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.