Dear Literature Tests,
We have a problem. And, don’t worry, it’s not your usual, “English is awful, blah blah, I hate reading” junk, I promise. Honestly, I love you. I mean, not you in particular, but what you’re about. The “literature” part of you is what I absolutely adore – the “test” part, well, it could use some work.
Again, I would like to emphasize that I don’t hate you just because you’re a test; it’s the type of questions that you ask. I know, I know, not all tests are the same, but hear me out.
If I read a book, say Romeo and Juliet, and you asked me questions like, “Who are the characters? What are they doing? Where does the story take place?” – that’s totally fine. Those questions are completely acceptable because they deal with information that you can find answers to in the text.
If you give me something to read – this time let’s use Hamlet – and you ask me to tell you what I felt his “to be, or not to be,” speech was about, it’s still okay, but you’re starting to get on the fence here. I’ll explain further. Being a popular monologue, it’s known that Hamlet is contemplating whether or not to kill himself. However, someone who is reading it for the first time may interpret it as something entirely different. So, my question to your question regarding what this speech is about, is this: Would someone be marked as incorrect if they perceived the speech to be about him contemplating whether or not to kill his uncle? They give evidence from the text, and all that jazz, to prove their point.
If you say, yes, they would be marked as incorrect, then we have arrived to the issue at hand. In my opinion, you cannot grade someone based on their interpretation of a work, that is unless they give an answer that is completely opposite to what they’ve read. This is why it’s called interpretation, everyone perceives things differently. Here’s a passage for you:
Her heart began to race as the monarch butterfly landed upon her shiny black shoes. Hands balled into fists, blue waves crashed inside her stomach and nausea sat still like the buzz of a fly that won’t leave you alone. Imaginary steam rose from her ears, eyes dilated like quarters resting on the purple petals of a flower. She was frozen under the heat of the sun until its wings lifted the creature back into the sky. Huffing with annoyance, she crossed her arms, pulled in her legs, and quietly continued to read her book, occasionally peeking around, wary of the delicate creature’s return.
Now tell me, what was the author’s overall message? Is it A: about anger, B: about anxiety, C: about fear, or D: about irritation? Funny how it seems like all of these answers could be correct, isn’t it? This, this right here, is the “big deal.” What’s your answer? Sorry that’s incorrect, because it can be interpreted as all of these! Now the passage I wrote was purposefully ambiguous, but this situation can apply to numerous works.
Don’t take this the wrong way, my dear Literature Tests. I’m not telling you to stop asking people how they feel or what they think about the things they read. I’m simply asking for you to go about it in a different way. If you are going to grade someone based on their interpretations, have a discussion about it, let them explain what they thought it was about, and then offer another way of seeing it. Praise people for their insight, even if it’s not mainstream. I don’t want my AP score on literature and composition to be based around “um”s and “I guess”es because the whole first half was filled with multiple choice questions on interpretation. Unless I tell you a passage that’s obviously about puppies was actually about kittens, I don’t want to be told I’m wrong for reading between the lines, for thinking outside the box, for working to see all sides of a problem and the possible solutions. Encourage me to think beyond, and don’t shut me down for not matching your thoughts.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. I do appreciate it greatly, and I hope you will take my concerns into consideration.
A Literature Student
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.