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One Class on Research Methods in Literary Criticism

tl;dr version: I had fun teaching yesterday, and I didn’t want to forget what happened and what I think helped make it work well, so I wrote it down.

Prep:

The course is Critical Methods (in the English department) and the students’ first assignment is to find criticism about a poem from William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All (which they had read for today) and analyze it for critical stance. They’ll have to write a larger work of criticism themselves later.

The professor had told me that they’d read “Hills Like White Elephants” by Hemingway last week, so I decided to use that as my example and then let them use Spring and All for their hands on practice. I read “Hills like white elephants” and then familiarized myself with the major themes people had written about and indexed in the MLA International Bibliography.

Talking with the professor, we decided on a few goals: how to read with an eye toward using what you read, how to search the MLA International Bibliography, and how to evaluate what you find for its appropriateness and relevance to an argument.

The Class:

Started off by discussing what critical theories they’d encountered so far and what they knew about the theories they’d encounter later in the course (this is only the second week of classes, so this is mostly speculative). We talked about how these theories differ in a large part by what each group of scholars believes counts as evidence, and we brainstormed a bit about what kinds of things would count as evidence to the people who espouse each theory.

The professor talked about how the project of this course is to move from reading things for the purpose of comprehension toward reading things for the purpose of parsing out discursive communities and beginning to be able to participate in those communities effectively. I emphasized that in order to participate in any conversation effectively, you have to know a bit about what matters to your conversation partners so that you don’t rely on evidence that the other person thinks doesn’t counts as evidence.

So, how do you read an article if not to comprehend it? Instrumental Reading. The professor and I tried to get them to think about what might be in an article besides the article’s argument (using an assigned reading for the course), but this seemed like a completely foreign concept to them, so she and I ended up feeding them suggestions to look for citations and bibliographies in order to get a sense of who else was in this particular conversation, to look for markers for which theoretical framework the author was using, and to look for what kinds of evidence the author thought counted as evidence for that kind of argument.

From there we moved to the MLA International Bibliography and I prefaced my explanation of its adorably/insufferably nonsensical quirks by describing why those quirks exist: the history of the bibliography. It still operates very much under the constraints of its printed forebearer, which means that in a hierarchy of terms, the indexers have to choose the narrowest term that will describe the main point of the article. If the article is about “Hills Like White Elephants” and one or maybe two other stories from Men Without Women, they’ll list “Hills Like White Elephants” and the one or maybe two other story names as descriptors. If it’s about more than a couple stories, they’ll say it’s about Men Without Women as a whole and will no longer list individual story names. Men Without Women is now the narrowest term on the hierarchy that describes the main point of the article. If it included stories from other Hemingway collections, it’d probably just use Hemingway’s name. The same thing goes for concepts (like gender). So you may have to OR together terms from all levels of the hierarchy in order to get a good sense of what’s written on your topic.

Using a story they’d just discussed in class made it easy to have them help me decide whether a given result list made sense. So when we said “Hills Like White Elephants” AND gender and got 6 results, they agreed that we should try something else. I wasn’t going to go into the thesaurus today, but it ended up happening anyway. They wanted to see the hierarchies and related terms for themselves.

The professor had them look at one record and talk among themselves to see if they could predict the theoretical framework the author used. Then we opened the article itself and used the abstract to further think about that framework. I emphasized paying attention to key, jargony-sounding phrases that might make good search terms if they were going to pursue this particular line of thought. The point, of course, being to collect those elusive and powerful terms that make the world go round (if your world is made up of entering search terms into search boxes).

Back in the MLA International Bibliography, we brainstormed ways to choose which articles to open up, or how to prioritize reading lists. Titles, descriptors, authors (and other things the authors have written), as well as publication sources all came up as possible clues. I kept emphasizing keeping notes about key terms and names and publications so that future searches could capitalize on what they’ve already read.

Then they worked on their own to find criticism about a poem of their choice from Spring and All while the professor and I wandering around talking to each of them and occasionally repeating things for the rest of the class. When they’d all found something (and either downloaded it or retrieved it from the stacks) we talked for a bit about what they’d found, how they decided on that article as opposed to the others they’d found, and what they could predict about the author’s critical stance.

Finally, I treated them to a 5-minute version of the Web of Knowledge hack to try to find articles that take particular critical stances, using the authors from their Literary Theory anthology as seed authors for the cited reference search.

Throughout, the professor tied what we were finding and doing to the project of the course as a whole and to their readings and assignment in particular, which really helped make the session seem less like a complete digression from the course and more like an integral part of the intellectual work of a critic and scholar.

2 thoughts on “One Class on Research Methods in Literary Criticism

  1. It WAS a good session, thanks, Iris! And I agree with you about their reaction to instrumental reading. –It was actually a bit disheartening [most of them are juniors] to see how bewildered they were by the idea. But that’s what the session is for, right?

  2. And there’s the lovely, whip-smart, easy-to-work-with professor herself, everyone. :-)

    And yes, those were REMARKABLY blank stares we got at that point, which was useful for me to know. Introducing that concept just prior to comps (which is where I have been talking about it) is far too late for such a foreign concept.

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