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English 302, Winter 2010

Assignments and Updates


See also: Blackboard

(for help with close-reading, try: Thumb-plunging, or the Art of Literary Noticing. You'll need some sign-in info to access this link--remind me to send you all a note with that info in it.)

This is the Assignments and Updates Page. All assignments, and all updates to earlier assignments, will be posted here, beginning with the most recent first.

This is the most up-to-date information available on this website. Please check this page frequently throughout the quarter!!

February 3:

Reading: No new reading for today. The first hour will be spent on review; the second hour will be spent taking Part 1 of the Midterm.

Writing: First, be sure to bring a blue/green book and something with which you can write clearly and legibly. Second, bring your Key Word/Term exercise. Your job is to help in the general class project of putting together a set of key terms from readings and classroom conversation to this point in the course. So. As you go back through Plato, Aristotle, Arnold, Brooks, Barthes and Radway to study for the midterm, select your nomination from each for its KEY key term. In your writing briefly define each of your nominations and give a sentence explaining each one's importance.

That will be a total of 6 key terms. My definition of key terms? Those words or phrases from a given piece of critical theory which, when fully understood, capture the "What" of the piece along with its "So What." (If you have forgotten what I mean by the "What" and the "So What," re-read "Five Principles for Reading Difficult Texts" on the Blackboard.)

February 1:

Reading: Janet Radway, "Introduction" to A Feeling for Books. (On electronic reserve. To access, download and print it for yourself, click here.)

Writing: Pay special attention in your reading of Radway to the first whole paragraph on page 204 (beginning "It is essential.....") and the second whole paragraph on page 209 (beginning "The tension...."). Write for ONE of these paragraphs a paragraph of your own in which you describe as specifically as you can how Radford's argument is a turn-taking in a conversation you have already been following in Arnold and Barthes. What issues that we've seen in one or both of those two writers are taken up here? What positions do you see Radford alluding to from her predecessors? does she adopt earlier positons, or extend them? or modify them? or reject them?

January 27:

Reading: Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author." (On electronic reserve. To access, download and print it for yourself, click here.) As you read Barthes, but after reading the paragraph below under Writing (just below this paragraph), you might also want to read, or re-read, "Five Principles for Reading Difficult Texts" on the Blackboard.

Writing: This piece is quite short, but most people find it challenging (or worse!) on their first reading. It truly is a classic of "theory," both in terms of the argument it makes about the nature of literary discourse and literary commentary, and in terms of its rhetorical stance of ironic transgression. Part of its effect follows from Barthes' use of aphoristic passages. These are sentences that seem a little paradoxical, or even contradictory. An early example: "[W]riting is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin." 253 Normal people don't talk that way--and even to people who have read a lot of literature, it's not at all obvious what it would mean to say "writing is the destruction of every voice." Many of Barthes' first readers simply dismissed his way of talking as gobble-de-gook, but in fact, once you've sorted out some of his beliefs about language and reading, they do in fact make sense. The problem is that Barthes writes as if sentences like this are perfectly sensible, yet like most readers anywhere, most of you will find many of these more than a little mystifying.

So I'd like you to show me how far you can get with a couple of them. I've posted on the Blackboard a set of twelve aphoristic passages from Barthes' essay--some just one sentence long, some two or three sentences long. Once you have read the essay, pick TWO of these passages from the whole (one from the first six, and one from the second six) that you think might be particularly "key" moments in B's argument. Explain first what you think each means, and second, what you can imagine someone would find difficult to understand about the claim the sentence(s) make. Finally, explain as best you can for each why you think it could be thought important. (Don't worry about being highly successful at this--the point is to have you become at least preliminary experts on at least two ideas you encounter in the text.)

January 25:

Reading: Cleanth Brooks, "Irony as a Principle of Structure." On electronic reserve. To access, download and print it for yourself, click here. (You'll need your UW id, and to click Accept on the copywrite page.)

Writing: Brooks' first sentence sets out a general "WHAT" for the piece:

"One can sum up modern poetic technique by calling it the rediscovery of metaphor and the full commitment to metaphor."

He then goes on to explain how this means that poetry's meaning depends upon particulars--i.e., specific details. He then says that this means that poetry works by "indirection"--it doesn't tell you exactly what it means, but rather only suggests it, or implies it. Poetry gives its readers metaphors, not meanings. It is we, the readers, who put those metaphors together.

He then finishes his setting up of his argument by introducing the importance of "context" in interpreting the metaphors a poem (or novel, for that matter) gives us. For any metaphor, or set of details, exists in a particular situation--a context. He gives the example of a line from Shakespeare's King Lear that OUT of context would be terrible poetry:

Never, never, never, never, never.


In context, however, this line is, Brooks says, one of Shakespeare's most poignant lines. For Lear says it as the play is near its end, and as he carries in the corpse of his daughter Cordelia. The line, with its context, reads:

No, no, no life! [i.e., Cordelia is dead]
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

What makes it so poignant a line then? Because in this context you see that all those nevers are ways of measuring how desperate and terrifyingly sad this death is. It is as if Lear has finally run out of words, and in mental and physical exhaustion just repeats that same sad word over and over and over again.

I won't go on about this line, but Brooks' point is that for interpretation you need both particulars, on one hand, and the context in which they occur on the other. As he puts it: "The context endows the particular word or image or statment with significance."

What's more, you can see context and word/image/statement as in some degree in conflict, or tension, and that conflict or tension creates a kind of irony, and that, he goes on to say, is a "principle of structure" in literary texts.

The rest of the essay is made up of a series of examples. We'll look in class most carefully at what he does with the second of the Wordsworth poems--"A slumber did my spirit seal." He gives you there a pretty much perfect example of a New Critical "close reading"--showing how you can see much more in this poem than the mere simple words alone would allow.

And--the Big Point now--what Brooks has done is to explain what Matthew Arnold only pointed at. This poem, like one of Arnold's Classics, has a high seriousness and truth to it, Arnold might say, but he wouldn't show you how. Instead he just gives you a list of exemplary touchstones.

Brooks, by contrast, shows you exactly how this poem becomes an interesting and powerful piece of art, and he does so at length, paying attention to what Arnold would have called truth and substance, and manner and style, and pointing out exactly where the poetic use of language in a specific context generates meaning.

As we said in class last time, then, one way to explain the So What of Brooks' work is to see it as working out a concrete method by which one could explain what makes a poem "great"--or, if not great, at least interesting. If Arnold sets out a project for the study of poetry, and envisions it as something that any and all should be taught, Brooks (and other new critics like him) develop a language and a method for interpreting and judging texts. Arnold points at poems and says, "Classic!" Brooks points at poems, and says, "Here is how to explain what the art and value of this poem is." And then he shows you exactly that.

Writing: For your response paper, once you've figured out as best you can how Brooks' "method" works, go EITHER to the first paragraph of "Boys and Girls," or to one of the Arnold touchstones we looked at in class (either the Hamlet or the Milton), and "interpret" the lines/paragraph as best you can by using Brooks' "principle of irony." Think in terms of particulars, or metaphors, and context, and the contrasts and tensions they create.

If this is totally confusing, then write instead about what you find confusing about Brooks' argument (!). Pick a particular sentence or paragraph that confuses, and then explain each of three things:

1. Explain as clearly as you can what you DO understand in the sentence or paragraph,
2. then explain as clearly as you can what it is you don't understand or what doesn't make sense to you, and then finally,
3. explain what your best guess is about how the confusion you describe could be resolved.

(Remember that the single criterion for a successful response paper is not correctness, but ECI.)

January 20:

Reading: Arnold, The Study of Poetry (Click on link for text).

Writing: This is a very famous piece of theoretical criticism, one of a number Arnold wrote which established him as something like the founder of modern literary criticism. Many trace back to Arnold much of what 20th century readers thought the practice of criticism was. I've given you twelve paragraphs of an essay that's about twice that size. Here's what Hazard Adams, in Critical Theory Since Plato, says in introducing readers to the piece:

"Arnold is fond of terms like poetic truth and high seriousness.... His method in 'The Study of Poetry' is not to define these terms but instead to offer poetic examples of them--'touchstones.' These touchstones can be as short as a single line. Like several of his Romantic predecessors, Arnold thinks not so much of the quality of a poem as a whole as he does of the presence of an undefinable poetry quality somewhere in a poem. There is no discursively expressible standard for these touchstones, and the catch-all evaluative term high seriousness is not explained. An educated reader [that would be YOU!] is supposed to sense the presence of high seriousness. The critical power grows as the result of a liberal education. Sound critical judgments are made by educated people, not by those who make a mindless application of principle or method."

Adams goes on: "Arnold's point [is] that one must finally depend on the developed taste and erudition of the critic. [In an earlier essay] Arnold speaks of 'judging' as the critic's business," where that judging (in Arnold's own words) must be 'judgment which almost insensibly forms itself in a fair and clear mind, along with fresh knowldge.'" (pp. 585-6)

I don't know if that will make a lot of immediate sense for you, but that's ok because we will take as our challenge for our next meeting the figuring out of what we CAN make sense of in this piece!

So: for your writing, here, first is a list of "Key Terms" one could make for Arnold. Having read Arnold's essay, pick three terms from that list and 1) define them, and 2) Explain as best you can what it is that you think makes them "key."

Some Arnoldian Key Terms/Phrases:

"truth and seriousness"; "diction and movement"; classic; charlatanism; "forming, sustaining, delighting"; touchstones.

January 13:

Reading: Aristotle's Poetics (selection). (The required reading is posted to the Blackboard page.)

Writing: Aristotle was a philosopher just as much as Plato, but he seems to have been less threatened by the existence of other arts (perhaps because he actually had a pretty good day job as the tutor to Alexander the Great!). He also takes a very different tack in the way he engages poetry. Where Plato combatively argues, through Socrates, that poetry is hopelessly compromised both by its distance from truth and (particularly in The Republic, where he pretty much entirely bans poetry) by its dependence upon emotion over reason, Aristotle sees poety as a phenomenon to investigate and, insofar has he can, explain. In these sections from the Poetics Aristotle defines "tragedy," and in doing so provides both a mimetic and a pragmatic theory for it. For your response paper, pick what you take to be three KEY TERMS in Aristotle's explication of tragedy, define clearly what exactly each of them means, and explain what you think makes your term particularly worth paying attention to.

January 11:

Reading: Plato, the Ion. You can find a link to the Ion on the Blackboard page.

Writing: Plato uses the dialogue form for his philosophy, which on the one hand tends to make his work more readable, but on the other hand also makes some of his points a little less obvious. (Darn!) The major issue in this dialogue concerns truth and who, between poetry and philosophy, has the best bead on it. I talked in class about the Ion on Monday and Wednesday; I explained that Ion was a "rhapsode"--not a poet himself, but a man who made his living by expert reciting and explaining of the great poets (in Ion's case, his Great Poet is Homer). So in taking shots at Ion Socrates is technically taking shots at the performing of poetry--not poetry itself. But still, as Socrates critiques Ion, he also manages to indict poetry as a whole.

Your task for Tuesday: Locate the stretch in the Ion in which you think Socrates makes his most effective case again the poet. Explain what his argument is and how it extends beyond the mere performance of poetry to the art of poetic creation as well. Finally, imagine how you might refute Socrates' claims. Ion turns out not to be the brightest bulb in the room, but if he had been brighter by a few watts, what might he have said back?

January 6:

Reading: Munro, "Boys and Girls" (click here for text), AND: Syllabus Quiz. Prepare for this by reading thoroughly the material on the Course Description page.

Writing: Once you have read Munro's story, make some notes to yourself about what you think it's about. Then write a response paper on the following topic:

Suppose one of your friends has signed up for her first literature class ever at the UW. She's been asked to read this story, and her professor has asked the whole class to write a short paper in which she comments on the story. She is petrified since she doesn't really know what it is people do when they do English! But she knows that you have taken a class or two, and she knows, too, that you have also read this story. So she calls you up and says, "Help! I'm already lost. What am I supposed to do with this story? How do I come up with something to say?"

How would you answer her question? First give her two or three examples of something you yourself might say about this story, and then go on to suggest some ways through which she might be better able to come up with ideas of her own.

Remember Don't Be Afraid of a Response Paper! I'm not looking for brilliance here, though I'm happy if I find it. Rather, the sole criterion for these papers is "ECI"--Engaged Critical Intelligence. So if you aren't sure what you are doing, don't worry. I want to see how far you can get on this on your own--that will make it easier to work out effective ways of helping you with this quarter's reading material.