Monday, January 29, 2007

Text and Context: The Ongoing Dialogue

Mark and I have been having an extended conversation on the question of the logic of our reading selections in general and one particular sequence of readings on philanthropy that we are doing with our sophomores on the other. A lot of that conversation has been taking place in person, where we've been challenging and helping to clarify each other's thinking. Some part of it has been taking place in this forum, and so this post is picking up some of the threads of that dialogue. Here are a few of the comments that Mark posted today in response to my most recent post on the subject, and my responses. Mark writes:
English 2 is, at least in my mind, foremost a critical thinking course; therefore, I'd say that the strongest message the students should experience is the one that says, "Think critically!" Okay, then in a critical thinking class, shouldn't we ask students to practice evaluating a question from multiple of points of view? I'm not advocating other points of view based on balance for balance's sake; rather, I do so because in this particular course we have to give students the chance to see points of view based on different assumptions, and sound reasoning to go along with them, as models and for their own evaluation. How contradictory to ask students to practice critical thinking, and then to select readings that suggest a conclusion we believe is correct.
If that's what we were doing, I'd agree with you. But I don't think that's what we are doing. The common element in the readings is that they raise the address the question, "What is our responsibility to others?" The readings offer a range of answers to that question. I don't have a "correct" answer in mind when I put those readings out there, and I don't expect that the students are all going to wind up agreeing on one either. I do have a personal belief that answers at either extreme of the continuum—that we have NO responsibility and should never do anything for anybody else; or that we have a complete responsibility and must give away everything own, possibly including our body parts or our lives—are unsupportable, but I don't hear students—or anyone else—making those arguments with any seriousness. They might come up as a theoretical possible positions, but for those of us living in the real world it's clear that any plausible answer must be found somewhere between the extremes and that any answer one arrives at must ultimately be a matter of individual choice.

Second, I return to asking what happens when we give them readings that arise from a point of view informed if not by the same assumptions, then by very similar assumptions? We haven't randomly selected people trying to work out answers, after all; we've selected people whose answers we agree with and praise. That must be because we want, consciously or otherwise, to send a second message.
Again, I don't see that that is what we are doing. The readings are connected thematically, but they don't agree with one another, or with my own thoughts, for that matter. I don't "agree with" Peter Singer when he says (in one of several arguments that he advances sequentially, in an explorational way, that "each one of us with wealth surplus should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty." And I certainly don't agree with Zell Kravinsky when he says, "It seems to me that I should be giving all my money away and donating all of my time and energy."That seems to me to be a recipe for personal disaster. What I DO agree with, and praise, in both men, is that they are each, in their own way, engaging the question, and taking a stand on what they do believe. That's what I ultimately want to encourage the students to do.

Now, The Poisonwood Bible. As Bruce points out, the novel does give them a narrative built from multiple points of view. But no one can read that novel and believe that Rachel represents a point of view that Kingsolver wants us to seriously consider following; one of my complaints about us using the novel in this particular course is that Kingsolver does want to send a message.
Again, I'm not willing to accept your premise at face value. I do not believe that Kingsolver has "a message." Kingsolver herself, in the interview she used to have posted on her web site, talks not it terms of a message but of a driving question, with many possible answers: "This novel is asking, basically, 'What did we do to Africa, and how do we feel about it?' It's a huge question. I'd be insulting my readers to offer only one answer. There are a hundred different answers along a continuum..."

You continue, "When students read the essays we've chosen, they expect to hear a message, for that is the nature of an essay." I agree they have that expectation, but I do not agree that they should be encouraged to think of an essay as a vehicle for the delivery of a message. Some essays may have that purpose, but the etymologically the word "essay" does not mean "message," it means "trial" or "attempt." (I've written at length before about thesis essays and the various kinds of havoc they wreak. An exclusive attention to thesis essays cripples the students both as writers and as readers. If the only essays we ask students to write are thesis essays, it's hardly surprising that they would expect that the purpose of an essay is to "convey a message." That way of thinking about essays, and about texts, seems to me to be almost pathologically reductive. Which is perhaps why I don't see The Poisonwood Bible, as you do, as "a didactic novel," and I think it would be most unfortunate if any of us were to teach it as one. I see it as exactly what you describe as your ideal, a multifaceted novel with the potential to "show us the complexities and wonders of being human and allow us to find, through our reading, our own way through life."

So it appears that we're thinking about these texts quite differently. Despite the differences in our ways of thinking about the texts, what we share is a common commitment to making the students' experience of reading those texts, or whatever other texts we choose, an opportunity to learn something about thinking well, reading well, and, ultimately, living well. What's the best way of doing that? How can we come within our subdepartment to a common understanding of how we intend to contextualize the students' experience with these texts so that the students will NOT fall into the most obvious and most predictable patterns of misreading, which are all too often created by their desire to reduce any of these complex texts to a sound bite? That's a set of questions that can—and should—support a whole lot more dialogue.

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