A Quizzing Glass

This week I decided to organize a quiz on my work so far this term. Quizzes require me to demonstrate knowledge, and in the case of our English program, to demonstrate critical thinking and argumentation. My hope was this quiz would show me what I know. It has been an oddly comical experience because I learned precisely what I did not know, which, as it turns out, is much more valuable. My quiz raised many wonderfully perplexing questions about the process of reading, argument and writing, and helped me master a long-standing obstacle in my academic work.

The first step in my study strategy is to note what specific topics I want to investigate in each course. With these topics in mind I begin to read broadly in each unit. Then, with an understanding of authors and the literary culture of the period, I focus my further reading on texts and authors that best support research into my areas of special interest. My ‘quiz’ was intended to help me progress confidently, and develop a strong foundation of knowledge for each unit before moving on to more focused research.

One point of interest to me is genre and conventions. It interests me partly because there are usually questions about conventions and genre in every exam, they touch on interdisciplinary research, and because they supply good points for arguments on other topics.  My quiz question was ‘list the conventions’ associated with each of the four units I will sit exams for in May.  I found that to satisfactorily pass my quiz and  satisfy my concerns about the progress and scope of my learning it was necessary to articulate a more detailed definition of convention and genre.

It was surprised because I thought at this point this information would be almost rote learning for me.   It really is a very rich and complex topic.  The term ‘convention’ opened a wide-ranging discussion. It made me wonder if I really have a good understanding of literary terms. I expected to express specifics about what I know. Instead I needed something like a quizzing glass to closely study the definitions of these terms before attempting to apply them to texts or any discussion about literary cultures.

This became important to me while reading Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ Behn’s ‘Oroonoko,’ and reviewing several of Shakespeare’s plays this week. What is it about these works, so removed from my time and place, that is so affecting? I have often wondered how consciously authors, of prose particularly, manipulate literary devices. How can they be so persuasive? Reading Defoe and Behn gives a remarkable sense of place, while Shakespeare’s work leaves me with an incredible sense of his time – his work transports this reader in a completely different way. What does convention and genre have to do with the effects these texts produce in the reader?

The decision to give myself a one question quiz helped me better understand both literary terms and texts. It also helped me understand what actually happens when I read, how to write about my responses to texts, and improve my attempt to analyze authors’ techniques and style. Most interestingly, my quiz helped me get a better understanding of how to develop an argument. Defining terms in very specific ways and writing my answers with focus on each specific point made organizing an essay plan much easier. Many students in our chat rooms say organizing an essay plan and developing a strong argument is a challenge. It has been for me, and now I know why. In addition to clarifying literary terms my quiz facilitated critical thinking and helped me apply the essay planning and writing skills I have labored over in this course of study. One quiz helped me measure knowledge and advance skills. That’s great progress from one study session.

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