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Literary Analysis as Scientific Method

For years I’ve tried to figure out how to get my “Introduction to Literature” students–99 percent of them not English majors–to appreciate literature. And by “appreciate,” I don’t mean “like.” That’s probably a lost cause. I just mean I want them to be able to understand what a writer is saying, how he or she goes about saying it, and what relevance it might have to their lives.

As anyone who has taught a course like that knows very well, this is an uphill battle. Or at least it was for me until a couple of years ago, when I had an epiphany. Two, actually. The first was that the thinking process I’ve been trying to get students to apply to literary texts is really not that different from what my undergraduate science professors referred to as the scientific method. The second was that, in our hyper-technological society, most students definitely see the relevance of science, even if they don’t see the relevance of literature.

I hope I won’t offend my science colleagues too much if I define the scientific method broadly here as consisting of three main steps: observe, hypothesize, and experiment. At least, that’s what I was taught, or something very close to it. If I’m guilty of misstating or oversimplifying, perhaps I can be granted a certain amount of literary license. Those three steps are adequate for what I’m trying to accomplish.

I explain to my students that they can interpret a poem, for example, simply by applying the scientific method as defined above. And how, I ask them, do we “observe” a poem? “By reading it,” someone is sure to answer. Exactly, I tell them, but it’s not enough just to give it the once-over. A research psychologist doesn’t just peek in on the rats occasionally and say, “Hey, look what they’re doing now. How cute.” No. The researcher spends hours, days, weeks observing the rats, thinking and asking questions about their behavior, taking copious notes.

So too when we read a text, we must read it multiple times, read it slowly and carefully, constantly asking ourselves, “What does this mean? What is the poet trying to say?” We must pay special attention to any particular words, passages, or elements (such as structure) that seem especially significant or perplexing and ask ourselves what they signify, how they fit in with the work as a whole.

As we read in this way, we begin over time to come up with a theory of what the poem might be about–in other words, a hypothesis. At this point it’s just a hypothesis, nothing more. But at least it’s a place to start.

The real work lies in experimenting, or testing the hypothesis. You might begin with, “I think, in ‘Mending Wall,’ Frost is trying to say that people put up walls whether they want to or not.” Okay. That’s a hypothesis. Now experiment. Start at the top and test your hypothesis against what the poem actually says: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Check. “We keep the wall between us as we go.” Check. “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out.” Check. “He moves in darkness as it seems to me.” Check.

In this case, my hypothesis works. That’s not to say it’s the definitive answer, but at least it’s defensible. If it didn’t work, if there was some point in the poem where I said to myself, “Nah, that doesn’t make sense,” then I’d have to go back, read some more, and formulate a new hypothesis. But when it does work, voilà! I have a paper topic.

In an essay, of course, the “hypo”-thesis becomes just the plain old thesis, and the elements or passages in the poem that fit the hypothesis become the pieces of supporting evidence that fill out the body paragraphs. That much seems to be pretty easy for students to understand.

Since I’ve been taking this approach, student engagement in my intro-to-lit classes has improved dramatically and so have their essays. They no longer seem to assume that literature is something they can’t possibly understand, much less write about, and I give the scientific method all the credit for that.

At least, that’s my hypothesis, and I’m sticking to it.

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