Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Textual determinism

Maybe I design my paper topics poorly. Or maybe I don't do a clear enough job of modeling in class the way I expect my students to approach the works we read. But dear God: if I get one more paper in which a student seems not to understand that an author has options and makes choices--or simply that a text could be different--I'm going to shoot myself.

The first time I encountered this problem was in my first semester at my previous job. I'd written a paper topic that asked for an analysis of the way a particular biblical text was used in one of The Canterbury Tales. A student came up to me a few days later and said that he was planning on writing about "The Miller's Tale" and Noah's flood, but he didn't really understand what I was asking: "What do you mean, how the story is used?"

"Oh!" I said. "Just how it functions in the tale. Why the Miller uses that story, and what parts of it, and that sort of thing."

"Nicholas wants to sleep with Alisoun."

"Yes," I said. "But he doesn't need the story of the flood to do that!"

"He has to get her husband out of the way. With a flood, he'll be in a tub up in the rafters."

"Sure. . . but he could make up any old story, right? He doesn't have to reference a Bible story, and it doesn't have to be that Bible story, or used in that way. What does it tell us about Nicholas--or about the Miller--that that's the one he uses?"

My student just stared at me. After ten minutes of this, he had to go to his next class. I shrugged my shoulders and wrote him off as an anomaly.

But he wasn't, or not entirely; I see versions of him every semester. I've learned to remind my students--even in upper-division classes--that the details in a work of literature aren't random: that they reflect larger patterns of meaning. But even when I've done that, and explained that the "importance" of a character or event isn't reducible to its plot function, I still wind up with essays that assert that the Nurse is essential to Romeo and Juliet because she acts as a go-between--and without her, the play wouldn't even exist!

I see this tendency most frequently in my Shakespeare class, and I've speculated that students might find it especially difficult to criticize or reimagine the works of The Bard. At other times, I've wondered whether drama somehow feels more teleological than a novel or short story (it's certainly more so than a lyric poem), and so is harder for them to think about in ways that don't reflect a kind of plot-based determinism.

But ultimately, I don't understand this. I don't understand why every seemingly throwaway scene or character winds up being identified, quite earnestly, as "comic relief" (if it's not necessary to the plot, it's comic relief. And that, too, is somehow necessary).

Is it that these particular students want to believe that everything is somehow essential--and merely highlighting a theme or adding to a pattern isn't enough? Is it about wanting definite answers? Or is it (as I sometimes fear) a sign that they don't understand themselves as having artistic or intellectual agency? Texts simply are: no one made them that way, and no one can remake them.

There seem, as we English majors say, to be Larger Issues here.

22 comments:

Dr. Crazy said...

Don't even ask why I'm awake now, because i don't know either. Anyway, at the end of your post you ask:

"Is it that these particular students want to believe that everything is somehow essential--and merely highlighting a theme or adding to a pattern isn't enough? Is it about wanting definite answers? Or is it (as I sometimes fear) a sign that they don't understand themselves as having artistic or intellectual agency? Texts simply are: no one made them that way, and no one can remake them. "

My initial response:

1. Yes. I think this happens especially with students who have been told that they need a "strong argument" and don't really understand what argument *is*. They think argument = absolute, and that means they can't play with something that isn't Absolutely Important in a paper.

2. Yes. Ambiguity or complexity is scary.

3. Sometimes. They think that the purpose of writing a paper is to "give the professor what she wants" - not to participate in the conversation of literary criticism - at the very least. That then extends to the kinds of readings that they feel authorized to offer in their papers.

One thing, however, that may be happening is that there's something to your opening question about how you phrase paper topics. The question about how the miller uses Noah's flood, for example... well, I wonder whether, if you'd said instead, "Choose one of the Canturbury tales. Explain the significance of this tale's allusion to a tale from the Bible. How does knowing the Bible story help to understand the subtext/context of the tale? How does our reading of the tale change when we take the Bible story into account? (etc.)" whether that might have made it clearer? It's the "use" that seems to be part of the problem to me - "use" seems utilitarian - it seems like a plot sort of word. At least with my students, I find that fleshing the topics out a bit more seems to help.

sapience said...

I see this problem with my students too, so I've taken to giving them an assignment (sometimes as a group exercise, sometimes as an actual option for a paper) to rewrite a particular text from a modern perspective, in the style of a particular film genre, etc. It doesn't take long before they start saying "oh, that character could do something else" or "oh, the whole Pirate thing in Hamlet just doesn't make much sense!"

And it can be a lot of fun to read Hamlet set entirely on a pirate ship...

hermance said...

I use a two-part assignment similar to sapience to help students with this. In the first part (due first and due separately), I have them rewrite a scene from one of the texts we've read. (I usually give them some guidance about what to aim for in the rewrite.) I grade them basically on effort--in other words, did they or didn't they meet the basic goals I have for the assignment (length, deals with one scene, contains substantial rewrite--but nothing qualitative about how well it's written).

Then, in the second part of the assignment, they explain why they made the choices they've made. How did it affect the text? Etc. Etc.

One way I've attacked this in discussion is to move away from--what I've found--can seem (somehow) to them like abstract statements about authors and texts and instead to gently smile and say, "You know, Nicholas isn't real, right? Chaucer isn't watching this guy Nicholas tell a story and then writing everything down like Perez Hilton. So, why does Chaucer give us *this* Nicholas, who does these things?" I've found that for some of my students, they get into the world of the text. And, they almost want texts to be about "real" people doing things that could "really" happen. This is one way of many I try to subvert that desire.

Anonymous said...

Abiguity and uncertainty are scary is a big reason (as Dr. Crazy points out), but I think another reason is that they aren't really aware of their own choices and consequences. They don't connect what they read to their own lives unless there is a one-to-one match: Yes! I also hoped there would be a flood so that other guy would be up in the rafters.

I'm not in English (music is my discipline), but my students are similar as people. And what they fear most is making a choice. What if it's wrong? What if they have to live with it? What if someone gets mad at them? What if it's right and then they have to live with that? This is a problem - for my students from lower-middle class-blue-collar-families - that transcends their schoolwork, although I see it most evident there.

September Blue said...

My students are much the same way, and I've noticed it working at a few other levels in their response to texts as well. I've had some success in getting them past it when it's a matter of language by saying "English has a huge vocabulary, and the author/poet/whatever could have chosen another word instead of this one - so don't just tell me that Shakespeare uses 'incarnadine' to mean 'red' here, but tell me why 'incarnadine' rather than 'red' makes a difference." It's tougher with plot, though. 'Textual determinism' is a really good way to describe it; many of my students really do seem to see the text itself as entirely outside the author's control.

I wonder how much this comes about as an inadvertent side-effect of the way they think we want them to read? Especially in first-year, a lot of my students write as if they've been told to rank this author out of ten: "In conclusion, Angela Carter successfully combines themes of sexuality, feminism and corruption," or "This essay will show that T. S. Eliot expertly devises a good and very beautiful example of a modernist poem." If you think the correct (or expected) response to a text is to sit down, shut up and take in the Good Moral Lessons it'll give you, then looking at the overall thing as something constructed rather than discovered is like asking why the Easter Bunny couldn't be a reptile. Maybe?

Flavia said...

Thanks, everyone, for the thoughtful responses so far.

Dr. Crazy (and others): I do think that some of the problem is probably still with phrasing, and it obviously was with that first example (and I tried to indicate, in that dialogue excerpt, that I also didn't fully understand what my student was asking; we were talking at cross-purposes.)

I think I've gotten better at writing paper topics, and even when there's confusion, most of my students quickly catch on in one-on-one conversations or through email exchanges. But there are others who still seem unwilling or unable to move away from deterministic readings.

I really like the suggestions made by Sapience and Hermance, and it's definitely true that sometimes all certain students need is permission to think about a text as a construction. I often say things like, "But isn't this weird? I think this is totally weird! Why is this here? What is it doing?" and find students nodding and suddenly much more willing to generate theories of meaning--as if they just weren't allowing themselves to question the way the text worked before.

As September Blue suggests, this is more a problem with younger students, but I'm sure it's also more a problem with Old Canonical Texts, too--some students just don't feel they know enough to make an argument. After all, how do they know how many pirates or dwarves were running around Elizabethan England?

Thoroughly Educated said...

In my Shakespeare class for freshmen, I've found it helpful to give a creative assignment early in the term in which they either rewrite a scene in a different genre, or write a "missing moments" scene, as ways of thinking about what S'peare chooses to show us and not to show us, and the implications of dramatic form. That seems to loosen up their thinking.

ntb24 said...

I just stumbled upon your blog and this post really resonated. Every time I assign a paper, I wonder if it that lack of intellectual analysis capacity. When I ask why author's make choices, there confusion seems to result from never thinking about the author at all. I try to convince them in their own writing that they make choices: word, organization, and so on... but very few seem able to grasp that concept. It is increasingly frustrating, because I don't know how to fight against it. I'm glad I am not alone in this feeling!

St. Eph said...

Oddly, I run into the opposite problem more frequently, with papers that posit alternate realities for these plays and run entirely away from the text itself. I think it's the same kind of problem though--a difficulty getting the focus right.

Because I'm such a secret formalist, I make explicit my unconcern with plot (yesterday in class I announced that if I cared about plots, I'd work on novels or something. Ew.) and spend more class time on close reading. But then I get long explanations about how Shx uses "incarnadine" instead of "red" because he's a really, really good writer.

I'm personally uncomfortable with the creative re-writing of scenes, but that's clearly my own Larger Issue. But I do think that addressing the "why these words here" question might start to get at managing the ambiguity/absolutism necessary for producing a critical reading.

Laura said...

It's not just the Bard.

I'm teaching a 20th century American cultural studies course using popular media, and my students do the exact same thing to "Howl" by Ginsberg, or to Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit."

I completely agree that the students don't see themselves as having artistic or intellectual agency, that they can't imagine the texts being any other way. I think that's because too many of them tend to just passively consume media themselves - I don't have a lot of kids who play in garage bands or draw their own manga characters for fun.
I also worry that their vocabularies simply aren't big enough to think of more than one way of saying the same thing, so they can't imagine the process of choosing among them. Can they even come up with more than two or three words for "red"?

To get past this, I really like the idea of having them rewrite scene from another point of view, or in another setting.
What I did was play three very different versions of the same song - "Love Will Tear Us Apart", live by Joy Division, live by The Cure, and in studio by Nouvelle Vague. That forced them to hear and discuss how instrumentation, tempo, etc. were all choices that could be different. For classes on older texts, maybe you could do the same thing with different drafts? "What effect happens when the poet scratches out this word, and replaces it with this other one?"

dr said...

As many have said, I think it's more about framing class discussion in these terms than it is about how you're phrasing the assignments. (Although god knows what a difference that makes ...) I think that talking explicitly about what the text seems to *want* to make you think versus what it might *actually* make you think, and how the textual elements contribute to each can be really helpful. I'll often do a quick and dirty tour through the reception of *Paradise Lost* as my example, and that's never in a class where we're reading it. It's just easy to grasp the contrast between, say, Milton's stated goal for the poem and Romantic reading of it.

And once you get the idea that there are lots of things going on in the text, it becomes easier to grasp the idea that the author made choices -- with effects both intended and unintended.

Bardiac said...

But when Nicholas comes up with the whole flood story, John's out of town and Nicholas is alone with Alison, no? And instead of getting to "work," he comes up with this elaborate plan. :) There's something about the pleasure in tricking John that adds a dimension to the story.

Laura said...

It's just easy to grasp the contrast between, say, Milton's stated goal for the poem and Romantic reading of it.

dr, unfortunately for my literal-minded students, that isn't easy. If the poet states the goal, well, then, that's it, problem solved. You just quote Milton and your paper's done. Anyone else got it wrong.

Susan said...

Flavia, your students might have a better idea of how many pirates or dwarves were around in Elizabethan England if they all had to take an English history course. It's long been one of my pet peeves as a historian of early modern England that so few English majors are required to know any of the history from which the literature they study comes. (And I know I'm stepping into all sorts of interpretive discussions with that comments, but why not?)

Elizabeth said...

i blame the media. seriously. this drives me bananas, in many different (mostly writing) classes. as someone here has already pointed out, they also can't see themselves as being able to make choices and change the precious, precious words they've already written down: they can as much revise as they can imagine that an author had choices to make. it's object fetishism, and it's why we're all going to hell. students think things are perfect right away and that every clever commercial and episode of "the office" that they see sprang (sprung?) fully formed from their creators' heads from beginning to end, rather than understand that someone making something good has to make a lot of somethings bad and partial first, and has to deliberate among many choices along the way. grr.

Jack said...

These responses are truly helpful in terms of helping to explain to students what we mean by critical analysis and why it might matter. However, no matter how perfect a prompt or how successful a class session demonstrating the complexities and ambiguities of visual, written, or oral texts might be, THE STUDENTS STILL RESIST IT. As a another newcomer from RU asked yesterday, "what do you do when at the end of a semester of doing textual analysis pointing out underlying historical political and cultural tensions every day, a student (good student) suddenly says, 'um...aren't we just reading too much into this?'" I didn't know how to answer her as I constantly find myself wondering how, after students do so well with analysis in class, they can suddenly revert to the theory that plot is the only object of analysis but an object that can't really be analyzed because it's some kind of transparent (directly refers to an outside reality), arbitrary (the author obviously wasn't really concerned with *every word*) and fixed (it is what it is why think about it in any other way) representation. I have to agree with Elizabeth on this one. We are fighting a HUGE battle here. It's not that they're just undereducated (which they are--totally agree with Susan on the ignorance of history point and I teach *contemporary* American!), they also live in a world that constantly tells them: fetishize the object! everything's a commodity! For Your Entertainment! They don't believe their own identities or perspectives to be constructed or contingent, why then would a text be? Maybe this is why I've always been better at teaching theory than lit. At least then I feel like I'm getting at the problem somewhat directly.

Given the time of day and number of caps and exclamation points here, I'd say there are Larger Issues here for me.

Flavia said...

Thanks to all the additional commenters!

And Susan: I couldn't agree more. I do a ton of historical background in most of my Renaissance classes, because I do think that context is essential, but I'm not sure how much sticks--and of course, even doing "tons" in the context of a literature class isn't really that much: it's a mini-lecture and a handout, every couple of weeks.

But yes, as others are saying, it isn't *only* about the fact that the texts I teach are remote in time--when I teach composition, my students are often unwilling even to analyze *advertisements* or popular t.v. shows in any depth.

It drives me nuts, and I think it does indicate a lack of belief in personal agency that goes beyond their engagement with works of literature. When I taught a composition course organized around gender issues, my female students hated almost everything they read that suggested that women--as a group--faced particular challenges. Because women can do anything! And be anything!

When it came to discussing beauty standards and expectations, they would agree that those things were unfair and unrealistic and oppressive--but never want to say much beyond that. "Where do those ideas come from?" I'd ask. Oh. . . society, they'd say, vaguely. "What can we do about them? Well. . . it's always been that way, and it will always be that way. You can't change that kind of thing.

THAT's the larger issue, I think: the way a rhetoric of agency exists alongside an entirely passive model of consumption & acceptance.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Giving up the role of passive enjoyment is very threatening to many students.

And on some level, their instinct is correct: if they walk through that door, there's no walking back. Once they start to see media products as constructed things, as artifices, they will be in danger of seeing artifice in other places, whether they want to or not.

They (and not just they) spend more of their waking hours consuming some kind of media than not. If they start seeing it all as constructed, they might have to change their world views, just the way our wildest-eyed Marxist colleagues contend. They *especially* want to avoid noticing how the ads are constructed. That perhaps most of all.

I occasionally teach a film class, and I've seen undergraduates resist viewing film or video as something that's been edited together. They don't even want to notice that a sequence is composed of multiple takes. Because when they see it as artifice, they begin to feel alienated from it. It's not simple any more. What they're clinging to is a kind of ersatz innocence: a naive hermeneutics for a corn-syrup Eden.

Jack said...

Flavia, I totally agree. I actually think that combination (passive agency?) is a particularly post-New Social Movement US way of thinking about social and political subjecthood. We are still reliant on the liberal individualist model of citizenship, while at the same time having been forced to recognize (through civil rights, 2nd wave fem etc) that this model has never actually functioned. I think we are all somewhat reliant on the idea that we must now (post all that 60s hullabaloo) have come away with *something* like agency. But we also feel overwhelmed, there's just too many historical forces working against us. So the result is a feeling that it's ALL about either the representation of equality (e.g. tv shows about gay culture, the fact that a white woman and black man can run for the democratic candidacy) or what we consciously decide to do as individuals, though we don't dare be so naive as to think we could change "the way things are." I also think this is particularly true of the experience and representation of womanhood. And it's been particularly detrimental to feminist politics. I could go on about this forever. Will try not to.

Dr. C, also completely agree. And to be fair it's threatening to many of my friends too (how many times have I been yelled at for "ruining" a movie by analyzing it?). And to be totally fair it's sometimes threatening to me (must admit I find myself at moments thinking: Shut up already. I just want to watch this shit and laugh in a way that feels free and unburdened. Let me have my corn-syrup eden, goddamnit).

Anonymous said...

Sorry to barge in at a late moment in the conversation. I just wanted to recommend that if you have a chance (and you haven't already done so) to read through John Bean's wonderful _Engaging Ideas_ which gives so many helpful hints for designing writing assignments. He has a lot of suggestions which I think are responding to the issues that folks on this comment thread have expressed regarding student essays and student agency.

Sarah

Tenured Radical said...

The history version of this is: the facts are the facts, there is no such thing as an argument about the facts that is more persuasive than another argument. Just because you say the facts mean one thing, Teach, I could just as easily say the opposite. I mean, who's to say who is right or wrong?

Ugh.

TR

Sisyphus said...

This is a brilliant conversation people --- I'm so excited to see all this good stuff flying around. As someone who picks up teaching in whatever department or class is open, I've had to deal with all the situations mentioned above.

One thing to keep in mind is that our students are young and often have come directly out of high school, which usually works on the "banking model" of education. This has become even more prevalent through NCLB and high-stakes testing that is all about factual content and filling in scantron bubbles.

The larger problem is this:

the way a rhetoric of agency exists alongside an entirely passive model of consumption & acceptance.

That's a really great way of putting it, Flavia, and now I want to do more study into how this works and how to combat it. Do creative assignments in school generate a more creative and critical world view that would go against this consumerist model?

For the poetry, close-reading level of work, I have had a lot of success with the drafts of Yeats's poems in the back of the Norton anthology --- it's a bit easier to talk about artistic choices and diction and the constraints of form when showing them models. Some of them pick up on the idea of revision being something that actual writers use, too.