This blog was originally posted on April 9, 2013.
I had an epiphany while grading some Intro to Lit papers recently: Students do not trust their ability to make connections.
This is by no means an original observation. But while grading those papers – and thinking about this post – I finally understood my undergraduate advisor’s admonition that I needed to learn to trust my intuition more. I always took it to mean a distrust of reason, a distrust of analysis. And I was totally unfair to my advisor, because that’s not at all what she meant.
What she meant was that I wasn’t trusting myself when I saw connections.
I recognize this problem in my own students’ writing. For the current paper my students are working on, I’ve instructed them to write about the importance of setting in two pieces that we’ve read so far in class. One piece of advice that I give on the assignment sheet is that students be deliberate in their choice of texts: They shouldn’t simply select pieces because they like them. The pieces need to connect somehow.
As I read a number of their draft papers, I saw that my students had picked short stories that work together – but that many were not quite sure of why and how the stories connect. A number admitted in their introductions that they simply picked two pieces that they liked – or two pieces that “spoke to them” somehow.
From my point of view, I could see the connections. I found them obvious. For example, one student wrote about “A Hunger Artist” and “The Yellow Wallpaper.” She wasn’t quite sure why she paired these stories, and couldn’t say more beyond: “I found them interesting.” I see the connection between the trapped artists. It’s there – though it’s not necessarily a connection I would have made immediately or without that student’s impulse to pair the two.
This student isn’t yet seeing that connection, or at least isn’t quite able to articulate the connection.
In my comments on the drafts I asked a lot of questions, as I always do, most notably about the relationship between the chosen pieces; I wanted students to get beyond: “I like these.” I made suggestions in my final note to the student writing about the Kafka and Gilman stories—suggesting the idea of cages and the idea of the artist as a possible connection. And I made similar notes on a number of other papers, where students seemed to have some intuition about connections but weren’t quite articulating them.
In the end, this gets me thinking that what we’re doing in Intro to Lit, inherently, is dealing with creative thinking – and not just critical thinking or analytical writing. Pushing students to see the connections that they already sense helps them build on their own creative abilities. And part of that is a willingness to trust instinct.
This is not to suggest that any intuitive connection that someone sees is going to be right. That’s part of the critical and analytical work we do in class. We look for what’s most plausible, what’s most persuasive.
This sort of ambiguity, this creative thinking, is essential in any field. My friends who are scientists are creative people – they make observations and see connections. My friends who are musicians do the same thing. It’s a matter of knowing what we’re actually looking at.
That, if nothing else, is what I want to convey to my students in my Intro to Lit class. That’s what the class is good for.