The Big Three Strategies to Master Any Assignment

Please keep in mind that what I’m presenting here is a set of strategies, not restrictive expectations for how you go about your reading and writing. That being said, I wouldn’t be spending time on them if experience didn’t tell me that these strategies will be an enormous benefit to the vast majority of you in this class and beyond.

Strategy Numero Uno: Think Beginning Middle End – the fundamental structure of errything. Let me demonstrate:

Situation: The teacher gives you a reading assignment

Beginning: You take a minute to consider the expected outcome for the assignment, which gives you a purpose for reading.

Middle: You read, with purpose, making observations and marking those observations as you read.

End: You identify the most important observations you made, and you connect them to the purpose for which you read, usually in the written assignment related to the reading.

Situation: There’s a book! A play! A poem!

Beginning: The part of the text that wasn’t preceded by anything else; where the author establishes characterization, setting, conflict, theme, metaphor…

Middle: The part after the beginning, where the author develops…

End: The part after the middle, where the author resolves (or, as you get older, doesn’t resolve) the problem at hand.

Sounds pretty obvious, but if the author presented the incidents to you outside a linear chronology, you’ll be tempted to order things in a way that makes sense to you. But if the author wanted everything to be in chronological order, they would have structured the text that way (yes, my plural personal pronoun seems to disagree with my singular noun, but as the cultural construct of gender as identity instead of biology evolves, so does language). Since we’re all about the author’s choices, we’ll let the structure of the text guide us rather than the chronological order of events.

Strategy Numero Dos: Complex Sentences to Control Your Thinking

We are all about inquiry, about discovering what we don’t know, about critical thinking. And the easiest way to get everything wrong is to start a thought with a declarative sentence. I’ll let that sink in for a moment.

To think critically, you need to consider the details of a text, not an ambiguous or amorphous idea. When you begin your thinking with a complex sentence, you put the details ahead of your thought. You might start your thinking about a chapter by writing:

Between action A and action B, the author establishes/develops some aspect of the text.

Or you might start your thinking about a quote like this:

Through the pattern of this word and that phrase, the author suggests…

By juxtaposing this phrase with that phrase, the author emphasizes the tension between…

Spoiler alertjuxtaposition and tension are two likely winning responses in “Guess What Mr. McAteer is Thinking.” At least, when the answer is not catharsis.

Strategy Numero Tres: Seek Complexity

Nothing is as simple as you think it should be. Resist the default setting that strives to avoid ambiguities and uncertainties. The more sophisticated the literature, the more likely things are left intentionally unresolved, especially in poetry.


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