The Importance of Teaching Literary Analysis
Nadyja Von Ebers, English
At The Chicago Academy for the Arts, our English department is centered heavily around literature and literary analysis, which is to say: reading, interpreting, and discussing literature of many forms and genres in order to make cogent written and verbal arguments about it. As we are propelled forward into the changing landscape of the digital age, we as educators frequently assess what types of courses and objectives should be included in our English department. While there are many good arguments for teaching technical writing and composition for digital platforms, I think there are several reasons why teaching literary analysis is the hallmark of progressive and comprehensive education. I’m proud to be part of an English department that values this simultaneously classic and progressive approach to curriculum.
Literature holds up a mirror to the world
Within the Academy’s English department and school-wide, we maintain the philosophy that art is descriptive, not prescriptive. In essence, this means that literature (like most of the best art) is powerful in its ability to hold up a mirror to the world and reveal to us truths about it–however brutal or beautiful–rather than merely to preach to us. Literature worth studying is illuminating, not didactic, which allows students the ability to bear witness to realties both common to and outside of their own, and in turn, to formulate complex responses to them—a process that builds empathy and open-mindedness. For example, Richard Wright's Native Son, taught in Chicago Literature, portrays the roots of systemic racial oppression in America so honestly and vividly that students confront the subject more palpably and meaningfully than through historical, non-fiction lenses alone.
Literary analysis promotes critical thinking
Constructing a literary analysis essay requires an exploration of textual themes as presented through concrete literary devices and stylistic choices in order to develop and shape a complex argument about said themes. The process of argumentation relies on both deductive and inductive reasoning in order to arrive at multifold conclusions that are fully supported by logical evidence. In doing so, students interrogate the relationship between form and content, consider and assess multiple interpretations of text, and select and dissect convincing evidence to support highly specific interpretations. One of our goals as instructors at The Academy is to help students learn how to think, not what to think, and engaging in literary analysis provides a set of skills that are transferable to innumerable contexts within their education here and beyond.
Literary analysis fosters invaluable communication skills
Discussing literature in my class involves verbally engaging in inquiry, interpretation, and argumentation, all of which when practiced regularly lead my students to an increased ability to eloquently articulate questions and stances. Discussing literature often involves the dialectical re-patterning of statements like “I just don’t understand this” into layered and pointed questions about the text at hand; the ability to verbally reframe and work through confusion fosters problem-solving that is applicable well beyond the classroom. Moreover, essay writing also familiarizes students with a multitude of valuable conventions and expectations of written communication, regardless of venue, such as topic sentences, transitional phrases, and precise pronoun reference.
Literature is art
Part of the artist’s journey is learning not just to create art (through the acquisition, practice, and execution of technical skills), but to analyze and critique it: to truly interrogate a piece of art’s purpose and how that purpose is realized through the form-content relationship. Literature is indeed art, and I can think of no better place than in an English class to explore how the abstract is expressed through the concrete in order to demonstrate impact and consequence. Young artists often believe that making art is simply about emoting–about expressing themselves through mediums that feel good. Analyzing literature helps illustrate for students that successful art may involve self-expression, but to a greater purpose beyond the creator, whether to inform, to invoke empathy, to inspire, or simply to entertain. I consistently witness my students benefitting from literary analysis in their artistic pursuits at The Academy and I often hear them using the language of literary analysis when discussing their artistic processes. Regularly engaging in literary analysis strengthens the symbiotic relationship between arts and academic curricula and I believe that these convergences provide students at The Chicago Academy for the Arts with an unparalleled educational experience.