The art of teaching and studying literature is in one sense very simple, and yet, in another sense, complex. We might ask, is “God in the detail” or is the “Devil in the detail”? To answer such a question, it helps to remember that the idiom “God is in the detail” appeared first and holds precedence. And so it is with the study of literature: Much can be said for the importance of detail and nuance. After all, the best poems, short stories, novels, and plays achieve such status because they are filled with crafted diction (word choice), artful syntax (the arrangement of words to form sentences), detailed and memorable characters, settings, themes, and a meaningful Central One Idea (the salient idea at the heart of the work). Therefore, it is best to conduct a close reading of a text that includes an attentive study of the myriad elements and details that coalesce to convey meaning.
In order to do this, however, it is useful to have a resource to help you do it in an organized way. This is the idea, for example, behind Memoria Press’ literature guides: to give the teacher the tools to do this more easily.
Here are four reasons why this kind of resource is valuable:
1. STRUCTURE & DISCIPLINE
A Literature Guide gives structure to the ostensibly unstructured content of literature. All good classes—perhaps especially literature—need a basic or foundational curriculum that presents the facts, details, and ideas of the subject—and which calls for student interaction with this content. A classic work of literature is usually a multi-layered work of complexity, nuance, literary and rhetorical elements, a myriad of characters and themes, and a highly advanced or creative vocabulary, syntax, and style. A Guide can help order and shape the class, helping the teacher proceed through the text in proper stages, providing what to teach, when to teach it, and even how to teach it.
Save the “reading and discussion only” approach for the Oxford seminar room or the Great Books college. Let us remember that upper school precedes college. Classical education in the lower as well as the upper school should involve a lot of practice, training, and exercise. We should give our students the mental and practical tools they will need so that when they land in the college seminar, they can draw upon these tools at will to enrich their discussion and bolster their success.
A Literature Guide can easily be enrolled in the task of providing homework assignments, and indeed works outstandingly well when used for this purpose. If a teacher wishes to use class time for lecture and discussion only, then the Literature Guide can be used for challenging, substantive work to be completed at home. And a great benefit for the teacher is that all homework assignments are prepared and ready for student use.
Guided note-taking should happen through interaction with and in response to three key components: the classic work (e.g., To Kill a Mockingbird), high-quality curriculum (e.g., the Literature Guide), and excellent teaching (lecture and discussion). Students should take notes on all three components.
The Literature Guide is written in a manner that serves the classic work, and serves the lecture and class discussion. There is no competition between the Guide and the text or the Guide and the teacher. A good resource insists on preserving an important hierarchy: The classic work resides at the top, a level below is the lecture and class discussion, and below that, the Literature Guide. The Guide’s purpose is to illuminate the art, beauty, and essence of the classic work, to enhance the lecture and class discussion, and to develop student thinking and writing.
The best classes feature the dual combination of excellent teaching and excellent curriculum. The best classes almost always incorporate the use of physical curriculum such as textbooks, outlines, handouts, etc., used in conjunction with engaging, dynamic teaching.
A Literature Guide helps the teacher by including a profusion of important facts and concepts about the classic work, its context, and the author (Basic Features & Background, Reading Notes, Vocabulary, etc.) that ease the burden of research for the instructor. Because these appear in the Guide, they can be referred to often throughout the unit. For example, Memoria Press Guides feature advanced vocabulary study of words that come from the classic work itself. Without the Literature Guide, it is more difficult to do effective, contextual vocabulary study. It also contains a comprehensive list of literary and rhetorical terms defined and set in bold throughout the Guide. Without the Guide, these facts and concepts are not readily available, resulting in fewer concepts presented and learned.
4. ESSENTIAL AID
Memoria Press Guides, in combination with lectures and thoughtful class discussion, lead students through a deep, thorough study of a Great Work. Reading Notes and Basic Features & Background provide context and clarity, Comprehension Questions ensure basic foundational knowledge, and Socratic Discussion Questions facilitate deeper-level, logic-stage thinking and discussion. These questions can be answered in written form or used for verbal discussion. Moreover, the Guide features other sections such as Literary & Rhetorical Device Exercises, Personal & Subjective Discussion Questions, and Memorization & Recitation. Finally, the Guide offers a Rhetoric section that asks the student to summarize the section or the entire work, identify a central quote, and express a Central One Idea. From this work, the student is required to develop a thesis with supporting points that culminates in an analytical essay or another form of writing such as a personal essay or a poem.
The Literature Guide is a worthy investment in the details that matter, in the very substance of student formation. This eternally-significant process confirms what we know to be true, and what Arundhati Roy reminds us through her novel The God of Small Things: That there are no little things.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2017 edition