Saturday, September 18, 2010

on misreading

This weekend, I'm grading a heap of poetry mini-papers from Brit Lit II. These are mercifully short, but incredibly labor-intensive, because it's a gen ed course and some of the students have no experience doing literary analysis. And, as is often the case in gen ed, I'm running into more than a few papers that seem to be based on fundamental misreadings of the text. Like, say, a paper about When We Two Parted written by a student who is under the impression that the speaker's ex-lover is dead rather than unfaithful. Or one about My Last Duchess where the student thinks the Duke is a really great guy who was deeply in love with his late wife.

Usually, these students are unfamiliar with figurative language and inexperienced at reading for detail and nuance; sometimes the problem is compounded by unfamiliar vocabulary and cultural references (one woman who was in my class a few years ago thought that Blake's The Chimney Sweeper was about a bat, because apparently it's a dialect term for a bat in these parts and she'd never, understandably, encountered an actual chimney sweeper). And I'm never sure what to do about it -- because I do want my gen ed students to recognize that literature lends itself to multiple interpretations, and I want them to have the courage of their own convictions instead of looking to me or for The One Right Answer, and swooping in to say "No, this interpretation is just plain wrong" doesn't seem to be the right way to go about it. And yet, some interpretations are just plain wrong.

Sigh. Back to grading.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I know exactly what you mean. I have frequently had this problem in literature classes. There was one Chinese poem about alcohol that the students were all in love with, but the point was that alcohol is, well, evil. They didn't see the irony there at all. When we discussed it in class, they far preferred their interpretation, but I couldn't see any way that it was right. Oh well. Whatever.

Anonymous said...

I once had a student who was under the impression that "The Sun Rising" was an angry political tract.

Also, a whole class of students who argued that "Dover Beach" was actually about impotence, but that was pretty convincing.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Had they read The Dover Bitch, by any chance?

Dr. Virago said...

I think the student who thought "When We Two Parted" was about a dead lover must have stopped after the first stanza.

Actually, you could use that misreading as a teaching moment. It's a "strong misreading," in that the loss of a lover to infidelity *does* cause grief. So you could show that said (anonymous) student was on to something, but that for a viable interpretation, they have to take the whole poem into account, and not cherry-pick bits. So, in this case, they must confront "Thy vows are all broken" and so forth. One way you could do it is to go through the poem stanza by stanza and teach students to hold their preliminary impressions under scrutiny. So, after the first stanza, it seems like the lover is dead. But is she? If they hold that as an open question, they'll be more open to seeing the evidence that says otherwise. But then they can ask: OK, why does Byron make it seem like she's dead at first (or at least use diction associated with death)?

It's also an occasion to teach students that they have to go sloooooowly through the poem, and that *every* word matters. *And* that it only matters in context -- so don't go doing impressionistic readings based on a few words.

(If you don't want to embarrass the student who did this poem -- even without mentioning who it was -- you could use The Chimney Sweeper example. Had that student asked herself "does a bat make sense of parents going to church to pray?" she might have realized that maybe "chimney sweeper" meant something else and looked it up.)

On the issue of how to deal with wanting to encourage multiple readings while still discouraging bad ones, make it the difference between the facts (the literal) and the more subjective elements. There is a factual, literal level that they have to get straight first. The interpretative part comes after that.

Sisyphus said...

Yup yup; I am grading exactly the same assignment.

So I found that giving them a model of what I want forces them to read closely enough that they get what the poem is actually talking about, but not how to do analysis of that poem. Sigh. And yes, after posting yesterday, I ran across three or four terribly-written papers that weren't even getting the basic paraphrase of the poem right. But, on the other hand, it's a small number compared to the total. ... does that make you feel any better? No? Have some chocolate. Dr. Koshary also suggested whiskey. I say combine them.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Dr. V. -- Hmm. I think I may need to rethink a number of my assignments, in light of what you've just said, because very often I am asking students to focus on particular words. (For this assignment, they had to pick three words and make an argument that these are the most important words in the poem. The ones who did really well are paying close attention to how their picks work in context, but many of them didn't and aren't.)