Sunday, April 17, 2016


So, thanks to a lot of hard work put in by some awesome people, we have a new Center For Teaching And Learning at Misnomer U., and there are some grants available for faculty. Last semester, I put in for a grant to buy theater tickets for the students in my various lit classes, because it turns out that there are some awesome educational benefits to live theater, and also because it's really kind of stupid to ask people to read a play when they have never actually BEEN to one.

So, totally free tickets available for students. And I'm doing the driving.

It turns out that it is hard as hell to actually get students to take a few hours off to see a play. Well, I kind of knew that because I'd done this before, but I was hoping things would change when they weren't responsible for buying their own tickets. Nope. They are not interested. Or they are interested, but they're too busy for there to be a time that will actually work for them. Or they bail at the last minute, after I've already bought them a ticket. It isn't the students' fault, most of the time. It's because they have complicated lives: they had kids way too young and their child-care arrangements fell though, or they're working full time while also taking a full load of classes and their boss keeps changing the schedule on them. I totally get it. But I wish things were otherwise. And the ones who DO show up often seem not to be the ones who would benefit the most; they tend to be the ones who actually HAVE seen a play before, and are maybe even theater majors, and the ones who are visibly engaged in class and basically getting it.

So I'm off to see some Tom Stoppard today, with two students out of the twenty enrolled in Brit Lit II. I hope neither of them bails. (At least this grant thing has made me a lot more Zen about people bailing, because I don't have the choice between getting stuck with the price of the ticket myself or trying to chase down the student and get them to pay for a show they didn't actually get to see.)

I was right around their age when I first saw this particular play. I might still have the program somewhere. My parents took me -- because it was the first US run and of course they were excited about seeing it, and of course they waited until I was home on spring break. It wasn't my first play by a long shot. It wasn't even my first Tom Stoppard. I want things to be that uncomplicated for my students. It turns out that it takes more than a bit of money to uncomplicate them -- and yet, money is surely at the core of why this is so hard.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Pedagogy musings: necessary vs. plausible interpretations

So I have been grading poetry papers, which is a thing one should never do on a gloriously beautiful Saturday in April, particularly if they are papers from a gen ed lit survey. And I have been thinking about all the things that go wrong when we teach literature, and, especially, about the different types of interpretations we talk about, and how I, at least, am very not-good at teaching students to distinguish them from one another.

First of all, there is the necessary interpretation -- something that you absolutely need to get in order to make sense of the work at all, but you still need some level of interpretative sophistication to get there. For example, in My Last Duchess, "the speaker is an irrationally jealous control freak who certainly made his wife's life miserable, regardless of whether he literally murdered her or not" is a necessary interpretation; if you don't get that out of the text, you aren't getting the poem. But many students, particularly in gen ed classes, do not get that out of the text without prompting, since the Duke isn't about to TELL you he's a control freak. (Some students do not even get "the speaker's wife is dead and he's showing somebody a picture of her" out of the text; I'm never sure what to do about those.) So most of us, in gen ed classes, spend a fair amount of time explaining HOW the poem shows that this is the case. In that sort of situation, you really do need to teach a specific interpretation, and try to make sure the class is on the same page about it.

But there's also the plausible interpretation, one that is clearly grounded in the text, but does not absolutely have to be the case. Mutually-contradictory plausible interpretations can co-exist. For example, I could argue that the Duke is so convinced of his own rightness that he has no idea how much he's just revealed about his character, and then suddenly at the end of the poem he does realize it, and his "Nay, we'll go / Together down, sir" is a desperate attempt to keep his listener from ducking out and telling the-Count-his-Master to break off the marriage negotiations right now. You, on the other hand, could argue that he knows exactly how much he's revealing, and wants the man to repeat it all to the Count's fair daughter so she will know what sort of behavior he expects of his next wife, and what will happen to her if she doesn't obey. We're both right; or at least we are if we can find sufficient textual justification for our respective interpretations.

Mostly, I want my students to accept the necessary interpretations and debate the plausible ones, but it occurs to me that I'm kind of crap at explaining how we distinguish between one and the other, and if we're lucky enough to get to the point in class where a student advances a plausible interpretation and defends it reasonably well, my first instinct is to repeat it and praise it and show the class some other stuff in the poem that could support the student's reading. But that tends to cut off discussion, because of course the other students are all thinking "well, that's it, she's clearly got it right, and I must be wrong if I didn't see that, so I'm just going to sit here on my hands and be glad nobody noticed." (This is invariably what happens in gen ed; English majors generally know that a work can have multiple interpretations, although they may be shy about openly disagreeing with someone else's.)

And then there's the plausible-interpretation-with-extra-stuff -- for example, a reading of "My Last Duchess" that situates it in the context of Victorian patriarchy, and suggests that Browning is really critiquing his own culture when he's ostensibly writing about a Renaissance Duke. This is exactly the kind of interpretation that we want our upper-level students to do in their research papers, and therefore we need to model it for them at some point, but teaching it in a lower-level survey is problematic, because it's usually not an interpretation that the students could have come up with for themselves on the basis of what they know right now, so it tends to reinforce the impression that the Professor Knows All and Poetry Is Way Too Hard For Me To Get The Right Answer By Myself. (Well, I think it's problematic; some of my grad school professors saw absolutely nothing wrong with teaching their own research, even at the sophomore-survey level.) But for some works, it's necessary (you cannot, for example, teach An Irish Airman Foresees His Death without some amount of historical context, even though it's not at all a difficult poem for students to read. At least, I do not see how to teach it.) Ideally, you could just provide the context-mini-lecture at the beginning of class, give the students what they need, and turn them loose on the texts, but this never seems to work that well when I try it in practice.

(Also, I'm suddenly remembering that I hated English lit up until tenth grade or so, because my teachers kept teaching plausible interpretations -- such as "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is Really About Contemplating Suicide -- as if they were necessary interpretations, and I felt sort of stifled, because that was not an interpretation that I would have come up with, and there suddenly didn't seem to be any room for it to be a poem about how pretty the woods were at night. I don't know whether I started drawing better teachers at that point, ones who did make the distinction, or whether I just happened to get a run of teachers whose plausible interpretations didn't annoy me too much. I hope I do not stifle my students. But I am not sure I don't.)