Are enjoyment and analysis antithetical? Does analyzing something ruin your enjoyment of it? We want our students to love reading and to appreciate literature, but does our approach to it, endless analysis, create the opposite effect? Do we make them hate reading and hate literature and make them want to avoid it?
I’m not even talking about bad analysis, the kind where the teacher tells you what it means and then asks you to regurgitate what they told you in a fill-in-the-blanks style formula essay. I’m talking about decent, honest analysis requiring real thought.
I’ve struggled with this conundrum for a long time. Here are some conclusions I’ve come to.
First, we need to stop valuing analysis over actual artist creation. Bloom’s Taxonomy used to place evaluation at the top of the heap, but some years back moved it down a peg and put “Create” at the top – where it rightly should reside. Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson has told the story of an English professor who published fiction books and then found his academic institution wouldn’t count them as “publishing” because they were not academic papers analyzing or criticizing someone else’s creativity. When did we start to put analysis of other people’s works of creativity over actually creating something? This, it seems to me, is a form of academic insanity. One among many, granted, but insanity nonetheless.
I am still taking the time to teach my students to write fiction. Sadly, I find myself justifying this practice by saying that it will make them better at analyzing fiction. It does make them better at analysis, but the reason to write fiction is not to better analyze fiction. The reason to write fiction is that writing fiction, telling stories, is an absolute good.
I have a lot more thoughts on the topic of teaching students to write fiction – perhaps a book full of them, but I’d like to head back to analysis. Is it worth doing? Even if we deem it worth doing, is it worth it if the price is ruining our students’ love of reading and literature?
As is often the case, books have come to my rescue. Two books, to be precise, have come along in the past few months to help me deepen my thinking a bit and see things in a new light. Two very different books.
The first book is How to Read Nancy – The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels by Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden. The second is Beyond Literary Analysis – Teaching Students to Write with Passion and Authority About Any Text by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell.
I read How to Read Nancy over winter break – it was a Christmas present. I have never been a particular fan of the old comic strip Nancy by Ernie Bushmiller – I read it in the funnies pages as a kid, but it wasn’t up there with Peanuts as one of the greats for me. This book, however, does something remarkable. After an opening section about the strip itself, the middle section of the book takes a deep dive into analyzing Nancy. No, not the strip as a whole over its many years in the newspaper. This books takes a deep dive into a single comic strip from August 8, 1959:
Each beautifully printed, two page spread has this single strip printed across the top of wide pages, with a single element in dark black ink and the rest of the strip faded out into gray. One spread analyzes the dialogue, another the lettering, another the bubbles around the letter. There are spreads for the facial expressions, for each character, and for the individual props used in the three panels of the strip. For each element, it examines the Context of the given element, often looking at the history and culture of the time period, and then the Text, the actual way in which the element works to further the gag.
It analyzes 43 different elements of this single strip – and then, in the 44th chapter of this section, “Drawing Some Conclusions,” puts it all back together again. They admit that they have been “slicing and dicing each layer to smithereens” but that “so help us God, we think it’s still alive.”
When I showed some of my students the book, they thought it sounded lame. But it isn’t lame: it’s dazzling. One of the epigrams at the start of the book is, all by itself, worth the admission price. It is a quote from a poet I had not heard of, John Ciardi:
“What poem ever ceased to be good because someone analyzed it badly? The purpose of analysis is not to destroy beauty but to identify its sources. There is no such thing as an object without characteristics. If one cares about the nature of a beautiful object, he is well occupied in studying what makes it beautiful, and that study necessarily demands a look at the artist’s management of his art.”
Not to destroy beauty, but to identify its sources. I thought immediately of my revelation that the scene on Boo Radley’s front porch at the end of To Kill a Mockingbird gave me goosebumps not because I let it wash over me without thinking about it, but because I realized that it was plot, character, setting, theme, point of view, and irony all working together in a way that was, for me, transcendent. Analysis was what made the scene so moving.
The second book, Beyond Literary Analysis, is a book for teachers from Heinemann. It begins with the two teacher authors lamenting the formulaic, dull papers they are getting from their students, all analyzing the same book. That’s a problem we all face.
Their solution to this problem is multifaceted, but involves looking for real world examples of great analysis writing, not just of literature, but of video games, music, sports – anything worthy of examining closely. (My only complaint – no comics!) The second part of their solution is to help students analyze things they actually care about. Of course, this is a whole book, so there is a lot more to it than that – my wife bought the book too, and we are both marking it up with ideas to put into practice next year.
What these two books have in common is this: analysis does not have to be a dull, passionless “objective” exercise in drudgery. Analysis can be – and should be – a deep dive into something you care passionately about. And when that happens, the results can be dazzling.
When I think about the things I love, like the original Star Wars movies, or things I want to love but know are terribly flawed, like the Star Wars prequels, or things that I love that other people are criticizing, like the new Star Wars movies, I realize that analyzing what makes things work or not work doesn’t ruin my enjoyment, but enhances it. I could analyze my favorite Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, or my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoons, or Disney movies, or movie soundtracks, or Harry Dresden books. I analyze every play I appear in, deep down, so I know how to play my part. My analysis is part appreciation of whatever “text” I’m experiencing.
The books, movies, and plays I love most give me a lot to think about.