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The Purpose of Literature

At the beginning of the school year, teachers can feel a palpable energy on the first day with students excitedly reconnecting with each other and nervously anticipating the expectations in their new class. Early in my career, I often dampened that initial enthusiasm by methodically reading through the course disclosure document during the first class of the year.

Disclosure Document
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Eventually, I began waiting until the second or third day before going over the disclosure document, and, ultimately, I stopped going over it altogether and just assigned it for homework. The next day when I checked for student and parent signatures, I would ask if there were any questions, and there rarely were.

Now, it is likely that some students—if not most—probably never even bothered to read the disclosure document and just signed it to receive the homework points. It might also be true that the students' lack of questions were an indication that the policies and expectations were fairly straightforward and needed no further explanation. Either way, by assigning it for homework, I saved critical class time to get into the actual content of the course.

Since my classes primarily consist of reading and analyzing literature, I begin every year with an introductory unit on the reason why we read literature. Since every English teacher at some point has heard the tired student refrain of "Why do we have to read this?", I like to confront the issue on the very first day. Despite my own opinions on the subject, I avoid revealing those thoughts and feelings until the end of the unit—if at all. Instead, I want students to consider for themselves why literature has been so highly valued in virtually every society since the day that stories were first written down.

At the beginning of every unit, I create a series of Essential Questions that provide a philosophical focus for our discussions and get students to think more deeply about the significance of the novel or play they are about to read. For this introductory mini-unit , I ask students the simple question, "What is the purpose of literature?" To clarify what I mean by "literature," I limit our discussion to fiction, poetry, and drama.

To help students form a potential answer to this question, they first write a journal analyzing a thought-provoking quotation on the subject. For this opening unit, I use the Roland Barthes' quote—"Literature is the question minus the answer"—from the 2004 AP Literary Argument prompt, which will be the students' first essay of the year and the culminating assessment of the unit.

2004 AP Literary Argument
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The journal is a freewriting exercise—a strategy developed by Peter Elbow in his 1973 book Writing Without Teachers—where students put their thoughts down on paper as quickly as possible without necessarily worrying about spelling, grammar, punctuation—or even coherence. As Elbow states, "You must start by writing the wrong meanings in the wrong words [to] get to the right meanings in the right words. Only in the end will you know what you are saying."

The directions for the journal are simple: Students should write continuously for 5 minutes with the goal of producing at least 150 words. We do some quick math and determine that, to reach this goal, students should write 30 words per minute, which means 1 word every 2 seconds. To help students get started, we provide a series of questions that they can use to guide their thinking if they choose.

We emphasize that for difficult quotations like Barthes', they may spend the entire 5 minutes just trying to explain what they think the quote means without necessarily evaluating or applying the ideas to their own lives. When students finish their journals, they share their thoughts with their small groups of three or four. After we return to the whole class, students share their interpretations and ask any questions that remain concerning Barthes' quote. If your school uses a learning management system like Canvas, students can also enter their journals on a class discussion board, and then they can read and respond to two of their classmates' entries as part of a Journal Discussion homework assignment.

Once students have begun thinking about literature through Barthes' quote, we introduce a short excerpt (1:41) from a speech that Toni Morrison gave in 2008 after she received the PEN America Literary Service Award in which she ponders a world without literature:

After watching the video, we introduce the concept of thesis statements, which we define as the argument that someone is trying to make in a speech or essay. In Morrison's address, she is making an argument for why she thinks literature is so important and why writers must be protected in any society. When creating—or trying to identify—an argument, we have students consider three suggestions that the UNC Writing Center provides to help students determine whether their thesis statements are strong and compelling.

We emphasize that arguments need to first and foremost address the question being asked. In this case the question posed to students is "What is the purpose of literature?" Second, students need to understand that a thesis is simply an opinion or interpretation that should be open to debate. In other words, students do not want to argue the obvious. Third, a thesis should not just be an interesting argument, but it should also carry some relevance or significance.

When we consider the argument that Morrison is trying to make in her speech, we need to assume that her argument is not just debatable, but also relevant and significant. Working in small groups, students read the excerpt from Morrison's address and then answer three comprehension questions before distilling her overall message, or argument, into a single-sentence thesis statement.

Morrison Thesis Statement
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To offer a second perspective on why we should read literature, we also watch a short clip (5:46) from Peter Weir's 1989 film Dead Poets Society in which an English teacher, Mr. John Keating, tries to use literature—and, specifically, the poetry of Walt Whitman—to inspire his students in a conservative, all-male prep school of the 1950s to discover their individual identity and voice.

After watching the clip, students work in small groups to read the excerpt from Mr. Keating's speech and then answer the comprehension questions before formulating another thesis statement on the purpose of literature, this time from the perspective of Mr. Keating. What is he trying to make his students understand about the importance of literature?

Keating Thesis Statement
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Once we have discussed the Keating clip and shared potential thesis statements as a whole class, we then begin the process of outlining a potential argument for their first essay of the year, the 2004 AP Literary Argument prompt that uses Barthes' quotation. If your school assigns summer reading, then students should write their opening essay on that novel or play. If your school does not assign summer reading, then students can select a novel or play (or even a film) from their past reading (or viewing) history that does not necessarily have to be on the list of AP recommended texts for the prompt. After students make their selection, they should consider what "question" the work raises and the extent to which it offers any "answers."

When students prepare to write an AP Poetry Analysis, an AP Passage Analysis, or an AP Literary Argument, we encourage them to organize their essays by using Hegel's Dialectic, the rhetorical framework that employs a thesis/antithesis/synthesis progression through the three body paragraphs. Georg Hegel (1770-1831) was a German philosopher who believed that in order to find the "truth" in any intellectual pursuit, one first had to identify the natural tension that underlies any philosophical question.

When students follow Hegel's Dialectic, they first have to make an initial claim (i.e. thesis), which is then contrasted with an equally valid and compelling counter-claim (i.e. antithesis). The resulting tension between these two conflicting ideas needs to then be resolved in the concluding paragraph (i.e. synthesis). The benefit of using Hegel's Dialectic is that it automatically creates complexity in a student's argument. It also requires students to move logically from one idea to the next until their essay comes to a satisfying intellectual conclusion.

What is most important for students to realize is that the concluding body paragraph (i.e. synthesis) is not just a recapitulation of the first two arguments, claiming in the conclusion that both are "right." Instead, the synthesis should acknowledge the merits of the previous claims, but then move in a new, third direction that not only resolves the tension in some original way, but also adds significance and meaning to the overall argument.

To help students understand what a synthesis of two conflicting claims might look like, we assign for homework the reading of Karen Swallow Prior's essay "How Reading Makes Us More Human" from The Atlantic in 2013. Prior's essay tries to resolve the intellectual debate between Gregory Currie of The New York Times and Annie Murphy Paul of Time magazine concerning the moral and spiritual impact that literature has on us.

Prior Essay
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In Currie's essay, "Does Great Literature Make Us Better?", he argues that people believe without question that literature must "expand our imaginations and refine our moral and social sensibilities," but he adds that there is no scientific or psychological evidence to prove that claim. Moreover, he gives examples—like the highly-educated Nazis, for instance—to prove that being well-read does not necessarily translate into being more moral. Paul responds to his premise in her essay, "Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer," by stating that there actually is scientific evidence to prove that literature makes us "smarter and nicer," but only if we engage in "deep reading," which she claims develops our capacity for empathy and understanding the world from perspectives different than our own.

Prior attempts to resolve this intellectual tension by stating that Paul and Currie "aren't so much coming to different conclusions as considering different questions." The truth, she concludes, is that reading great literature "doesn't make us better so much as it makes us human." If we were to map out Prior's argument, it would follow Hegel's Dialectic, starting with Paul's initial claim that "deep reading" makes us more empathetic (i.e. thesis) before acknowledging Currie's claims that there is no empirical evidence to prove such a claim (i.e. antithesis). After acknowledging the validity of both arguments, Prior then moves the discussion in a new direction by stating that literature does not provide "mere intellectual or moral lessons," but forges an individual identity to the extent that—in her case, anyway—literature "became part of [her] life story and then, gradually, part of [her] very soul."

When students begin outlining their own arguments using Hegel's Dialectic, we advise them to identify the central tension of the work they are analyzing and the question they are trying to answer. For instance, when we consider Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the obvious central tension is whether or not Huck will help Jim escape from slavery. Huck's heart tells him that he should protect his friend (i.e. thesis), but his head, or "conscience," tells him that he is doing the "wrong" thing by defying the laws and norms of his society, which he assumes are moral and "right" (i.e. antithesis). This central tension would then be the focus of the first two body paragraphs of the student's essay.

So how does Twain's novel resolve that tension? What will our synthesis paragraph be? Well, this is where it gets complicated. Huck ultimately chooses to defy his society by helping Jim, but he feels like he has done the "wrong" thing and is fated to eternal damnation as a result. At the end of the novel, Huck has the option of returning to St. Petersburg with Tom Sawyer or being adopted by Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas. He chooses neither, deciding to "light out for the Territory" instead.

While readers applaud Huck's decision to follow his heart and help Jim, Twain's ending implies that Huck's decision comes with a dire consequence. Huck is convinced that he is sinful beyond redemption and determines that there is no place for him in a society that has unsuccessfully tried to "sivilize" him. For a character who values other human beings and has sought meaningful connections throughout his journey, setting out alone into the unknown once again hardly feels like a victory worth celebrating.

So what are the Essential Questions that Twain seems to be asking in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? There are a number of possibilities:

  • What does it mean to be a "good" person?

  • Should we follow our hearts or our heads when making decisions?

  • When should we conform to society's norms?

  • How do we know if something is "right" or "wrong"?

Whatever question students ultimately choose for Barthes' prompt will determine how they structure their essay, but the central tension of the work remains the same: Should Huck help Jim or not? Twain crafts his novel so that the consequences of Huck's decision—no matter what it is—do not seem especially appealing to Huck. If he follows the norms of his society and turns Jim in, he will feel guilty and ashamed for having betrayed his friend. If he helps Jim, he will feel guilty for being sinful and will feel deserving of the eternal punishment he expects to receive. As Huck says in that fateful moment before ripping up the letter to Miss Watson: "I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it." Huck chooses "wickedness," which the readers certainly applaud, but Huck sees his choice, ironically, as a sign of his moral failure.

As a model for what an AP Literary Analysis essay using Hegel's Dialectic might look like, we provide the following sample for students to consider:

Huck AP Literary Argument
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Our goal for the introductory mini-unit is to get students thinking about the importance of literature before they read the first novel or play of the year. We also use the opening unit to introduce the concept of Hegel's Dialectic and to have students write a formal essay in the first week. In a future newsletter we will discuss the writing process in more detail and how teachers can provide effective feedback without necessarily drowning in paperwork. Until then, please offer your own thoughts, suggestions, and ideas in the comments section, and if you are interested in discussing these ideas in a live, online setting, please register for our Monthly Zoom Roundtable on January 26, 2022, at 8:00 p.m. EST. We hope to see you then!

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