ENG-L 202: Literary Interpretation

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was to] read, take notes, re-read, and read some more.”

–anonymous student comment

ENG-L 202 introduces undergraduates to the major theoretical movements, thinkers, and concepts of 20th and early-21st century critical and literary theory, with a special focus on how concepts like authorship and originality, textuality/reading, and even identity circulate throughout the diverse tools and practices of literary interpretation. Students also learn the basic “grammar” of literary interpretation: theme, plot, character, setting, etc. Because ENG-L 202 is taken by many students regardless of major and currently serves as the de facto introductory/gateway course for the English major, I organized this course differently from a traditional theory or “intro to literary interpretation” course. For example, rather than obsessing over individual theorists, thinkers, and schools of thought, this course is organized around concepts and sites—politics, texts, difference/s, culture, and ideology.

The primary idea is to teach undergraduate students—most of whom are not English majors—how to approach, analyze, and interpret literary (and even some non-literary) texts. This approach is based on the belief that interpretation is perhaps the interdisciplinary enterprise, one that is indispensable to all areas of inquiry. In practical terms, this means that students in ENG-L 202 learn about different ways of approaching and interpreting literary texts, but my ultimate goal is always that they learn different ways of understanding. Some of the most positive course evaluations of my teaching career have come from this course, as evidenced by the epigraph I chose for this Course Profile above. I have also received several unsolicited personal notes—such as the one reprinted in the final section below—about the quality of this course from students.

I first taught ENG-L 202 in Fall 2014, and it also represented my first attempt at teaching an “L”-designated (i.e., literature) course at IU Kokomo. I was gratified to be able to expand and round out my teaching portfolio. Keeping in mind both the fact that this course is generally taken by non-English majors and the fact that this course traditionally has a rather large enrollment (29 students completed the course in fall of 2014), I decided to design the course more as an interpretive, “tools-based” survey of literature and concepts central to literary interpretation and theory (e.g., culture, authorship, ideology, subjectivity, etc.).

This pedagogical approach worked. The qualitative comments for this course were perhaps the most effusively positive I have ever received: “The instructor pushed me beyond my ordinary abilities,” “It [the course] was a completely different way of looking at things in life,” “This class made me think about topics I had not studied before,” and “I liked that this course actually made me think things through, unlike some of my other classes.” One student even wrote that s/he learned, way too many valuable things to pick just one, but I guess the class has changed my worldview, and that has made me a better, smarter person.”

Several students liked the enthusiasm and energy that I brought to the class lectures and discussions. One student remarked, “I really like the way the instructor gets people involved in class discussions, and I also liked the course readings… I learned to question everything.” In short, students seemed to enjoy and learn a great deal from our lively class discussions and my use of multimedia texts in lectures and weekly assignments, in-class writing, and discussion forum posts.

I tried to make this course as valuable and useful as possible to the greatest number of students: useful and relevant for the English or Humanities major, but also capacious enough to be of some practical use to a Business or Nursing student, too. I try to bring this pedagogical orientation to all of my courses, but as I mentioned previously, the make-up of ENG-L 202 lends itself best to this sort of focus. As one student wrote, “The material in this course was presented and discussed in a manner that allowed all students to understand.”

The student critiques of the course fall into one of three categories: (1) the grading system for discussion posts and forums was unclear and there were too many required posts; (2) the reading load was too heavy, and (3) the course readings pushed too hard against some students’ beliefs and were sometimes offensive. (For example, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was singled out a couple of times by students for its vulgarity and subject matter.) To address the issue of unclear grading, I developed an improved rubric document called “Guidelines for Discussions.” This rubric and guidelines document has been so successful in ENG-L 202 that I continue to tweak and revise t for different courses I teach in which discussion posts, forums, and even blogs are routine assignments. I remain sensitive to the fact that students are often inundated with readings and with discussion posts, and one significant revision for the next time I teach ENG-L 202 is that I’m going to try to space-out our discussion posts such that we have time in class to highlight and discuss some of the more compelling posts from one week to the next.

I am also quite sensitive to students’ perceptions of the content of the readings and their usefulness or relevance to the course, but I think one of the great advantages to teaching humanities courses is the exposure that students receive to provocative, controversial, and, frankly, different texts and experiences. Humanities scholars and teachers have an obligation to help students explore—together, in small seminars as well as large non-majors courses—the significant conflicts and contradictions of our shared circumstances. There is great pedagogical value, I believe, in the kinds of productive, civil disagreements that reasonable people can have about themes, concepts, ideas, and even eras in American history (e.g., we spent significant time discussing the “War on Drugs” in the US and how competing understandings of history and culture play out in this conceptual arena).

According to the results of IU Kokomo’s most recent National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), students indicated that they do not have enough opportunities in their coursework to engage with or discuss challenging or controversial topics and discussions. I envision my version of ENG-L 202 to be in part a direct response to this indicated curricular need. Also, the data from the qualitative and quantitative portions clearly indicate that this approach produced a positive experience for the majority of students—my numbers are well over 4.0 (“Agree”) in almost all categories and over 4.5 in many, while some students described their experience in the course as “enlightening,” “stimulating,” and “incredibly useful for any undergrad student.” “Well organized, & the subject was easier to understand because of Dr. C,” was how one commenter put it.

Learning Outcomes

  • read literary and theoretical texts in a more active, engaged, and scholarly way;
  • apply different critical and theoretical lenses to literary texts;
  • demonstrate proficiency in close readings of varied forms of art and texts;
  • trace and discuss the development of major concepts in critical theory and literary studies;
  • use critical thinking, research, analysis, and synthesis to construct a cogent, well-written argument.

Course Evaluation Summaries (Quantitative)

I have now taught ENG-L 202 five times in two formats (i.e., regular term and summer term), which has offered me many opportunities for revision and pedagogical experimentation. The highest possible score in each of the following categories is 5.00 = “Strongly Agree.” (*Note: The fifth iteration of this course, which I taught in Summer of 2017, was also successful, but I will not receive these course evaluations until the Fall of 2017; hence they cannot be included here.)

ENG-L 202: Literary Interpretation Fall

2014 (22526)

Summer 2015


Fall 2015 (29317) Summer 2016 (1300)
1.)   The course was well organized. 4.46 4.73 4.64 4.56
2.)   My instructor is well prepared for class meetings. 4.50 4.64 4.64 4.67
3.)   My instructor explains the material clearly. 4.19 4.45 4.64 4.33
4.)   My instructor stimulates my thinking. 4.38 4.45 4.73 4.78
5.)   My instructor is knowledgeable on course topics. 4.73 4.64 4.82 4.78
6.)   My instructor shows genuine interest in students. 4.58 4.36 4.73 4.44
7.)     My instructor is regularly available for consultation. 4.58 4.45 4.68 4.67
8.)     My instructor encourages me to participate in class discussions. 4.54 4.45 4.68 4.78
9.)     Announced course objectives agree with what is taught. 4.42 4.18 4.32 4.33
10.)  I am pleased with the text required for this course. 3.85 4.36 4.55 4.22
11.)  Directions for course assignments are clear and specific. 4.19 4.09 4.55 4.33
12.)  The instructor used technology in ways that helped my learning of concepts and principles. 4.35 3.91 4.45 4.11
13.)  Standards for student achievement are reasonable. 4.19 3.55 4.50 3.89
14.)  The instructor collected enough evidence for valid grading. 4.19 4.09 4.64 4.33
15.)  The grading system for the course was clearly explained. 4.12 3.64 4.59 4.33
16.)  Grades were assigned fairly and impartially. 3.92 3.73 4.59 4.22
17.)  The instructor promotes an atmosphere conducive to learning. 4.62 4.45 4.59 4.44
18.)  I kept up with the studying and work for this course. 4.19 4.45 4.64 4.11
19.)  I actively participated in class activities and discussions. 4.12 4.36 4.32 4.44
20.)  I learned a lot in this course. 4.19 4.27 4.62 4.56
21.)  I developed skills in critical thinking in this course. 4.35 4.27 4.57 4.67
22.) This course increased my interest in the subject matter. 3.56 4.00 4.60 4.11

Course Evaluation Summaries (Qualitative)

Summer 2016

“I liked learning about literature and how to break it down and analyze it. I have a new appreciation for literature.”

“The workload was pretty intense, but I should have anticipated that with this being a summer course.”

“This course does a good job of stimulating the thinking process, and Dr. Cook is right there to assist and push it along. He’s a very energetic and enthusiastic professor.”

“[What I liked least about the class was] being the youngest in the class.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned was] how to read better.”

“[What I liked most about the class was] break time.”

“[What I liked most about the course was] his enthusiasm.”

“I struggled occasionally with quizzes because I didn’t have enough time.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this class was] how to dig deep into poetry.”

“I liked specifically the book The Theory Toolbox because it generated thinking that is different from the usual way of thinking. I really enjoyed reading, but I believe the discussions [sic] homework should be in class. The instructor needs to try not [to] enforce the workload of 8 weeks – 16 weeks in a 6 week course. The class is better at being a 16 week course. Critical thinking was great to learn.”

“Dr. Cook [is a] good teacher.”

“Course is very important everyone I will advise everyone to take.”

“Dr. Cook was engaged.”

“[What I liked least about the course is that] it was’t online.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] active reading.”

“[What I liked most about the instructor was that he was] very fun and always stimulated thinking.”

“[What I liked least about the course was] the amount of courseload work each night.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] how to closely read something and see the deeper meaning.”

Fall 2015

“I enjoyed how knowledgeable that instructor was, and how complicated theories and ideas were clearly explained.”

“I wish we would have spent more time on plays in this course.”

“The most valuable thing I learned was how to develop my skills in analyzing literature.”

“The professor was enthusiastic and interesting and the readings were great.”

“Too early.”

“How to look more deeply into literary works to understand them.”

“Promoted critical thinking while being enjoyable.”

“The instructor has a lot planned for each lesson but seldom gets to it all.”

“New ways to look at literature, culture, and life. This was a very interesting and useful course and I encourage everyone to try it.”

“The open atmosphere. Dr. Cook made class discussions open to all of us and made it easier to voice opinions.”

“I learned skills to further critical thinking. I also took away a new way of looking at literary texts.”

“The instructor was very knowledgeable and had the class well organized.”

“The worst part about class was that it was at 8:30am.”

“I learned that I need to look at all perspectives of a subject/problem before judging.”

“I liked most about this class the challenge the instructor gave me. Through his critical thinking challenges, I learned an abundance of knowledge.”

“I didn’t have anything to dislike.”

“The most valuable thing I learned in this course was the ability to analyze things more deeply than I could have imagined.”

“[The thing I liked most about this class was] that it was a discussion based class.”

“[The thing I liked least about this course was] that the grading system was confusing. Points would be deducted from discussions for unexplained reasons.”

“[The thing I liked most about this course was] how to look at the bigger picture in social situations and when reading texts.”

“Dr. Cook was very knowledgeable about the subject and the text was useful.”

“No complaints regarding course/instructor.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] how to look at things in more than just the literal sense.”

“Very influential, and inspiring.”

“Wish it was year long.”

“Dr. Cook has really expanded my thinking, and I am grateful for that.”

“I liked the class discussions, and the topics covered. I thought it drove the material home, and help [sic] me understand.”

“The grading scale was fair, but never got clear explanations on what was needed for achieving above 90s. Though a lot of feedback was given.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] perspective, and new ways of looking at the world.”

“[What I liked most about the course was] the different subject matters.”

“[What I liked least about the course was] all the required reading.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] critical thinking.”

“I enjoyed the subject matter and the concepts taught through this course.”

“I did not always feel like class time was used effectively. There were several times when a point Dr. Cook was trying to make was made clear 20 minutes into class and then he would continue to lecture on it for the rest of the class time, causing us not to have time to cover over things we read/did.”

“The most important/valuable thing I learned was where our ideas of identity come from and the concept of the subject vs. its symbol.”

“Dr. Cook is very understanding helping and very interesting instruction.”

“I really don’t understand this class but he gave us good explanation also [illegible].”

“I really like him the way he gave us a time and work—I believe he is one of amazing English instructor.”

“I really liked how I was able to comprehend some of the more difficult concepts in the text book. Dr. Cook made it easy to understand.”

“I didn’t like the way the midterm [exam] was set up.”

“I learned how to (really) read and analyze a text. I also learned how to question things and turn things into ‘theory.’ Loved this course!”

“Dr. Cook is very excited about what he teaches and it shows in his teaching style. This made it more exciting to be in class and learn about the literature.”

“The one thing that I didn’t really care for was The Theory Toolbox. It was hard to understand.”

“The most valuable thing I learned was I need to slow down when reading and break up what they might mean.”

“I enjoyed learning more about poetry and being able to analyze it better.”

“I did not care for the discussions that were on Canvas. At times I did not really understand what he wanted. Also, hard to understand why I got a certain grade on them.”

“I learned how to think outside the box. Reading poetry and plays were exciting to me.”

“The short stories and poems were interesting so I guess I liked that the most about this course.”

“I don’t have any complaints.”

“Learning how to evaluate subject matter more critically and objectively has been the most valuable thing I’ve learned in this course.”

“What I liked most about this class and instructor is that it challenged me. Dr. Cook chose a textbook that challenged my way of thinking and he did so through our in-class and online discussions.”

“What I liked least about the course was that Dr. Cook held higher expectations than I feel should have been expected for a 200-level course.”

“[What I liked most about this course was] that even when I don’t fully understand a text, to keep reading and re-read. Also Dr. Cook chose a textbook that really challenged my typical way of thinking and I am appreciative of that.”

“The course expanded my thoughts to be open-minded and the instructor was very passionate about every topic.”

“The course had too many reading assignments for me to juggle with other classes. The instructor was sometimes harsh on some students responses in class discussion and was too opinionated himself on some matters.”

“[What I liked most about the course was] The Theory Toolbox. [heart symbol]

Summer 2015

“Dr. Cook brought a passion for the subject to his teaching and made the materials more engaging.”

“There was more re-reading of texts than I would like (thought it was understandable that we’d need to go over some things more than once).”

“The most important thing I learned about was the nature of subjectivity vs. the ‘self’.”

“I enjoyed the discussions of the texts and hearing everyone’s view on the topics.”

“There was nothing concrete to show how I could improve on assignments or exams. I would have appreciated some direction with improvement.”

“When I think I understand a context, always look for another.”

“Learning history and popular opinions about literature.”

“There’s a lot of discussion/open group work, but not much interesting presentation of tested material.”

“Critical thinking is not a skill I need to develop to get the job I will apply for after college.”

“I liked how this course was centered around class discussion. I also liked how the instructor used real-world examples to explain hard-to-understand subject matter.”

“The quizzes were very challenging and somewhat stressful, but they were reasonable.”

“The most valuable skill that was honed in this class was close-reading. I feel confident in my ability to close-read any text.”

“I liked the subject matter and class discussions. We talked through difficult topics and held great debates.”

“I was 100% unsatisfied by the grading scale. I would receive the same grade on forum posts, whether or not I spent 5 minutes on an assignment or 5 hours on another.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was that] we should not take everything we hear as absolute fact.”

“I liked being taught how to actively read.”

“No troubles.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned was] active reading.”

“The course is very interesting and the text is relevant and entertaining. Dr. Cook is extremely enthusiastic about making sure his students are engaged in class.”

“I would have preferred to have taken the course in fall in order to really dive into the material. The summer timeframe means a heavy workload.”

“Just in general more about close reading and how to leave myself behind while attempting to interpret texts.”

“[What I liked most about the instructor was that Dr. Cook was] super passionate about the topics.”

“[What I liked least about the course was] the ideology that we studied.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] to question everything.”

“Enjoyed the course material and the organization of the course.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] developing close reading skills.”

Fall 2014

“The instructor pushed me beyond my ordinary abilities.”

“Although I understand the use and the necessity of the course books, one was extremely offensive.”

“I learned to go beyond my set limitations and that everything is questionable.”

“He was enthusiastic and energetic in the classes and kept the course and discussions as interesting as he could.”

EVERYTHING we did was worth 100 POINTS! That’s crazy.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] critical thinking skills.”

“Dr. Cook was very knowledgeable and really explained things until we understood what he was saying.”

“I felt the works we read were very biased, particularly against religion.”

“[What I liked most about the course was] reading texts I enjoy (such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and that so clearly pushed some students beyond their comfort zone. I also think Dr. Cook deserves recognition for making so much time for students on top of everything else he does.”

“[What I liked least about the course was] not having consistent due dates for discussions and quizzes.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] that Marxism actually has some popularity.”

“Well-organized and the subject was interesting and easier to understand because of Dr. C.”

“The only thing I disliked in this class were some of my former students.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] critical thinking skills.”

“It was a completely different way of looking at things in life.”

“Sometimes I felt offended by comments about my religion.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] not accepting everything as natural fact.”

“This course is incredibly useful for any undergraduate student—it challenges the way we’ve always lived and looked at the world. Curiosity is a dying aspect of human life, and this class taught me to question everything. I cannot imagine having this class with anyone other than Paul Cook. He is the best, most helpful instructor I’ve had at IUK. He is knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and facilitates excellent discussion and learning. I don’t know how he ended up teaching here instead of some Ivy League school, but I feel incredibly fortunate to have had him.”

“Every class period seemed very unorganized. We were told to read material that we never discussed and discussions in class were confusing. There never seems to be a plan. Almost all instructions for assignments were unclear as to what we were to do. Even when questions were asked, there was not a direct answer given.” 

“[The most valuable thing I learned was] how everything is ideological.”

“I liked the Canvas discussions and the Zizek documentary. Both stimulated my critical thinking skills.”

“I would have liked more notice for the discussions. I liked doing them, but I felt like they were announced with little time to complete the assignments.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was that] ‘everything is suspect’ and the way history is presented to us.”

“The class made me think about topics I had not studied before.”

“I do not feel the course description matched the actual class. Also, I felt the topics were presented from one side. I felt many of the works and even the textbook was not an academic source.”

“I liked how this course stimulated my thinking with our class discussions.”

“I did not like some of the books we had to read. The book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had little to do with the main reading book Theory Toolbox. Most of the class was difficult to understand and wished the teacher would check with the students about how we felt about the assignments.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this class was] the importance of critical and independent thinking.”

“I liked the amount of time we got to talk as a class in order to understand the subject matter more.”

“We had quite a lot of reading assignments and I do not think we thoroughly discussed a few of them.”

“I learned reading strategies and how to analyze material at the collegiate level.”

“I liked his enthusiastic way of teaching.”

“Having only two days to work on some assignments [was what I liked least about the class]. I would’ve like [sic] to know ahead of time to fit in with my work schedule.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was that] everything is about interpretation and how it is viewed.”

“Some of the course topics were interesting and challenged some of my views.”

“I felt that my instructor was only open to opinions that matched his own. I felt as though he favored some students over others. I also thought some of his lessons were not academic and added nothing to the course objective.”

“I liked the way this course challenged some of my views/ideas.”

“I was familiar with the course material before coming into the class (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), and I still had plenty to learn.”

“Sometimes lecture wasn’t as ‘goal driven’ as it could’ve been. We got off topic a lot.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned was that] EVERYTHING IS SUPECT.”

“I liked that Dr. Cook is easy to talk with. His sense of humor makes discussions more interesting than they would otherwise be.”

“I least liked the online discussions.”

“Question everything.”

“I liked that this course actually made me think things through unlike some of my other classes.”

“I disliked the grading system for this course. I don’t feel like everything should be worth 100 points.”

“The most valuable thing I learned is how to critically analyze texts.”

“The material in this course was presented and discussed in a manner that allowed all students to understand.”

“I like that the course increased thinking and Paul taught everything thoroughly.”

“[What I liked least about the course was] all the reading and how many discussion questions there were.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was to] read, take notes, re-read, and read some more.”

“Course readings were well chosen to make rather dense material more entertaining.”

“Grades were assigned fairly, but unclearly with what you need to do to improve.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] critical thinking skills.”

“[What I liked most about the course was] the selection of reading texts we were assigned at the beginning of the semester.”

“[What I liked least about the course was that there were] a lot more discussion board assignments than I anticipated.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] how to look at texts analytically and how to understand and interpret them more effectively.”

“I really liked the way the instructor gets people involved in class discussions, and I also liked the course readings.”

“I least liked doing this evaluation when there are numerous typos and grammatical errors.”

“I learned to question everything.”

“My favorite part about this course was the way it inspired me to think differently.”

“[I learned] way too many valuable things to pick just one, but I guess the class has changed my worldview, and that it has made me a better, smarter person.”

“I liked how there were class discussions almost every class.”

“I liked the discussions in the class.”

“Some of the readings were challenging.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] how to be a better reader.”

Click here for the latest Course Syllabus (Summer 2017) and here for a regular-term Course Syllabus (Fall 2015).

Click here, here, here, here, here, and here a sampling of course materials, assignments, exams, and handouts.

And finally, here is a nice note a received from a student in this course.Cook_note from student.jpg

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