Category Archives: prompts

Blog Post 5: Deforming the Text

Literary texts are the results of choices on the parts of authors, and with each of those choices, the author chooses against a nearly infinite series of other possibilities. In this post, I’d like you to change a passage from the text at hand in order to explore  the text as the possibility finally chosen by an author.

This exercise comes largely from Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels’s essay on “Deformance and Interpretation.” In that essay, they propose “deformance” as a way to explore texts. They make transformations—isolating the nouns in a text, isolating the verbs, reversing the order of words in it, changing key terms in it, erasing lines from it—in order to think about why an author might have chosen to write the text in the way she did.

So, for this post: (1) choose a passage from the text at hand; (2) transform it in some significant way; and (3) explain what, if anything, the new text reveals about the original text you’re working with.

So, for example, I might deform “The Red Wheelbarrow” by reversing the order of its stanzas:

beside the white

glazed with rain

a red wheel

so much depends

And then write about what’s different about the resulting “poem,” and what that difference says about the original. Or, I could isolate the nouns in “In a Station of the Metro” to think about the way nouns work in it:

Station Metro

apparition faces crowd
Petals bough

The idea is that you playfully change something, then explore what the change tells us about the resulting passage and the original passage.

Short Blog Post 4

In blog posts 1, 2, and 3, we focused on self-contained analysis of passages from the texts at hand. In blog post 4, we’ll begin thinking about some of these texts in relation to each other.

Select a short passage from the text at hand, and connect it/compare it to a passage from a text we’ve already read. You can use this comparison to look at how two authors deal with a similar theme/concept/idea, or you can use it to get more precisely to what makes an author’s style distinctive. The point of comparison is up to you–you might want to think about how, say, Faulkner begins a story in comparison to how Welty does, or how Williams conceives of a line of poetry  in comparison to Ginsberg.

By comparing the passage at hand to one from another author/text, you might well get a better sense of what is distinctive about both authors/texts.

Close Reading Essay

In the short blog posts, our class has done an admirable job of zeroing in on specific evidence from the texts we have been reading. Our focus so far has been on close reading, the basic evidence of literary analysis.

For the longer close reading essay, select one of the texts we have read and use the kind of close textual analysis you’ve been doing in the blog posts to offer a more sustained interpretation/reading of that text. “Close reading” is an important skill, but we usually don’t just close read for it’s own sake. We usually do so to argue for a specific reading of the text.

Just like in an ENWR paper, literary papers should have claims and make arguments. One way to make sure you have a contestable claim in your paper is to ask an interpretive question of the text, then answer it. We’ve asked questions throughout the semester, for example:

  • Why does Langston Hughes name specific rivers in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and how do those rivers add to the meaning of the poem?
  • Why does Hemingway so frequently use negative/understated language (“comfortably,” “painless”) to depict a scene of painful agony?
  • What does “the real” mean in Henry James’s “The Real Thing”?
  •  How does Stein’s repetitive style shape the meaning of “The Gentle Lena”?
  • What depends on a “red wheel / barrow”?

Don’t answer one of these questions in specific, but design a question that gets at similar problems of interpretation. Identify the question your paper is answering at the start of your post. Ground your argument in close readings of a few passages from the text, and show how those passages offer evidence for an argument.

For more guidance on how to write a strong literary analysis paper, the resources at the English Department’s “Grounds for Argument” site might be useful to you. These lessons are geared toward literature classes (as opposed to ENWR classes) in particular:

Your essay should be ~1000 words, and it should be posted to the blog by 10 p.m. on Wednesday, March 19. After it’s posted, you’ll get feedback from me and from some classmates, and you’ll have an opportunity to revise if you wish.

Recording Your Pecha Kucha

Part of the student expert assignment involves recording your p-k and either posting it yourself or sending it to me so I can post it.

If you have the most recent version of Powerpoint for Windows, these are the instructions you should follow. It can take a little while to encode the video once you’re done, but the product you’re looking for is a .wmv video. It’s not clear to me whether you need to click to advance each slide with this method… if you do, it’s not a big deal if you’re not precisely within the 20-second timeframe for each slide.

On a Mac, you should use Quicktime’s built-in Screen Recording feature to record your Powerpoint. Get your presentation ready to go, and follow the instructions here.  Make sure you’ve set the audio input (the little upside-down triangle on the right-hand side) to “Internal Microphone,” or whatever microphone you’re using.

Short Blog Post 3, Weeks of 2/17 and 2/24

In short blog posts 1 and 2, you selected increasingly localized parts of a text to think about, first a single line/sentence and then a single word. In blog post 3, you’ll still select some small part of the text to think about (a word, a phrase, 1-3 lines of poetry, a sentence, a rhyme pair, etc.), but you’ll do so to make some point about the form or style of the text at hand.

Form is often opposed to (and interlinked with) content in literary studies. Roughly, content is “what a text says” and form is “how it says it.”

Consider these lines from Langston Hughes, for example:

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,

Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,

I heard a Negro play.

When someone talks about the immediate, literal-level content of this passage, she means what’s represented–the man playing piano, and the particular ways in which he is playing it. Figurative-level content would be similar, but it’s more about a second-level meaning of what the man playing piano represents.

When we talk about form, on the other hand, we’re considered with the way it’s put together: the alliteration on d sounds in the first line, the way the rhythmic stresses fall in each of these lines, the way the poet begins with two subordinate clauses before offering a short, simple sentence in the third line, the rhyme on tune and croon, the way “Rocking back and forth” feels like it rocks back and forth, the way the third line seems cut off compared to the first two lines. With poems, we often have very specific ways to talk about form. I might say, for example, that the second line begins with trochaic feet and ends up feeling rather iambic–a shift that might explain the rocking feeling of the sentence. For these first posts on form, however, don’t get too bogged down in the proper terminology. It’s more important to show how some formal choice adds to the meaning/experience of the poem/text.

We can talk about form in prose, too–here, the word “style” becomes useful. If you’re writing on a prose writer, you should again pick some small aspect/piece of the text and write about how it’s put together–what choices does the author make? What’s particular about her style? Style is a bit more elusive as a term–but think about how different Charles Chestnutt’s writing is from Henry James’s. That difference is in content, but it’s even more overwhelmingly in form/style.

On Pecha-Kuchas and Wallace Stevens

As we discussed in class yesterday, you’ll begin the class you lead this semester with a modified pecha-kucha presentation. Traditionally, a pecha-kucha is an image-heavy presentation in which 20 slides display for 20 seconds each as a speaker narrates them. This pecha-kucha on emotionally intelligent signage is a classic example. I said yesterday that I’m consistently proud of the p-ks my students have produced–if you want to read about why, feel free to visit this blog post from my academic blog, which also links to a number of p-ks from ENWR classes I taught last year. This fall, students in my American Modernisms course also did pecha-kuchas to explain various terms related to modernism–they’re collected here (I’m still trying to find time to get a couple of them up on the site).

In the p-ks you do this semester, you should have 10 slides devoted to contextualizing an author and 10 slides devoted to a close reading. The modification to the format, then, is mostly in the last ten slides, where you’ll emphasize specific words in a passage from the text. Once you’ve recorded it and posted it to YouTube/the blog (or had me post it to YouTube/the blog), it will look something like this.

Blog post 1 (Weeks of 1/20 and 1/27)

For the first 250-300-word blog post, you should select a single word, phrase, line, or sentence from the text you are writing about. Quote the text and cite a page number at the top of your post. Then contextualize the word in relation to the poem or story as a whole and comment on its complications, complexities, and significance. Why do you notice this word/phrase/line/sentence in particular? What multiple meanings does it convey? How is it important to the text as a whole?  

Keep in mind that your blog post should both demonstrate some worthwhile thinking about the text and help spur discussion in class the day after you post it.

As an example, here is my analysis of a sentence from Charles Chestnutt’s “The Goophered Grapevine.”

‘Possum, Chick’n, Watermillyums, en Scuppernon’s

“Now, ef dey’s an’thing a nigger lub, nex’ ter ‘possum, en chick’n, en watermillyums, it’s scuppernon’s.” (Norton p. 460)

To a modern reader, this sentence from Charles Chestnutt’s “The Goophered Grapevine” seems inescapably racist. Not only is it written in the cartoonish minstrel dialect in which Uncle Julius speaks throughout the story, it uses the taboo word “nigger” and references racist stereotypes about food that still circulate today. Uncle Julius McAdoo isn’t only a racist stereotype that harks back to other slave “Uncle” figures such as Uncle Tom and Uncle Remus, however, but also a savvy storyteller with a strong command of language. He is telling his story in hopes of dissuading the white first-person narrator from purchasing the vineyard, and he is making the rhetorical choice to invoke these stereotypes.

By bringing up these stereotypes, then, Julius is also telling his white addressee what he thinks the addressee wants to hear. That is, he hopes that by reporting these stereotypes, he can align himself with the racist perspective he assumes the white buyer holds and therefore establishes himself as worthy of that character’s trust. Chestnutt uses this character, then, less to be racist than to subvert racism, to show how Uncle Julius skillfully uses white people’s racist assumptions against them. It would be in Julius’s interest for the buyer to not buy the property, because until then he had continued to live on the property and “derived a respectable revenue from the neglected grapevines” (465). This sentence, then, shows how Chestnutt uses racism against itself: he creates a character smart enough to use his knowledge that white people will assume him to be stupid against them.