I have to admit–this has been a bit of a struggle, this whole grad school English major thing. This summer and this semester I’m taking literature classes. I’m trying to become an academic and think deeply and write position papers and do critical analysis.
I’m definitely out of my comfort zone.
As I noted in this post, much of my learning curve has to do with being back in academia after 33 years. But, just as I advised my children during their college years, I made myself appointments with my professors.
I asked the first professor about critical analysis. “Really,” I asked, “hasn’t everything been said? How can I possibly find something more to say about Shakespeare or Hawthorne or Emerson or Twain?” He acknowledged that, indeed, there are whole conferences devoted to certain authors and their writings, and academics read papers to one another and everyone sits around and talks more about that particular author or book.
“We’re really kind of nerdy,” he admitted.
“And,” I added, “isn’t there a point where we’re starting to see things that never crossed the author’s mind? Isn’t there a point where we’ve beaten something to death and now we’re into territory the author wouldn’t recognize?”
His answer surprised me. Sure, it’s possible to beat something to death–and no one wants to do that. But, he explained, when these authors put their words out there in print, those words become ours. We can look at them through any lens we want. We can interpret by what we see there because, ultimately, that’s what all writing is. It calls for a response from us. Those authors are trying to say something, and it behooves us to figure that out, but ultimately we may never know completely. He explained that often there is indeed new scholarship that arises–new letters or papers written by the author surface somewhere and get published, thereby changing scholarship by showing that an author really wasn’t being sarcastic in that story (or was) based on opinions revealed in those papers.
So it can indeed be an ever-changing landscape.
And the classics are classics because of some timeless element that keeps us reading. They show us something about the time period but also something about ourselves. They cause a reaction in us. They make us look at ourselves or our own world differently.
And he encouraged me about what it means to be a scholar, an academic. “Anyone can have a response to a piece of writing. They like it. They don’t like it. It made them laugh or cry or think more deeply about something. But it takes a scholar to look at a piece of writing and consider the time and culture of its writing, compare it to other writing, look at the language, etc. Nothing is written in a vacuum; every author writes from (or against) influences in his or her life.” He encouraged me that by writing a paper or doing a critical analysis, I’m simply joining the academic conversation with another nuance, another point of view.
“Joining the conversation.” I like that. He told me to picture myself walking into a room with a whole bunch of nerdy people talking about As You Like It. Stand there and listen for awhile (translated as read a few academic journals and see what people have said about the topic I choose in that play). Then, from how I read it through my own lens of learning and life experience and study, I can add to the conversation. And I do indeed have something to add if I’ve done my homework, read the work carefully, and read what others have said.
An email to my other professor reiterated this. After I apologized for my seemingly basic question, she wrote this: “Focus on locating critical texts about AYLI and seeing what conversations currently surround the text. As you get familiar with the criticism, one or several things will likely happen: 1) You’ll find a gap where the critics aren’t quite touching on a theme or issue that you’d like to emphasize, 2) you’ll seriously or even partially disagree with someone’s point of view, which opens the door to your own argument, 3) you’ll see connections among previously separate arguments and you can help thread them together into a larger argument.”
I think I can do that.
So as I contemplate a position paper on Shakespeare’s As You Like It, I realize that maybe I have something to say.
I’ll let you know.
4 thoughts on ““As I Like It.” Sort Of. Attempting to Write about Shakespeare.”
Linda, many of us feel daunted, when we think about what to say about an iconic piece of literature like Shakespeare’s plays. We even say, “It ain’t Shakespeare,” when we’re ready to criticize a piece of writing we think is substandard. But I love that your professor encouraged your to join the conversation and share your response. I’m sure you’ll do great.
Thanks, Linda! I’ve thought about the fact that in many ways doing this criticism is like being a good editor–except at least on a MS we can ASK the writer what he or she is talking about!
Your observations about joining the conversation apply to biblical studies as well. What can I possibly have to say when the “experts” have said it all, and we have exhaustive commentaries to prove it? Thanks for having the conversation with your prof that I should have had with mine!
And by the way, I wish you could have seen AYLI in Memorial Park a week ago. Over 700 came the first night (“Shakespeare in the Park”) and I heard 1000 were there the second. Then the cast did several more performances at Wheaton College.
Oh my! I wish I could have seen it as well! There’s something about reading Shakespeare at this time in my life that makes it less daunting. Maybe I have a little more patience? I don’t know.
And FOR SURE on biblical studies! What can we possibly say that hasn’t already been said? But with God’s Word, “living and active and sharper than a two-edged sword,” interpreting through the lens of our experience is even more invited! I’m glad you brought that up because it puts that thinking into perspective for me. With Scripture, and you in biblical studies, we do the same thing–adding to the conversation by reading the text, interpreting it against itself, and studying what scholars have said so, all with the eye of interpreting what God is saying to us personally (and all that careful study keeps us from taking things out of context).
Thanks for that!