Thursday, July 05, 2007

They Say / I Say - Bread Loaf Week 2

Whine. Whine whine whine. Big sigh ... it has been a tough week. To put it mildly. Turned in my first 5 page paper this morning for Romanticism (Yay) and had to show up both for that class and for Indian prose class not having read the novel and sit through three hours of discussion feeling like an idiot.

It's very hard for me not to participate. This might come as a shock, but I tend to dominate class discussion! :) In fact, during the break, the teacher came up to me to ask why I hadn't spoken yet in class and I came up with a lame excuse, then proceeded to sit through the second half of class. Turns out that the three novels I read in advance won't be discussed until the end of the term, and so I've been reading like a maniac since I've gotten here and barely made a dent. She also loves to toss giant packets on our laps on top of the already enormous amounts of reading for the next class. The first day of class she dropped four autobiographies in our laps and I managed to read only one by the next class. I can't even imagine how - with two other classes of work and another paper to write - I can possibly get it done. I suppose the lesson here is in prioritizing what is of interest and not trying to read everything; either that or never sleeping.

During the week we also have all school lectures in the evenings, Professors reading from their books or poetry or guest lecturers (usually famous scholars or authors). This Monday the guest lecturer was Professor Gerald Graff, who is soon to be president of the Modern Language Association (MLA). As anyone who has had to write an English paper knows, this is the organization that dictates how to cite your sources in bibliographies, etc. Author's name first, etc. They also handle issues of changing source materials in a technology boom.

Prof. Graff's lecture was titled "The Unbearable Pointlessness of the Literature Essay Assignment." And he wasn't being ironic. He has just published a book called They Say / I Say, which essentially discusses how literature students are often trained to write in a vacuum when they should be engaging in an on-going discussion with critics. In other words, he wants us as English teachers to include more critical texts in our classrooms regarding the literature we're reading and get students to debate with those critics. The example he gave us was the difference between a thesis that states, "The Sopranos (the TV shoW) contains complex Italian-American characters" and one that disputes an argument, "Some say that The Sopranos stereotypes Italian Americans. Actually, The Sopranos has very complex characters."

This garnered a lot of discussion amongst the professors, who felt their close-reading, textual assignments were being denigrated. However, I agree that in order to learn to write good criticism, students should be exposed to more argumentative literature at younger ages. The problem is finding genuine arguments (rather than fake, "straw man" arguments, of which I think the Sopranos above is one -- in which you set up a pretend opposing view just to give you something to argue against), and moreover, genuine arguments that are written clearly and simply enough for people untrained in literary discourse to understand. Most critical writing is extremely advanced and written for other literary scholars, not high school students.

The other problem with this model is that it does not recognize that the real argument of the Sopranos issue above is not whether the Sopranos has complex characters or not, but why complex characters make a show worth watching. Who cares whether they're complex or not unless you have a point to make about the complexity?

I'd like to hear what others think about this. Do you wish your teachers had brought in more discussion about whether Huckleberry Finn should be banned from classrooms because of its vulgar language? Or critical debates about the use of language or ideas in your texts? Is the exercise of having students make an "argument" (really a defendable suggestion) about why a poet for example would choose to use personification and certain symbols in his poem completely pointless unless connected to an already on-going discussion about the poet?


Acovio said...

In HS there was really little room to debate unless we absolutely had to. Consequently, the only literary analysis I can recall was for an academic competition I did in HS. We really didn't read too many analyses, preferring to do group discussions of the items we read. Even then we couldn't focus too much on it since we had 9 other subjects to study for.

I do remember one or two such discussions fondly, even though I was wrong for one and had a very poor argument for the other. Needless to say I did not do well, but I did learn how to expand the way I thought about things. I think if I had more opportunities like that in HS, I wouldn't have been so overwhelmed my first year at Dartmouth. -Acovio

Ms. Toews said...

As you so rightly observed, it seems that Graff's real problem is just that he wishes college students could identify a meaningful argument/thesis. (And I agree, neither of his suggestions are that great.)

Some kids are ready for secondary texts in High School, but not many. Most, in fact, would probably be turned off by them (indeed, since leaving grad. school I am often annoyed at how petty most published critical articles are -- a product, I think, of the 'publish or perish' culture of academia). If we want students to gain an awareness of audience, and of intellectual community, there are other ways of going about it.

It is rather myopic of Graff not to realize that great students of literature probably spent a great deal of time learning how to really think critically and closely analyze texts without responding to secondary sources (and that someone had to guide them in these lessons!). We can make students aware of the practice of literary criticism without insisting that the only good arguments are those which repond to already existing arguments.

I think I'm done here . .

Iambic Admonit said...

I was really inspired by Graff's talk, actually. I think I will take his amorphous idea and put it to real practical use. Two possibilities. First, take little itty bitty snippets of criticism (one or two sentences) on a work they're reading, and have them discuss whether or not they agree with each, and possibly use those discussions as starters for theses. Second, find or make up opinions/ideas for how the literature we're reading is relevant for everyday life or applicable to real situations the students are facing, then have them debate and discuss the validity of those suggestions, and come up with their own. The whole idea of making English class essays alive and meaningful to teenagers is, I believe, extremely good and relevant.

However, there is a fundamental flaw, or at least weakness, in his whole argument: Is argument in and of itself a good thing? Do we want to teach young adults to question everything (don't they do that already?)? And is the literary institution, where ivory tower old men sit coming up with esoteric theories for finding hidden sexual perversion in every poem or discovering coded revolutionary anti-establishment sentiments in every essay, and then arguing (mudslinging, backstabbing) their colleagues to prove their own irrelevant theses correct -- is that admirable?

Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. What do you think?

Ms. Toews said...

But . . .
can't help myself. Wasn't going to comment, but I have got to say: teaching teenagers to argue with integrity is worthwhile -- in fact, it is one of the main reasons that I teach. Our job is to nurture/model the critical eye, which is what allows individuals to participate actively in the cultures in which they live. My students tell me, for example, that I have "ruined tv" or "ruined movies" for them because they can't stop critiquing them. That is what I want! Critiquing means engaging; it is not necessarily a negative thing. Indeed, I think it is a problem with American society that criticism is always seen in a negative light. Argument doesn't need to end friendships, doesn't need to start wars. Don't we want an agonistic public sphere, instead of a false consensus? It's not just "old men" who can and should argue.

There is a space between what I think of as debate (that petty fighting) and passive acceptance, and that is where healthy argument lies. It is what real conversation is made of.