Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Things Crazy Hates in Published Literary Criticism

Well, enough people seemed interested in my last post about things that I think are irritating at best and just plain wrong at worst when it comes to writing that I see in my discipline, that I figured I'd might as well do a post about that, and about how my preferences regarding published writing in my discipline translate into how I teach students to write about literature (which is informed by things I learned teaching comp and which bears not much resemblance to the way that I myself was taught to write about literature as an undergrad).

Now, let me just note for the record that I don't think I'm some expert arbiter of taste before whom others should bow on this stuff. I mean, seriously. I'm not so great, and what I'm about to write is not some definitive last word on these issues. Moreover, let me make it totally clear that I'm just talking about literary critical writing here. What I have to say may apply in other disciplines - or not - but I'm talking about my discipline here, because it's the one I'm trained in. Also, let's just note for the record that part of the reason that I'm writing this post is to warm myself up not to make these mistakes in the revise and resubmit that I must dig into knocking out today. I'm not coming from a place of perfection in my own scholarly writing, AT ALL, and there are a great many things that I can and should do better with in my own writing.

So, with those caveats in place, here is my list:

  • Good literary criticism for me opens with an interesting and specific hook. This can be theoretical, historical, oriented toward a specific issue in criticism or the world, biographical (although that's not my preference, personally), or it can be a "pivotal moment" from a primary literary text(s) under discussion. But the way into the piece should be engaging, and it should make it obvious up front what the writer is going to discuss. An article or chapter that opens with lit review - without first hooking me with something that I actually care about or without letting me know what the writer actually cares about - only to get to the point many paragraphs in, if ever at all, is lame.
  • I like literary criticism that really enters into conversation with its secondary sources - whether critical or theoretical. While it's important to me that an article or book demonstrate scholarly breadth, I'm annoyed when a writer uses quotes from sources to move quickly from one idea to the next without analyzing the sources or showing me why this source is useful in this context. You know you've read those articles, if you're in my field, where the whole thing is quotation after quotation linked together like a great collage of other people's ideas without very much insight actually provided on the page by the author. In these cases, I guess we're supposed to intuit what the author thinks of all of this quoted stuff?
  • Literary criticism should make a clear argument about a "way of reading" and it should make the reader see the primary literary text(s) in a new way. The fact is, there are books and articles that I've entirely disagreed with but that do an excellent job of this and that, for that reason, I find compelling. The point is not whether a piece "backs up" the ideas that I've already got. Good pieces of literary criticism aren't separated into two piles - the ones that "back me up" and the ones that are "stupid" or "wrong" or "bad." In fact, the more criticism I read, the more I realize that if I entirely agree with a piece, if I feel no need to talk back, then that's a bad sign.
  • Literary criticism should care about audience, and that should be evident through the rhythm of the prose (varying sentence structure and sentence length), through word choice, through clear sign-posting in a piece (reminding the reader where they've been and anticipating where they will go), through organization and structure that is easy to follow. Seriously. Being obscure is not a virtue in this genre. The point of literary criticism is, ultimately, to communicate something to an audience in a way that is clear without sacrificing sophistication. That's what makes it fun to write (and, in the best cases, fun to read). I'm not talking about dumbing down here, or about writing journalistically. But if your reader doesn't know what the heck is going on, or gets lost in jargon, or can't figure out what your piece has to do with the title, or figure out what exactly the argument is or how it's being supported, well, that's a problem.
  • Notes are an excellent thing, for directing a reader to useful sources and for expanding on a briefly made point. That said, one needs to exercise discretion in using them (I hate it when there are oodles of distracting and unnecessary notes that take me away from the actual article or book) or when people don't use them at all, and just throw everything into the main text (also distracting).
  • Literary criticism shouldn't be all argument and no context/support. The writer has to back up the claims in the piece and to put them into a critical (and theoretical or historical, where appropriate) context. Argument is central, but it alone with primary text support is not enough.
Now. You might say that this is a list that is pretty obvious, if we're thinking about literary studies in the 21st century.

And, if one confines one's reading to books that are put out by the best presses and articles that are put out by the best journals, all of which appeared in the past 10-15 years, usually one doesn't find these sorts of things with any kind of regularity. If, however, one burrows into the labyrinth of regional journals, journals that are basically conference proceedings, journals where established scholars never publish, books published by smaller presses, well, the above are more common than one would want them to be. And if one's research takes one back into stuff published pre-1990, or pre-1980, well, you see a lot of these things there, too. Depending on the specific thing that one is researching, too, one may not run into these things all that often. But if you research on something that is in any way obscure, you find yourself going to these sorts of sources because there are only 15 or 20 sources on your topic and you can't avoid them.

My point here isn't to dismiss things that appear in smaller or less rigorous venues out of hand (in my experience, I've found some gems in such venues, especially when the venue focuses on a specific author, for example), nor is it to dismiss scholarship that was produced in previous decades. First of all, just because one may see the above more frequently there, it doesn't mean that one will only see this kind of scholarship. Second, even if one encounters an article that does one or more of the above, there still may be worthwhile ideas to explore and with which to enter into conversation hidden within the irritating things. But in terms of my own writing, I don't want to bury my awesome ideas in irritating things, and I don't want my students to do that either.

Which brings me to the issue of communicating the above things to students - in my case, primarily undergraduate students. I think that there are probably three pieces to this for me: 1) teaching students effective strategies for research and reading criticism, 2) designing assignments that offer the students steps and breakdown the process for producing intelligible literary criticism of their own, 3) giving lots of feedback on students' own efforts at writing about literature. I'm going to limit my discussion here to stuff I do in upper-level literature classes for undergraduates.

1) Teaching students effective strategies for research and for reading criticism.
  1. I spend time in every upper-level class teaching students about writing with research. This involves talking about the differences between primary (literary) sources, theoretical sources, and secondary (critical) sources, and talking about how one integrates multiple kinds of sources into one's academic writing within the discipline of literary studies. Yes, these students have had composition classes. No, they did not learn how to do this with any kind of sophistication, not even when they had me for composition. The emphasis in required composition courses tends to be on researching responsibly and on writing in a general way with clarity. These are great foundations. They are not, however, the end of a student's education as an academic writer. The level of my students' writing in literature classes improved demonstrably when I started spending time in my lit classes on writing within the discipline.
  2. I spend time in every upper-level class teaching students about "why" we use different kinds of sources, and what different kinds of sources provide in terms of fleshing out our ideas. I talk about the publication process that an article goes through vs. that of a book. I talk about the necessity of using a range of sources, and using recent sources and not just old ones. I talk about where non-scholarly sources might fit into their papers, and about why non-scholarly sources can't be the only ones that they use (although I do not prohibit their use outright). I talk about determining the quality of a publication venue, and about how to evaluate the bibliographies of publications both to determine quality of a piece and to supplement their own independent research.
  3. I take every upper-level course to the library for advanced instruction on searching and using the best databases for literary research. We have great librarians, and they encourage me to participate and to offer comments within the library instruction. They also tailor the instruction to my specific requests for each class, so even if a student had library instruction in another upper-level class with me, they learn something new each time.
  4. I assign students an annotated bibliography, and we talk about how to scan sources in a way that is efficient for that assignment. I show students how to do reverse outlines of critical sources, where they should read carefully and where they should skim in order to boil an article down into a three sentence annotation that is useful as they move forward with their research. The annotated bibliography is due with their topic proposals, so it is framed as a beginning point in research - not as a plagiarism detection strategy, although it does help to cut down on plagiarism because it gets them researching early. It also allows me to give them feedback on the kinds of sources that they're finding, and for me to suggest sources that they're missing. (Because these are upper-level classes, I can easily direct them to sources in the field with which they aren't familiar with no actual legwork on my part. I can't do this as effectively when I teach comp because they're not typically writing on anything in my actual research area.)
  5. I talk about using sources as context for one's own ideas - not just to justify one's claims and not just as straw men to beat down with one's claims. I also talk about how to take a source that is not directly on one's topic and to integrate it into one's paper.
2) Designing assignments that offer the students steps and breakdown the process for producing intelligible literary criticism of their own.
  1. The first assignment I give my students is a presentation assignment. The student has to get background on a topic, to do some basic research, to connect the topic and background to the day's reading, and to offer a close reading of a passage from that reading that shows how it illustrates the topic. This allows each student to be an "expert" in one class meeting, and it allows them to practice some skills that they will need to engage in their written assignments.
  2. The second type of assignment is typically one that is primary-text oriented. Usually, I do a version of an assignment that I had as an undergraduate, in which students must present a fully developed argument about a passage in something that we read (their choice) in just one page (they can single-space). What makes my version of this assignment different from when I did it as a student is that I give them an assignment sheet that breaks down what they need to do in that one page and gives clear instructions about what must be included for them to succeed. They do this assignment four or five times throughout the semester, so that they can take the comments from each submission into account and to grow as critical readers of primary text materials and as critics of primary texts in their writing. I'm typically really tough on the shorter primary-text assignments, and typically that results in my students becoming much stronger writers. I can be tough because these assignments are very low-stakes in terms of the percentage of the grade that they affect.
  3. Finally, they do a research paper, and that assignment has two components: a) a proposal of an original topic with an annotated bibliography, and that proposal has clear instructions about what they must include, which basically mirror what a person includes when they submit an abstract for a conference in the field; b) the paper itself (though I have been building in a draft workshop day about a week before the paper is due). This assignment involves developing skills that the presentation and the short papers introduce them to.
3) Giving lots of feedback on students' own efforts at writing about literature.
  1. I comment extensively and directly on students' writing. I do not beat around the bush, nor do I spend much time on unequivocal praise. Not all students like this. However, when I give unequivocal praise, it's because the student truly deserves it - not because I had to go digging for something to make them feel good. Nevertheless, I care a lot about offering constructive feedback. I want students to know that I'm really reading their work, and that I'm really engaging with their ideas and with their writing. While I may not offer unequivocal praise on every paper, I do offer positive feedback on every paper, though usually with suggestions for how to make what they are doing even stronger. I do not spend inordinate amounts of time on nitpicky stuff (grammar, punctuation, etc.) but I spend a great deal of time on structure, argument, and analysis/exposition. I also try, where appropriate, to give feedback on stylistic things like varying sentence structure, avoiding passive sentence construction, etc.
  2. I spend lots of time meeting with students in person about their writing. You know how professors complain that students never come to them when they need help? So not a problem that I have. Why? Well, I insist that students make an appointment with me if they are really struggling, and I am not above holding papers hostage to get them into my office. I also positively reinforce students coming to see me by offering concrete and useful feedback on drafts, and I encourage students who take advantage of this to spread it around that it's helpful. It usually takes a couple of months to get things up and running with new students, but by semester's end, it's not uncommon for me to spend at least 3-5 hours a week in the last three weeks or so meeting with students about their papers. It's time well spent. I get awesome papers because I offer this one-on-one time, and the grading FLIES by.
When one moves out of the classroom context, to things like thesis advising, I think that the above strategies still apply, it's just that one is tailoring the "assignments" to the specific student and the specific project. I've had to think a lot about how to advise BES on breaking down her project into bite-sized chunks, about how to let her go her own way as much as is possible but to intervene when necessary when she's not getting where she needs to go on her own, and how to give her ownership over the project while at the same time guiding her through it. These things aren't entirely distinct from what I do in my classes, but because they are tailor-made to one person, it's been a challenge to keep myself in check and not to dominate the project. There are things that I, were this my project, would have approached differently, but it's not my project. I find in a classroom context that I rarely feel the investment that I feel with BES's project, and I rarely wish that I could just make my students do things my way, which I do sometimes feel in regard to BES and her thesis. But so thinking about my advisement of her in terms of creating assignments has been useful because it does keep me out of it, at least to some extent.

But so to conclude, you may be wondering, now that I've pontificated about all of this stuff, what my pitfalls are as a literary critic. Well, let me tell you. I've always been good with argument, but I've always had a weakness with really fleshing out my support. It's because I think what I think is totally obvious and all right-thinking people should see what I think is clearly the right way to think, without me actually developing my ideas fully. This is something that I've improved a great deal since graduate school, but it's still an issue in my writing. I have to be very careful about convoluted and passive sentence structure. Sign-posting and clear and tight structure are something of a battle for me. I am, however, very good at entering into conversation with theory and criticism, as long as I bother to include it in the first place. And I'm very good at the opening hook, I think. So I don't write all of the above as if I don't continue to work very hard at my own writing, as if I know everything there is to know about writing literary criticism, or as if I've resolved all of my own writing issues. Nah, that's just not the case. But I do think about the writing part of literary criticism a lot, and I work really hard to do literary critical writing well and to teach my students how to do it well.

I've wasted enough time. Need to shower and put my writing outfit on in order to get going with that R&R. Wish me luck!


Anonymous said...

you're baroque. :P

This could not possibly be farther from the kind of instruction I got as an undergraduate english major. I got feedback on commas--no, I really do not know how to use a comma...this has not changed--and, well, that's about it. My major prof had more or less given up, I think, on accomplishing anything more rigorous with us. I suspect he presumed most of us were a lost cause. I never once had instruction in how to incorporate critical or theoretical sources....unless you count that time he handed me of grammatology and said here do something with this.

but I digress. I was hoping you would elaborate on this, actually, because I wondered how much overlap there would be with my own field. Curiously, there is less than I might have expected, unless one is taking a self-consciously literary approach.

I should think about this question because, on the one hand I could tell you I think Joseph Campbell is a spectacularly bad example of scholarship in my field, but I don't know if I could systematically articulate why. Except that it's obvious and all right thinking people should be able to see it. :)

* said...

This is a really interesting post, and I admire the same kind of literary criticism as you do! Here's another thing I might add:
The article purporting to be "on" a specific literary text should discuss the actual text in more than 20% of the discussion (while the rest of the article offers either a history of one's chosen theory or a wild rampant swooping among inexplicably referenced theories).

* said...

By which I mean the article should (1) Prioritize discussion of the actual text and (2) Use theory judiciously.

Nothing makes me madder than going to the trouble of obtaining an article that, at least according to title and/or abstract, promises to be about literature but then only discusses it in, like, four paragraphs of the entire thing. Grrr!

Good Enough Woman said...

Thank you! I am less worried now. These are (mostly) things I would have had in mind, esp. since I've spend the last 12 years teaching composition, argument, and "the research paper" (among other things). But it gives me some things to remember for my own dissertation work, and it also makes me think about how I teach my lower intro and survey lit classes.

Good Enough Woman said...

Oh, and you have a writing outfit? Do tell. Do you wear a boa?

Jonathan said...

I still would like to know what the offending journal was from last time. I also disagree with you about the clarity of writing in older journal articles, which I don't think you have to be a Denis Dutton-style bad writing cop to see is usually clearer and more audience-conscious, though it seems as if outmoded critical method is what trumps style for you in that case.

Dr. Crazy said...

I understand your curiosity, Jonathan, but I really don't want to malign a journal by name on my blog. First, I haven't read every single thing published by the journal, so it would be an unfair attack. I imagine it's published some good things mixed in with the bad. Second, I prefer to remain obscure when I talk about things in the discipline. My point isn't to write in specific ways about specific journals or authors or critics here - it's to write in general ways about things that others might find interesting and that I'm trying to think through in my own head. In other words, this isn't a purely professional space for me, and I want to keep it that way. Because I do, I'm not going to call a journal out by name that I don't like. To do so would seem really inappropriate.

Older journal articles from pre-1980? Generally quite clear. Journal articles from 1984 and after? Much less clear. For me to loathe a journal article I think I'd say that it has to have some combination of 3 of the things that I mentioned - typically the older stuff is more likely to bug me because of items 2, 5, and some other random one based on the individual writer. More recent stuff tends to bug me because of 1, 3, and 4.

Janice said...

This is a really interesting entry, causing me to think about what matters to me in a good history article. And I really love how you've linked these thoughts to your classroom practice!

Sisyphus said...

Yes, this is awesome. I certainly didn't get or give much discipline-specific researching advice in my English classes, though I get/got lots of stuff on clarity.

You're lucky to have semesters to do this in because trying to have any sort of coverage and make students write on a variety of texts on the quarter system takes up all the available time. 10 weeks is not enough time to do anything, it seems.

Professor Zero said...

I want to take your class.

Digger said...

Thanks for posting this. I am always interested in ways to encourage (force?) my students to be better writers and thinkers. As for myself, I've been told I've never met a comma or a semi-colon I didn't like...