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.)

8 comments:

Bev said...

This beautifully and thoughtfully expresses what I've felt so many times: that very delicate dance by which we lead students toward the necessary interpretation while encouraging them to pursue plausible interpretations. What to do, though, with the implausible interpretations? In grad school I had profs who would just shoot holes in whatever anyone said that diverged from their own interpretations, but one modeled a better way: when someone said something risky or unusual or even utterly implausible, the prof would get this beatific smile on his face and then, in the slow and gentle voice you might use to calm a dangerous lunatic, he would say, "Well, every reading IS a reading." And then we would move on.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I'm never sure what to do with the implausible interpretations either, especially in a class like the one I've got right now, where students are astonishingly reluctant to risk speaking up at all and I really, really want to encourage them -- but what do you do with the student who thinks, as one of mine did last week, that Siegfried Sassoon's They is about how Everything Happens For A Reason And It All Works Out For The Best? My usual instinct is to try to massage that into an interpretation that works ("Yes, that's certainly what the Bishop wants you to think, and most of us tend to trust authority figures like the Bishop, but is this poem really saying we should?") but by then I've taken the ball away from the student and not really given it back.

Bev said...

The cliche as interpretation! That's the worst.

Sapience said...

I wonder if actually giving them this post at the beginning of the semester would help! I'll be teaching intro to lit for the first time next fall, and I was thinking of doing something like this, either putting it in the syllabus and/or doing a handout or even doing a demonstration (I was thinking of "My Last Duchess" as the perfect text for it, too!).

Anyway: may I borrow your terminology of necessary/plausible/plausible-with-extra-support?

Fretful Porpentine said...

Absolutely, feel free to borrow! Maybe I do need to find some way to teach this explicitly in the survey classes, although God knows they're overstuffed as it is...

undine said...

These are great distinctions, FP, and using "My Last Duchess" is a great way to express it.

Katherine Shrieves said...

Thanks, FP! You've articulated something that's been a challenge for me for years, but I haven't ever thought about explicitly in quite this way. I wonder whether presenting these terms to students would help.

One observation: the "implausible interpretation" that you describe seems to me to be a species of the "moral," which is another common error that novice students make when interpreting literature. With some students who have limited exposure to English courses, I find they have trouble understanding the difference between an interpretation and a blanket statement about what the work "means" as though it can be boiled down to a simplistic moral like "everything happens for a reason."

Fretful Porpentine said...

Yes! I think that leads to the question of how we teach complexity and nuance as things-to-be-valued, which is another thing that I've always struggled with.