Using Fiction to Understand Real-Life Contexts

By: Elsa Buehler

As I sat down to reflect on the skills I’ve acquired from the English classroom at Duquesne, I’ve found one glaring similarity. Whether an ENGL course is a 100 or a 400 level, writing intensive or not, a small group or a large lecture, there is one practice that remains constant throughout them all. When studying the texts of a certain course, one can always expect to contribute to a conversation about the contents of that text.

This may seem like a simple observation, so let me be more specific. In the English classroom, I have learned how to understand a text from many angles. I have been taught to analyze style, dialogue, imagery, theme, purpose, and much more. What I’ve found is that English majors tend to be interested in the understanding the characters. We want to know their background, temperament, personality, physicality, motivation, passion, and relationship to the plot.

This endeavor typically becomes a large part of most English courses. Often, we are left without a full description of every aspect of a character. This leads to a hypothetical discussion in which we are encouraged to use to context of the story and the character to posit whatever blank spaces we may be left with. Reading texts in this analytical matter is beneficial, not only because it allows for a deeper understand of the plot, but also because it trains us to decipher the characters. Studying characters in this way helps us better understand the world and people around us—not such an insignificant skill to possess.

I spent my spring break reading student applications to the summer writing camp, as well as teacher recommendations. I take this responsibility very seriously, especially considering that I am tasked with accepting students into the program without even so much as a writing sample from them. First, I read through the brief notes that the applicants write in at the end of their registration forms. Next, I read the recommendation that they submit (usually also fairly brief). From this, I decide if they should be admitted or not.

Now that I think about it, I’ve approached this task like I approach analyzing a piece of literature. Firstly, since our goal is to admit people who have an interest in bettering their writing, I only ask for a short note of things the students may want to make us aware of. This is also why we don’t ask for a writing sample: there is no need to already be good at writing before the camp, there just needs to be an interest. So, since these notes are short, they typically highlight what students feel necessary to share. For this reason, I pay special attention to these notes from the students. Some have specifically highlighted that they are unexperienced writers (or the opposite), or that the subject of their writings tends to take a specific form or theme. From what a student chooses to share, I can discern with a moderate degree of confidence whether or not they are suited for the camp.

However, it’s not a foolproof way to identify who is truly passionate about the camp from who is not, for example. Also, if a potential camper turns out to be disruptive or problematic, it’s not likely that anything they make note of in their application would allude to this fact. This is where teacher recommendations come in handy. If a teacher has nothing but glowing comments and positive examples to share about an applicant, then it is a safe bet to invite them to the camp. Ideally, if the teacher truly does not think a student is a good fit for the camp, one would hope that the teacher wouldn’t agree to write a recommendation at all. If they do, though, teachers can have a way of using euphemistic or generous language to imply potential problems they may anticipate (i.e. “Sally is young for her grade level, and has an easier time relating to younger friends and siblings” may actually be a signal that the teacher believes Sally is not mature enough for the week-long camp experience).

John and I have also discussed the fact that not saying something can actually say quite a lot—if a teacher were to write a very general letter or seem to be omitting typical recommendation letter sentiments, this may also be a warning sign.

From now on, as I continue to review applications, I consider ENGL 300W, “Critical Issues in Literary Study.” Perhaps our discussions on how to understand epistolary novels (entirely comprised of correspondence between characters) will prove more useful than I initially imagined.

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