My recent reading of Lisa See’s SHANGHAI GIRLS rekindled my interest in exploring the possibilities of using fiction in the college classroom to promote critical thinking. I say “rekindled” because I have previously used fiction in the classroom; a couple years ago I asked my class to read THE COLOR PURPLE (Harcourt, 1982) by Alice Walker. I selected that particular novel because I wanted a book that was complex yet accessible and thus THE COLOR PURPLE was a perfect choice. Prior to our reading, I did not tell the students to look for anything in particular; I passed out the books and said, “Let’s read.” About a week and a half later, we started discussing the book. It was obvious the students connected with the book, especially in regard to the family issues. Our discussions were lively and detailed; I recently started wondering why our reading of THE COLOR PURPLE was so successful. Why did a highly emotional story help my students think analytically? With these questions in mind, I reread THE COLOR PURPLE and continued my reading of academic articles on using fiction to encourage critical thinking.
Rereading the novel reminded me of how emotional the story is and that the turmoil is connected to the most basic human structure—the family. I’d also forgotten that THE COLOR PURPLE is written in a series of letters and that the letters are written in simple language with non-standard spellings and grammatical use. For example, from one of Nettie’s letters: “Dear God, I ast Shug Avery what she want for breakfast. She say, What yall got?...White women in it laughing, holding they beads out on one finger, dancing on top of motorcars.” (COLOR, p51). Using letters to tell the story allows the reader to be close to the characters and yet distant as the same time. I can see now that it is Nettie’s simple language and constant presence through her voice that intensifies the emotional impact of the novel. Having reaffirmed that the novel is indeed written to tap into the reader’s emotion, and with a new understanding of why that is so, I asked myself again, why did an emotional novel help my students think analytically?
As a developmental instructor, one of my primary goals is to help students pull their emotion and intellect apart. Louise Rosenblatt, in her book LITERATURE AS EXPLORATION, notes that fiction provides students the opportunity to identify their emotions, test their assumptions, and consequently reject or revise their original reactions. (LITERATURE, p215) She continues on to state that, “It seems reasonable to suggest, therefore, that in building up the habit of mind essential to the attainment of sound literary judgment, the student will also be acquiring mental habit valuable for the development of sound insight into ordinary human experience.” (LITERATURE, p215-216) In short, thinking generates more thinking and high level critical thinking generates more high level critical thinking.
But does the reading of fiction have advantages over non-fiction? Rosenblatt believes so. She pointed out that it is easy to think about complex human problems when emotions are not involved. This ease is a disservice to students as this type of setting, a non-emotional one, is not realistic. Students need the challenge that is supplied by emotion; fiction supplies that challenge as “literature offers an opportunity to develop the ability to think rationally within an emotionally colored context” (LITERATURE, p217).
As a result of my rekindled interest, I asked the leader of the writing faculty “team” if I could incorporate a novel in my composition course next semester. She requested that I make my request of the entire team at our next meeting. I did and received the go-ahead from the writing team to do a pilot using fiction as part of my composition course next semester. I’m excited about moving ahead, even though I am a bit anxious due to the fact that my team required convincing. I’ll be putting Rosenblatt’s theories to the test as I continue looking into this practice.