As you write papers in your literature class (and indeed, in most of your college classes), keep the following questions in mind. Imagine your readers asking you such questions:
- What do you think about this story/poem/play/essay?
- Why do you think that?
- How do you know your ideas are right?
- Have you considered this or that alternative idea?
If you consistently answer these questions in your papers, you will develop your skills of academic argument. Remember, academic argument is not a battleground, and it’s not about yelling the loudest. Instead, academic argument is a conversation among people interested in the same topic.
What’s more, you do not have to convince everyone that your opinion is correct. For instance, you may not have been convinced by Monica’s argument about “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Perhaps there are essential details you noticed when reading the story that you feel Monica didn’t sufficiently address. Your disagreement doesn’t mean that Monica’s argument is invalid; by the same token, your disagreement doesn’t mean that your reading of the story is misguided. Instead of worrying about whose ideas are “correct,” you should instead think of such moments of disagreement as invitations to join the scholarly conversation surrounding a literary work. In this example, you could write your own argument that presents Monica’s ideas as the “common ground” that you would then respond to by making your own claims and subclaims and supporting them with the evidence you feel Monica overlooked.
There’s no single, “correct” interpretation for any work of literature. Of course, there are some interpretations that readers will find more persuasive than others. By learning about the different schools of literary theory presented in this book, you will hopefully learn to construct arguments about literature that many readers are more likely to find persuasive. In short, we will teach you how to engage in the conversations of academic argument.