Friday, February 1, 2008

Well, I started the textual analysis paper today. I've been telling the students about the paper all week with what the literary types call "Forshadowing." The textual analysis is something the students have never had to do before. They have been able to write papers about themselves, summarize works they've contacted and regurgitated ideas on paper for a quiz. They've never had to THINK before. I explained the textual analysis, and I could see a look clouding over each of them. It was a sort of confused fear like if someone ran into the room and shouted that there was a box full of puppies on fire outside the building. Should we do something? Why did he run in here? Are we responsible for this? Is the box on fire or are the puppies on fire?

It looked like I had just brought them all out to the pool before they learned to swim and then gently pushed them away from the edge. They all had that "I'm going to die" look in their eyes.

When I introduced the textual analysis unit last semester (and this semester) I started off with the assignment sheet, then I walk them through an analysis of Jimmy Carter's essay in Lunsford Rusc. The students were doing an okay job, today. They would give a few points, furtively testing the water to see if they could, indeed, float. "It seems like a lot of his points are opinion," eyes wide, glancing up at me for approval. "I'm just not a big fan of Jimmy Carter." Will pretends to lose interest and casuall mark on the corner of his book. Then, Bryce asked the dreaded question: "Do you have an example?"

My philosophy of a model essay is that it is something a high school teacher uses to "teach" with after they have told their students they should put a comma in whenever they pause. Model essays are for people who can't teach and don't want creativity. A model essay is something you hand-out to the students with the unspoken subtext being, "I expect your papers to be as much like this one as possible. The less your paper is like this one, the lower your grade will be."

But, I looked out over the students who had shown up for class. Half of them were gone as there was something of a micro-blizzard which swept through Missouri the day before, but was almost entirely melted by five o'clock. They wanted the model essay. They wanted the cookie cutter. They wanted their paper to fit in and thus not stand out. I felt like they were asking me to make them the store managers of area McDonalds'. I wanted to scream, "Don't you want to at least try? You can do this! It's just the first day. We can all do this our own way!"

So, what's the verdict? Should I give them their model essay? Am I being irrational by wanting them to be creative and individual?


techsophist said...

[ahem] Well, there are examples of textual analysis in Composing Ourselves, ones written by actual Missouri State students like them! In Writing I or II! One very good one done by a GTA is Meg Johnson's in the Writing What We Teach section. If you show more than one, they get the idea that there IS more than one way to do this. I sincerely doubt that they will look at any of the work in Composing Themselves and build a step-by-step list of how to do an analysis, but they could look at it and say, "I can do that."

Amy said...

You know, the reader I'm using for basic writing this semester is called "Model Essays," so you can probably guess what I think. I agree with Dr. Cadle that showing diverse examples helps avoid the problem of only one possible approach.

We all learn by example. You can't expect people to just know how to write something they've never read.

Anonymous said...

A somewhat flippant marxist once that all Missouri State is teaching you to do is become middle in a sense, you may be doing your job perfectly...but who wants to be that guy? Mine didn't turn out that bad last semester. Try doing classroom analysis of simple and local stuff. We did an analysis of the Standard, News Leader, and even a washington post. I am thinking about asking them to bring in music, movies, or books they are attached to in order to do the same prosess on them.

Eric Sentell said...

I agree with all of the above comments. Students need examples. No one learns in a vacuum. Much of what I've learned about writing I have learned from reading.

That said, there's no reason any teacher should limit the number of examples or the diversity of said examples. In Composing Ourselves, there are several examples of critical analyses, each with its strengths and weaknesses. There's also Jennifer Smith's critical analysis in the Lunsford book. Between these diverse examples and an emphasis that there is no "right" way to approach the assignment, I think my students will not be overly imitative (we all imitate to some degree, don't we?).

BeardedFury said...

I disagree with all of the above commentators, if only because I try to exercise my freedom to dissent even if that means manufacturing the grounds for doing so. In this case, however, I need not resort to manufactured qualms. While so-called "models" or boiler-plate essays can be helpful, I agree with you that students ought to be encouraged to either A) find their own way, even if that means enduring some trial and error, or B) seek out models on their own. As you said, by providing them with a model--or even three or four--students will tend to regard them as a connect-the-dots approach to satisfying your expectations rather than working out their own best approach based on the criteria you provide them. And besides, if they're not savvy enough to realize that Composing Ourselves is a source for the very sample essays they're so desperate for, then to hell with it.

As for Kevin's comment: I don't appreciate you slandering my homeboy with such pejoratives as "flippant." Them's fightin' words 'round here. :O

Hannah said...

Well, I actually like to use some samples in my classes (sorry!). Perhaps because of how I myself learn, I hear the question "Is there any way we could see an example of this essay?" not as "Would you just tell us exactly how we're supposed to write this?" but as "Can you make all this abstract explanation more concrete for us?"

I think samples are helpful for concretizing concepts like "evaluate" and "criteria." But I don't just have them read samples on their own without discussing them in class. I always point out well done parts in essays and ask the students to look for parts they think work and don't work in certain essays.

Steve Rucker said...
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Steve Rucker said...

Interesting discussion. This topic wears me down because, like Chaz, I want my students to be brave enough to exercise their creative freedom and find their own way in writing an analysis. Now, if we can only get all of them to understand what analysis is, or at the very least, get a handful of them to understand how to properly apply analytical skills to dissect a text (whatever meaning you wish to place upon that word). I'm not against using models--at times, I employ them myself--but when I want to put my own personal stamp on my writing, I try my best to avoid them.

In terms of teaching, some learn by trial and error and some need a base from which to start until they discover their own way. I wish it was as simple as doing one thing for everyone. Unfortunately, the dynamics in a multifarious classroom don't always allow for it. What I like to do is try the "Chaz method" and throw them into the deep end of the pool, nudgingly keeping them afloat long enough to gain an understanding of textual/critical/rhetorical analysis. Like Matt pointed out, I want to encourage THINKING. But when they become worn down and revolt against the idea of using their own minds, or when there are a good amount of them that just aren't getting it, I drag them into the shallow end and put floaties on their arms (different examples/models) and see if that keeps them afloat long enough until I can throw them back into the deep end, sans floaties. But when I think about my childhood, I hated floaties, so I'm sure that is directly related to my dislike of models.