Monday, March 22, 2010

Dr. Phil is not licensed to diagnose works of literature

Oh, the platitudinous conservatism of students!

I'm in the midst of a huge pile of Shakespeare essays, and no matter how many good ones I get, the less-than-good ones sap my will to live. I'm particularly bothered by the smug censoriousness that so many weaker essays traffic in--essays that not only treat fictional characters as if they were real people (whose actions it's the student's job to sit in judgment of), but subject them to the tiresome language of pop psychology and self-esteemism:
    Brutus? He's too easily swayed by other people. Boy needs to stand up for himself! Ophelia? Such a pushover! If she wasn't going to tell Hamlet how she really felt, she has no one to blame but herself. Juliet? She's not in love! No one falls in love that fast! It's obviously just about sex, and if she had listened to her parents no one would have died.

I've written about one aspect of this problem before--the seeming refusal to understand works of art as works of art; if the play wants Romeo and Juliet to die, no minor character (nurse, friar, sassy gay friend) could have saved them. But this prim, easy moralizing is frustrating for different reasons.


annieem said...

Ah Flavia, I feel your pain. I teach INTRO to Lit/Gen Ed courses, so deal with this on a daily basis. Do I have an answer? Well, not really. And I assume, with Shakespeare, you actually have majors? Now that's a different ball of wax (or is it kettle of wax?).

But this term, with The Sun Also Rises, and the usual, quite normal actually, and accurate, really, but unfortunately responses that basically make discussions dull of "that slut Brett" and "those drunks" bugged me to no end.

And this is after an early in the term overview and several exercises in the reading of fiction.

BUT, since I do admire Oprah and her book club, and know that these are exactly the responses she would be giving on her now nearly defunct book club episodes, I regrouped. Heck, these are non majors: I want them to appreciate the literature. And they, bless their hearts, wanted to understand what made Hemingway the cat's meow of American literature.

So I asked them to write in class, and discuss, why college students in the 1920s so admire Brett? Why Hemingway created characters? What was his POINT?

That helped, sort of.

FLG said...

I understand your frustration to an extent, but isn't your fundamental issue that your students don't accept the normative assumptions of your discipline?

Part of what makes great books, and in particular Shakespeare, relevant to people throughout the ages is that the characters are accessible to us even if some of it is anachronistic.

Approaching a work of art as a work of art is one way of approaching it. However, I don't see it as inherently superior than approaching it as if the characters were real people, or at least that their preoccupations are representative of the preoccupations of real people at the time.

Now, this can be done poorly, as in, using "tiresome language of pop psychology and self-esteemism." Or as I like to call it, the Oprah analysis. But deep down the only reason we read these things is because we can relate to them on a human level.

This isn't to argue some nonsense that a book means whatever each individual takes away from it, but I also don't see the value of people approaching it only in the context as a work of art. Seems a bit too antiseptic.

Also, on the pop psychology thing, I have a theory that reality TV is blurring the distinction between reality and TV. Not in the commonly understood way that kids think they are superman, but that people think everything is real. Or at least approach it as if it is real. The replacement of the soap opera with the Real World has screwed the kids up, methinks.

Also also, while I have an issue with kids not knowing major biblical stories, I have more sympathy for kids not being able to full comprehend the motivation of characters penned centuries ago. Much of the understanding comes from simply growing up.

Bardiac said...

What strikes me is the blaming Juliet. Shouldn't they blame the parents? My students don't seem to have an ounce of healthy teen rebellion sometimes. Maybe we're admitting the wrong people to college?

Doctor Cleveland said...

But, FLG, if "students don't accept the normative assumptions of [a] discipline" how should they be given academic credit within that discipline?

It's true, people have always enjoyed "relating" to the imaginary characters in fiction. They don't need how to be taught to do that. And that's the problem. It's not a skill. Students indulging in that gain nothing from the coursework.

And actually, almost any critical approach is superior to approaching a work "as if the characters were real people" because, FLG, they aren't real. Discussing plot and character is discussing information that is not actually information.

I know, talking about poetics and metaphor and poetics sounds like BS, and talking about "real" people sounds like concrete common sense. But talking about the characters isn't even BS; it can't be used to fertilize anything. The metaphors and the enjambment and the poetic conventions, the words in the book, are really there and the "people" are not.

FLG said...

Dr. C:

Perhaps characters aren't really people, but believable characters are representative of real people. It doesn't matter if Huck Finn, Holden Caufield, or Achilles was a real person. We all know people who are like that or at least have aspects of their personality that are like that.

Indeed, to take my last example, most of us immediately and intuitively understand the tragedy of Achilles' heel on a human level.

Why is being critical superior to examining what the author is saying about people's actions?

I guess my point is that I can get behind having issues with fancying yourself as the hero of an adventure tale or daydreaming about Mr. Darcy, but that being critical in an antiseptic sort of way. Approaching art as art as opposed to a conveyance of meaning from one human to another does not strike me as inherently superior. It just happens to be the normative assumption of the academic discipline. An assumption that perhaps beneficial to researchers may not be to the students.

FLG said...

Oh, and by "Perhaps characters aren't really people" I meant "Of course characters aren't really people"

Maude Lebowski said...

I get a lot of "if Character X would have done Y, it would have turned out totally different." Well, um, yeah, it would be a different story. I've also gotten a lot this semester of "Poe's stories are really about his life and how he wanted to murder people but didn't want to go to jail." Really? Aside from the fact that you're supposed to be writing on the stories and not on Poe himself.

The other commenters make great points which I don't need to expand upon (or could do so quite as articulately if I wanted to), but it is exhausting to have to deal with this over and over and over again, after you've discussed it, multiple times in a semester, sometimes in just a week.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Okay, FLG, last try (lest we jointly filibuster on Flavia's blog):

No one's saying that people aren't allowed to read for pleasure, or to daydream that they're Mr. Darcy. I'm saying that university literature classes are not for that. I have this odd idea that students are engaged in studying. That is why "being critical" is "superior" in the limited academic sense that it teaches you something you would not otherwise know.

Imagine I were teaching a class on say, magic tricks, and near the end of the semester I asked the students to go to a show and explain one trick by a professional magician. The students who explained that he hid the doves in a false bottom, and that he misdirected the audience's attention at key moments, would get credit. Those who explained where the false bottom was (the hat? the table?) and exactly why the misdirection was so effective would get the best marks.

The students who said "He turned his handkerchief into doves," would get no credit for the class. They haven't learned anything that they didn't know before the class. They're free to sit in the audience, with the rubes.

Flavia said...


Yes, these are mostly majors (it's a required class for majors). And I should emphasize that most of my students don't do this, and it rarely happens in class discussion--or when it starts to, I can explain why it's inappropriate.

What I see most often is students wishing to imagine all kinds of background history that feeds into a character's motivation or psychology--and I tell them that, if they were actors working up the role, it might make sense for them to do that, to better inhabit the role. But we have to work with the text we have (and even actors are only doing it so they can speak every line of text with fuller understanding and conviction).


I'm perfectly content for students to be drawn to a work of literature, in part, because of the appeal of the characters, and certainly some of what we do in the classroom (and even in literary criticism) seems like character analysis--why so-and-so did thus-and-such.

But as Dr. C says, there's a difference between what we do, instinctively, when we read about characters, and what critical analysis (and not just literary analysis) trains us to do.

More importantly, though, the assumptions we make about extra-textual motivation tend to be, by their nature, conservative and reductive. This is true whether those assumptions are based in character (she must have had a lonely childhood, and that's why she's so hungry for love); the author's life or psychology (he was *so totally gay* himself); or the time period (this just shows how women were oppressed back then).

It's true that texts remain relevant to us as human beings--not just literature scholars--because they continue to stimulate thinking and generate possibilities, including possibilities about human nature, psychology, etc. But those possibilities are a) by their nature, possibilities, not certainties, and b) must always be rooted in the text.

To take the easy Shakespeare example, Shylock in Merchant of Venice has been read and played at least three different ways, and there's textual support for two of them (villain or victim). But if we read him ONLY as a villain, or ONLY as a victim (or as no more than proof of Shakespeare's anti-Semitism or a condemnation of his society's anti-Semitism), we're not only not reading the text carefully, we are, relatedly, not thinking with sophistication about human nature, in which those things can be and usually are intertwined.

And I guess I'm concerned about both. I want my students to operate within my discipline's expectations, yes, but part of what bugs me about the pop-psychologizing is its poverty of understanding and lack of curiosity about human nature. Even if all you want to do when you read literature is learn about people, you can't do that in a full and complicated way without reading the text closely.

FLG said...

Fair enough.

What Now? said...

Flavia, mostly I just wanted to comment to say a big thanks for introducing me to the sassy, gay friend videos, which were hilarious, but having read the interesting conversation in the comments, I'll also add that I would steer a middle course here between FLG and Dr. Cleveland. With FLG, I think it's understandable that students begin by responding to the characters themselves; after all, why would some books make me cry if I didn't on some level feel that these things were happening to real people? But that response, of course, is merely where we start the analysis, and sometimes that connection to characters can fuel the analysis; I often sketch for students a scenario in which the characters act much the same way but we would respond entirely differently, and then ask the students to think about how the author arranged things so that readers would have the response that we did (sort of along the lines of what annieem suggested in the first comment). This usually takes us into area that falls into the realm of "real" literary analysis, but it also takes seriously that of course we have these personal reactions! (Indeed, I find it much more difficult to teach literature that doesn't provoke that initial reaction, since then I don't have an automatic starting place for class work.)

Anonymous said...

If I'm understanding you correctly, you want students to live in the text, as you do. But I think that's quite un-realistic for all but very serious, committed scholars such as yourself. We just covered the New Deal in my history class today. Should I have stayed in the 1930s, studying the texts of the time? Or could I have made comparisons to Obama, to wake them up a little bit and maybe instill some relevance? -- I enjoy your blog.

Sisyphus said...

I think the real problem with "Dr. Phil analysis" is that it is dismissive, not productive, and that it is used (or sounds like it is to be used, from the contemptuous and angry tone it is so often delivered in) to shut down all conversation. It makes the psychological analysis an end point (or the penultimate point before, "and this is stupid, so shut up") when literary analysis starts out in the psychological world presented in the text and then moves outward to consider why the author created the scene/world, and why it was portrayed _this_ way and not _that_ way, or what it may mean that this scene parallels or contrasts another scene somewhere else in the text.

But really when a student gives a really strong Dr. Phill I always feel like I've been slapped.

Doctor Cleveland said...

You know, sisyphus makes an excellent point. What Dr. Phil does, to actual people, is so much worse than what anybody could do to a text.