rockinlibrarian: (beaker)
I touched on my personal problems with Lit Analysis in my last post (which, by the way, I have edited to include thoughts on Agent Carter's season finale, if you care), and as I continue to read a wide variety of opinions-expressed-as-truth about shows and books and etc, I thought it might make a good GeekMom post. So I pulled up something I'd written before about Lit Analysis to see if I could pull any of it for a new piece.

This had been one of a series of "memoirs" I'd written about my first years of college during my last year of college. Yeah. Kind of stretching the word "memoir" here but whatnot. As I read it I both laughed and cried. The bits and pieces I might use in an article would need a lot of reshaping to sound like a proper article, but I kind of want to share the whole thing as-is right now.

(I think I shared the one I wrote about my birthday once a long time ago, too. I'm going to go look for that! Oh, it was friends-locked because I used real names. I've un-friends-locked it due to like three people actually ever reading this while logged in on LiveJournal anymore. If anybody is called out by name in this who would not like to be, let me know!)

I'm not going to change or remove names in this one, either. Just shout at me if you think that should change. I've added a few notes and edits to clarify things for people who didn't know me in college, and taken out some chunks that are completely off-topic, but otherwise, I'm leaving it. I want to get other stuff done today!

And so I present to you "April 1997: The Trouble with Lit Analysis":

I actually really liked my first English-major class, Intro to Literary Analysis, at first. I loved reading all the poems and stories and responding to them in a journal, and the professor, Mrs. Kraszewski, was SO enthusiastic about her subject. Then, as the semester wore on, I started to become... frustrated. “Good try, but I’m looking for something more,” Kraszewski would say each time I’d make a comment or answer a question in class, quickly moving on to someone else. Usually Emily Abrams. Emily Abrams lived next door (on the other side from Lori and Rose), she was short and pleasant and had long brown hair at the time, and Emily Abrams always had the Right Answer. “Emily,” Kraszewski never failed to gush at least once a class period, “you really are a girl after my own heart!” Often for no reason other than she’d happened to’ve read a book Kraszewski liked. Emily had been getting asked to dinner by the guys down the hall for much longer than Tracie and I had, so I was starting to see a lot of her outside of class that semester, and the more I talked to her the more I liked her-- or, wished I could like her. Kraszewski made that tough. I thought I had some good ideas but Kraszewski didn’t seem to care for them-- at least, they weren’t as clever or perceptive as anything her dear Emily would say. Emily was the daughter of a professor in Florida, she was planning to be a lawyer, she volunteered for multiple charities, so basically, compared to Emily Abrams, Amy Matviya was Nobody. It was simply frustrating to go into that classroom, having read such an interesting story the night before and having lots of unusual insights about it to share, and then be given the impression that your insights didn’t count for much. I felt ignored and misunderstood and maybe a little overworked... but up until April at least I thought I had some clue what was going on.

Then, about the same time the April snow hit, I realized I was completely lost. I’d been under the impression that I was supposed to be analyzing literature, and so I did, but as it turned out I was supposed to be analyzing literature in the several specific ways Kraszewski told us to. There were seven or eight very specific types of criticisms that looked at each poem or story in particular, well-defined ways. Over the course of the semester, I’d been noticing that I wasn’t getting the same things out of the stories when I dug into them as the others were getting out of them --Kraszewski, for instance, could get something sexual out of anything-- and I figured that was all right, I’ve just got a different way of looking at things... but then, we started getting graded for our analyses-- and I wasn’t getting credit for “a different way of looking at things.” I was supposed to be seeing what everyone else was seeing. And I had absolutely no idea how they were doing it!

“Okay, if I’m doing Deconstructionism,” I’d ask Tracie, “do I take one term that could be looked at in opposite ways or do I find two different things-- that contrast-- but then don’t--” “Yes,” she’d say. I’d stare at my torn-down analysis-- “but that’s what I did. I think...”. As soon as I thought I’d gotten the gist of a criticism, I’d find out I was all wrong! I’d ask Tracie again and again to explain what I was missing, but she couldn’t. I even asked Emily Abrams once, but she didn’t know how to explain either. “That class is far too taxing,” she added. Oh boy! If the teacher’s pet was stressed out, too, what help was there for me? I have never been good at studying, having relied on my ability to pick things up the first time they were taught; but for this class I poured over every book we had, every note, every reading assignment. I read and reread each and every description of each criticism, I pondered the examples we’d been given-- but I still could not make a bit of sense out of any of it. Why couldn’t I get it? What was I doing wrong?

And then it was time to start work on our final paper, an in-depth analysis of one of the stories listed in the syllabus. I poured over all the selections, trying to decide which one I had some hope of writing a whole paper on; I finally chose Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat,” thinking I could do a pretty interesting psychoanalytical critique of the antagonist. I worked and worked to try to make it a really good paper, and it took a long time, but I was rather pleased with my final result-- that is, the paper I was giving some of my classmates to peer edit. But when I got their responses back next class, it appeared I had messed up again. I didn’t know what I was doing. All my peer editors had written that they didn’t understand what I was trying to prove in the paper at all. I’d had enough experience with peer editing in Core to know that that was not necessarily a death sentence for the paper, so I handed my paper to Kraszewski and asked if she’d look over it to tell me what I was doing wrong. She handed it back and said I’d have to come in during her office hours and talk to her then.

I was such a complete loser, I thought, kicking the chair beside me at breakfast directly after that. Why couldn’t I do anything right in that class? I was an ENGLISH major, I’d always been the language-arts-y sort, this was the stuff I DID, studying stories, I was supposed to be GOOD at it, so why was everything I did WRONG? I guess maybe I just THINK differently than everyone else, I’m not cynical enough, too childish, and I always have to respond MY way, even when I THINK I’m doing it from the perspective of whatever stupid criticism we’re supposed to be using, I must be just STUPID STUPID STUPID and I’ll never do anything right.... Then out of nowhere a scene from my favorite book, A Wrinkle in Time, popped into my head-- I’d read and reread that book so many times since fourth grade that I knew it inside out, having felt oddly just like Meg for most of my life. I was feeling ever so Meg-like at the moment, but nothing had actually reminded me of the book; yet this scene popped into my head, clear as day: the scene where Mrs. Whatsit tells Meg that as her gift for battling evil, “I give you your faults.” It was like Mrs. Whatsit was talking right to ME. It was strangely comforting-- and puzzling. My faults? My childishness and inability to follow a proper critique format, you mean? Well, maybe in the long run, in the battle of good and evil, maybe those things might be useful, if only they wouldn’t give me so much trouble in class-- but I did feel a little better, thinking that.

[Saturday morning I] worked at a booth [at the local public library's literacy fair] where kids got to draw on their own goody bags, and what a fun time we had, coloring and joking with the kids! I thought how at home I felt doing this sort of thing, talking to kids and coloring pictures and --working at the library fair! I thought back on the words of the Mrs. Whatsit in my head- “I give you your faults”-- well here they were, they were being useful: I wasn’t really childish, I was just more intuned to the world of children than that of grown-ups, and so I was particularly good with kids; and maybe I wasn’t following the exact critique formats and things easily, but that was sort of like not coloring inside the lines. The paper goody-bags didn’t have lines, you just colored whatever your imagination wanted to-- and I’d been pretty good at that, too. I wasn’t a total loser here-- in fact, this was where I excelled. Oh, why ever did I have to know how to do those strict, uncreative, systematized and formulated old Literary Criticisms if I wanted to be a CHILDREN’S LIBRARIAN?

I finally got to Kraszewski’s office late Monday afternoon, and she told me to wait while she finished talking to a girl who was there before me. I couldn’t tell what sort of help that girl needed from Kraszewski-- they seemed almost to just be chatting. I waited and waited, as Kraszewski talked and talked to that girl. I pulled a book that looked interesting off the shelf I stood by-- it was about the Analysis of song lyrics; I flipped to the chapter on the 1960s and poured over the pages where the authors pulled apart Beatles songs, word by word, taking a few words here and a few letters there until You see of COURSE, the authors stated without a hint of compromise, Therefore THIS is exactly what this song really means. I stopped myself from guffawing in disgust, snapped the book shut and stuck it back on the shelf. I’d been studying the Beatles for the past four years; I’d heard the real stories behind the writing of those songs, I knew where each lyric had come from, I knew what those songs really meant. These Literary people had merely taken the words on the surface and torn them out of context so that they could take their own meanings out of it-- and then they had the nerve to say that THAT was what the song really meant. What did they know? It’s really no wonder, I thought, why I have so much trouble in this class. I have no respect for Literary Analysis as an institution.

I glanced at my watch and wished she’d hurry-- I needed so much help and I wanted to be home in time to meet the others for dinner. Finally, finally the other girl left and Kraszewski asked, “is there something you need?”
I just need HELP, I said, handing her my paper. “I just don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” I said.

She glanced over it again. “The problem with this paper is that you don’t appear to be using ANY of the types of Criticisms we learned about.”

“How not? I thought I was; that’s why I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong!”
“What Criticism did you think you were using?”

She shook her head and tsk-tsked. “This isn’t psychoanalytical.”

It WASN’T? It was a freakin’ in-depth character study of every neurosis and quirk and dream the stupid guy had! “Then what kind of criticism IS it?” I pleaded.

It WASN’T, was her response, and then she tried to reexplain to me what psychoanalytical criticism was, repeating ardently all the examples she’d already used in class. I could not see what my paper was doing wrong from this, but somehow she expected me to. So she tried to explain the other forms of criticism, but I just kept getting more confused and frustrated and tears came to my eyes before I could stop them. “I still don’t understand what I’m doing wrong!”

She thrust a Kleenex in my direction, but snapped, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.” As if that’d make me feel better. “There’s absolutely no call for blubbering. You’ve been to class every day, you should know all of this” --and I did, I had all her stupid examples memorized, could I USE them was the question-- “you just need to Try Harder. You were in class today to look at the superb example Emily Abrams wrote--”

I must’ve snorted or something there because she raised her eyebrows— “Emily Abrams’s papers are usually perfect, aren’t they?” I elaborated.
She either didn’t catch the bitterness, or she didn’t care. “Emily Abrams is a good model for everyone who presumes to be an English major,” she said.

I stared at the clock as she talked some more about exactly why this was. Already six-o’clock and the only thing we’d discovered was that I was infinitely inferior to Emily Abrams. I stared at my paper for a minute, lying forlornly on the corner of the desk, then shoved it in my bookbag. “Do you have a clearer idea now where you’re headed?” she asked cheerfully.
“A little,” I lied, standing up. “I’d better be going to dinner now.”
“Oh well, enjoy your dinner,” she told me. “Thanks,” I said.

I slouched off to Whitmyre feeling altogether crappy. As I approached my own wing I looked up and saw Bongi ahead of me in the hall. “Going to come to dinner?” he called. I tried quickly to straighten up and dry my eyes.

“Of course,” I said lightly, but Bongi peered at me and said, “Everything all right?”
I sighed. “Well, I just came back from a terribly unproductive meeting with a professor and I still don’t know what to do and oh--” Bongi wrapped me in a bear hug and said, “Oh we know the feeling. You’ll be all right.”

The others were coming around the corner to join us then, and Becca Cerio, having caught the gist of the conversation, joined in the hug and told me, “Just relax and come to dinner with us now and we’ll forget about school until later. Now we go for food?”-- and swept up in the dinner crowd I felt-- well, very loved, and much, much better.

But the next time I sat down to work on my paper-- which was later that evening-- I felt stupider than ever. I stared and stared at that paper but couldn’t think of a thing I could to. After I had stared and stared and fretted and stared for at least a half-hour, Tracie suggested I start again from scratch-- just to do something productive. So I pulled out a blank sheet and started jotting down ideas-- maybe I’d try Marxist criticism, since I actually sometimes managed to hit on the things everyone else was getting when I did Marxist criticism. Then I stared at the few ideas I’d come up with and realized, none of these were any good! I shoved the papers aside and kicked at my dresser, whimpering.

Tracie told me to go to bed. “I can’t!” I wailed, “I have too much to DO!”

“But are you doing any of it?” I went to bed.

But every spare moment of the next day I sat and stared at my paper. Every so often I’d write a few words, then scratch them out. NOTHING I did would work. I was so worked up about needing to get this done that I couldn’t do it! “There are two kinds of stress,” I reviewed to myself, “the one kind motivates you to get the job done. The other kind just gets you so tense that it immobilizes you, so you CAN’T get the job done, which just gives you more stress, which in turn immobilizes you even more, which gives you MORE stress, and...

“AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I scribbled across the paper. It didn’t help. I’d become PARALYZED BY SELF-DOUBT-- which was a line I remembered Bill Nye saying on TV once. Of course, he’d been talking about snakes and how they are NOT paralyzed-by-self-doubt, and move along effortlessly even though they don’t have legs. I tried to see how this could apply to my situation, but couldn’t. I lay back and rubbed my eyes. All I really want to do right now, I thought, is sleep. Sleep and sleep ...and ever so slowly wither away... and people will come and say What’s wrong with her? but I will just mutter something incoherent and they’ll all say Oh no it’s too late! but I will just sleep... and slowly wither away and die... and then won’t she feel sorry, oh yeah, won’t she feel just rotten... OH for Pete’s Sakes! I ran downstairs.

“I need psychological help!” I burst out to Rick [Assistant Director of our Honors dorm, and kind of an all-purpose counselor].
He just sort of raised his eyebrows and said, “Is it anything I could help you with?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I sighed, “that’s why I’m coming to you, because I don’t KNOW who can help me. Maybe I’m beyond help.” I ranted about my troubles for awhile, how I was paralyzed by self-doubt, and he offered me some advice, so I thanked him and ran off to see if I could get any more done with my paper. I ran back and forth from my Lit work to Rick’s office several times for a couple days, just trying to somehow harness the stress.

“Is it possible, do you know, for a learning disability to suddenly develop in post-adolescence?” I demanded of him suddenly the next afternoon, for instance.
The question was really only one of my ravings, but he pondered it seriously for a second, and said, “Actually, since there are a lot of chemical imbalances still settling in, say, a 19 year old ... actually, such a thing could happen. But either way the problem can be solved just by looking at it differently. Listen, there are people over the counseling center in Clark Hall, they’d know these things better than I would. But you’d probably have a hard time getting an appointment-- they’re pretty booked right now, with finals coming.” I pondered for a minute, then thanked him for his support, and ran back upstairs to see if I could accomplish anything now.

“But I’m stressed and confused about so MANY things, actually,” I said the next evening, same time same place.

“Like what?”

“Like I need to change my major from regular English to English Ed because I want to be a CHILDREN’S librarian instead of just any librarian and I hear it’s better if you’re ed for that and I MEANT to change it a long time ago--”

“English Ed.” He made a face. Rick had been English Ed, I remembered then, and he hadn’t liked it much. “If you want my honest opinion you’d be better off in that case forgetting English and going El Ed. You can have a concentration in English if you want.”

I was floored. That was an option that I had never thought to consider. “You really think I can DO that? Change my major so drastically?”

“Better now than at the end of your junior year,” he said. “Either way I suggest you go down to the College of Education Office in Stouffer and find out what you need to do from them, the sooner the better.”

I went up to my room and thought about that for awhile. Change my major? NOT be an ENGLISH major? But I WAS an English major, I’d been planning to be an English major even before I ever thought of looking for colleges! I’d always scoffed at the statistics that said however-large percent of college students end up changing their majors, because I knew what I wanted to be, I wanted to be an English major! But then again, here I was in a real English-major class and I hated it. I did terribly and I didn’t think that way at all. If I was in Elementary Education, though, my faults, as Mrs. Whatsit would put it, would be assets. I’d be studying the things I’m interested in, studying the sorts of stories I’d always loved best, and ... and I’d get to study so many things besides English, too! I’d get to study science and history and art and music ... and I could be a librarian in an elementary school... or even... I could even be an actual teacher, I could teach a Gifted class like the one I’d been in in elementary school, where we invented things and wrote stories and solved mysteries and all sorts of things, and I could tie in music and history and science and everything and I would teach the kids that they could be whatever they wanted to be. They didn’t have to be a doctor or lawyer or the President just because everyone thought they should be, and they didn’t have to be a Nothing if they thought they weren’t good at anything either, because they WERE good at something, and I could encourage whatever that Something was that was their special talent, and, and-- this is what I’d always wanted to be! This is exactly what I’d always wanted to be, all along! Why had I never realized it before?

Dramatic as this sounds, I didn’t immediately go racing down to Stouffer Hall to get my major changed. I was still a little confused and scared and did not want to decide anything yet. After all, the classes I needed to graduate with an El Ed degree were ENTIRELY different than the ones I’d needed as an English major, or even an English Ed major-- or any other major. This was ANOTHER confusing thing that I needed to do! I sent my dad an email, saying I was considering changing my major... and wondered what he’d think. Why, EVERYONE knew me as an English major, wouldn’t they be SHOCKED if I decided to be something else? But I mulled and pondered and got used to the idea, and when my dad wrote back to me the next day I was actually surprised: in a short, hardly-discernible-from-the-rest-of-the-long-email paragraph he commented that he thought the major change sounded like a very good idea-- he always knew I’d be good at working with children. Well really. Everyone else had known me better than I had, I guess. And with that I didn’t give the matter another thought. I WAS an Elementary Ed major. I had been all along.

The funny thing is, and little did I know, but Emily Abrams was in the process of changing her major, too-- to special education. I guess Mrs. Kraszewski didn’t know so much about what made a Perfect English Major after all.


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