The Grade Whisperer: Eric Prepares to Battle English Lit

The Grade Whisperer is an occasional feature in which I use the Study Hacks philosophy of do less, do better, and know why, to help students overcome their academic problems.

Eric’s Literate ConcernsAdvice

A reader named Eric recently sent me an interesting question. Next semester, he’s facing an English Lit course.

“My concern is that the best grade I ever got in high school English was a ‘B’,” Eric explained.

He wanted some feedback on his plan for the course.

“I read about Q/E/C notetaking in the red book, but I’m not quite sure how to apply it to these courses,” he said. “Would it help if this summer I picked some novels and practiced the technique? Or would it help me more to just read some novels for pleasure in preparation?”

From Clusters to Deep Thinking

I’m pleased to see a student planning ahead for an academic challenge. As I’ve said before, if you don’t constantly question your study habits, you’re in danger of falling into a rut.

When it comes to the specific challenge posed by English Lit, however, Eric needs some guidance. Sounds like a job for the grade whisperer.

Here was my advice:

  • For an English class, Q/E/C notes on your assignments won’t help. Novels can’t be reduced to an orderly collection of big ideas.
  • Instead, take zero notes on the novel as you read. That’s right, none. Instead, focus on really paying attention and enjoying the intellectual experience. Location will really matter. Find some place quite and contemplative to do this work. Drink strong coffee.
  • You’re not completely off the hook, however, when it comes to notetaking. During class discussion, take the best possible Q/E/C notes possible. Pay particular attention to the points made by the professor.
  • These notes won’t come easy. The ideas discussed in an English lit class can be messy and complicated. My suggestion would be to set aside 1 -2 hours each week to wield the notebook method. Use it to help work through some of your thoughts on what you just read and what you heard in the most recent discussions.
  • When it comes time to write a paper — even if it is a small critical essay — expect to spend serious time with the notebook method before you even think about writing. I’m talking at least 3 – 5 hours.

This is a crucial point. For a course like English Lit, the ideas produced by deep thinking are your main preparatory currency. The time you spend contemplating, somewhere quiet, with your notebook, is equivalent to the time a pre-med spends memorizing triglycerides. If you don’t invest some serious effort you cannot expect to do well.

With this mindset, however, our friend Eric should be prepared to turn in an A* effort while many of his frustrated classmates switch to a business major in shame.

(Photo by laughlin)

13 thoughts on “The Grade Whisperer: Eric Prepares to Battle English Lit”

  1. Great post, however do you really think that taking no notes while reading is a good idea?

    I recently had a student (I’m a teaching assistant) who was going through a similar problem.

    I suggested to her that she read each chapter without taking notes then at the end of the chapter take five minutes to review what she thought the chapter was about and main points she wanted to extract for her paper.

    I find that without notes of any kind you sometimes lose valuable points that otherwise would have been remembered if you had written it down.

    After she was finished with the entire book I encouraged her to write a one page precis. I find it useful to restrict my students to one page because then they get to the core of the work and still have supporting notes on each chapter with page references that they can go back to later.

    Liam McIvor Martin

  2. As a (non-US) literature major, I have a few exams that require me to read up to seventeen book-length pieces. To make this possible, I have to start the reading early, even months before the test. It’s just not feasible to go without notes and, in fact, they help me organize my thoughts as well as remember them.

    But yeah, the number of books is just ridiculous for a single exam. Luckily there’s SparkNotes.

    I wholeheartedly agree with what you say about the importance of thought-work. Thinking is hard and it takes time. You can’t really rush it and expect to come up with something meaningful.

  3. I also disagree with the “no-notes” approach. When I went from studying English lit to French lit I had to reevaluate my approach to literature, since I had a much harder time figuring out what was going on. The approach I have found most helpful is writing notes in the book (or using post-its if I don’t want to deface the book). Specifically, I note places where patterns and themes appear or where I find something just plain interesting. This makes essay writing a lot easier because I can either search these notes for something to write about or I can quickly find citations to support my ideas.

  4. Great tips! Can I add one suggestion?

    If you’ll eventually to write a paper about the novel, you might keep a pen handy while reading and underline lines in the novel that seem significant as you go. You don’t have to know they’re important quotes — just have a vague notion that they could be useful later on. I call this “underlining stuff that’s cool” as you read. This will make it easier later on, when you’re writing the paper, to find quotes that help illustrate the your ideas about the novel. Otherwise, you could spend hours looking for a quote you remember seeing somewhere.

    -Kathryn, college English instructor

  5. Wow, I never thought my question would end up becoming a part of the Case Studies section.. XD
    It’s quite an honor… LOL

  6. I’m studying literature, according to the old European system where we have to read some 15 to 30 literature books for one exam. Needless to say, it’s an enormous amount of texts to be covered.

    I’ve devised a list of checkpoints for the analysis of a literary text:

    1. Information about the book: title, author, year it was written
    2. External structure of the text: title, subtitle; motto, dedication; genre; division into chapters, sections; length; specifics (pictures, different typographies …)
    3. Main theme or problem: What is the text about?
    4. Narrative perspective
    5. Plot: Where, when, what?
    6. Literary figures: names, ages, occupation, familial and other relationships, character; What drives them, what do they want?
    7. Circles of themes, motives, symbols
    8. Language and style
    9. Belonging to a particular literary period or movement
    10. Memorable quotes
    11. Relevance of the text, how it was received by the audience, the impact it had, prizes it won

    This information helps to re-create the book in your mind, so that if you have to write a critical essay, you basically have the book before you.
    It helps to read the book with these questions in mind, so that you know what to look out for, and later it is easier to take notes and to construct arguments.

    Of course, this approach will not work for just any literature course or exam, as some courses may have other focuses, it is good as a basis, though.

    I hope this helps.

  7. I would highy recommend the Macmiillan “How to Study” guides on english lit. How to begin studying english lit & How to study the novel are two of favorites in the series. If were to summarize their strategies to single line it would be to look for the tension points in the text, analyze them, and relate them to whole of the text. For whatever aspect of the text, character or theme etc, it usually boils to doing the above.

  8. Thank you everyone who contributed advice from their own experience with the subject. I think the combination of your comments above make for an excellent study guide in its own right. I hope most readers of the original post make it down to the comments.

  9. If were to summarize their strategies to single line it would be to look for the tension points in the text, analyze them, and relate them to whole of the text.

    Do you find that something this specific works across the wide divesity of literature types you encounter in such classes?

    Wow, I never thought my question would end up becoming a part of the Case Studies section.

    Yes, this is the hidden gamble taken by all who write me for advice 🙂

  10. Laura and VTA method Man – I agree on the notes approach. Where I have the most problems when going back and trying to find quotes and reread passages is that I don’t remember where they are. Having notes for each chapter, or highlighting important areas in your notebook with page numbers allowed me to navigate the book easily afterwords to get to those important quotes, passages, and concepts that I wanted to explore further. But I think Chris kind of goes after this in his statement on “meditation and deep thinking time”.

    Nejka, great list I will definitely be using.

  11. I just wanna say this is what i love about your advices. I’ve always been hopelessly romantic when it comes to education and I’ve always believed in school as more than a place to go to before gettin a job. I love that your advices are more of “enjoy the experience, because it’s fun” than the conventional advices i find in books “here’s a specific way of takin notes and you’ll get straight A’s”


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