The Literature Workshop

The comments that Sheridan Blau makes about confusion in the beginning of chapter 1 of his book, reminded me of the reading we did during the second week of class about difficulty. Blau describes a scene in a classroom where a frustrated student speaks out about reading Julius Caesar in class and refers to the play as being stupid and dumb, and questions why Brutus conspired to kill Caesar if he loved him. The teacher’s response to the student is critiqued by Blau, and he goes on to explain how student confusion in response to literature “often represents an advanced state of understanding” (21). I think its obvious that embracing student questions and confusion in a literature class can produce interesting class conversations and can also results in students and teachers developing a deeper understanding of the literature being studied. I also believe that it is the responsibility of the teacher to maintain order in the classroom, and to foster a learning environment that does not seek to diminish students’ questions, but encourages respectful conversation. Encouraging students to work through difficulty when interpreting texts, and showing them how to use their questions and confusion about a text to examine its meaning is essential to the learning process. Literature teachers have to accomplish the former but they must also correctly identify those in class who are hindering the learning process for others. In order to be a successful instructor I believe you must also recognize that not every question about a works importance or validity is evidence of deep critical thinking. In certain circumstances instructors are faced with students whose frustration is in fact evidence of their lack of desire to do the work.

I could also sympathize with the teacher who avoided certain lines of Macbeth due to his own uncertainty about their interpretation. After retelling his experience in a class with this instructor Blau asserts, “The only texts worth reading are texts you don’t understand” (24).  His explanation of this principle was interesting, and if I had not encountered a similar experience in the classroom, I would probably have thought his comments to be completely bizarre. I can remember preparing for a class, and feeling hesitant about including a poem by Louise Erdrich, because I was more familiar with works done by other poets. It was my first time teaching poetry in class, and I wanted to make sure that I had all of the answers in regard to the author’s background and the work itself. I decided to put my hesitation aside, and discussed Erdrich’s poem, “The Lady in the Pink Mustang”, along with some other works in class. I was surprised that the poem, which I felt would be the most difficult for them to understand, was in fact the poem that they wanted to talk about. Some students brought up things about the poem that I did not even think to mention as I first began to lead the discussion, and it turned out to be a good learning experience for us all.  As a new instructor there is always a fear that your credibility will be questioned if you don’t have all the answers. I think this fear keeps many teachers from embracing texts that they are not familiar with, especially when it comes to poetry.

Later when Blau discusses an interpretation of Theodore Roethke’s poem, “ My Papa’s Waltz”, I was shocked to discover that before 1985 no student in any of his classes had offered an interpretation of the poem that linked it to abuse. I can remember studying this poem as a freshman in college, and later teaching it in my first English class, and in each case abuse was mentioned. The last time I taught this poem in class there was some disagreement as to whether the poem was a reflection on a happy childhood memory, or whether the poem was about abuse. I was reluctant to tell the students in my class how I interpreted the poem, and instead as a class we noted places where it would be plausible to see a positive interpretation, and a negative one. After we discussed the poem I played a recording of Roethke reciting it. After listening to Roethke read his poem some students who previously interpreted the poem as positive found his reading to be quite depressing and were inclined to change their original interpretation