Thursday, September 24, 2015

Joining the conversation

Recently, after drafting most of my Milton chapter, I decided it was time to sit down and read some criticism.

It's not that I'd done no prior research; I'd made certain that no one else was arguing the kinds of things I was planning on arguing, and I'd spent a couple of months doing what you might call background research. But I hadn't bothered to read much contemporary criticism, because--why would I? I knew the texts, I had a general sense of how they'd been read and discussed over the years, and no one was doing what I was doing, anyway.

But after writing 9,000 loose and drafty words, I'd run out of gas and was at a loss for how to frame my argument in a way that was more interesting and consequential than "betcha never thought John Milton was doing THIS, now didja!"

So I took a week to read all the articles and book chapters I'd ordered through ILL--and then order a dozen more--and though it's true that none of them were interested in what I was interested in, seeing the passages and problems that preoccupied others let me reformulate my ideas so my observations were addressing the same concerns. Reading the scholarship allowed me to enter the conversation, as we say, rather than just sitting in a corner and shouting, "hey! I found a thing!"

My impression is that most people read the scholarship first, but that. . . doesn't really work for me. In grad school I had a hard time seeing past prior criticism--I'd fall in love with one particular reading and be unable to recognize what avenues might still be open or what I could add--and although I don't usually have that problem today, when I'm in the very early stages of a project I'm still prone to either falling in love with a given approach or dismissing it out of hand ("Why am I reading this? it has NOTHING to do with ANYTHING!").

Basically, I don't think I'm a very careful or receptive reader when I'm protecting the fragile little seedling of my own idea. It's only after it's grown a bit and I'm sure there's something there that I can take on board and appreciate the work that other people have done--including seeing the ways that approaches and interests that seem very different from my own are actually things I can build on.


So this is all well and good, and a useful thing to know or to keep rediscovering about my own process. But it makes teaching scholarly writing hard, especially at the senior-capstone and M.A. level. Though I give my students a lot of literary criticism and I think I've gotten good at teaching them how to parse it and recognize its representative moves, I don't know how to teach them to have ideas independent of that criticism. I encourage them to find the limitations of even the best pieces and the areas available for future study, but it's only the rare students that can do this in a nuanced way, and even they often feel the burden of trying to say something original when they know how little they know and how belated and junior they are.

I wish it were responsible to say (and that the semester gave me enough time to say), "just write down your crazy ideas! make an argument! read the criticism later!" But they don't have that luxury, and I don't know how to teach them to do what I couldn't do, at their stage, either.


undine said...

I like this approach, especially the "tender seedling" of a new idea. The thing is, it *is* a tender seedling at first, and looking at the criticism carefully later makes sense.

Susan said...

My route tends to be, "ooo, look, new, shiny, no one's said this, I'm all alone" on my first read through scholarship. Then I write, and go back to the scholarship, and I discover that in fact I'm not alone, and I'm talking to people.

And my non-robot verification involved pictures of waffles, which is JUST NOT FAIR.

Anonymous said...

Huh. I guess I'm the opposite in that it's much easier for me to find ideas from scholarship than ex nihilo with only the source. What tends to happen for me is I'm reading along, and there is an argument (or a side point, or assumption), and my gut reaction is: This is interesting! Or more often: This is completely wrong wrong wrong! I then think through my gut reaction, and what it would take to show otherwise or to look for the thing in another source or context or time period, and gather my materials. (And sometimes I come around to the view that the author is right, or someone else has handled it. And fortunately, it's usually a minor point in the introduction or footnote or assumptions that I, I hope, don't come off as a combative jerk.)

Anyway, I share this in case it provides any material for teaching scholarly writing.

I do do a lot of just cold reading of texts (teaching a foreign language, or reading for context, or just as a translation exercise), but it's harder for me to come up with arguments in those cases. I am usually still glad I did that, though.... Eventually. I do wish that end of things were easier.

Flavia said...

Susan (and Undine):

I suspect that one reason I wrote my dissertation (and then first book) on texts that had very little scholarship was precisely because I could see that there was space for me to work; I was able to feel confident that I was doing something new and different. When I was a grad student, it was just inconceivable to me that there might be any space for me to work, or anything new to say, about say, Shakespeare's tragedies. Obviously I don't feel that way about Shakespeare now, but I think there's still something similar at work--I need a sense of freshness and possibility.


I think this may just be one of those temperamental/personality divides, in the same way that some people find writing difficult but love revising (that would be me!) while others can easily generate reams of text but hate rewriting.

rag said...

"I don't know how to teach them to have ideas independent of that criticism"

I always struggle with how to generate student ideas. I'm in the social sciences, so I don't use literary criticism. One thing I do is have students analyze a text or an image, and I give them background material. So they have to make an argument about that particular source drawing from background readings. The background readings basically contextualize the source. So I don't give them an analysis that's already been done on their source. Rather, I give them writing that contains an analytic lens through which to examine their source. Sometimes they come up with good ideas, other students get lost in all the information.

Irina said...


Writing, then seeing what others say, has been my MO for a long time. It's also why I tend to write on ignored works. In any case, I like to develop my own reading of a work before delving too, too deeply into the scholarship. I'm not worried about existing scholarship affecting my conclusions, but I am worried about it affecting what kinds of questions I think are interesting to ask.