Respect the Text: Teaching Textual Primacy to Non-English Majors

In the past, I have used the first day of my literature survey classes to define the big-picture, to have the class bond with each other, to watch a movie version of the first assigned text, and to jump right into literary analysis.   Since I usually teach this course in a 2.5hr block, I can do many of these things on the first day.

So far, I haven’t yet hit upon a formula that really sets the right tone for the sustained close reading that they’ll spend most of their time on.  But today, I got an idea.

Months from now, when I actually teach the course, I may have a completely different idea. But I thought it was worth writing down for now.


In a literature class, good questions yield many good answers. Often, the best questions lead to rational, well-supported, but completely incompatible answers.

I regularly teach 200-level surveys, with an enrollment that’s about half non-majors. Some of these students are used to introductory courses designed to front-load the important facts and concepts they’ll need to use later. In those entry-level classes, they’re used to being asked questions with only one right answer.

Furthermore, they expect that answer will appear as a bullet point in a slide show or in a highlighted box in their textbook. Their self-confidence as a learner depends on whether they can identify an important fact when they’re exposed to it, and recall it on cue for points.

I don’t mean to suggest that the science and professional disciplines are really all about simple recall. All disciplines have big-picture issues, with answers that lead to uncertainty, with answers that can change over time, or across cultures. The pre-med student who must memorize the names and functions of hundreds of body parts, and the names and uses of hundreds of chemicals will draw on that knowledge later when an upper-level ethics course asks, “What criteria do we use to determine who gets an experimental heart medicine, and who goes without?”

Building on the Foundation

Students who come into my literature class already know the basics of how to read a story and analyze a character’s motives. They can relate the events of the story to current events, and to events in their personal lives, and they know how to use details from the author’s life to suggest interpretations of the literary works. They learned all this in high school. But these activities are peripheral to the core skill they’ll be assessed on in a college literature class: their ability to articulate the intellectual insights resulting from sustained, deep reading of complex texts.

I always try to phrase it in positive terms.

  • I won’t be giving you points for your ability to summarize the plot because I already expect you’ve mastered summary.
  • Your high school teachers rewarded you for an intellectual task that was challenging for a high school kid, but you’re a college student now, and you’re ready to level up.
  • The skills you bring with you into the classroom are a great foundation for the next step.

But I still worry about the students who seem to hear me say

  • What you learned in high school won’t help you in my class.
  • You have to bend to my wind, dance to my beat, and jump through the random hoops I place in your path, if you want to pass the course.
  • I plan to evaluate you based on whether you agree with my inscrutable, purely random opinions on such topics as what “really” happened at the end of the Yellow Wallpaper, or what two-sentence summary accurately describes the contents of a particular Emily Dickinson poem.
  • I won’t actually *tell* you what I think on those topics. You’ll have to look them up on SparkNotes, or guess.
  • It’s all subjective nonsense, anyway.

The Big Idea

On the first day of class, I generally pass out index cards, asking students to write their major and minor, why they are taking the class, what they expect from it, and anything I might need to know about themselves as learners. I collect the cards and sift through them, using class time to affirm their good intentions and address their concerns.

My idea this time around is, once the preliminaries are out of the way, to launch right into a lecture on “The Defence of Fort McHenry.”

(I know, I know, there’s nothing unusual about a lecture. Bear with me.)

In the lecture:

  • I’ll list
    key historical events, describe the life of Francis Scott Key, and the circumstances of the composition and publication of the poem, its literary and political legacy, etc.
  • I’ll define some unfamiliar words and references, list the important themes, and analyze the meter and rhyme scheme.
  • I’ll also, for good measure, explain
    • what the poem means to me,
    • what parts I found boring or interesting,
    • similarities and differences between my life and the life depicted in the poem (it mentions war, and though I’ve never been in the military I recently went to a battlefield, and here’s what I thought about war…), and even
    • how the poem would need to change in order to be more accessible to modern audiences.

I’ll give them a multiple-choice practice quiz, assessing their ability to recall the content of my lecture (“True or False: Dr. Jerz has served in the military”).

Then we’ll discuss what we learned.

hope will be that someone — at some point — will interrupt me and ask whether I’m going to show them the poem.

And then I’ll ask them, “Why do you need to read the poem, when I’ve given you all this other stuff?”

The Primacy of the Text

I’ll crowdsource a justification for making the text central to our study.

For the rest of the semester, instead of scolding or haranguing them to pay attention to the text, I’ll remind them of the reasons they came up with, for the crucial importance of reading the fricking text.

Too dramatic?

If you’re a teacher, how do you encourage students to respect the text, whatever that text might be — whatever it is that they must engage with directly in order to have a meaningful intellectual experience?

A good place to start is Mike Arnzen’s blog entry about “The Difficulty Paper.”

And a good goal to shoot for is a classroom environment where students 1) aren’t afraid to say they don’t understand something, and 2) understand that saying you don’t understand is not an excuse for giving up. (I plan to introduce an Emily Dickinson poem that I don’t think I understand, and explain what I gained from the effort to wrap my brain around it.)

In literary study, the essay is our laboratory. We don’t do our work out
in the field and write it up later; the act of writing is how we
experiment. Actually, we start experimenting the moment we start

So maybe I should instead say that the time we spend in deep contemplation of the literary text is analogous to the time a science student spends in the laboratory.

Continuing with the metaphor… every literature course has a vital lab component.  The laboratory exercise is the student’s deep, sustained encounter with the text. We bring the results of that encounter to the classroom, to discuss them.