Why You Need This Course
Varieties of Why
Welcome. By now, you have completed a semester or two of college. Or perhaps you are returning to school after a years-long absence. No matter your situation, feel proud that you’re taking this next step in your education. Before registering for this class, you probably met with your advisor. The two of you came up with an academic plan that required another semester of composition—a semester in which you focus on writing about literary works. “Why do I need this course?” you ask. Most likely, you are not an English major.
Maybe you ask “why” with excitement because you love stories and poems and plays. Writing about them seems like fun, which makes you feel a bit guilty, because college is supposed to get you ready for the “real” world of adulthood and work.
You could be asking “why” with exasperation. Plays are boring and poems are baffling to you. You would prefer to stick with reading material directly related to your major.
Perhaps a gnawing lack of confidence has inspired you to ask “why?” You enjoy literary works well enough when you read them on your own; however, you can never figure out how people come up with their own interpretations. Interpreting a poem or a short story or a play seems incredibly difficult to you.
Whatever motivates your “why,” the question is reasonable. Taken all together, the varieties of “why” say a lot about what students expect from college courses. You want an education that prepares you for life as you plan to live it. You want to read things that help you understand your life in everyday terms. You also want to enjoy yourself a little. At times, these expectations feel contradictory. Even if you believe reading literature is fun, you may harbor concerns that it’s impractical or disconnected from real life. Consider, then, the following scenarios.
- Rita is at her family’s annual backyard barbecue on the fourth of July. Great Uncle Ted arrives at precisely 2:00pm. He’s wearing a crisp white linen suit he purchased at Brooks Brothers several decades ago. He calls this outfit his “ice cream suit.” Around his neck, he sports a red, white, and blue ascot about as big as a chihuahua’s head. Great Uncle Ted proceeds to make grand gestures as he pecks each of his nieces and nephews on their cheeks. Standing next to her, Rita’s dad mumbles, “What a character!”
- On his break, Deshaun stands in front of the break room refrigerator. When he arrived at work that morning, he put a Hot Pocket in the freezer to save for lunch. Now his Hot Pocket has mysteriously gone missing. Scanning the break room eating area, Deshaun notices three coworkers casually seated at a table, each with shreds of a Hot Pocket wrapper on a grease-spattered paper plate in front of them. “The plot thickens,” Deshaun whispers to himself.
- Easton is hiking with their cousin. At dusk, while watching the beautiful sunset, Easton spontaneously compares the sky to a field of flowers. Their cousin quips, “You’re a poet and you don’t know it, Easton.”
The people in each scenario employ literary concepts and terms to describe common events. You may do the same thing without being aware of it. We naturally gravitate toward using images and stories to make sense of our lives. Far from being impractical and unconnected to reality, literature is a tool for identifying patterns and putting lived experiences into a meaningful order.
As you study literature and learn to write about it, you grow more skilled at seeing the patterns. You interpret nuances of meaning more confidently. Your growing skills and confidence help you draw conclusions about the real-world implications raised in literary works. The evolution of this ability is one aspect of critical thinking. According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, “a well-cultivated critical thinker . . . gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively.” Writing about literature is one of the best ways to hone this particular set of critical thinking skills.
Cultivating these skills also forms a foundation for better communication at home and at work. Imagine that you’re a nurse working in an emergency room. A mother, father, and child come in. The child is obviously in pain but won't speak. The father is angry. The mother is weeping uncontrollably. None of them is able to communicate well.
What do you do? All the medical training in the world won't help you if you have no information to go on. Your ability to read and comprehend a literary text prepares you for this sort of a situation. You'll be used to looking at the surface, then examining what signs and clues lurk beneath the surface. You'll know how to interpret more than what they say or don't say. Most importantly, you'll realize that there are a variety of possibilities for what is truly wrong with the child. You'll have tools to figure out the problem, and to empathize with people who struggle to say what they mean.
The Foundation for Critical Thinking notes that empathy is another important quality of well-cultivated critical thinkers. Scientists have actually documented that reading literature promotes the development of empathy. According to a study conducted by Mar et al. at the University of Toronto, “Comprehending characters in a narrative fiction appears to parallel the comprehension of peers in the actual world . . .” (694). Writing about literature promotes different dimensions of thinking skills that are directly applicable to the world you live in.
So, as you embark upon this course, get ready to have fun and gain some valuable life skills!
Mar, Raymond A. et al. “Bookworms Versus Nerds: Exposure to Fiction Versus Non-Fiction, Divergent Associations with Social Ability, and the Simulation of Fictional Social Worlds.” Journal of Research in Personality, vol. 40, no. 5, 2006, pp. 694-712, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2005.08.002.
“Our Concept and Definition of Critical Thinking.” The Foundation for Critical Thinking, Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2019, https://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/our-conception-of-critical-thinking/411. Accessed 1 May 2021.