Literary Texts as Math Problems

I had an interesting conversation with a student today. I had just finished grading his timed writing and he admitted to me that he found it frustrating to come up with what he called “unique, original, insightful analysis.” None of his own ideas about literature satisfied him as being good enough. To be honest, he has struggled with deep, insightful literary interpretation all year. He said that he loved discussions and reading other people’s analysis of the literature, but hated the idea of using that analysis for his own because he hadn’t come up with it. He found other’s analysis interesting, and he understood it, but he couldn’t get there on his own. My suggestion that there were no true original ideas left in the world and it isn’t wrong to use other’s analysis (as long as he understood it and made it his own) didn’t satisfy him in the least, and he brought up his math class as an example. He said that in math, he had to solve the problem himself and that if another student solved it before him, he refused to look at their work until he had figured it out himself.

Then it hit me.

I asked him if he had ever been asked to analyze literature, like I ask him to, before coming to my class. He responded with “I didn’t know you could analyze books like we do before your class.” In reference to my last post, because we piecemeal how we teach literature (by only teaching a few skills per piece of literature and not taking a wholistic approach to literary analysis) students see literature as separate islands in a vast ocean not realizing that all those islands are connected by solid rock below the surface.

I explained it to him through his knowledge of math. He has been working math problems since kindergarten. First he added, then subtracted, then multiplied, then divided, then worked algebraic equations and then… (I don’t know math past algebra, but you get the picture). All of those new mathematical concepts are dependent upon what came before them. You can’t subtract before you add, you can’t solve for x if you don’t know how to add, subtract, multiply, etc… Therefore, even when he doesn’t know a new mathematical concept very well, he still has all his prior experience of answering other problems as a guide to answering the new ones. New problems demand that he use his knowledge of old problems in order to solve them.

Unlike math, unfortunately, he sees each literary text he has to read as a separate entity, something that needs to be looked at in isolation (an island) from all other literature. All because he has only been told to look at certain elements for each new book he has had to read.

I can remember sitting in some of my early literature classes in college thinking “how the heck are these people coming up with this stuff (analysis)?” just like he does in my class. It wasn’t until I read something, analyzed it, and then used that analysis on other literature that I started to see patterns within all literature and, therefore, see the bedrock on which all literature is founded.

We need to make our students dive to the bedrock with every text they read.


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