Critical Insight

        This is an admittedly debatable term for the quality of literary scholarship which constitutes its "newsworthiness," its warrant for a claim on the readers' attentions.  One thing which distinguishes college-level writing about literature from that practiced in many secondary schools is the level of insight required to make a paper worth writing and reading.  High school papers sometimes succeed merely because they assemble a great deal of information "about" the work, resembling ordinary book reviews one might read in the newspaper.  Others argue for the existence of obvious "developments" in character or plot, but they do not rise above what any competent reader would observe in the first reading.  What college-level readers are looking for is a non-obvious discovery about the work and/or its author and/or its culture which can help us "see into" the work in ways ordinarily competent readers cannot.  Beginning English majors should not despair, however.  Once they learn to interpret literary evidence like scholars, critical insights are freely available to them, including some never before published and worthy of the honor. 

         A full explanation of all the interpretive methods used by scholars to "see into" a text would require a discussion beyond the scope of this web page.  Nevertheless, some common strategies can be named, and if students recognize how to perform them and can do so in the paper, their paper will pass this criterion.  For instance,  one could draw attention to something non-obvious about the author's intentions in formal structure, theme/imagery, characterization, plot construction and details, or other elements of the authors poetic or prose technique.  One could analyze the work's structure as a source of reader responses or as a carrier of important cultural codes for its original historical audience, including unresolved conflicts among those codes.  One could compare the work with one or more works by the author's predecessors or contemporaries, looking for signs of aesthetic or cultural influence or conflict.  One also could look at any of the critical terms which are associated with our reading of the work (boldface in the syllabus), and consider them as non-obvious issues which affect our reading of the work.

        For more thorough explanations of how to use interpretive theory to generate insights, consult the readings and online course materials for English 215: Critical Methods, or contact your English 211 instructor.  Remember, we encourage you to submit rough drafts, paper thesis ideas, and questions about method as part of your writing process. 

        A wise student will assemble and try out a number of possible paper ideas before choosing the best, the most exciting the most rewarding to pursue at length.  Let your instructor help you think your way through the argument, and let the evidence teach you things you did not know already, before committing yourself to the time and effort needed to write a serious draft.  Try to avoid replaying old strategies from papers you wrote in high school, and remember what you learned in English 104 and/or 105..  If your insight  is "news" to you, it has a greater chance of being "news" to your readers.