Everyone mines every book for the things that are useful to him, especially [books that are] rich and complex. (Italo Calvino)
The texts you’ll need to work with at this level of your education are probably givens. In English they are often the “classics,” books that informed readers consider the most significant of their time. In History we also have texts (primary and secondary) that are central to our understanding of an event or a period. The process of becoming a classic is interesting and involves both the innumerable readings the texts have undergone and the ongoing construction of our common culture. But that’s not really the point we’re exploring here. The particular texts you’re responsible for in a given class were chosen out of a universe of possible texts because they fit together and because, as a group, they lead somewhere. When you figure out how they fit together and where they lead, you’ll be well on your way to understanding the overall theme of the course – which, remember, is also a text!
Another thing about “classics.” Whether we respond positively or negatively to them, we can’t ignore their influence. When we off-handedly characterize something as being “Quixotic” or “Kafkaesque”; when our newspapers and popular magazines talk about “Progressives” or the “Frontier”; when political cartoons, rap music, and even Sunday comics depend on our familiarity with Beowulf and Odysseus and Malcolm X and Viet Nam in order to get their point, then we would be wise to become familiar with these concepts, characters, and events.
So we have our texts: a set of assigned readings, lectures and discussions. Let’s think of them as a challenge. How are we going to make these texts meaningful to ourselves? This is a basic question in life. Every day we deal with things not under our control. Poet Robert Frost once claimed that every one of his poems was “one of these adaptations that I’ve made. I’ve taken whatever you give me and made it what I want it to be.” You’ve already begun responding to this challenge by taking notes on what you’ve read and heard. Even if your discussion and essay assignment is very directed – “Discuss the relationship between Quixote and Sancho Panza in Don Quixote” or “Compare John Muir’s attitude toward wilderness with Gifford Pinchot’s based on their writing about the Hetch Hetchy controversy” – there’s always a way to make an aspect of the topic your own.
If, on the other hand, you have to discover your own topic, you’re faced with a different challenge – but that’s still no reason for panic or “writer’s block,” since you’ve already begun the process. Your notes are writing, and they’re the source of what you’ll contribute to discussion. Some passages you marked in your text or notes you wrote in your notebook will hopefully be the main facts and ideas you were looking for, and other highlights and comments will represent your personal reactions to the text. That’s why everybody’s notes are a little different. When you think about and expand on these personal reactions, you’ll discover the beginnings of your individual interpretation of the texts.
Follow these clues one at a time. Some will go nowhere. They’ll turn out to be uninteresting or inappropriate for the assignment, or there won’t be enough material to support an argument. But some will be interesting, appropriate, and supportable. Bring them to discussion. Write about them. What your instructor wants – what all your readers will appreciate – is evidence of your thoughtful response to the text.
Remember: a good discussion/essay topic comes out of your response to the text. It deals with a basic question that isn’t easily answered but that isn’t so large that it can’t possibly be answered. Focus. A good topic, formulated in a few words, could become the title of your essay and engage your reader immediately. If it’s not meaningful to you, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll make it meaningful to your reader.
By now you should be beginning to see how these tasks – taking notes, preparing for discussions, formulating an essay topic – all build on one another. We, your authors, have been students ourselves. We know from experience there is rarely time to go back and redo things. But if you put some effort into these steps as you go through them, your notes will generate discussion ideas, discussions will help you focus on the most promising interpretations, and you’ll be on your way to a solid paper. The worst thing is to be facing a due-date with no idea how you’re going to fill five pages. If you work at each of these steps, that won’t be a problem. The essay topic, and probably a lot of the essay itself, will jump out of your notes at you.
So think of discussion as a more tentative, less formal way to try out ideas and interpretations that might lead to an essay. When you write notes for discussion, they’re for you. The ideas can be half formed: questions you don’t yet have answers to. Bouncing them off the group will help you develop your ideas, and will tell you which ones are most interesting to others.
Settling on a Manageable Topic
At some point you may be asked to turn in a tentative essay topic. Or to pick a topic from a set the instructor provides. In either case you should keep in mind that:
- Your purpose is to explore some specific part of the text and its relationship to some general idea you’ve interpreted;
- Your time (and your readers’ time) is limited, so choose a topic that allows you to get the paper in on time;
- Your composition requirement is set – often four-to-five typed pages for a standard short paper;
- Your readers have read the texts or are familiar with the material and don’t want a summary.
Remember: you are only going to be asked to write a short interpretive essay. Not to resolve for all time how James Joyce’s Ulysses changed the nature of the hero in modern novels or to trace all the influences of the French Revolution on the development of American nationalism. The scope of your project will naturally narrow, as you focus on what interests you – that’s a good thing.
An Example (from literature)
Suppose that when you were reading The Odyssey, you found you were interested in Homer’s portrayal of women. You marked some passages, wrote comments in the margins of your text, and brought them up in class. After clearing up the “facts” – who did what, when, how, and why? – maybe you still want to know: Why did I respond the way I did? What was Homer doing?
“Is there enough material to build an interpretation?” you ask yourself. More specifically: Who are the characters Kirke, Kalypso, Nausikaa, Penelope, Helen, Klytaimnestra, Eurykleia, Arete? Do they have anything in common? Differences? How does Odysseus seem to view them? How do they respond to him? How does this affect Odysseus? How does their interaction relate to the world depicted in the text? How do they function in relation to the larger theme? Does any pattern emerge?
Now that you’ve read, thought about, and discussed something that interests you, you’re ready to pursue a general and still unshaped topic that is appropriate and certainly has enough material to investigate more closely and develop: “Homer’s Portrayal of Women in The Odyssey.” This is probably not yet a manageable topic for a short paper, but it’s already better than a more general topic like “The Odyssey.” As you focus you might narrow your topic to a comparison of faithful wives to unfaithful wives, or of wives to mistresses, or of those women who provide security and continuity to those who offer adventure and experience. You might find that these categories are unsatisfactory to you. Good! Develop your own perceptions of how these characters function in the text.
Another Example (from history)
Suppose you were given an assignment: Compare Booker T. Washington’s approach to race relations in his 1895 “Atlanta Exposition Speech” with W.E.B. DuBois’s approach in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). You read the two texts and discover that DuBois is highly critical of Washington, and Souls is his counterargument to Washington’s position.
But as you read DuBois’s criticism of Washington and go back to the “Atlanta Exposition Speech” to see if that’s really what Washington said, you find yourself feeling one way or another about the debate. Maybe you feel DuBois misrepresented Washington’s position. Maybe you feel Washington was a realist and DuBois was an idealist. Maybe you agree with DuBois that Washington was an appeaser. Maybe (best case) you’re aware from your reading and discussion that people have reacted in all these ways to the texts. Now you’ve got the basis of an essay that can look at both texts, discuss the variety of reactions to them, and then – if you choose to – stake out your own. Even though your topic was assigned to you, with a little thought you can take it in a direction that interests you and that will allow you to build your own interpretation.
The important point in both examples is that once you’ve read the text carefully and taken good notes, you can begin the process of making it your text by bringing your experience and imagination to bear on a central idea – a topic – that especially interests you. Your notes will lead you back to the areas that caught your attention as you took them. Most of the time you’ll find your topic there. You can test out and refine that topic in discussion, and see how others respond to it. As you work with it, you may find that there’s something in particular you want to say about this topic. That something will be the basis of your thesis, which we’ll discuss next.