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West Chester University

Fall 2002

West Chester University

Spring 2002

Fall 2001

 

 

 

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Course Information
  WRT 120 Syllabus
  Lit 165 Syllabus
  About the Instructor

Notes for Effective Writing I
  Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'
  Writing Descriptively
  What Makes a Good Story?
  Building a Thesis
  Notes on 'Purpose'
  Strategies for Writing Introductions
  Strategies for Writing Conclusions
  Assignment #5: Argument
  Understanding Rational Argument

Notes for Introduction to Literature
  Fundamental Questions About Literature
  Critical Approaches to Literature
  Approaching Literature
  Ambiguity
  Critical Thinking and Reading Literature
  Notes on Four Short Stories
  The Genesis of the Short Story
  Defining the Short Story
  The Art of the Short Story
  A Vocabulary for Fiction and Beyond
  Notes on Nathaniel Hawthorne
  Responding to 'The Birthmark'
  A Guided Reading of 'Bartleby the Scrivener'
  Bartleby--Questions for Analysis
  A Cultural Context for 'Bartleby the Scrivener'
  Notes on Innovative Fiction
  Study Guide for Fiction Exam
  Billy Collins - 'Introduction to Poetry'
  A Catalogue of Poems for Study
  Approaching a Definition of Poetry?
  Reading Poetry
  The Craft of Poetry: Imagery
  Readings from 'The United States of Poetry'
  The Craft of Poetry: Sound
  The Craft of Poetry: Structure
  Lines of Continuity
  Study Guide for Poetry Exam
  The Birth of Drama
  On Tragic Character
  Stepping Through 'Oedipus the King'
  Analyzing 'Oedipus the King'
  The Relevance 'Oedipus'Today
  Study Guide for the Drama Exam

Announcements and Assignments
  WRT 120 Announcements
  WRT 120 Assignments
  LIT 165 Announcements
  Lit 165 Assignments

Contact

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  Weblog for WRT 120
  Weblog for LIT 165
  Writing Assistance on the Web

Join an Online Forum
  WRT 120 Composition Forum
  LIT 165 Introduction to Literature Forum

 
~~ Critical Thinking and Reading Literature ~~

Responding to literature with a critical temperament means always being willing to analyze, interpret, question, synthesize, and evaluate. Instead of reading for entertainment, you perform the function of critic as you read….

ANALYZE: What does the passage mean, literally?
INTERPRET: What does it mean figuratively? Are there symbolic overtones? Can it mean more than one thing? How do you prefer to read it, and what passages in the text lead you to believe this is a valid interpretation?
QUESTION: What problems are suggested by the reading? What's confusing? If you had the author here, what would you ask? What philosophical question(s) does the reading inspire?
SYNTHESIZE: How does this reading compare or contrast what you've read previously? How does it fit into your scheme, either thematically or formally?
EVALUATE: Is it a first rate piece of writing or fifth rate piece of writing? What criteria do you use to establish this judgment? If you are evaluating a poem, for instance, what defines a first rate poem? How does this particular poem match up to that standard? Can you point to the exact places in the text to support your reading?

Lets practice a few of these aims using the following excerpt from The Elder Edda, "Words of the High One" (P.B. Taylor & W.H. Auden, trans.)

The coward believes he will live forever
If he holds back in the battle.
But in old age he shall have no peace
Though spears have spared his limbs.

Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But I know one thing that never dies,
The glory of the great deed.

ANALYZE
LITERAL MEANING
: This brief excerpt tells us that only cowards would think to save their own skins rather than fight the battle to the end. Even if he survives, the coward will not have piece of mind; he'll be tormented right into old age. It's better to die, since every man is mortal anyhow. The great deed is immortal. It's better to die in battle, and possibly achieve great deeds, than to save your skin. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

INTERPRET
SYMBOLIC MEANING:
The battle may be symbolic of life itself. Sometimes just living your life is a battle. It's a battle to get up, go to work, get fired (laid off), fall in love, get burned…but, this poet tells us, only cowards choose to turn their back on the battle. If we let up now, if we let life pass us by, if we refuse to seize the moment (carpe diem!) then we'll reach old age with nothing but a pile of regrets. Better to risk it, take chances, LIVE life to its hilt, gather the "great deeds" while we can. Not only will we reach old age in peace, but we'll glory in our accomplishments, and others will too. We can be an inspiration.

QUESTION
The writer mentions "great deeds." So I assume we're not talking about just any old ordinary deed. If I wake up tomorrow morning and manage to brush my teeth, wash my face, eat breakfast, and make it out of the house in time to get to class, I may be performing responsible deeds, but not GREAT deeds. Several questions occur to me. Assuming this writer has a point-our great deeds are immortal-then my first question is, what ranks as a "great deed"? Would the writer define a great deed the same way I would? How would I define a great deed? What's an example of a great deed in my own mind? (I'm reflecting on my own lifetime and whatever I can conjure up from my knowledge of history, at this point.) Then I might turn philosopher and ask: how do we define the GREAT DEED for our times, in our culture?

Other questions:
Assuming this writer considers great deeds to be extreme valor in battle? Who is great then, the Iraqis, the Americans, both, neither?

Has there been anyone to perform a great deed in 1998?

SYNTHESIZE
Here's a neat little contrast to the sentiment described above. This passage is by Homer from the Illiad (Book IX), the famous ancient Greek epic of the Trojan War:

Of possessions cattle and fat sheep are things to be had for the lifting,
and tripods can be won, and the tawny high heads of horses,
but a man's life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted
nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth's barrier.
For my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.
And this would be my counsel to others also, to sail back
home again…

The Iliad, Book IX (Lattimore, trans.)

This passage contradicts the first. How can I reconcile them? Does my knowledge of their contradiction help deepen my understanding of each? If I read the first passage with an awareness of the second, I probably have to form a mental argument in order to go along with the writer's proposition. I either agree or disagree and attempt to formulate why. All people are mortal; when they die they are utterly forgotten over time. The only way to live on beyond one's lifespan is to accomplish something valuable, something that will inspire others who come after. Great deeds are inspiring; they are the only path to immortality. Therefore, accomplishing great deeds is valuable at all costs, even the supreme cost, one's life. Or, I may say-this life is all we have; it's precious. To lose one's life for the sake of everlasting glory is a waste. We cannot be there to partake of the sweetness of that glory once we're dead. It's better to enjoy the simple things in life while we have life; we should not throw our lives away for vainglorious purposes.

Or, I may not choose to engage the readings on that kind of personal level. Maybe I merely create separate mental files to accommodate their differences. Perhaps I mentally file one poem as "pro-war" and the other as "anti-war" poetry. These are categories that may be useful later as I read other poems, or other literature.

EVALUATE
Until you read a LOT of literature, you probably won't have a clear sense about what makes "great" literature and what makes average literature, or worse, poor literature. You may feel that since you find it hard to understand any of it, it's all bad. But that would be a mistake. Like anything, learning to read literature takes time and practice. And developing an appreciation for great literature comes with exposure to the good and the bad. You may be tempted to say that you don't like Shakespeare, for instance, because his language isn't exactly the same as yours and you have to do a bit of work to piece out the meaning…but if you dismiss him, you are dismissing what most literary critics agree is one of the greatest-if not THE GREATEST-writers our language has ever known. To some extent you need to be willing to work as you read, and extend the benefit of the doubt until you are really sure you are evaluating a piece of writing on objective grounds, and not just on the basis of whether you personally struggled to comprehend it. In this course, you're being "introduced" to literature…that means you're being introduced to a new set of critical tools for thinking about literature and becoming a more thoughtful, more effective reader of literature. And hopefully, as you get more practice and become a more sophisticated reader, you'll be able to judge whether a work of literature is first or fifth rate. You'll be able to sense whether it's on the level of Shakespeare-truly original, multidimensional, moving, evocative, thought-provoking-or whether it's on the level of formula fiction: a dimestore novel or a Harlequin romance.

 

 

 

     

 


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