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  • History on the Cheap: Using the Online Archive to Make Historicists out of Undergrads
  • Christopher Hanlon (bio)

Here are two qualities I want to find in every student essay written for one of my literature courses:

  1. 1. I want my students' essays to identify a real problem, not something like "Does Hawthorne use symbolism in his story 'Young Goodman Brown?'" or "What does the color blue signify in Faulkner's 'A Rose for Emily'?" or "When Frederick Douglass writes that his spirit triumphed over slavery, is he right?" or some other nonissue pitched to some imaginary reader who likes to spend his weekends begging the question. I want the essay to identify a real problem because I want to be compelled to read onward, not dragged through the essay like Hector being dragged by Achilles around the city of Troy because, like Hector, I waited too long to run in the other direction.

  2. 2. Besides being interested, I want to get the feeling, while I'm reading my students' essays, that the writer is possessed of something like specialized knowledge. I'm not saying I expect the essay to sound like the latest monograph by Wai-chee Dimock, but I am saying I'd like my students to pursue their real problems in ways that suggest this is after all a field of inquiry for which the special training we offer is worth something.

So clearly I've started off on a tear here, but never mind—there are all kinds of reasons only a few of my students can write what I'm looking for, and I've come to believe that the principal three are these:

  1. 3. For one thing, my students don't know enough. If students don't know [End Page 97] anything about the period during which Twain wrote Huck Finn, or if they don't know much about how to read psychoanalytically, or if they don't know anything about feminism, or deconstruction, or empire, or queer theory, and so on—if they don't know anything about any of these specialized frames of reference or the others like it that constitute our field—then they've got basically two options before them. They can (a) write a diaristic response to the text that narrates how reading it made them feel, or they can (b) attempt a "close reading"—"just you and the text," as some of my colleagues like to say. Which brings me to my second reason most literature undergrads can't do what I want them to:

  2. 4. Close reading gets anyone only so far. I wasn't the kind of graduate student who thrilled in denouncing the New Critics for advocating attention to things like structure, irony, and ambiguity within the well-wrought text standing apart from history, ideology, and biography, but neither have I ever had much patience for those who regard close reading as the corrective to an excess of theory in the classroom. Of course there are fabulous close readings waiting to be done, but let's face it: it's the very, very rare student who can sit down with a poem, short story, play, or novel without any specialized critical training and pull off something actually worth showing anyone other than their mother or their literature professor. Or rather, I think that those who do do such things aren't really doing it at all, that they're in fact relying on all kinds of critical tools that lie outside the New Critical vacuum, all kinds of theory. Not acknowledging these conceptual tools—failing to render them thematic, in fact—mystifies the practices we want our students to adopt.

  3. 5. The last reason most students can't write the kind of essay I'd like to see is that many of their professors (me included) often trick them into writing something else by providing them with a sheet of paper upon which are inscribed three or four questions-in-the-form-of-a-paragraph. I'm sure most of us can quote from our own versions of such "prompts." And I might confess I enjoy writing them. They give me a chance to work through...


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