That kind of writing drives me to teach model essays, which only makes my students’ papers come across as cheap knock-offs of the models.  So then I teach structure, such as the five-paragraph essay and a formula for writing its body paragraphs.  Those papers, in turn, come in sounding fake, strained, and pompous.  Meanwhile, a vague feeling of alienation begins to pervade the classroom: I’m losing the kids, and the kids are losing literature.

Peg’s comment was my focal point this summer.  She had been astute enough to spot what I consider to be my biggest failing as a teacher: I have never taught writing about literature well.  Worse, she had argued what was becoming my own opinion about ninth-grade literary analysis essays: they do more harm than good.  Not only had Peg pegged me as one of the heavies in her literary analysis drama, but her thinking about literary analysis in the classroom was also a step or two ahead of mine.  I also didn’t want to have another year of turning off even my brightest students with this essay assignment.

The institute’s mock trial of the five-paragraph essay really got my juices flowing.  Each fellow had a role in the trial, and, as fate and Don Gallehr would have it, I was picked as the lead prosecutor.  Our team put an elementary school teacher, a high school teacher, and a college professor on the stand to demonstrate the corrupting influence of this popular essay structure on the writing of students at every age.

You know our defendant, the five-paragraph essay?  The introductory paragraph grabs the reader’s attention and orients her to the subject.  The paragraph ends with a thesis statement promising three ways in which the essay will address a central point.  Three body paragraphs flesh out these three ways, and a final paragraph restates the thesis (careful to use different words) and either suggests an extended application of it or sums up the essay’s findings with an apt quote or witticism.  The body paragraphs’ topic and concluding sentences sport transition words – words like “not only” and “second.”

I poured my three years of essay-teaching frustration into some frantic trial preparation.  (We had one day to prepare for trial.)  I found lots of ammo in the mass of used books I had purchased at the suggestion of the institute’s reading list.  For instance, in his book Crafting Authentic Voice, Tom Romano says that the five-paragraph essay produces “a voice of serious-minded pretentiousness, statements of the obvious, and high-flown diction.” I researched Amazon and found no five-paragraph essay anthologies in print (big surprise).  I showed up the next morning with a stack of books and a smug look for opposing counsel.

But the jury split three to two against us.  I’ll spare you a difficult post-mortem.  Suffice it to say that the adverse outcome was more of a verdict on my lawyering skills than it was on the five-paragraph essay.  None of the summer’s twenty-five fellows supported Ms. Essay (as we called her) without reservation.

My trial preparation made me a believer in my cause, but – along with Peg’s comments – it focused me on the chief reason for the five-paragraph essay’s persistent use in ninth-grade English classes.  Most students seem incapable of writing a literary analysis essay without a lot of structure, of which the five-paragraph essay is the most famous example.  I spent much of my time this summer researching the history and use of the literary analysis essay.

The literary analysis essay, of course, is a kind of secondary writing.  Secondary writing is writing about another’s creation, and it is a rare teenager (or adult, for that matter) who can make his secondary writing a fresh creation.  I think many writing teachers can relate to what Natalie Goldberg says in Writing Down the Bones:

The terrible thing about public schools is that they take young children who are natural poets and story writers and have them read literature and then step away from it and talk “about” it.

I think most high school English students can relate to the concluding stanzas of former national poet laureate Billy Collins’s poem “Introduction to Poetry”:

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

I love really creative literary criticism, but I find a vague brutality in most written analysis of literature.  The brutality isn’t deliberate.  It’s like the brutality one feels when another talks too much about what one considers holy.

If you don’t see the discussion of a poem’s meaning as something akin to desecration, perhaps you would concede that secondary writing is often a fumbling attempt at expressing in words something that, ultimately, cannot be expressed. Essayist and poet Thomas Merton believed that aesthetic experience “transcends reason” and “leaves all analysis far behind.”  Francine Prose describes a similar experience in her book Reading Like a Writer when she writes about reading sentences from celebrated passages of literature:

The sentences affect us as much as music does, in ways that cannot be explained.  Rhythm gives words a power that cannot be reduced to, or described by, mere words.

I need to push my concrete-thinking ninth graders toward appreciating and expressing the abstract.  But I would rather spend most of my efforts having my students read such celebrated passages as a writer might instead of merely analyzing them.  I want my students to discover what an author is doing so they can learn to write more like her.   If students can make elements of a writer’s style their own, then they will have learned far more from her work than if they had merely made it the subject of their written analysis.

Of course, most of my students don’t argue their case against the literary analysis essay as well as Collins or Goldberg or even my former student Peg.  They don’t tell me about how my assignments violate their sense of the holy or prevent them from reading like writers.  Most of them – at least most of my academic students – suffer through their essay writing and end up with unpleasant memories of the literature I assign as the essay’s subject.

As a result of the institute and my reading this past summer, I reoriented my writing instruction this fall to bring out the natural poets and storywriters that Goldberg speaks of.  I couldn’t eliminate the literary analysis essay, of course, but I used some creative writing to lead into this year’s first foray into the essay.

I oriented the school year’s first quarter to prepare students for the essay, and I assigned the essay at the end of the quarter.  At the outset of the school year, I had my students write a story about themselves, and then I had them map their individual processes in writing the story.  Then I had them write a sports column or a movie review.  My idea was to use the writing process to break down and to demystify the essay, and to use the column or review to segue to the essay.

When I assigned the essay – a literary analysis of Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game” – I pointed to the students’ successful columns and reviews.  “Remember the difference between a sports article and a sports column?” I then asked.  “The article tells what happened, and the column analyzes the game.  It is the same difference between a book report and a literary analysis essay.  The report tells what happens in the short story, while the essay analyzes it.”

I made a puzzle out of a list of twenty-two literary terms the county’s vertical planner says my students should have learned in seventh and eighth grade, and I compared those literary terms to tools a mechanic might use to fix a car.  “An auto dealership has a sales and service department.  Up until now, you’ve been in the sales department,” I told them.  “You’ve written book reports selling your readers on the book. Now you’re in the service department.  We’re looking under the story’s hood and describing how the story works.”

Then we moved into high gear.  Based on my essay debacles of previous years, I was determined not to teach structure and not to give them a model.  Instead, I engaged them in a number of brainstorming activities:

  • We put the plot together using plot progression arrows.
  • We wrote freewrites based on great lines we found in the short story.
  • Each student designed two “fat” questions – questions calculated to lead to good discussions – and we used the questions in a class discussion. (I hoped that the questions would lead students to interesting theses.)
  • We moved our class discussions to online forums.  The forums permitted students to participate only in discussion threads that pertained to the story topics in which they were interested.
  • Each student designed his own calendar for the writing process he would employ for the essay.

I even wrote my own essay and showed them my horrible first draft.  As I had hoped, they laughed at my writing.  I then read them some of my much-improved second draft that I had written after a good night’s sleep. The kids seemed to respond to all of this.

Most of these ideas came either directly or indirectly from the summer institute’s presentations or recommended books.  (I’m having a grand time trying so much new stuff out!)

But the papers?  My honors kids generally got the idea, but my academic kids generally didn’t.

It may not surprise the more experienced English teachers that, despite my analogies and other efforts, most of the first drafts I received in my academic classes again looked more like book reports than essays. Students used the text to summarize the story and not to support their points.  A lot of papers really didn’t make any points in the first place.

One positive result, though, were the improved hooks.  I’ve never read better hooks in a set of student expository essays.

Then I did what I always do when a paper flops.  I re-taught it under the guise of teaching revision.  My special-education team teacher helped me streamline the assignment: I had them reread their papers, identify the emphasis they had found in the story, and identify one or two literary terms that they might employ in a revision.

I even taught structure – even – gasp! – the “McParagraph.”  The McParagraph is a body paragraph with a topic sentence top bun and a concluding sentence bottom bun.  Each of the three “patties” in between is a pair of sentences: one support sentence and one proof sentence, which is usually a quote from the text that tends to prove the preceding support sentence.  The upper-grade English teachers in our high school consider the McParagraph as being too formulaic, but I was getting desperate.

I also figured out that I could use the structure students had already learned.  This put the assignment on familiar ground.  My wife teaches her third-grade students that an essay’s body paragraph has five sentences: a topic sentence, three supporting sentences, and a conclusion.  Why not use this?  So we went over the third-grade, five-sentence paragraph (the students actually taught it to me), and then we added proof from the text to it.

Whenever a student asked a question that told me he needed more space, I relented.  “Can we combine the proof into the support sentence?” one student asked me.

“Sure,” I said.  “Just make sure every point you make is backed up with some evidence from the text.”

I asked them not to sacrifice readability to sticking with an eight-sentence paragraph method.  Some body paragraphs could have four sentences, and others could have eleven sentences.  Just think topic, support, and proof.

Do you think I sold out on my new ideals by requiring some structure?  Maybe just a little – maybe just to make a connection with prior knowledge.  Besides, no matter what I feel compelled to do, in my heart I’m still sticking it to the literary analysis essay, the reason for all of this thumb-sucking structure.

I haven’t graded the final drafts yet, but the early signs are encouraging.  And even though most of the first drafts weren’t really essays, they had voice.  Thanks to Tom Romano, I stopped banning first-person pronouns and text-to-self connections in essays.  Most of the writing wasn’t stilted.  Overall, the papers were more fun to read than in past years.  That’s important around the ninety-fourth essay when I begin to lose my sanity.

In my bout with the literary analysis essay, this past summer’s NVWP institute felt like a welcome trip to my corner where the best trainers – my fellow writing teachers – gave me a lot of moral support.  They bandaged me up and bolstered me with some great strategies for the next round.  But there’s always more to learn in the ring.


Posted March 28, 2008.