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1.11 End-of-Chapter Assessment

Key Takeaways

  • Literary theories are intellectual tools that allow you to understand and explicate texts in a variety of ways. By learning different literary theories, you will become more confident in assessing novels, stories, poems, plays, and essays in class and beyond.
  • Different schools of literary theory prioritize certain concerns for talking about literature while deemphasizing others: for example, readers’ responses, gender, sexuality, or race.
  • Most skilled writers compose not in fits of inspiration but through the writing process, which includes the following steps: prewriting, researching, outlining, drafting, revising, seeking feedback, and re-revising.
  • Literary scholars usually engage with their theories through academic argument; they make claims, support those claims with evidence, and respond directly to the ideas of other critics.
  • You learned about the importance of the writing process, including peer review and the strategies for conducting peer review.
  • You should think about writing as a dialogue between you, the writer, and your readers. Try to anticipate the questions they will have about your claims and respond to those questions directly in your argument.

Writing Exercises

  1. Freewriting exercise. You’ve probably heard the word “theory” before, perhaps in science classes. Spend ten minutes writing about how your understanding of literary theory developed as you read this chapter compared to your previous understanding of the word theory. What similarities do you see between literary theories and theories in other fields? What differences? Why do you think different fields all employ this word?
  2. Try to outline an argument you’ve had at some time in your life. For this exercise we don’t mean an academic argument. No, we mean an argument with a friend, sibling, parent, or maybe even a teacher! Think about that argument using the terms we introduced in this chapter. What claims did you make? What claims did your interlocutor make in response? Did either of you employ evidence? What kind of evidence? Can you create a diagram of the argument’s major elements? Once you’ve charted the argument, discuss it with your classmates. How do the elements of that “real” argument compare with the elements of academic argument you learned about in this chapter?

Instructor Supplement: Class Exercises

  1. Students understand many of the basic principles of argument; they usually know when someone makes a persuasive case (during a conversation, say), and usually they know when someone’s case is weak (to put it crudely: they know when to call “BS!” on someone). They don’t usually think of these instincts as applicable to academic discourse. For this exercise, then, you will stage academic argument as a debate, which is a genre that even writing-phobic students often jump into with gusto. Divide the class into groups and then pose at least two broad, genuinely open questions about the work you’re reading in class (for instance, “Is Huckleberry Finn a racist novel?”).

    Assign pairs of groups to debate each question, with one group arguing each side of the debate. Give each group fifteen minutes to prepare their “case” for the debate. Instruct each group to nominate a speaker. At the end of their time, groups must present their case in turn. The groups working on the other question(s) will vote to determine the debate “winner.” If you have time, you could also have a second round, giving each group five minutes to prepare rebuttals after each group has presented their initial arguments.

    Finally, follow up on these debates by asking students to identify the parts of academic argument within the points they made during the debate. What claims did they make? What subclaims? What kinds of evidence did they use to support their claims? Did they respond to their opponents’ points or ignore them?

  2. During the latter half of this chapter, we referred students to the University of Virginia’s wonderful Little Red Schoolhouse Online (LRSO), a site that helps students learn the principles of effective academic argument. If you’re interested in incorporating LRSO more fully into your class, see the site’s overview of “Teaching with the Schoolhouse” (