After almost three years of teaching high school English, I’ve found that one of the hardest skills to teach is literary analysis. Some of our 17-year-old selves might have remembered being irked at our high school English teachers, who, quite passionately, urged us to see the green light as more than just a light, but a symbol, representing the hopes and dreams and guiding path of our main character’s future (hey, Gatsby)! We rolled our eyes. Why couldn’t a light just be a light, or a scar simply a scar, or the letter ‘A’ just that- a letter?
There was always more to unpack with Gatsby, Harry, and Hester that went beyond the surface. However, most of us wanted to stay on the shore, where meaning was at our fingertips and the quest for insight seemed leisurely and truth was simply exposed, not hidden. An eventual English major, I, of course, wasn’t fully in this camp of groaners, but I still resonated with my classmates’ angst at the demand to constantly seek for something that perhaps wasn’t even there. I admit that though I teach English now and studied it in college, it was not my favorite class in high school. Though I sometimes relished in the nuances of figurative language and felt accomplished deciphering Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” I yearned to skip over the slow work of decoding language and preferred debates or lectures on the capital ‘B’ Big ideas and philosophies in the novel. I began to understand my friends’ love for math and science. The body systems we tried to memorize during lunch, the formulas we had categorized on our laminated sheets, and the specific chemical bonds we could see in front of us during an experiment, for many of my friends, were preferable to a textual analysis assignment on Beowulf. There was a comfort in following the discrete process laid out for us. We could rely on the certainty of the formula to lead us to an objective answer that was always clear, never murky, and we could walk away with a sense of certainty and confirmation, asking each other excitedly after a test, “What did you get for #4? “123.45!” “Me too! Good.” In AP Brit Lit, however, there was neither a linear process nor a finite answer. There was less revelry to be found in discussing how we answered the in-class essay prompt. If we defended our thesis with relevant lines and examples, we would likely pass. How could we know what the poet really meant, anyway?
Of course, literary analysis seems easy with the huge, obvious symbols in classic novels- the green light in Gatsby or the scarlet ‘A’ in The Scarlet Letter being prime examples. The tougher analysis occurs at the micro level of each individual line of a text. This is why, sitting in a grad school education class, I began to panic at the thought of teaching literary analysis to fifteen-year-olds. The discipline and art it took to dissect meaning out of each word was painstaking and tedious. How was I taught to analyze? How was I taught to do a “close read” of a text? I tried to reach into my memory of my high school English classes, but only remembered the amazing lectures from Brother Phil, or the impassioned debate we had about Holden Caulfield, the Big Ideas. I sometimes envied my math and science colleagues, who could construct a linear unit plan on, say, mitosis and meiosis, with lesson plans that served as building blocks that work towards a clear, final objective. While English certainly has objectives that students must reach to prove mastery, the path is… not so linear. My unit plans curved and turned and circled back, always returning to a baseline of connecting big, thematic ideas to evidence. AKA, analysis.
Fortunately for our ELA cohort, our professor provided one way of teaching analysis that has stuck with me and served as a backbone for my teaching. She suggested that we teach students to notice: learning what to notice, why to notice it, and crafting theories about what our “noticings” might mean. She provided us with the following questions to ask students when reading a text: 1) What literary techniques should we notice in an image or poem? 2) What sort of meaning might an author be trying to build with these literary techniques? 3) How do these literary techniques work together to create a larger (thematic) meaning?
In essence, we should teach our students to look beyond the surface. The reality is, however, the act of noticing takes time, effort, and practice. Which, for many of my students, requires no distractions and repetition, both of which are not always fun. This is why “noticing” is such a difficult task. For instance, we may not notice, during an initial first reading of chapter one of Gatsby, that the narrator, Nick, is writing retrospectively, until we reach the end, and realize he had been recounting his memory of one summer the entire novel. Or, at a micro-level, we may not notice at first that a rose in chapter two is actually a symbol of the main character’s at once beautiful and dreadful fate, but upon a second read, once we have read up to chapter seven, we notice it was purposefully placed once we know more about a certain character. The act of carefully examining a page (which many English teachers call a “close-read”), and re-reading a text, is tedious (“We have to read it again!?!” moan all my students), but it forces us to notice the nuances in the text we hadn’t before, or perhaps to notice them in a new light.
This is not an English lesson, I promise… here’s my point…
This pandemic has uprooted us from our comfortable life routines. Our formulas we had relied on to lead us somewhere now seem dismantled and in flux. Left without a clear timeline or cure, we find ourselves floundering without a roadmap. This time has forced us, in a sense, from the comfort of the shore to a vast unknown: a freezing cold ocean with no life vest. No longer safe on shore, we are being asked to do a close-read of the physical and perhaps internal parts of our life we had otherwise not stopped to notice. We can no longer follow what we have known (our jobs, our routines, our daily human comforts), but must search for new answers. Until this new reality, I hadn’t realized how the steps offered by my professor apply to our daily lives, and perhaps most urgently, at a time like this. I’ve attempted to adapt the questions for this time: our “text” being our respective lived realities in this pandemic.
Step one: What things should we even be noticing during this time?
I don’t want to start here and say that we should each be taking pleasure in noticing the small aspects of our life we hadn’t before. For many, this act of noticing is a privilege depending on your race, socioeconomic status, job, and position in life. Not only is the act itself a privilege, but the things available to us to notice are obviously formed from our position in life. My best friend who is an ICU nurse is certainly noticing a more traumatic, stark reality than the one I am as a teacher at home, and both she and I are far removed from being in a desperate situation financially, physically, or emotionally. In other words, I can’t even begin to describe here how vastly diverse and immediate each person’s experience has been during this, so it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), that this is only one view out of a million more views, many of which are more devastating and formed by loss, trauma, and tragedy. Sparknotes: this is not a la la let’s make the best of it take, but I still think it can apply to a lot of folks, particularly those of us whose hectic professional and personal lives make us crave, like math and science classes, a linear process that leads to one correct answer.
So what things should we be noticing? That’s up to your individual circumstances. My own situation has felt somewhat helpless on the sidelines. I am at home. I am existing and working in a space where I don’t usually spend much time. Therefore, I have started to take notice of the minute and mundane. The street I fly by on my daily commute was only a blur outside my car window until I began walking it each day, if only to get some socially distant fresh air, and noticing the front porches of the houses, each unique in their own way. I imagine the lives of those inside. Are they safe? Do they have kids? Are they working? Did they leave Indy? I keep walking and notice a park for the first time in my ten months of living here. I am only five blocks from my apartment. I pause to read the historical plaque that recounts that Robert Kennedy had once given a speech at this very spot in regards to MLK’s death. The park is named ‘MLK Park.’ I return the next day and meet an older gentleman, who, across the sidewalk, tells me the story of how he had seen the speech in person and would never forget it. I pass by our local coffee shop, a place I frequented, boarded up and empty, the chairs upside down and stacked on tables. Where did the students go now who had shown up in droves after school each day? This used to annoy me when I wanted a quiet place to go after work, but now, I miss seeing the crowded tables and hearing the high-pitched, excited conversations. The high school lawn across the street is vacant, usually crowded with students, the parking lot empty and cones stacked in a pile near the entrance. Back to my apartment, I step inside and see the light hitting my stairwell in a way I rarely see, since I am either leaving early in the morning or arriving home at night. The neighbors downstairs are organists whose playing I have never heard, either because of my own loud earbuds or my never being home, and now I stop to listen to their music drifting in from the window in my bedroom. The first two weeks of quarantine, for me, read something like this: fear, wonder, shock, and a newfound opportunity to be free of distraction, granted more time, and a chance to notice the smallest of things in my tiny world I hadn’t paid mind to before. Flowery, I know.
There are, however, less beautiful things to notice, too, which is just as true for reading literature as it is for life. A poem, for instance, may echo more eerily on the cusp of your late-twenties as compared with the time you read it for a high school assignment. Having seen more and done more, the female persona seems desperate and depressed, whereas on your first read as a 15-year- old, you thought she was simply melancholy, perhaps too dramatic (hello, Sylvia Plath). As the pandemic lingers and continues to reshape our individual realities, we may start to notice the things about ourselves that become more unsettling with more time to dwell, stress, and overthink our own insecurities. For myself, I have begun to notice a new sense of anxiety tied to my inability to be in one place for a sustained time, an anxiety I have always noticed in myself, but now has been exacerbated with the stay at home order. I can go on a walk and appreciate the new noticings in my neighborhood, but return indoors and only fixate on my own fear and frustration with, well, everything. We all may be noticing the parts of ourselves we had worked so hard to keep together unravelling in new ways, or witnessing our mental health losing the shape or form we had once so surely identified it as. What was once harnessed has now been unleashed, running rampant in ways we don’t even understand. The depression we coped with through work, play, exploration, and relationships has now reemerged unrecognizable, a masked version of ourselves, and we now must notice it in new ways: faced with this unwanted visitor who overstays their welcome, we have no choice now but to sit down with this new housemate, get to know it, lest we become overwhelmed by its annoying living habits and unwillingness to change, so we confront it gently. This, like real life partners or roommates, doesn’t happen in one sitting, but rather over time. Sometimes, we just need to be alone and give the other space. In this new time of noticing, then, we have to remind ourselves to read the moment, but not to read it too closely. I remind my students: it’s always okay to take a break, to close the book, put it away, and come back to it tomorrow. We must also do this with ourselves and each other.
Lastly, of course, looming over our small external and internal noticings are the obvious signs of our new reality caused by this pandemic that are impossible not to notice. In English class, these might be the titles of a book or the key symbols: we can usually only know the full meaning after we have read the entire text. In this pandemic, we can’t un-notice so many changing aspects of our society. Every time we pick up our phone, there are news headlines, social media posts, texts from loved ones, entertainment, professional responsibilities ALL addressing the pandemic. They don’t necessarily require a “close read:” Public Health Crisis, Pandemic Political Turmoil, Worst Recession in History, Self-Care During Quarantine, Socially Distant Easter, Tiger King, Symptoms to Know, etc. We’re also living in a time of hyper-noticing, where each day our lives are personally affected by the toll of this virus, and the political, social, physical, mental, and spiritual upheaval it has wrought. We are noticing our steps, our distance, our touch. The trickiest part of noticing these Big Ideas, is that for now, we can’t make meaning out of it. That comes at the end, and the end is uncertain.
However, I do believe that just like analyzing a novel, the meaning-making happens during the reading itself. I ask my students to do this in tangible ways throughout our unit: journal entries, small group discussion, individual reflection. While we are living through this, then, we have an opportunity to find our own tangible ways to make meaning out of the small and big noticings.
For some of us, it is a time to notice our own role in society, which leads to the next step.
2. What sort of meaning is the author trying to build with these noticings?
This could become a bigger question when we think about who we decide is the “author” of all of this. Religious folks might say God, some might turn to political leaders, doctors, medical experts, your favorite news source, all the “isms” that often give us a source of theory, maybe your mom…To simplify this step, I’m going to let the author be You. Us. Me. If we are the author, then the search for meaning in this becomes an individual and collective task.
One reason I never loved math and science, I think, is the pressure that comes with only having one right answer. This did not bode well for my anxiety (I’ll save the story about how I sprinted to the bathroom during a ‘perfect triangles’ geometry quiz my freshman year for another post — also, who in my high school’s math department decided to call these quizzes SOS, sink or swim!? Not the positive thoughts a kid with anxiety needs, but I digress), so I’ve always clung to English as a way to use words and language to arrive at my own assertions. This works well with characterization. If we notice specific details the author has included about a character, for instance, what he or she says, does, looks like, thinks, etc., we can use these noticings as building blocks to draw a conclusion about her character. The tricky part is how to best use those pieces of evidence. For instance, I can come to the conclusion that the character Daisy in The Great Gatsby is a terrible mother when she says the classic line, “And I’ll hope she’ll be a fool. That’s the best thing a girl can ever be in this world, a beautiful little fool,” about her daughter. Yet, someone else can conclude that this actually shows her as a redeemable mother, because she wants her daughter to remain ignorant to the parts of our world that are hurtful and evil. Some believe that line shows female disempowerment, some believe it’s parental protection. Cue the debate (see why English is so fun!).
The point is, you are in charge of what conclusions you will draw from the personal noticings you are witnessing during this time. For those of us at home, it might mean small moments of realizing just how important human interaction is on a daily basis. For medical professionals, it might mean mustering every ounce of energy to remain hyper aware of the procedural noticings their job requires to save lives. For political leaders, it might (and dare I say must), mean undoing their own personal noticings they have acquired over years in office or practiced out of tradition to pay attention to the critical noticings here in this moment that require honest, equitable action and compromise for both public health and economic hardship. For most of us, if not all of us, we might be forced to see how our daily noticings in this time (what is the impact of my job? am I ethically doing what is best right now? what does my family need most from me? what does my partner need from me right now? what do I need to sacrifice? what can i do to get through the next month, year, twenty minutes? ) change our path in life, however big or small, towards an idea of how we might lead better lives after this is all over. For myself: Having stumbled upon MLK Park five blocks from my neighborhood that once hosted Robert Kennedy and after my conversation with a life-long resident, I learned that this neighborhood was almost exclusively black. Now, the surrounding streets prop up suburban housing and luxury style apartments, slowly gentrifying this historical community ground. I have never been one to pay much attention to the history of the neighborhoods I’ve lived in, but I know that this noticing has me thinking about the ways in which local leaders have fractured community spaces, thus fragmenting the communities themselves.
I imagine my students: articles, notebooks, texts splayed out in front of them. They had read, highlighted, taken notes. All of their evidence had been collected. Now came the hardest part: formulating a thesis.
How could I teach them to shape their evidence into something that was arguable, that meant something?
Step 3: How do these noticings work together to form a (thematic) meaning?
This step makes me think of a quote I was told before I left for Uganda to teach English. The priest, a wise, well-travelled, man, quoted T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Dry Salvages”: “We had the experience, but missed the meaning, And approach to the meaning restores the experience, In a different form, beyond any meaning.” We were about to embark on a service experience that would be life-changing, he said, but we would be careful to not simply come back and say, “Wow, what a life-changing experience.” Rather, he encouraged us to consistently reflect on our experience while we were abroad and after so that it would have meaning for the rest of our lives. This might make us feel inefficient when we think about the time it takes to “consistently reflect.” Those of us who have the opportunity have the chance now to lean into this, and to ignore the American-ized notion that we are only efficient if we are producing and staying ‘busy.’ You are busying yourself with producing meaning, an arguably more efficient task.
I know that the book I hand out on the first day of class will not affect all of my students in the same way. Each student is arriving to that text with a distinct cultural background and life experience, to the effect that I couldn’t possibly predict what meaning he or she will glean from it personally. I do, however, hope that they don’t just “have the experience,” of reading, of closing the book and saying, “Ah- I finished it!” My job is to teach them to analyze closely the meaning within the text. Of course, there are those students who constantly try to guess the meaning throughout, who get excited at each turn and plot twist. There are always the skeptical students, who question the character’s decisions or the author’s decisions. There is occasionally one or two students who disengage, who choose not to read outside of class, and sparknote their way through the text. Then there’s the overachievers who read to the end and then tell everyone what happens. Some jump to conclusions. We are in the midst of an experience that will change our lives forever and this does not look the same for everyone.
Their reactions are not unlike most of ours during this time: the over-reactors, disengagers, skeptics. And the most difficult part of this is that no one is sure when this book ends. We don’t know what chapter we’re on and how long each will last. We can’t yet know what the title of this will be or what it means for the rest of our lives. It’s impossible to read ahead and skip to the end. There’s no well-researched procedure or method to follow to rely on to lead us to recovery.
Many of us are in the midst of uncertainty, trying to make sense of it. Perhaps you’ve disengaged. Maybe you’re noticing too much and need to set the book aside for a while. The larger meaning of this can’t be known yet, but I hope the evidence you are collecting now can lead you to a conclusion about how to go on from here. There’s an opportunity now, though somber, to critically notice. This may be scary for some, but I’d argue it might be worth it when this is all over.
By Allie Griffith