I've been tied to the analytical essay for a long time. Semester after semester, I've assigned my students to write these kinds of essays and too often been disappointed in the results. It's rare to find a student whose insights into literature are keen, yes, but it's even more rare to find a student who can write coherently and elegantly. In my work teaching a secondary English teaching methods class, I talk with my students (prospective teachers) about making writing engaging and meaningful. Yet, in my own university classes, I've held on to the analytical essay as a marker of a kind of intelligence important to an English major.
This semester, I decided to try an experiment in an upper division English class. I gave my students the option of writing a multi-genre project that analyzed one of the texts we'd studied. In multi-genre projects, writers work in a variety of genres that they combine as a way of reporting information. One text includes a sample project in which an elementary school student uses comic strips, scripts, short stories, etc. as a way of presenting information about dinosaurs. As I thought about this type of writing in my class, I saw some exciting applications to literary analysis. For example, students could write an interview in which they made up questions about the text that the "writer" responded to. Another possibility was that they could create a script of invented classroom discussion about the text in which students had differing opinions or worked towards a deeper understanding of the text. As I prepared a prompt for this assignment, I became certain that this was a viable option to assess students' ability to do literary interpretation.
The students who chose this alternative were excited about the possibilities, as well. My sense was that they started writing much earlier than the students who went with the more traditional assignment. But one of the most striking things to me as a teacher was the quality of research that students did in order to create their multi-genre project. One student decided to write about a poem by Janice Mirikitani, whose parents were incarcerated at the Tule Lake (California) Internment Camp during World War II. Shannon went to a special collection of oral histories in our library and couldn't stop reading. She used these oral histories as a basis for a short story, one of the genres her project included. Another section included rules for interior design (from a design text) and pictures of Japanese rooms which she connected to the limitations placed on Japanese women. She also did more traditional literary research. The result was a really wonderful project that demonstrated a deep understanding of Mirikitani's poetry.
Not all the projects were as successful, but one thing was clear to me. Students cared much more about their writing when they created multi-genre texts. They took pains to come up with genres that helped them to explore their chosen text, they worked to create art and illustration to complement their writing, and they delved into the texts and supporting research with the desire to understand.
I still think traditional literary analyses hold an important place in literary studies, but I also plan to use multi-genre projects judiciously in the future.