Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Literature Assignments

I've been receiving emails from some participants asking for 'tips' on answering the PGCTE literature assignments; so rather than write separate emails to everyone, I'm putting up here some suggestions that all of you might find useful.

To start with, here's a comment on the About page of this blog:
I had received a comment from the evaluator after grading one of my literature papers - "its more of a summary than interpretation". 

To be able to explain the evaluator's comment "more of a summary than interpretation", I'd have to read the answers in the assignment, but perhaps some of you have received similar comments on one or more of your assignments? This is a rather common issue in the assignments we receive for this course— the tendency to provide plot summaries/poem paraphrases  and author biographies as (or instead of!) answers. Notice that your assignments ask you to comment on a specific aspect of a poem/play/novel, or to interpret it in a certain manner; you will never get a question asking you to summarize a novel or to narrate the life-history of its author! So your answers should focus on the question.

Of course it's not easy to say what a 'good interpretation' of a poem/play/novel should be—any more than it is to say what a good poem/play/novel is! There is an element of subjectivity in both. So then is it possible to give a step-by-step procedure, a manual, on how to write analyses/ interpretations of literature?

In the course material, you would have seen that for each genre (poetry, fiction, drama) we have attempted to provide some broad parameters, a framework, for analyzing a piece in that genre. For instance, the Block on drama gives you an Aristotelian framework for analyzing a play. Now, you may think that Aristotle is outdated, but the elements of this framework are still relevant today: in reading a play, we unravel its plot/narrative (mythos); we analyze the way in which language  is used by the characters and the playwright (lexis); we try and relate the events and/or theme(s) in the play to the age and culture in which it is set (ethos); we look at how the stage settings and presentation of the play might affect our response to it (opsis); and finally we want to be able to say what effect the play has on us, what ideology/message it seems to convey (dianoia).  Right? Similarly the Block on poetry describes a set of parameters that you can use to analyze and interpret a poem: the diction and syntax of a poem, its rhythmic patterns, imagery, etc. These are the tools with which you are expected to interpret a piece of literature.  The best way to check for yourself whether you have understood these tools is to try them out in a text.  Pick up a play, read it, and then see if you can locate in it the elements of the framework provided in the Block on drama. Merely reading the course material is not going to make you 'adept' at interpreting literature. You must test your understanding with a variety of texts. 

Now, regarding how to write your answers. Every discipline has its own conventions/style format when it comes to writing. That's why we speak of legal writing, scientific writing, journalistic writing, creative writing, etc. Writing essays/answers in literature also requires a certain style, format, and perhaps even jargon (for higher, research-level essays). In the arts and humanities disciplines, the style most commonly used is the MLA Style based on the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers and the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing in Literature. You can read about them here. This style manual is also available as a book (with the same name) which you can purchase in any good bookstore.

And here are some reliable websites with useful guidelines for writing in literature: 

You'll find in these sites plenty of useful tips on how to write literature answers/essays. Do go through them and tell me what you think. 

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