Having finished reading Wilner’s 25-page exposition, I reflect back on the first week or two of class, on my first blog post: apathy and its destructive nature in the classroom. If our previous reading was an illustration of the necessity of stepping outside of one’s own comfort zones to engage readers in the classroom, averting apathy, Wilner’s could almost be considered, in line with that conversation, the “what if” when such “comfort zone” methods go wrong.
She argues initially that her mistake was imposing authorial intent as a guide to the classroom, asserting that she now believes that historical context in most cases is irrelevant to our own interpretation: “[Sonny’s Blues] describes a young black man falling victim to the seduction of heroin in the Harlem of the 1940s—from such a threat my mostly white suburban students could feel relatively safe,” (189). She argues that by attempting to continually hammer home the cut-and-dry interpretation of the text, “the meaning of this profound story would not emerge for them,” (184).
I would argue that on one level Wilner perhaps misjudged the maturity level of her classroom introducing such emotionally- and perhaps politically-charged texts. When male students submit journal entries brandishing righteous indignation because underage girls could get into clubs slipping into revealing outfits, or because one boy felt emasculated in the shadow of his older brother, some kind of re-evaluation of course material must be made—or perhaps not.
I too, am in fact a white, upper-class, suburban male, and I had no difficulty grasping at Wilner’s suggested theme of the story. Rather than judging students by their privilege and stereotyping potential limitations by that, I think there’s plenty more to be said that the mistake was imposing a difficult text with an incorrect frame; that is, what I mean is that Wilner mistakenly assumes that the conventional reading of the text is the best one, and that by not grasping it, or paying attention to it—or the narrator’s transformation/epiphany at the end of the story—they have somehow missed the point of the text.
To place a little context of where I’m coming from, reflect back on last week’s discussion of Hemingway’s “Chapter IV.” It may not really matter all that much what Hemingway’s belief in courage or guts is; it enriches my own interpretation of the text by how I understand Hemingway as a writer, but that isn’t to say anyone must accept it as final. By all means, I would never assert that one has missed the point of the story by reading it differently. There are, after all, a lot of different methods to reading Hemingway. His writing is like an iceberg; it’s deceptively simple. But that is neither here nor there.
The issue is the reading of “Sonny’s Blues,” and I think she mistakenly concludes that authorial intent is an irreconcilable method to course instruction, as their understanding of authenticity may work in opposition to the author’s: “By imposing meaning that the students may not consider authentic, the ‘sacred text’ approach … can backfire; it can alienate them from the reading rather than engage them more deeply in it,” (192).
This is, in essence, throwing the baby out with the bath water.
I think what’s necessary to identify here is that you can include authorial intent and more foundational readings of a text without imposing it as sacrosanct.
To cut it out of the classroom based on their background as privileged compared to that of the narrator, because they “didn’t get it,” seems far more alienating than the process of finding reconciliation. If it doesn’t happen, what’s the issue? What matters is that these students engage with and take away something from the text. Let them interact with the more conventional interpretations of the text and mold them to their own perspective. This isn’t an all or none kind of game. I’ll identify Hemingway’s iceberg to a student; where they go with that is solely up to them. And it’s hard not to see any other writer’s work the same way.
The very idea that conventional methods of reading are immune to being overturned, after all, flies in the face of the way the Humanities has shifted and evolved throughout the years. She does to some extent come to this conclusion herself, identifying “going meta,” but she does not so explicitly come to a balance that I find satisfactory (193).
What I actually find most liberating about the Humanities is that it is not so rigorously defined by hard facts and numbers—merely logic. And with enough logic applied, any argument works. This is practically the mantra of our field, a discipline that constantly pushes its disciples into newer boundaries—if not, at least, to so consciously avoid the realm of an “obvious” thesis.