Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Affirmation as Critique: What Do We Look for in Class Discussion?

Things are winding down and starting to wrap up here at the school-o-hippies. I still haven't really found my feet in the classroom because it is so unstructured, and every time I start to have things going well, everything changes and suddenly I am dealing with a new and totally different set of influences. But, I guess that's teaching in general.

For this school, I've noticed that one of the main teachers leads discussion mainly by way of affirmation; since I'm the temp and she's the permanent teacher creating the school's temperament, I'm not trying to change the way things are done structurally or kick against this style here, although I am poking at it a little bit around the edges.

When I say she teaches through affirmation, I mean that (it seems) she and the students all sit around and say things like "wasn't that a great novel?" "I just loved it." "Wasn't it great when this part happened?" "Isn't Author So-And-So just the best at doing _____?" So when my students reproduce that model of discussion in my class, my reaction is more "yeah, and?" This is, to put it plainly, not my style. Nor is it the way my English department back at GradSchoolLand does things. So my method of trying to poke at this approach is just to smile and say, "where do you see Author doing ____? Show us a really good passage." and to just get them to interact more directly with the text than they have done so far. It is a perplexing experience for many of them. Although when one of them mentions that Author has a humorous or satirical tone and I say "where is that happening?" another student can usually jump in with a favorite word or passage, none of them can really explain how the author is creating this effect. In fact, most of the time I get that quizzical-dog look where they cock their head to one side and look at you like "Aroo?"

I did have this to varying degrees back in my departmental classes, where particularly the students who wrote bad essays would kind of float over the text rather than engage with anything in the text. I specifically remember one student who kept having really strange readings of some poems, just wrong, pretty much, and when I would push her to tie her reading of a mood to word choice she would do something like take the word "black" and then say it reminded her of this one time when she was sitting under a tree and the tree was so big and had such a strong peaceful feeling and clearly this poem was all about the restful, healing power of nature and the connection to the land. And I'd be thinking, in "Ariel?" Are you serious? I don't see it. Like this student was basically having random associations with words, often associations that cut against its definition or connotation, and then making up a new poem out of the memories and feelings she associated with the word. There seemed to be something really important in that, that if I could only teach her to read the text that was in front of her instead of the text she imagined there, that I would really be making progress with this student. That and convincing her that "dour" was not an uppity word implying someone was snooty and over-educated. I mean, maybe it was primarily a vocabulary thing. But the refusal or just plain inability to dig your fingers into the guts of the text and mush things around is prevalent in my class right now.

On the one hand I'm trying to see how I can push students to do "more traditional literary analysis type things" without seeming to cast aspersions on the way other teachers are teaching, and on the other, I'm thinking, well, why do analysis in class? Why do close readings? What are they supposed to do? What are their benefits? I'm obviously not going to throw it out, but, you know, maybe articulating it out here will help me understand what my goals are and thus help me better achieve those goals. We can hope, at least.

Also, this summer I had a student comment on evaluations that I "took all the fun out of everything by analyzing it too much. Be more of a romantic!" I'm trying to figure out what that means. I mean, if I can use it in some sort of useful, improving way. If pinning stuff down too much means "I make them back up their fuzzy claims about texts with actual quotes from it," then I'm not really going to change. Similarly, if that statement is code for "you made me think and work and that is not fun," I'm going to ignore that too. It's my job to make students work and do things they don't want to (at least, usually. this school is kind of a special case). It's my job to push students out of their comfort zone and to show them that they really can measure up to my higher standards.

However, if I am killing all the pleasure in reading literary texts by being too formulaic or too heavy-handedly wringing every last drop of meaning out of it, maybe there's some way I can change for the better. That's why, when I get these comments that are more of affirmations than analysis or argument, I'm trying to let them stand out there for a little bit before pushing. I'm also trying to occasionally preface my remarks with "I love the way Author uses objects in a subtle way to help express character. For example, let's look here at how ..." In the past, I've tried to avoid making any sort of appreciative remarks because students often then seemed to clam up, terrified that they might get a bad grade by "offending" me or giving the "wrong" answer --- which sometimes can be, evidently, that they did not like or even did not understand a certain passage. (I think Fretful Porpentine had a post about a similar situation where students wrote one thing in their freewrites and then changed their answers to fall in line with her remarks as the professor.) Of course, in the past, I've usually been the TA, and often was leading discussions on texts I did not like at all. In that case, it hardly seems fair to poison the students against their required reading. Perhaps the solution is to give a more balanced discussion of stuff that I both love and hate in a text? But then how much time am I spending on my own opinions rather than historical background or patterns or word choice or other structural stuff? (I like structural stuff. I tend to teach texts structurally, unless they're short enough to look at in terms of diction and image patterns alone. I have my go-to teaching methods, I guess. Or perhaps I'm just weird.)

So, what do you all think? What are we supposed to be doing when we "analyze" or "critique" a text? And what place does affirmation as critique --- or pleasure, more simply even --- have in our discussions? What models do you follow in the classroom? How tightly do you hold the reins of the discussion --- do you have someplace you want them to "get to" or is it all right if they just kind of meander their way across the text? From here I could post another whole thing about the undergrad class styles I experienced, explication, and the New Critics, which I could elaborate on if you are so inclined, but the next topic I really want to talk about is essays. Why do we teach them, and write them, indeed?


squadratomagico said...

I'm in History, not Literature; and my classes don't always have very focused discussions, because they are large. But one thing I would totally back you up on is this: Don't allow them merely to aestheticize the text. Admiration is not analysis.

Dr. Crazy said...

Ok, for me, where critique or analysis begins is with initial, visceral reactions. Did I like that book? Hate it? Was I bored by it? Is that critique or analysis on its own though? No. That's just reacting. Criticism happens when you start asking the follow-up questions. But I do like my class to be a space in which we get to talk about our initial reactions as a starting point. I usually don't reveal mine until after I get a sense of things from them, but I'm pretty open about what I enjoy and what I don't, and I explain pretty clearly why I think it's important to read things that I don't enjoy.

I definitely have an agenda for what I want them to get from the texts that I assign, but I think that the best discussions happen when I'm not terribly controlling in my methods for getting students there. I don't know if I'm making sense. I might need to post about this at length over at my place to really flesh out what I'm trying to say.

But seriously: I think it's bullshit that a student said you need to be "more of a romantic" on your evaluation. Gross.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I guess what I'm trying to do, as a rule, is give students a space in which to practice the kind of interpretative work they'll be doing on the papers. The basic moves I want them to make involve 1) expressing an idea about the text; 2) defending that idea by citing specific details, quotations, etc.; 3) responding to other possible readings of the text, whether by saying "No, I think my idea is right because..." or "Yeah, it could be that too, I wonder why Shakespeare made it so ambiguous?" (This last type of response, which involves asking follow-up questions, is of course the rarest; honestly, in intro-level classes, much of the time I'm just hoping to make students aware that multiple readings and ambiguity exist.)

Mind, I'm not sure I do any of this effectively, but that's what I'm going for.

Virginia S. Wood, Psy.D., Instructor said...

Some students in my ethics classes sometimes do not want to dig into the readings either: Indeed, they express frustration in their reaction papers that the Code or those who write about the code don't just tell them what to do! They even accuse people who grapple with ethical issues of immorality, on the theory that "everybody" already "knows" (or should know) right from wrong.

This is a Kohlbergian stage of moral development that is less mature than would be expected of someone of college age as a general rule, although some adults never get past it either.

But more relevant to the issue of literary analysis, some of what you are getting probably is intellectual laziness (your "be more romantic" girl is definitely that!), but some of it is just that their little brains haven't fully matured. Some people even in their late teens are literally still developing the physiological capacity for higher-order thinking. (Some few of those will never develop it.)

So be patient with them, for they know not what they do.

Flavia said...

I think it's very much possible to communicate delight and wonder and all that stuff while still pushing students to do rigorous textual analysis. I periodically say things like, "isn't this weird? I think it's totally weird that he says this! Why does he use this image? Is this how you'd write to your lover? of course not! So--what does this say about her, and about the narrator's attitude toward her?"

Still, context and content probably matters. Many of my students tend to assume, reflexively, that Renaissance literature is hard--and very, very serious. Rather than free-associating, they tend to believe that there's a right and wrong answer--and obviously, if Shakespeare wrote it, it's perfect as is and means something they probably couldn't understand or grab hold of anyway.

YMMV, but for me foregrounding and my own enthusiasm, in terms that make the texts seem accessible, is an easy but also possibly a necessary way for me to get my students to spend 40 minutes looking at a particular pattern of imagery or arguing about the proper scansion of a line of verse or whatever.

Sisyphus said...

Huh, it's interesting you think the "be a romantic" student was a girl; I was assuming it was my philosophy major guy. I think there was actually something there s/he was pushing against, as I had organized the readings around some ideas about materialism and Marxism, so this was the first class where I _was_ pushing them pretty consistently into more Marxist than humanist analysis, and I felt that the "romantic" comment was as much about letting "art" be a transcendent and unsullied space for genius separate from the market as much as it was about making them close read a poem. I find that boring, but I was coming from a very similar space when I started undergrad.

And, hello, Virginia! I don't remember if you've commented before. Welcome! My mom makes your arguments a lot in teaching math; there are lots of studies about how it is not good to be introducing algebra and other really abstract math as early as they try to do now because the brains of 14-year-olds are just forming those areas. I hadn't thought how it would work on the humanities side, but you're probably right. I want to find out the best way to push/train/help students develop this new (scary?) way of thinking, even if they don't get there during my course.

undine said...

Liking and expressing opinions is only a start that gives them a way into the text.

I've noticed that if the "loved it/didn't love it" initial conversation goes on for too long, my multitaskers get out their dayplanners and check out of the class. All want to give their loved it/hate it positions but are less enthralled with listening to others' testimony.

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