Desperately Seeking Literary Response

44(3) p. 17

Desperately Seeking Literary Response

Frank Madden

Most of my students are not well equipped to write about literature. They read for the information in a work of fiction in much the same way they read for information in a science textbook. They are accustomed to thinking "convergently" and seeking a single correct response when they read; whereas the activities involved in responding to imaginative literature are characteristic of "divergent" thinking, thinking which produces a variety of responses (Guilford, 1959). In response to this problem, and to encourage students to examine the many possibilities of their experience with literature, I have written a computer program called LITERATURE JOURNAL.


Written in BASIC for the Apple IIe, the purpose of LITERATURE JOURNAL is to provide a tutorial resource which helps students understand, appreciate, and write about literature and their experience with it.

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The methodology of the program mimics the explanations, questions, and follow-up which might take place in a student-instructor conference. Prior to having students answer specific questions, general concepts are explained. As questions arise from these concepts, they are explained individually. In some cases, when complex questions are asked, students' responses are displayed again; students are asked to compare their responses to the original question and are given the opportunity to revise. The aim of the questions is to encourage divergent responses by having students consider many possibilities while examining and clarifying their responses in light of their intentions.

Concepts and questions in the program are derived from four different approaches to the literary experience: affective, textual, mimetic, and expressive (McGuire, 1973). The affective approach examines the relation of the student's life and personality to the work. The textual examines the form and content of the work itself. The mimetic approach examines the work in relation to its time and culture and to our own. The expressive examines the relation of the author's life and personality to the work.


Following a "user-friendly" introduction, students are asked to provide their names and the name of the work about which they intend to write. They are given a brief explanation of each of the four approaches above, and when they are ready, students are shown the menu in Screen 1.


Although students are able to choose any of these approaches, it is recommended they start with the affective. Here, through the use of a semantic differential (Rees and Pederson, 1965), they are asked to choose the personality traits of individual characters and compare them with personality traits of their own. Examining these choices and others derived from the affective domain, and questioning the effect such choices have on their judgment, they may build a personal foundation.

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An example of how this personal foundation is developed might be illustrated by students' response to James Joyce's short story "Araby." This is a story narrated by an author who looks back on his childhood self from the vantage point of maturity. An appreciation of "Araby" requires a sensitive reader capable of remembering childhood yearnings and frustrations. Most of my students, however, typically respond by asking, "Why did you make us read that? Nothing happens in it." The affective questions encourage students to focus on and remember the illusions, infatuations, disappointments of their own growing up by having them compare their own personalities, backgrounds and experiences with those of the young protagonist. Ideally, this process sensitizes them to the emotional context of Joyce's story and enables them to appreciate it. Having made a personal connection with the work, they would then add analysis based on the traditional approaches of textual, mimetic, and expressive criticism.

If the student (John) chooses the affective questions, he will be asked to indicate which character in the story ("Araby") he feels is most important. Following his choice (the boy), he is presented with Screen 2.

If he chooses 1 or 2, the computer stores his choice as "reserved." If he chooses 4 or 5, "outgoing" is stored. If he chooses 3 the computer ignores the choice as not significant.

In all, students are presented with 11 scales of contrasting descriptives typical of a standard personality test (Hall and Lindzey, 1957) which, in addition to the choices above, will include

Controlled			-				Impulsive
Conservative			-				Experimenting
Serious 			-				Happy-go-lucky
Tough				-				Tender
Practical			-				Imaginative
Hardworking			-				Lazy
Relaxed 			-				Tense
Confident			-				Unsure
Trusting			-				Suspicious
Optimistic			-				Pessimistic.

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			Which choice would you like, John?

			1.  Affective Questions
			2.  Textual Questions
			3.  Mimetic Questions
			4.  Expressive Questions
			5.  Print Responses
			6.  End Program

	Select one of the numbers above, and press RETURN.

Screen 1

	On the following scales, choose the number which best describes the boy.

	Reserved < 1 2 3 4 5 > Outgoing

Screen 2

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	On the following scales choose the number which best describes you.

	Reserved < 1 2 3 4 5 > Outgoing

Screen 3

	How we respond to characters in fiction is often influenced by
	our identification with them.

	Sometimes, we identify with characters because we see aspects
	of our own personalities in them.

	At other times, we identify with characters because we admire	
	aspects of their personalities and wish we had them ourselves.

	(Press RETURN to continue.)

Screen 4

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After using this semantic differential to describe the character, students are asked to make the same choices about themselves (see Screen 3). These choices are followed once more by the 10 choices listed previously.

Attendant to this somewhat tedious process, are explanations for the potential importance of their answers (see Screens 4 and 5).

Following this explanation, students are asked how they "feel" about the character they've chosen. Meanwhile, back in the computer, a series of conditional commands has compared and sorted out their responses to the semantic differential.

Once students state how they feel about the character, they are presented with their earlier choices and asked to write (see Screen 6). Students are then made aware of differences between their responses and asked to write further (see Screen 7).

After writing about one character, students are given the opportunity to comment about other characters in the story. They are presented with descriptions of themselves and asked to describe additional characters in their own words (see Screen 8).

In addition to the personality questions, students are asked to write about other personal factors contributing to their responses. Selection of these questions was based on the most common type of affective connections students are likely to make (Purves, 1968), community college students in particular (Madden, 1979). These questions include the following:

  1. Did any of the characters in the story remind you of people you know? Explain.

    In what way did this affect your feelings about them?

  2. Did the setting or events in the story remind you of places or events in your own life? Explain.

    In what way did this affect your feelings about them?

  3. Did the religious or ethnic backgrounds or values of the characters remind you of your own or of people you know? Explain.

    In what way did this affect your feelings about them?

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If students answer "no" to the first question in each of these sections, the program will not branch to its follow-up sections but :will skip to the next question.

When students finish the affective section, they are returned to the menu (see Screen 1) where they may choose to get a printout of their work or move on to another section.


The Textual section takes a more traditional approach, and as the title suggests, is more concerned with the text itself. This section consists of three parts: conflict, characterization, and theme. In each of these parts, the concept is defined as clearly as possible, even to the point of oversimplification (see Screen 9).

As specific questions are asked, the students are reminded of those elements of the definition which might be helpful (see Screen 10).

In addition to external conflict, students are asked questions about internal conflict, plausibility, significance, equality of opposing elements, and unity of conflict. In each case, an appropriate statement is culled from the original definition to clarify the meaning of the question (see Screen 11).

Following the brief definition above, students are asked if they've completed the affective questions. If they have not, they are branched to that section of the affective questions where they choose and describe a character, then they're brought back. If they have already completed the affective questions, their description of a character is brought forward. They are presented with their description and asked to support it from the text (see Screen 12).

Once students provide support from the text for their choices, they are presented with a series of explanations and questions about specific elements of characterization (see Screen 13). Explanations and questions about consistency, motivation, plausibility, and roundness of characterization are also included in this section.

The most difficult of the three concepts in the Textual section for students to understand is theme. Thus, a lengthier definition and more hands-on support is provided (see Screens 14 and 15).

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	Sometimes, we respond negatively to characters because aspects 
	of their personalities are different than ours.

	And at other times we respond negatively to characters because
	aspects of their personalities are similar to ones we don't 
	like in ourselves.

	And, of course, there are other possibilities.

	(Press RETURN to continue.)

Screen 5

	Seeing aspects of our personalities in characters may influence our
	feelings about them.  Let's look at some similarities between you and
	the boy. 

	You have described both yourself and the boy as


	How have these similarities affected your feelings about the boy?

Screen 6

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Finding that characters are different than we are may influence our feelings toward them. You have described the boy as Tense Serious Optimistic How have these differences between your personalities affected your feelings about the boy? Screen 7 You have described yourself as Reserved - Tender Unsure - Pessimistic. How would you describe Mangan's sister? How have similarities or differences in your personalities affected your feelings about Mangan's sister? Screen 8

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Questions then follow which are designed to take students step by step through the process of identifying the theme of the story.

  1. What are the major details of the story?
  2. What conclusion did you draw from these details?

To create a kind of "reflective sub-vocalization," students' answers to these questions are presented back to them at reduced speed (one word at a time) and in comparison with each other (see Screen 16).

If students are not satisfied with what they have written, they are given the opportunity to revise. Only at this point are they asked to state the theme of the story.

After explanations of the terms, students are finally asked to determine if this theme preaches or interprets, is topical or universal. They are then returned to the menu to get a printout of their work or to move on to another section. The Mimetic and Expressive Questions

The Mimetic and Expressive sections of the program require a knowledge of either the actual time and place of the work and/or the author's life. Students who had (or were required to have) this knowledge might find these questions very helpful in acquiring a sophisticated understanding of the story. For example, students who had read Richard Ellmann's biography James Joyce (1983), and were familiar with the social imperatives of the late nineteenth century Ireland, might find important details of "Araby" clarified and their experience with the story enriched by examining these connections. In fact, finding such connections might enable them to anticipate and appreciate the importance of detail in other works of symbolic naturalism as well.

In both of these sections, when students answer "non to a question, the program will not branch to follow-up sections but will skip to the next question or return them to the menu. The mimetic questions examine the work in relation to its time and culture and to our own. 1. Where does "Araby" take place? 2. When does "Araby" take place?

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3a. Do you know anything about Dublin in the 1890's? (y)es / (n)o 3b. Explain. 4a. In so far as you are aware of it, does "Araby" accurately portray life in Dublin in the 1890's? (y)es / (n)o 4b. Explain. 5. Is it possible to imagine similar situations and people with similar feelings here and now? Explain. The expressive questions examine the relation of the author's life and personality to the work.

1. Who is the author of "Araby"?

2a. Do you know anything about James Joyce's life or personality? (y)es / (n)o

2b. Explain.

3a. Do any of the characters or events in "Araby" remind you of James Joyce's

or people or events in James Joyce's l (y)es / (n)o

3b. Explain.

4. Was James Joyce's life or personality an important influence on the writing of "Araby"? Explain.


During the Spring 1986 semester, forty-one students used LITERATURE JOURNAL on a regular basis. Thirty of these students expressed unreserved enthusiasm for the program, eight found it helpful and suggested improvements, and three described it as a generally unsatisfactory experience.

The average length of time spent on each story was two hours. The longest time spent by a student was eight hours, the shortest 30 minutes.

When asked what parts of the program were most helpful, nineteen identified the affective questions; twelve, the textual questions; five, the structure and explanations; four, everything; and one, nothing.

In response to what parts needed improvement, fifteen students wanted more space for answers; six, nothing, four, a shorter.

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	In fiction, CONFLlCT is the external and/or internalstr
	which results from the interaction of opposing forces or people.

	EXTERNAL CONFLICT may be `physical' (people against nature)
	or `social' (people against each other and/or a person or peop
	against society).

	INTERNAL CONFLICT is a struggle of opposing desires within
	one person.

	The best writing contains elements of both types of conflict, but
	the major emphasis is usually on the internal elements.

	(Press RETURN to continue.)

Screen 9

	`External' conflict exists between people, people and nature, or
	people and society.

	What is the major `external' conflict in "Araby"?

Screen 10

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	CHARACTERIZATION is the creation of a person in a story.
	When it is done well, this fictional person seems to be alive.

	In our own lives, we evaluate people on the basis of how they look
	and what they say and do. In the best fiction, writers will give us the
	same opportunity.  We will not be told what to thi	or feel about a
	character, we'll be able to observe the character "thinking,"
	"speaking,"  "doing. "

	As in real life, the evaluation will be our own.

	(Press RETURN to continue.)

Screen 11

	You have described the boy as Reserved - Serious Tender -	
	Tense - Unsure - Trusting - Optimistic.

	Pick two of your choices above, and explain which events in "Araby"
	support this description of the boy.

Screen 12

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	When characterization is most convincing, we are not told about the
	characters directly.  We learn about them indirectly through their
	thoughts and actions.  This type of characterization is called
	"development through implication" or "indirect presentation."  Is the
	boy developed through "implication?"  Explain.

Screen 13

	THEME is the central idea expressed by a work of fiction.  It's a
	generalization about life shown through the particular characters,
	events, and outcome of the story. 

	If we read a story in which John loves Mary, and Mary falls in love
	with Bill, we might state the simplified theme of the story as, "People
	don't necessarily fall in love with those who ar love with them."

	To identify this theme, we examined the particulars of the story,
	came to a conclusion about them, and then expanded this conclusion into
	a generalization about life itself. 

	(Press RETURN to continue.)

Screen 14

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	Be careful not to confuse "theme" with "moral."  Moral is a
	simple lesson or rule of conduct. if we tried to find a moral in
	the previous John-Mary-Bill example, we might write "Fall in 
	love only with people who love you."  But we know from
 	experience of the world that such a statement is much too
	simple to account for the complex nature of this situation.

	In quality fiction, theme is not usually expressed as a moral.  Good
	writing interprets by revealing and clarifying; it does not pr~
	by giving lessons or rules of conduct.

	Consequently, it will take more than a few words, and probably
	more than a single sentence to state the theme of a complex 

	(Press RETURN to continue.)

Screen 15


	A boy has a crush on his friend's older sister.  He tells her he 
	will buy her something at a local fair, but no one else seems to  care.
	 His uncle comes home late on the night of the fair, and by  the time
	he gets there it's about to close, he doesn't have enough  money to buy
	her anything, and the people there are cold to	him.  He feels silly
	and stupid.


	The boy is so overwhelmed by his crush on the girl, he no longer 
	sees reality. When he is smacked in the face by reality at the	end of
	the story, he sees his folly and feels ashamed at himself.

	(Y)es or (N)o

Screen 16

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program; three, better affective questions; two, clearer questions; and two, better editing features.

Typical of positive comments were the following statements: "I really liked the LITERATURE JOURNAL. It helped me evaluate the story much more thoroughly than if I did it on my own," and "I found it most helpful in gathering my ideas and writing them down in an organized way."

Negative responses included, "It is easier for me to write out my own ideas rather than answer questions taken off a disk. I had trouble using it." And a comment perhaps more in response to computers than the program, "I feel that it is unfair to me that we have to use the computer when my computer skills are so poor. After all this is a writing class."

My favorite student reaction might be described as praising with faint damnation: "It was interesting and a pretty good learning experience, but you had to read the story thoroughly."

As evidenced by their printouts and subsequent writing assignments, students who worked hard on the program seemed to understand, appreciate, and comprehensively apply the program's literary concepts in their writing.

Students often approach the task of writing about literature with great anxiety. For many students, using LITERATURE JOURNAL alleviated this anxiety. The reinforcing explanations throughout the program enabled them not only to sort out and organize their responses to a given story with confidence, but through the process, to learn the concepts well enough to apply them to other works of literature--with or without the program.

Because questions in the program did not seek a single correct response, students were more creative in their responses. They seemed to understand that the quality of an assertion was based on the nature of its supporting commentary and not the assertion itself. And though they were sometimes too reliant in their writing on the terms used to describe personality in the program, I was particularly pleased most students seemed to feel free to comment on the ways in which factors from their own lives influenced their response to the work.

Most students seemed to recognize the value of the computer as a complementary tool in a larger process which included class discussion and individual conferences. Particularly noteworthy, however, were the few negative comments about using the computer.

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For some students, using computers is a frightening experience; for these individuals, sitting in front of a computer increases anxiety. Not only must they understand and apply the literary concepts in the program, but they feel additionally burdened by having to learn how to use the computer. As more and more students become familiar with computers early in their schooling, this problem will be greatly reduced, but for now, the need of these students for special help and encouragement must not be ignored. Conclusion

There is no such thing as a generic reader or a generic ]literary work . . . The reading of any work of literature is, of necessity, an individual and unique experience involving the mind and emotions of a particular reader (Rosenblatt, 1938).

An overwhelming amount of evidence gathered over the past fifty years by researchers studying literary response indicates that each person's initial response to a work of literature is unique to that person, and that this personal response is the primary, most basic part of the literary experience and underlies all criticism (see Purves and Beach, 1972). Unlike many of us, however, who learned to appreciate literature because we experienced it first in a personal way, outside of the classroom, many of our students feel no personal attachment to it.

LITERATURE JOURNAL by itself does not solve this problem, but when used in a literature classroom where students have been encouraged to believe that emotion is as explicitly important as cognition; and that one's understanding of the "truth" of a literary work does not constitute a reason for dismissing the different understanding of others (Bleich, 1975), it is a valuable resource.

Frank Madden teaches at Westchester Community College in New York.

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Guilford, J.P. (1959). "Three Faces of Intellect." The American Psychologist, 14, 469-479.

Madden, F. Computerized content analysis of literary response: A feasibility study. (Dissertation, New York University.)

McGuire, R. L. (1973). Passionate attention. An introduction to literary study. New York: W.W. Norton.

Osgood, C., et al. (1957). The measurement of meaning. Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P.

Purves, A. and Beach R., (1972). Literature and the reader: Research in response to literature, reading interests, and the teaching of literature.Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Purves, A. and Rippere, V. (1968). Elements of writing about a literary work: A study of response to literature, Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1938, rev. 1968). Literature as exploration. New York: Noble and Noble.

Rees, R. D. and Pederson D.M. (1965). "A factorial determination of points of view in poetic evaluation and their relation to various determinants. In Psychology Reports, 16, 31-39.