Introducing the Lens
The lens essay can be difficult for students to grasp conceptually: what are we asking them to do? And
why are we asking them to do it? I find it is most effective to explain the lens essay by talking about it
in a lot of different ways on a lot of different days, rather than setting aside one large chunk of time to
“teach” the concept of the lens. Therefore, I’m including some quick soundbites/exercises/talking
points on how to get ideas flowing about the lens essay.
Defining a lens. I usually begin the lens unit by writing the word on the board. (I’ve borrowed this
exercise from Christian Gentry.) I ask the students to tell me what a lens does. The salient points here
A lens tends to magnify or exaggerate certain details
Sometimes a lens blurs or distorts other details
A lens frames your field of vision (for instance, if you wear glasses, you typically have trouble
seeing things outside the frame of your lens)
Everyday lenses. Depending on your class dynamic, it can also be useful to talk about how we use
lenses in our everyday social interactions. However, these examples presume some familiarity with
American culture and social conventions, so it might not work for a class with a lot of foreign students.
Additionally, since some of these talking points touch on sensitive issues, you might not want to try
this if your class dynamic is uncertain.
- Politics. What if I am talking about a politician, and I claim, “Of course he doesn’t believe in
this” or “Of course he supports that: he’s a Republican!” How am I using a lens?
- Aesthetic trends. What if we’re talking about a movie, and I say, “Of course there are talking
animals! It’s a Disney movie” or “Of course there’s a lot of violence – it’s a Scorsese film!”
How am I using a lens?
- Stereotypes. How do stereotypes function as lenses? Do we use lenses to form opinions about
other people and our social interactions? Some examples: feminist, hipster, party girl,
“Brandeis students” (as opposed to “Harvard students” or what have you)?
Class conversation. At some point, presumably, you will discuss your lens texts as a class. After you
have defined a certain concept (like Freud’s definition of the ego and the id or Marx’s definition of
commodity fetishism), just ask your students to connect it to the primary text. They struggle
tremendously to do this in writing, yet most can do it quite naturally in conversation. Some leading
questions (I’m using Marx and Citizen Kane as examples):
- Okay, so we understand commodity fetishism to mean x. Where do we see that idea at work
in Citizen Kane? Be sure to press students on specifics. Where do you see this happening?
Name a scene or quote a line.
- What do you think Marx would say about a character like Charles Foster Kane? How would
Marx explain Kane’s downfall?
- Does Marx seem outdated, when we look at Citizen Kane? What do you think Marx would
say, if we asked him to explain y (some conceptual wrinkle)?
Limitations of the lens assignment. One of the most productive conversations I ever had with my class
about the lens essay came when I admitted that the assignment is inherently difficult because it is
inherently constrained. At one point near the end of the lens unit, I had a student say, “I’m sorry, but
this paper still does not feel like anything I’ve been asked to do in other classes.” I told him that he
was right, because for the lens essay, I had selected both the primary text and two possible lens essays.
In other words, I had already limited the field of his interpretation by saying, implicitly, “I think these
things go together in an interesting way.” I explain to the students that we do this for the sake of
efficiency and ease (they don’t have very long to write these essays), but that in the research unit, it will
be their turn to locate, select, and defend their choice of a theoretical lens.
I generally explain this to students somewhere between their rough and final drafts, and it seems to
help them relax. I think the lens essay generates a lot of anxiety because, like it or not, we’re asking
students to adopt a theoretical stance that we think is productive or provocative. To many students,
this feels like we’re asking them to live inside our heads and try to intuit some Platonic ideal an essay.
Try to persuade the students that this is not the case; in fact, the lens essay is really just an exercise
(which they will be asked to repeat many, many times in their academic careers). It is an exercise in
trying on a critical perspective, with which they may or may not agree. In the future, they’ll be free to
find their own perspectives and, in most cases, their own primary texts, as well.