What Technique Makes you Win at English Literature?

At the end of last term I suggested my students come up with a fun Group Project to entertain us for the second semester. It was really interesting to hear their suggestions. The overall themes were fairly predictable: most wanted to discuss specific texts in depth as a group. Piece of cake! But then one group came up with something I hadn’t thought of:

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My students want to talk about literary device.

It got me thinking: the way we learn the field of English Literature at university is initially governed by an understanding of technical terms: form, metre, rhyme, imagery… They are the foundations on which the scaffolding of Critical Theory is raised (the house is a different thing. I’m adamant that the theory is just scaffolding). It is not until a little later that we start considering the application of these devices in an over-arching methodology: feminism, psychoanalysis, post-colonial theory, comedy theory, or whatever your shtick is. I talk about rhythm in comedy a lot, but I had to refer to my Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms more than once recently while reading outside my field.

An extremely addled friend in the final stages of writing his Mathematics thesis once told me ‘It’s all addition’. He explained that everything was going to be just fine because all math could be boiled down to addition. Even when you got down to the very basics subtraction was addition backwards, multiplication was addition a bunch of times, division was addition a bunch of times backwards. Algebra was just adding numbers! He could do this! Could we say the same about English Literature? It’s all… what? imagery? structure?

On Monday I will put a bunch of literary devices in a hat. Each student will pick one, learn about it, and come back and tell their class-mates what it means. They’ll explain why it’s important. They’ll explain what it does. They’ll explain how you could use it to provide a close reading of a text.

But what terms go in the hat? What, do you think, is the most basic element for winning English Literature?

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