Six Tips for Being a Better Literature Student

Literature courses can be handled inappropriately and there is often not enough time to figure that out in a fifteen-week session.  I have a few tips that should help us avoid recurring errors.  Each of these tips relates to critical thinking and writing:

  1. The audience knows the play, poem, or story.  Summaries that just fill space are useless, so avoid writing a review or a running account of the plot.  It would be like telling someone the directions to their own home when you were supposed to be arguing about the best spots along the way.
  2. Apply the literary terms such as verbal irony, symbolism, theme, and metaphor.  Do more than just point them out.  Yes, they exist.  (Skeptical readers like the ones you’ll have in the course would just say “Okay. . .  so what?”)  What is a metaphor doing in a given paragraph or stanza, though?  You can always argue about functions or effects.
  3. Everything we do is thesis-driven, meaning that it’s argument.  A thesis is not just a statement of what you’ll do.  It’s an arguable, provable claim that should have some substance.  It’s not a question.  It’s not a fact.  It is an opinion—though you need not use I.
  4. Anticipate what the audience thinks about a piece of literature.  It’s important to realize that you’re writing in a public way about works which may have been valued and argued over for hundreds of years.  Value that and take yourself seriously as a critic.
  5. Plagiarism is easy to catch and will be dealt with harshly.  If you are in doubt, cite the material.  Remember that MLA is exacting, so be sure you’re using the correct style models.  There is not much time to get used to this, so look at the Unit 1 mini-lectures and links on citing.  The expectation is that you can look at a model and “get it right” in your writing.  Ask questions and pay attention to the style, since how something looks is often as important as what it says.
  6. Lastly, really work to avoid lateness.  Be on the correct side of any due dates, as it’s really tough to make up work.