Textbook Review

Colin Shanafelt’s Literary Analysis & Essay Writing Guide is exactly what its title claims: a guide. It is formatted in what appear to be two distinct sections, one guiding students through various literary terms seemingly intended to help with reading and analysis of texts, and another to guide students through the paper writing process. I say “appear” because (in the Kindle version at least) there is no table of contents, nor is there an introduction. The first “section” is set off with a series of four graphics: wheels, labeled “poetry,” “prose,” “rhetoric,” and “figures of speech,” respectively. Each wheel is divided into “spokes” that set off literary terms, such as “diction,” “imagery,” and “tone.” From there, Shanafelt proceeds to make his way around each wheel, listing a term, defining it briefly, providing examples, and supplying a list of “Questions to Ask.”

The second half of the book is similarly structured, with wheel-diagrams for “style,” “content,” “organization,” and “mechanics.” These wheels are also sub-divided and populated with terms that relate to each of the four aspects of “Essay Writing.” The biggest different between the two sections, aside from the content, is that the second half does not offer any “Questions to Ask.”

Shanafelt gives the impression throughout this text of crisply pointing out to students what to “Do” and “Do Not.” (These instructions appear multiple times in the writing section, followed by bulleted lists). He distinguishes this book by taking on “the basics” or perhaps, more accurately, the things English teachers often complain about in regard to student reading and writing.

Out of all the texts we’ve read this semester, perhaps the easiest, and most superficial, connection that can be made with Literary Analysis & Essay Writing Guide, is Wilder and Wolfe’s course centered on the special topoi of literary criticism. Indeed, the guide touches specifically on a few of the special topoi, and could be used, at least, to deploy the terms it defines as “a mixture of inventional tools and audience appeals” (Wilder and Wolfe 175).

When considering Showalter’s thoughtful inquiry into ways to teach fiction, Shanafelt could become useful. Showalter dwells mainly on teaching the reading, understanding and sometimes even the writing of fiction. However, there is not much (if any) attention given to writing ABOUT literature (Showalter 89). Here, Shanafelt enters with the second half of the guide, aimed at providing students with resources to do just that.

Shanafelt’s guide demonstrates clear strengths, especially in the realm of writing about literature. Impressively, over half of the guide is devoted to terms, definitions, and tips (the “Do” and “Do Not” lists) related to writing about literature. Much of the information is basic, however. For example, there are several pages devoted to end-text citation, a skill students must master. However, it is a skill one would expect students to be at least introduced to in pre-requisite composition courses, or even in some cases, high school. That is not the end of the problems I have with this guide. Not only is much of the information basic (to a degree that second-year students will have likely heard at least some of it multiple times in multiple courses), the way the information is presented is quite general. For example, one of the “Do” suggestions under the term “Topic Sentences” reads: “use topic sentences to support your thesis.”

While Shanafelt’s guide provides some intriguing possibilities for a lower-level literature course, I don’t think I would assign students to purchase this text. At best, I would poach examples, or definitions of some of the literary terms. The writing section, though helpful in covering basic terms, provides no actual exercises or opportunities for student practice with those terms. I would perhaps use this text most as a generative tool or starting place for invention exercises that I would need to develop myself. So, potentially useful for instructors, but probably not best for students.


Thinking about YA LIt some more…

As I continue to work toward a Writing-About-YA Lit-Course, I have some clear questions that I’m writing through…

1. How will I address Close Reading?

Teaching close reading is something that is a constant subject of conversation among my fellow instructors in the English Department. Everyone agrees that it is important–essential, even–but not everyone agrees on how to go about it. For a Literature course, I am leaning toward incorporating mini-lessons on Wilder’s special topoi for Literary Analysis. I think that list would make a good framework for students to keep returning to as we read a variety of texts. However, I never feel like one can go amiss with a mini-lesson and/or practice with just plain ol’ active reading skills–annotating, responding in the margins, etc. I think both lessons would be important in a writing-about-literature course.

2. How will I incorporate technology?

This has be perhaps the most fun to consider, as I plan this course. I’m playing around with a couple of digital assignment ideas:

Amazon Book Review: this is a real-world writing assignment that is rooted in genre analysis. It is medium-stakes, I’d say, because students are writing a relatively short amount of text, but for a “real” audience. It asks students to consider ways in which they engage with writing about literature in digital environments, and also asks them to face the new rhetorical challenges that writing online brings. The one thing I can’t decide about this is whether to put it at the beginning of the semester (as a warm-up activity) or at the end (as a bit higher-stakes activity).

Book Blog: this will be a class-collaboration, where each student will be asked to contribute a response to a book of their choice to add to our course texts. This also begins with genre analysis, as we will consider, as a class, what makes a “good” book blog. This could also incorporate elements of argument/persuasive writing, giving students the task of persuading readers to read their chosen text.

3. How about assessment?

Of course, the main vehicle for assessment in any writing course is student-generated text. However, I’m thinking more seriously about incorporating self-assessment into the mix. Not only is it a vehicle for reflection, but it also will help students think through the process of looking at their own writing and considering how or whether it met the desired criteria, which is a skill all writers must develop.

Ah, the planning continues…