At the end of his justly famous and much anthologized 1873 essay about a class he took with Louis Agassiz at Harvard, Samuel Scudder quotes Agassiz as saying "Facts are stupid things, until brought into connection with some general law." The statement highlights the importance of context. Take the word "hands," for example. That word in isolation has a denotative meaning, but little other significance out of context. But put it on the page in the vicinity of another word, and significances proliferate. For example:
Now the placement of the words within the same field of vision encourages us to look at the words as being in some sort of unarticulated but inferable relationship with one another. We look at one word, then at the other, and then start thinking about what sort of relationship might exist between them. The space between the words becomes a field of energy in which the mind begins to play.
One of my colleagues at Punahou, Joe Tsujimoto, is the author of several books, among them Teaching Poetry to Adolescents, which was published by the NCTE in 1988. One of his favorite exercises early on when working with students is to ask them to write two-word poems of this kind. The assignment gives students the chance to explore the often surprising power that can be generated by the juxtaposition of just two words.
A lot of Japanese poetry in the tradition of haiku explores the energies between words in much the same way. I once was given a t-shirt with an enso sign (the calligraphic circle at the head to the left). Enso is a symbol of the harmonious interconnectedness of all things in the universe. On the t-shirt was brief poem, also in Japanese calligraphy. I don't recall what the Japanese words were, but the sense of it was something like this:
Flowers on the mountain
Birds on the wave
The placement of those two phrases next to one another encourages us to see them as related to one another, mirrors of one another, their syntactical and imagistic connectedness gesturing at the larger theme of interconnectedness implied by the enso itself.
Of course, all poetry—and all writing, and all thought—might be said to be, in essence, putting one word next to another, one sentence next to another, one idea next to another. And it might also be said the art of teaching is in large part the art of deciding what experience will best lead from the experience students have just had toward the experience they will be having next. Another colleague has a wide variety of context-shifting exercises he asks students to do. If the class has read a short story, for example, and come to the point where they are starting to run out of things to say, he might then ask them to look at a piece of art or listen to a piece of music and talk about how they go about making sense of that work of art. That completed, he might ask them to return to the short story, but to try to see it freshly through the interpretive lens they came up with for the work of art. What he is teaching the students to develop strategic thinking analogically: this worked over here; what would happen if we tried it over there?
Essentially what I've been trying to work my way through in these last few posts is some ideas about how purposeful choices about juxtaposition, both within genres and between them, can help to generate broader and deeper thinking. It's a commonsense notion, and one which has many other manifestations other than the ones I've discussed. The basic comparison-contrast essay is one familiar variation. And it's also given me the chance to share a few of the resources that I have found to be helpful in putting these ideas in front of students. If you're still with me, thanks for your patience.