One of the best assignments I was ever assigned occurred in the context of one of the best classes I had ever taken. I enrolled, somewhat reluctantly, in Lit Theory, an upper level English course the fall semester of my senior year at undergrad.
I had my doubts. The texts listed in the description seemed of dubious interest and the theory of literature wasn’t high on my list of current passions. But grad school, I felt, called my name from somewhere in the future, and if I were to go to grad school, I should really take a theory course. Come registration, I punched in the course number. I hit enter. I found myself enrolled, and at summer’s end, packed up my books and marched over to the classroom, preparing for a very long semester reading many pieces of theory that I was not going to understand.
A quick disclaimer: I’m still unsure how much of that theory I actually understand. But to continue…
This class turned out to be one of my favorite activities to date. There were only seven of us, and we read through a thick volume of selections, Robert Dale Parker’s Critical Theory: A Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies, exchanging ideas, sharing our favorite books, and learning immense amounts about the theory of literature.
Soon, Aristotle, Foucault, Bakhtin, hooks, Freud, Derrida, and Cixous entered my Tuesdays and Thursdays in turn. Riveting conversation, bright minds, rapid ideas, and eternal questions made for a very enjoyable semester.
But on that first day, I remained apprehensive. I hadn’t yet been introduced to the marvelous mornings my few peers and professor created, to the joy of literature that they, we, fostered together. So there I sat, sweaty hands clutching the thick assigned texts, my notebook, and the extensive syllabus. We had several readings assigned, some copied handouts (the first of many supplements to the readings—“Welcome to English 490”), and the first written assignment of the semester: The Mirror Essay.
I also sat in a cool pool of elevated AC settings and intimidation.
“But professor, can you at least give us an example of what this assignment means?”
After three or more years of English study, we knew how to write response pieces, draft short analyses, and compose lengthy research papers. At the proposition of an open ended assignment, though, we suddenly stopped short.
“The Mirror Essay will be written in two parts,” my professor told us. “The second will recap what you’ve learned in this course. That’s not assigned until December. The first, however, due Thursday, should tell us why you’re in this class, what you think you know about literature, and why you’re studying it in the first place. Oh, and you’ll read it to us out loud.” With that, he pushed his books into a neat pile, gathered up his papers, placed a hat on his head, and left class. “See you Thursday.” One by one, we picked up our crisp new books and thick syllabi, and entered the late August morning. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d faced an assignment and didn’t know where to start.
After several cups of coffee at the local hipster coffee shop, towards the end of Sunday afternoon, I finally put some words on a page, a few rather pretentious sentences extolling the delights of literature, ready to be read aloud in class.
My beginning and end read:
“I took AP English twice.”… “If handed the chance, I would absolutely take AP English again. Because these odds are unlikely, I instead desire to keep going to school, taking class, comparing ideas, and writing about them. In effect, those are the components of AP that reflect how I understand the world, and why literature possesses the ability to explore all that makes this life important to me.”
Well, well, well. Those are some lofty aspirations.
This, remember, was part one. The semester passed, ideas were chewed upon, and we found ourselves in the beginning days of December, flipping to the back of a decidedly rattier syllabus, discovering that besides the final project, the second half of the Mirror Essay was the last assignment due.
My beginning and end of the second part read:
“I learned that interpretation is infinite. I learned that language lingers. I learned that books are just the beginning.”… “But I have ultimately learned that the best literature creates in us Harrys, who can enter King’s Cross after a difficult journey to arrive at an understanding that whether or not things happen inside our heads, we will return to the world in possession of a greater knowledge.”
Well, well, well. I still had lofty aspirations. I was also now quoting Harry Potter.
After a semester of discovery, I still maintained my English-major-y joy of literature that despite my high language remained a simple and basic love of reading. Despite their amusing sentences, a few misplaced metaphors, and a lot of good intentions veiled with three years of literary ideals, these essays, this assignment, was one of my favorites because it was the first time somebody asked me, “Why?”
Why do you read? Why do you write? Why did you study this in college, but more importantly, why will you make this an important part of your life?
There’s nothing an English major loves more than to answer those questions with pages of written prose and wandering thoughts, filled with the vocabulary of a nineteenth century romance novel and the ideas of tomorrow.