As you do your reading for the honors exam, you will take notes that you can share with the rest of us, too. 

Remember that you won’t have time on the exam to discuss all of the texts in detail, so you don’t need to be an expert in everything (which is a good thing, because nobody can be an expert in everything!). You just have to know a bit about all the things and a lot about some of them. Your notes will help you get there.

You can choose to focus your attention on the texts that interest you most, taking notes that you’ll share on:

  • Two (out of six) works of literary theory; and
  • Five (out of twenty) works of literature.

Make your choices intentionally. Choose a range of texts that you can analyze on the exam to demonstrate your strengths as a critic of literature written in English. 

Your notes should be 2-3 pages long, using this format to capture essential features of the literary and theoretical texts.

In addition to your notes, you will report on the notes once over the course of the semester.


The primary goals of your notes on theoretical texts are to:

  • Summarize the essential features of the text (the thesis, motive, evidence, analysis) in your own words, and
  • Suggest several ways that this theory could work as a lens on a literary text we’re reading together.

You should try to be objective in your summarizing notes (part A), providing a summary that anyone could use, and subjective in your suggestive notes (part B), indicating ideas that are original to you.

A. What does this text say and how does it say it?

1. The thesis: What is the central argument of this theoretical text? Summarize that “true but arguable” claim in your own words, and quote a passage from the text (one to three sentences) that captures it.

2. The motive: How is this theoretical text intervening in an existing conversation to show contemporary critics something significant that we don’t already know? Summarize the motive in your own words, and quote a passage from the text (one to three sentences) that captures it.

3. The evidence and analysis: Describe how the author analyzes evidence to prove their thesis, giving an example or two. What texts prove most important to this theorist’s argument? Describe how the theorist reads the evidence to demonstrate the main point of the theory. Cite page numbers and examples 

B. How does this theory work as a lens on a text? How could we use it?

Write a paragraph or two to suggest ways that you or your classmates could use this text on the exam. What literary texts could you analyze with this text as a lens? Try writing an essay question that you hope to get, and indicate how you could answer it with this text as your theoretical tool


The primary goals of your notes on literary texts are to:

  • Summarize what the text is “about”;
  • Explain why it is historically important;
  • Locate it in literary history, so you can name its period, genre, etc., and
  • Cite memorable passages in the text that illustrate its significance.

Locate the text in its historical context/literary history: Who wrote this text, when and where? What is this text about, and what do we need to know about its significance in its historical moment? How does it add to our literary history, and how does it reflect the concerns of its historical moment, nationally and globally? 

Identify the text in a genre: How does this text build on the generic traditions that precede it? What genre does it represent, and what is notable about the ways it uses existing conventions of the genre?

Pose theoretical/analytical questions about the text: Try writing essay questions that you might answer with an analysis of this text. What interpretive problems does this text raise, and how do you anticipate that you (or your classmates) could analyze this text on the honors exam? Cite passages and page numbers when you can.

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