Entering a New World

So, grading papers was a little bit of a bummer this weekend.  While one student who struggled with the last assignment worked extraordinarily hard to produce an A paper this time around (after one of the most productive workshop sessions I’ve ever moderated, meetings during office hours, and three complete overhauls of his rough draft), a few of my students who had previously done well took a few steps back, committing some of the same errors that I had previously thought were limited to three or four individuals.  Namely, they are using their chosen texts as excuses to talk about their personal views on a subject rather than producing an analytical argument based on clear evidence from that chosen text.

A few of these students came after me after class to say that they recognized the mistakes that they had made, that they didn’t like the papers that they had written either (which is encouraging) and that they would spend more time on the assignment going forward.  But I do think that a number of my students are laboring under that common misconception that the study of literature is essentially a free for all, that the “subjectivity” of interpretation means that interpretation is essentially personal, that there are no wrong answers, that anything can mean anything.  So, I brought in Vladimir Nabokov’s essay “Good Readers and Good Writers” today in order to talk about what the first task of any reader or observer of a work of art is:  to fully understand what the creator of a work was trying to communicate.  This means setting preconceptions aside and allowing oneself to be transported into a particular world with particular protocols, particular rules and causes and effects that may or may not have direct correlaries in the real world:

If one begins with a readymade generalization, one begins at the wrong end and travels away from the book before one has started to understand it.  Nothing is more boring or ore unfair to the author than starting to read, say, Madame Bovary, with the preconceived notion that it is a denunciation of the bourgeoisie.  We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so the first thing we should do is study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know.  When this new world has been closely studied , then and only then let us examine its links with other worlds, other branches of knowledge.

For Nobokov and for philosophers like Martha Nussbaum, this is a moral and pedagogical imperative:  art and the effort to faithfully understand what the author is trying to communicate is how we learn to come into sympathy with other perspectives.  Upon re-reading this essay, I was surprised at how much I resist this way of reading, how suspicious I am, in fact, of looking at a work of art as a contained body of meaning, hermetically sealed off from its context.  The good postmodernist in me believes that meaning are unstable, that artists, in many ways, do not control what their works mean for each individual who encounters it.  The feminist in me is inherently suspicious of author’s motives and of the way in which the realities contained in texts are both socially constructed and participate in the construction of contingent knowledge as historically transcendent.  In other words, in my own work, I reflexively attend to everything that comes after “then and only then” in that paragraph and perhaps do a poor job of helping my students master everything that comes before it.  Because while I still hold that meaning is unstable and contingent and that artists are not infallible, I have to get my students to a place where they can see that while there are multiple available interpretations for any given work of art, the number of interpretations is, in fact, limited.  Otherwise, I get papers on why the Will Smith character in I Am Legend is a Christ figure based on a criteria so loose that it could apply to almost any protagonist in any narrative in Western literature.  I also wind up getting papers that tend to read, say, sections of Paradise Lost as an object lesson or a sermon–no matter which character is speaking at any given time–rather than a Milton’s particular entry point into theological and political debates about the nature of freedom and its relationship to both divine and civil law.

Thus, at the moment, I am trying to summon up the good little Formalist in me and disciplining myself to ensure that my students understand, first and foremost, what the author means before moving on to any historicist or postmodernist critique, though this is the first class in six years where I’ve really felt the necessity of doing so.  Either I’m becoming more aware, or I’ve just been dealt a class that is particularly in need of work at the level of reading comprehension.  It’s probably a little of both.



5 thoughts on “Entering a New World

  1. I do agree that it’s important to assess a work on its merits, rather than on the assessor’s preconceptions, but I’m made a bit uneasy about the idea that works of literature exist in their own worlds. (Disclaimer: I’m a cultural historian, not a literature professor.) While I recognize that many who teach literature are not able to address the context in which a piece of literature is written, published, and consumed, to claim that that context is irrelevant is troubling.

    I do feel like there should be some sort of line between the context of the original creation and the later context of the modern reader encountering the text in the classroom, but I’m not quite sure where (or how) that line should be drawn. I guess I end up becoming an empiricist; if it’s not there, in the text itself, to be seen by others lacking the reviewer’s experiences, then there is probably a problem.

    Of course, half the work of teaching argumentation to students is getting them to the point where they can distinguish between that which is obvious to them, and that which is (or is not) obvious to their own readers.

    1. That’s my dilemma. I want to teach texts not as world entirely unto themselves divorced from the circumstances of their production, but I have students who are struggling with simply being able to summarize the text in question, students who are caught up in their own personal reactions (and in many cases resistance) to a work, even when those reactions aren’t based on things that are actually in the text.

      For example, I had a student come to office hours yesterday to talk about William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which is the reading for our next class. He immediately wanted to jump to a critique of the work based on what he thought the author was saying, and I kept having to ask him where those reactions were coming from and getting him to be able to accurately paraphrase Blake’s actual critique of religion rather than what the student assumed that critique of religion was.

      Speaking in very practical terms, I suspect that the majority of the class time I’ve alotted for the discussion of this reading will be spent getting my student’s to decipher the text’s argument, so there won’t be much time left over to talk about the context that informs the work, though I did give a brief introduction to Blake’s life, opus, and influences.

      1. You have my sympathies. Many in my current class of students are not capable of even summarizing the readings (including the textbook for some of them), let alone forming an informed opinion on them.

        I despair when I think about what’s going to happen to them when they take a 200 level course. (Stupidly, there are no prerequisites here.) Honestly, they needed this sort of education back at the start of high school, but never got it, as best I can tell.

        Since I’m a historian, teaching a history class, I come at the problem by teaching them the context first, but, oh! it is so frustrating that we can’t get past “So, this is what so-and-so is saying in section one” in our discussions of the sources.

  2. Not sure if this is the right place for this, but I check this blog every couple of weeks and haven’t seen any new updates. How did the end of the semester go?

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