“Wait a minute, Mrs. Krulder,” one of my AP Literature and Composition students objected about a month into the fall semester. “So you’re saying we just MAKE UP the meaning of the poem?”
“Yes.” I explained, “You use ideas and patterns you notice in the text to formulate what you think the poem means.”
“But that’s just . . . just . . . b.s.!”
“O.K. . . . yes.” I agreed, “Literary analysis is b.s. that you can credibly and convincingly back up with evidence from the text.”
Ever since this conversation a few years ago, I’ve used the idea of literary analysis as b.s. with my classes every year. This seems to speak to a concept students have of what it means to “do” school successfully and it helps them break free of a misconception many of my students have fallen prey to. Students come into my class with the idea that there is a right answer to every question and to be successful, they just need to figure out what that answer is. AP students are particularly prone to this notion, I’ve found. For the most part, they’ve learned how to figure out what their teachers want and deliver it – which is what makes the type of thinking necessary for AP Literature, and any literary analysis, for that matter, so disconcerting for them.
If you’ve ever spent a period digging into a poem with a class, noticing interesting words, ideas, and patterns, and batting around themes and meaning, only to be asked by a student a few minutes before the bell rings: “So what does it REALLY mean?” you’ll understand my frustration. No matter how many times I explained to them that they are the ones who bring the meaning to a text, they didn’t seem to internalize the concept.
It doesn’t help that all too often, poems are portrayed as puzzles with hidden meaning, rather than windows and mirrors into our humanity. It’s understandable how this idea might be perpetuated, based on all of the teachers and professors we’ve listened to over the years opine on their brilliant interpretations of Eliot and Frost. And while those lectures may have been interesting (occasionally), they also had somewhat of a stultifying effect on our own fledgling attempts at developing analytical skills. After all, how could we know if our interpretations were the “right” ones – especially once we had left college and had no “experts” to consult about the correctness of our attempts at meaning?”
I’ve found that the idea of analysis as b.s. has helped my students finally understand their part in reading and thinking about a text. I’m careful to explain that “good” analysis takes time and practice like anything else – we work on the skills of making an effective argument for meaning and the important role that evidence and commentary play – something that the AP Literature curriculum is tailored to. Some “b.s.” is definitely more persuasive than others and they quickly begin to recognize this in the many discussions we hold in class over the course of the year.
It seems easier for students to think that there is a single concrete answer to the question “What does it mean?” but this is not the way literary analysis works and thank goodness! How freeing and engaging for students (and for us, as teachers) to know that the texts we read can speak to our own experiences and ideas, and that we have the power to create meaning for ourselves. As an English teacher, I can’t help but savor the irony that the concept of b.s. is one way I’ve figured out to help students arrive at their own truths.
Jori Krulder is a veteran AP teacher who teaches in paradise – literally – Paradise, California. In addition to teaching, she enjoys long bike rides, a good cup of coffee, and spending time with her family.