Teaching Units and Ideas

Writing an Original Critical Introduction: Using Juvenilia in the Classroom
An Engaging Alternative to the Traditional Literary Research Essay


The research essay is a cornerstone of many English literature courses, whether the students are enrolled in an upper-level university-entrance secondary school English course or an undergraduate English course. We have developed and tested a three- to six- week unit that uses multiple titles of Juvenilia Press volumes as models of the editorial selection process and of the critical introduction as a genre. After examining a range of critical introductions in order to analyze their audience, purpose, structure, and style, students produce their own original, researched critical introductions. The purpose of these papers is to introduce to their teacher and classmates a selection of short, non- mainstream texts that they believe have literary merit. This unit may be adapted to suit the students' level of preparedness, the instructor's overall goals for the course, and the time available.


After reading and analyzing a variety of critical introductions, found in a range of Juvenilia Press volumes, each student is tasked with identifying a slender collection of short pieces that she feels deserve attention for their literary merit, for which she writes a well-researched critical essay that effectively and usefully introduces these pieces to her instructor and classmates. The student must (with instructor approval) choose her own material to introduce, and it must be material that has received very little critical attention. Depending on the objectives of the course, the instructor may choose to specify a genre, region, or literary period. Examples of materials that students may choose include the following:

  • a selection of lyrics by a popular songwriter two or three short stories selected from a recently published collection by a local writer
  • a selection of essays by an up-and-coming journalist
  • a relatively neglected early work by a well-known author (this may or may not be juvenilia). The instructor may require the student to use research in choosing her material, or
  • the instructor may encourage the student to choose material she already knows well and admires. The student is not permitted to use material on the course syllabus.

Features and Benefits of this Unit

  • The student and not the instructor is the expert on the material being introduced, and the student chooses the material to be introduced; this increases task commitment.
  • The material to be introduced is not canonical, which makes plagiarism difficult, and greatly reduces the likelihood that the student will fear that there is nothing left for him to do but recycle what other scholars have said already.
  • Critical introductions tend to be directed at an educated general readership; they are not written for publication in scholarly journals. The diction, style, and thesis of a critical introduction are thus relatively easy for the student to appreciate and imitate.
  • Several of the Juvenilia Press model introductions are written in whole or in part by students; such authors can be less intimidating and at the same time more inspiring to our own students than established academics whose careers and writing may appear leagues apart from their own.
  • The Juvenilia Press volumes are models of what we ask students to do in this unit: they identify under-read and underappreciated works of literature, and they help potential readers to appreciate what makes them interesting and valuable. They serve a real purpose in the world; they are not just exercises.
  • The Juvenilia Press introductions vary widely in their approach, offering student writers an invitingly broad range of possibilities from which to choose thoughtfully and purposefully in planning their own writing.
  • The Juvenilia Press combines serious scholarship with a lighthearted approach, which students find appealing and are interested in imitating.
  • The multiple-titles approach combined with the expectation of research and focused close study requires that students read broadly as well as deeply.

Suggested Unit of Study

Required Materials: multiple copies of the following Juvenilia Press titles (or substitutions): minimum one per student. (For instance, five copies each of five different volumes is the minimum necessary for a class of 25 students.) In the following list we focus on volumes that contain multiple texts, but this is not essential.

Atwood, Margaret. A Quiet Game and Other Early Works. Ed. Kathy Chung and Sherrill Grace.
Brontë, Branwell with contributions by Charlotte Brontë. Branwell's Blackwood's Magazine. Ed.
 Christine Alexander with Vanessa Benson.
Brontë, Charlotte. Tales of the Islanders Vol. 1. Ed. Christine Alexander and others.
---. Tales of the Islanders Vol. 2. Ed. Christine Alexander and others
---. Tales of the Islanders Vol. 3. Ed. Christine Alexander and others
---. Tales of the Islanders Vol. 4. Ed. Christine Alexander and others
Carroll, Lewis. The Rectory Magazine. Ed. Valerie Sanders and Elizabeth O'Reilly.
Austen, Jane. A Collection of Letters. Ed. Juliet McMaster.
---. Jane Austen's Men. Ed. Sylvia Hunt.
---. Three Mini-Dramas. Ed. Juliet McMaster, Lesley Peterson, and others.
Hewett, Dorothy. The Gipsy Dancer & Early Poems. Ed. Christine Alexander, with others.
Laurence, Margaret. Embryo Words. Ed. Nora Foster Stovel and others.
---. Colors of Speech. Ed. Nora Foster Stovel and others.
Porter, Anna Maria. Artless Tales. Ed. Leslie Robertson, Lesley Peterson, Juliet McMaster, and

Week or Stage One: Juvenilia Press Volumes and Their Introductions

Lesson 1: Juvenilia Press (1-2 classes)

  • With reference to the Juvenilia Press website, the instructor briefly explains the JP mission, then gives students class time to browse the volumes, read the literature, and discuss it with one another. (This could be expanded into multiple lessons, using the jigsaw method to allow students to explore all the titles in part by reading and in part by teaching them to one another.)
  • The instructor points out the critical apparatus, especially the introductions.

Homework Assignment #1:

  • Choose one volume, read the literary contents, come back to the next class prepared to discuss.
  • Possible guiding questions: What did you enjoy about the story or stories? What did you find surprising or puzzling? Why do you think they were worth reading? What do you think other people your age would like about them?

Lesson 2: Juvenilia (1 class)

Using homework as springboard, the instructor leads the class in discussion of
juvenilia as a genre: What are its characteristics? What makes it worth studying?
Why do we think it has been neglected as literature?

Homework Assignment #2:

  • Read the critical introduction to "your" volume of choice with today's discussion in mind. Make notes, then come back to the next class prepared to discuss. (This assignment can be narrowly focused or open-ended. For instance, with a junior class, the student could simply be asked to bring in a list of three points made in the introduction that she found useful.)

Lesson 3: Critical Introductions (1-2 classes)

  • Put students in groups in which they compare their experiences of reading different introductions. Again, if time allows, a jigsaw approach would work well here. If time allows, it would also be useful to allow students to trade titles with one another and have time between classes just to read. Ideally they will have read at least two introductions closely, and will have a good idea of the contents of one or two others, before proceeding to Homework Assignment #3.
  • Drawing on group discussions, the instructor then leads the class in discussion of critical introductions as a genre. Possible guiding questions: What makes an introduction worth reading? What makes it easy or interesting to read? What features of an introduction do you find particularly useful? What elements of the texts did you appreciate or understand better as a result of reading these introductions? How do the unique features of a particular text help to determine the content and organization of the introduction?

Homework Assignment #3:

  • Ask students to look at the bibliographies of their critical introductions and make notes on the following questions: what topics do the editors research? What kind of sources do they turn to?

Week or Stage Two: Beginning the Project

Lesson 1: Critical Introduction Criteria (1-2 classes)

  • If the instructor has not already done so, he should at this point explain to the students that they will be researching and writing their own critical introductions to material of their choice. Depending on the class, on the instructor's priorities, and on the available time, the instructor should either provide students with a list of the functions of a critical introduction or guide students in developing one as a class. In addition to the topics covered in the previous lessons, students should discuss the differences and similarities between a critical introduction and the research papers they have written in the past. Important topics to cover include audience, purpose, and style.

Lesson 2: Choosing the Project (1 class or more)

  • Students are now invited to choose the material they are going to select, research, and introduce. Unless the instructor wants students to browse and select from a pre-determined list of texts, students should be encouraged to brainstorm possible materials: what have you read or listened to lately that you thought was really well written? Can you think of any writers (this may include songwriters) who you think are really good, or really important, but undervalued? Students may need quite a bit of time to settle on their topic, including class time to discuss ideas with one another and the instructor, if available. It is often helpful to ask students to develop a short list of 3-5 possible topics before asking them to commit to one. If time allows, ask students to bring in copies of the texts they are thinking of proposing, and discuss them informally with one another in small groups.

Homework Assignment #4:

  • Each student is required to submit a brief written proposal (approximately 250 words) in which she identifies the author and the works she wishes to focus on for this project, and provides a rationale.
  • The rationale should address both the quality or importance of the texts and the current state of critical attention. For instance, "There isn't anything about this author on Wikipedia!" or "I can't find anything on-line about these stories" would be strong points in favour of a proposal.
  • The rationale should also confirm that the proposed texts fall within the length limits specified by the instructor. We recommend that these not be too long: three poems or two short stories might suffice. The process of elimination is itself a valuable opportunity for analysis and reflection.
  • These proposals should be graded, but Pass/Fail may be sufficient. The student is not permitted to submit her final paper unless her proposal has received a passing grade.
  • If time allows, we recommend taking a class period for students to present their proposals to one another. Alternatively, these could be posted on-line and made available to other students for response. The instructor could require every student to respond to at least one other student's proposal.

Week or Stage Three: Research and Writing

The Assignment (1 class or more)

  • The instructor should specify appropriate criteria for the finished product, and may also wish to specify required steps in the writing process.
  • The final product will consist of two parts, and the instructor may assign two deadlines for these: the primary texts, carefully transcribed, and the critical introduction itself.
  • The assignment should reference the criteria for a critical introduction developed in Stage One. The instructor should also specify the following: number and range of secondary sources required and total length of paper (we recommend 3-10 pages, depending on the class)
  • The instructor should specify that the paper must include specific references to the primary text as well as well synthesized material from secondary sources, should be in formal English with an appropriate structure, should have a strong focus, and should have an appropriate title. Grading criteria and required steps of the writing process should be specified by the instructor.
  • The instructor may choose to allocate one or more classes for research, drafting, outlining, and/or revision.

The Final Product

  • We encourage the instructor to find ways for student editors to share their work with others. Why not send some of the best papers to the Juvenilia Press? We'd love to publish sample student work on our website!

Dr. Lesley Peterson, University of North Alabama
with Dr. Leslie Robertson, University of Alberta

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