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  • Writer's pictureDiving Bell

What even IS analysis?

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

Last week I asked what we did when we 'did' English. It had something to do with texts, reading, and meaning, I thought. Practically speaking, though, the routine that we go through in the English classroom is what we think of as analysis. But what, really, is analysis?

Here's an example I give students when they say (frequently) that they don't know what they're meant to be doing when they do analysis.

Imagine this: an otherwise healthy man feels ill and dies suddenly. The police form an idea - that this is an unnatural death. To test this, they give a blood sample to a forensic pathologist who examines it to see what unusual things are in his blood. This examination supports the claim that his death wasn’t natural, and also shows how this unnatural death may have happened.

With the exception of a dead body, analysis of literature is similar. You have a claim: this text is 'about' a certain thing, which has occurred to us as we read through it and also as we plait in other aspects of the text (the context, subtext, pretext etc which I mentioned in the previous post). You test this claim by close examination of the text at the word, sentence, paragraph, chapter etc level.

Analysing literature is similar. Analysis needs two things: an idea about the ‘big picture’ or main meaning of the text, andobservations of the techniques which the writer uses to construct that meaning.

In class we often we do a fingertip search through a passage looking for interesting or familiar techniques, and call this analysis. But to students who are focused on some end product, the what-am-I-supposed-to-be-getting-at, this is equivalent to walking down a street naming the plants that you see. It doesn't seem to add up to anything.

You can’t perform an adequate analysis without deciding on a meaning for the text, even if you change your mind after you've tested that meaning.

What we're really doing in the first round of analysis is deductive reasoning. In our reading, we come up with a general meaning from all the facets of the text and we test it against the specifics of the text itself. We adjust our idea of the general meaning and present it as a thesis about that text. Other people - those who read our essays - then perform inductive reasoning. They look at what we've said about textual specifics, and work backwards to see it does indeed arrive at the claim (the meaning) that we've offered. This deductive/inductive pairing is how cultures arrive at a shared opinion about a text - a good example, if you need one, is the ever-popular The Handmaid's Tale, or the Star Wars movies (the old ones, from the 1970s, which are examples of the Messiah grand-narrative).

It's hard to tell students this, because it demands that they decide for themselves what a text means. As I said in the last post, sometimes it may not mean anything much to them. It takes courage in a teacher to let them deal with that discomfort in a class. Simply giving the class a meaning and then asking them to find evidence which supports it feels easy, but makes it harder for them in the long run - this is why the reading task in Paper 1 is generally done very poorly. In the exam, they have to read the short texts, come up with a meaning, and then find the evidence to support it. If they've never had to decide on a meaning themselves, it's impossible to do it under exam pressure.

Hang in there and let students feel the challenge of coming to their own meaning.

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