Thursday, 19 September 2013

Studying Literature: How to design assessment that teaches students what they need to know

For me, the first English module of the course is always the most difficult.  Introductory modules are often given the near-impossible task of providing students with everything they need in order to continue studying the subject at a higher level - but particularly in literature this seems to be an increasingly difficult task.

There are two reasons for this.  Firstly, while there are countless Study Skills guides now available for students to use, there is very little in terms of clear guidelines and support for how to do English literature.  In particular, the idea of 'textual analysis' remains on the whole largely undefined.  I have posted about this issue a couple of times already, so won't go into it again here.

The other issue relates to what Pierre Bourdieu referred to as 'cultural capital' or 'habitas'.  This notion relates to the extent to which there are often broad assumptions made about the basic levels of education people have - and I don't mean education in an exclusively formal sense, but in the sense of learning shared values and expected behaviours (whether those values or behaviours are ideological or not).  For better or for worse, many of us who teach literature at degree levels will have gone to University ourselves carrying a certain amount of 'cultural capital' - whether that takes the form of an educated family background, or some basic ideas about English literary history (enough to distinguish the major monarchs, for example), and possibly even a rough idea of what happens in Shakespeare's tragedies.

The problem is that this level of cultural capital is not something we can expect our own students to have.  Many of my own students are the first in their family to study for a degree.  Many have come from other countries, and therefore have little grounding in either English history or English literature.  This is, to my mind, much more of a positive thing than a negative thing - however the truth is that it does create some problems.  Many of the critical texts which they will be reading, will make certain assumptions about the cultural capital of their readers.  They will assume that they know the difference between Renaissance and Restoration.  They will assume that they know that a Shakespearean sonnet is different from a Petrarchan.  They will assume that they know what is meant by 'metaphor', 'figurative' or 'tone' - and they will certainly assume that they do not need to teach their readers how to write essays about them.

So, an Introduction to Literature module has two challenges then. 

1) It needs to provide a clear framework that explains the processes involved in writing about literature - from 'close reading', to critical analysis, to the interaction of text and context.

2) It needs to provide a framework of historical and generic knowledge which, while retaining a critical awareness of the ideological issues surrounding canonisation, equip students with the kind of foundational knowledge without which they may find themselves at a disadvantage.

In order to try and address this challenge, I have drawn on the work of Richard Winter, and the idea of the 'patchwork text'.  This idea suggests breaking an assignment down into its procedural parts.  I have put together a small 'portfolio' assignment which tries to do this with the process of studying literature.  Each small assignment is based in a broad period of literary history, and each one involves an exercise in one of the key procedural components of a good English essay:

  1. Close reading,
  2. critical support,
  3. text and context,
  4. structured argument.

I have no idea how well this is going to go.  Anyway, here it is together with the guidance which I am including in my module guide - your thoughts or comments are (as always) heartily welcomed...

Introduction to Literature: Portfolio Assignment

• Portfolio of 4 activities, based on the topics covered in the module. These activities are critical exercises designed to develop your skills in constructing an effective analysis of a literary text. The topics which will be assessed are:

1. A 300wd reflective response to a Philip Larkin poem

2. An 300wd annotated bibliography of 3 critical texts relating to Romantic poetry

3. A 300wd exploration of historical context of Augustan satire

4. An essay plan for an essay on Shakespeare

What these activities will look like:

A 300wd reflective response to a Philip Larkin poem (due 20th December)

This assignment will be looking at a poem by Philip Larkin. It is about exploring your immediate responses to a piece of literature: how it makes you feel; what ideas you get from it; what questions it provokes – this is the starting-point for determining what you want to say about any text and (perhaps even more importantly) how you might answer any essay question. Here is an example based on a short poem by Grace Nichols:

I have crossed an ocean
I have lost my tongue
From the root of the old one
A new one has sprung

You can think of your response to a poem like this in 4 stages:

1) First Impressions: How does the poem make you feel? Is it happy? Is it sad? Is it thoughtful, angry, frustrated or loving? What do you think is provoking those feelings? Underline or highlight any words and phrases that strike you - anything that seems strange, surprising or important, or anything you don’t really understand. In particular, be ready to notice anything that makes things difficult. Make a note of such things. Don’t try to make sense of them at this point. Just make a note of them, and learn how to be observant of the significant details in the text. Any word you are unsure of, or which looks strange in the context given, look it up in a dictionary.

The poem seems to start sadly, with the idea of something being lost. However, the end seems more positive because something new is growing. It seems a bit odd to say that you have ‘lost your tongue’; especially when the poem goes on to say that a new tongue has grown – which is impossible. Does this mean that the poem is being impossibly optimistic? I wonder, as well, what the ocean is that has been crossed? Is it a real ocean – like the Atlantic – or is it simply a reference to any great journey? Is it a real journey, or some sort of ‘rites of passage’ thing?

2) Get the basics: Go through the text and map out its most basic features. Who is speaking? Where is it located? When is it set? What kind of language is being used? The find some more specific details: What allusions, comparisons or references to other people/texts/times/events are made? How do the words rhyme? What language is used? How does it sound? What tone of voice is created? Remember that as you read, whenever an impression occurs to you stop and make a note of it on the text itself.

The poem is written in the first person, which gives the impression that the speaker is relating their own experiences. It is a simple, short poem which rhymes using very simple and easy language – a bit like a children’s poem. Is the speaker a child? Or speaking about a childhood experience? The idea of having a lost tongue could relate to the idea of not being able to speak. The speaker obviously can speak now – and they are speaking from the end-point of their journey across this ‘ocean’.

3) Look for patterns: When you have a list of particulars you’ve noticed about the text and have looked up all words you’re not sure of, you need then try to organise these into a pattern. Put your highlighted pieces together (I often use post-it notes scattered on my desk) and see if you can trace connections between any of them. Is there a consistent theme emerging through the poem? Is there something connecting the various ideas, questions and feelings?

Sadness at beginning – having lost tongue – or lost ability to speak. Perhaps a childhood experience?

More positive at the end. A new language? A new beginning? Making a new life at the end of a difficult transition?

4) Reading for meaning: Now go back to the text and read it again, keeping in mind what you have already picked out. Now start to ask yourself what you think the poem means or is about. You are now interpreting the text based on a close reading of its parts. If you have already picked out a tone, or a mood which the text has established, now is the time to ask yourself why that tone has been set? If there are difficult questions or issues raised, again ask yourself why?

I think that this poem is about the kind of transitions a child might make as they move from one country to another, and the experience if immigration. The simplicity of the language and the shortness of the poem suggest something of childhood. The child moves from one language, and from a familiar environment, to a country across ‘an ocean’ (line 1) where perhaps they cannot speak the language and feel isolated. This explains the sense of sadness in line 2: ‘I have lost my tongue’. The idea of a new tongue growing from the root of the old one may be seen as representing the loss of one language and the learning of another, but this image is a little uncertain. The reader knows that you cannot really grow a new tongue, so perhaps the poem is inviting the reader to question whether it is really possible to adopt a new nationality? The poem may be about the experience of a migrant travelling to a new country as a child, and having to embed themselves into a new language and new way of life, in which case this sense of uncertainty may make the reader question whether it is really possible to replace the ‘loss’ (line 2) felt by such a transition. Alternatively the poem could be more positively read as suggesting that new beginnings are possible – even if they feel impossible. Ultimately then the poem enables people to read it according to their own experiences of change, or according to their own anxieties about change. The idea of a child speaker adds to the sense that the poem does not claim to know the answers to the questions about identity, language and migration – simply to report an experience which can be interpreted in different ways by different readers. (300 words).

This assignment will be graded on the extent to which you have responded effectively to the poem, but (more importantly) on evidence that you have read the poem carefully and based your response on the exact words in the poem. This is the essence of any ‘close reading’ -that you are reading closely!

An 300wd annotated bibliography of 3 critical texts relating to Romantic poetry

This assignment will require you to compile a list of 3 sources which you might use for an essay on ONE poem explored during the session on Romantic poetry, together with a short supporting statement about why the source is relevant, and a general view of what the source has to say about Romantic poetry. From the lecture for this topic you should have a clear idea of the kind of themes to look for, and hopefully by this stage you will have already secured your ‘Athens’ account and can use the College’s online journals to help you search.

If organising your thoughts about a topic is the first stage in knowing how to write academically about it, then the second stage is about widening your perspective. Now that you know what you are arguing, you can begin to look at what other critics have argued.

There are four main functions of using other critical opinions in your essay:

i. To verify the validity of your argument: It is possible that after reading a few critics, you will discover that your particular point of view is one which was effectively debunked a century ago. Unless you feel that you have the evidence to revive the argument, you are likely to discover at this point that your point of view was mistaken. If so, then go back to the beginning of the process secure in the knowledge that you are doing the right thing in the right way. It is both wrong, and ridiculously hard work to try and force a bad argument when the evidence is starting to stack up against it. If reading other critics suggests that your argument is bad, then it would save time to look for another one.

ii. To support your argument: You should read secondary critical texts with a view to picking out anything relevant to your own argument. If you can find anything which supports your points, then you need to cite them in your essay. The best way to win any argument, and to be persuasive, is to rack up the evidence in your favour. If the text itself is your star witness, other critics can provide the weight of evidence to convince the judge (your reader / marker).

iii. To correct your argument: Where possible, you can always use secondary texts to correct or re-align your argument. For example, you might discover that you have misinterpreted a word, or incorrectly analysed one particular line. Secondary sources can keep your analysis accurate.

iv. To extend your argument: You may discover by reading secondary sources that there are essential points which you had not considered, and which you need to add into your argument. They may even take your argument into new (more interesting) directions as they help you to understand different perspectives and dimensions of the text.

Here is an example of how to compile an annotated bibliography, using the Grace Nichols poem again as an example.

To find sources using Athens, log in using the account details given to you by the library, and from the login screen you can select either the e-book catalogue (Dawson’s) or the journals database (EBSCOhost).  Selecting ‘EBSCOhost’ will take you to a page where you can choose to view the online or mobile version of the database, after which you can select which databases you want to search. Generally it is a good idea to select ‘all’:

The next page will have the search engine for the database. Simply type your keywords into the database:

Your results will be organised by relevance, and you will see a short abstract (or summary) of the essay, and if the College has a full-text copy of the essay it will appear as an icon at the bottom of each entry:

The abstract for this entry tells us that the essay focuses on how Grace Nichols writes poetry that uses the body as a symbol of African-Caribbean history. This relates to some of the themes about the ‘tongue’ explored in the example above, and because it seems to have some relevance, it might be worth looking at it in more detail.

When reading through essays at this stage, it is important not to try and read the essay word-for-word, or to get overly concerned about things which you do not understand. At this stage, the main thing is to skim for anything which you can connect to the themes or ideas you need.

For example, skimming through the essay itself, I can find evidence right at the beginning of what the essay is arguing:

This supports my earlier ideas that the short poem is about the immigrant experience.

Further on, I read:

This supports my idea that the ‘tongue’ might relate to a concern about language, because it shows that Nichols is concerned about issues to do with language and identity.

Another passage which strikes me:

This supports my idea that the end of the short poem above has a positive ending.

Now I have some really good information about the source, and I can explain briefly why it is helpful to me, I can construct my annotated bibliography. To begin with, I need to put the full citation for the source (how to construct this citation will be explained both during this module, and in your Study Skills module) and follow it with a short paragraph (about 100 words) about the source:

Easton, A (1994), 'The body as history and `writing the body': The example of Grace Nichols', Journal Of Gender Studies, 3, 1, p. 55, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost, viewed 13 September 2013

Easton argues that Grace Nichols often uses images of the body to represent the African-Caribbean experience and the experience of migration, which supports the idea that the poem represents a migrant experience. She refers to Nichols own claims about her interest in ‘reclaiming out language inheritance’, which suggests that this original language is not, and should never be, entirely lost. However, Easton also points out that Nichols tends to use ‘positive images’ in her poems, suggesting that the poem should not be read as entirely negative.

A 300wd exploration of historical context of Augustan satire

One of the key elements of any literary analysis is an understanding of the interaction of text and context. What this means is recognising the extent to which any literary text is effective by the historical circumstances in which it was written. During the lecture for this topic you will be introduced to a range of historical background, much of which can be seen to directly impact the emergence of satire in this period of history. In addition, you will already have accumulated a series of historical reference points from later periods which you can refer back.

For this assignment, you will need to explore some of this history – explain significant historical factors and give a brief consideration of some of the ways in which you think this might have affected the literature of the period. As you explore this history, you will need to mind sources which you can cite – each piece of information you present needs to be accounted for. Although in general it is not advisable to use open access online information, for this exercise it may prove helpful as you can quickly and easily source more general pieces of historical information.

Grace Nichols was born in Guyana in 1950, and immigrated to the UK in 1977 (The Poetry Archive). The establishment of the Commission for Racial Equality in 1976 shows that issues of race were a key concern at the time (BBC News Race Special). Following the riots of 1981, the Scarman Report showed that members of the Afro-Caribbean community in the UK were being subjected to “disproportionate and indiscriminate use of 'stop and search' powers by the police” (1981 Brixton riot). Nichols’ poetry responds to these tensions by exploring “the experience of Caribbean migration to Britain and the ongoing negotiation of a “black” British identity” (Janik, Janik, & Nelson 2002. p. 257). This identity was something that was often devalued in British society, and in particular the language of Caribbean migrants was deemed a significant disadvantage. In 1979 Viv Edwards published a report showing that the Creole spoken by Caribbean students in schools often led to them being considered incapable (Edwards, 1979). This perhaps explains something of Nichols’ defiant exploration of the heritage of Caribbean language which carry her poems, and the themes of language which run through them. At the same time, the 1980s saw the emergence of Black Feminism, in which new attention was being given to the experience of black women specifically in relation to the issues of race (Welch, 2001). Nichols’ poems have always had this feminine experience as a central theme, which is nicely illustrated by her book The Fat Black Woman’s Poems, in which she boldly asserts a black female identity which refuses to conform to the expectations of a white world (1984). Black History Month argues that “Little is known about the experiences of young Caribbean migrants”, but Nichols’ poetry offers a powerful insight into this moment in British and Caribbean cultural history.


Young Caribbean migrants and growing up in the UK [Internet]. Available from: [Accessed 13 September 2013].

1981 Brixton riot. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Available from: [Accessed 13 September 2013].

BBC News Race Special, Short History of Immigration. BBC. Available from: [Accessed 13 September 2013].

Janik, V, Janik, D, & Nelson, E 2002, Modern British Women Writers : An A-To-Z Guide, Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost, viewed 13 September 2013

Edwards, V. (1979). The West Indian Language Issue in British Schools: Challenges and Responses. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Grace Nichols - Poetry Archive [Internet]. Available from: [Accessed 13 September 2013].

Welch, P. (2001) WS2203 Feminist Theory and the Contemporary Women’s Movement: Strands of Feminist Theory [Internet]. Available from: [Accessed 13 September 2013].

Nichols, G. (1984) The fat black woman’s poems. London, Virago.

An essay plan for an essay on Shakespeare

Having analysed the text in relation to identifying patterns, building an argument, finding critical support and understanding the contexts, the next task in writing an academic essay is in designing an essay plan.

Essay plans are essential in ensuring there is a correct focus and balance in your essays. Although some of you may find writing very easy and fluent, it will always suffer in terms of its grade if it does not demonstrate as well a level of planning and structure.

For this assignment you will build an essay plan based on the following essay title:

What makes Shakespeare worth studying?

Your plan should follow a standard structure (I have used examples which again focus on Grace Nichols), and demonstrate the breakdown of your word count to show how you will ensure a proper balance in your essay. You should assume the essay is a 1200 word essay.

Introduction (150wds): Here you need to explain what your central argument is going to be. What, in a single sentence, is your answer to answer the question? For example:
Grace Nichols’ poetry focuses on the experiences of female black migrants in the UK as both an experience of loss, and as something more positive – the building of a new sense of identity.

Main body (900wds): Here you explain something about how you will set about making your argument. It might be helpful to think of this as using three sections, each of which can build your case. For example:
1) Nichols’ background, and migration from the Caribbean and the historical events which surrounded it – racial prejudice and dismissive views of Caribbean language and the emergence of black feminism in the 1980s (270 words) 

2) Nichols’ use of themes of heritage and language, and the positive representation of the black female body (270 words)

3) Analysis of a single poem demonstrating the representations of the female body, and the positive view of Caribbean language (270 words)

Conclusion (150wds): To conclude, you should offer something which you can say you have proven – which does not mean that you simply re-iterate the introduction but that you explore some of the further questions which your essay prompts – or what you might explore if you were to write another longer essay on the subject. For example:
Consideration of how successful Nichols’ is in challenging attitudes to black women, whether there are other poets who are doing the same thing, and whether such positive representations of black women are as much needed today as they were in the 1980s.

Indicative bibliography: You do not need to do much more here that offer a few texts which, by reviewing their abstracts, you think might be relevant to your essay. It is an indication that you have at least made an initial exploration of the available literature. For example:
• Young Caribbean migrants and growing up in the UK [Internet]. Available from: [Accessed 13 September 2013].

• Janik, V, Janik, D, & Nelson, E 2002, Modern British Women Writers : An A-To-Z Guide, Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost, viewed 13 September 2013

• Edwards, V. (1979). The West Indian Language Issue in British Schools: Challenges and Responses. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

• Nichols, G. (1984) The Fat Black Woman’s Poems. London, Virago