Author Archives: rschuste

Reflection on Microteaching Exercise

NOTE: After reading everyone else’s responses, I feel like maybe I did this wrong; I ended up writing a sort of reflection paper, and it’s quite long and formal-sounding.  In retrospect, I wish I’d written less and talked more about how I felt teaching rather than what I felt about the effectiveness of my lesson and the microteaching exercise as a whole.  Whoops!  I apologize in advance for the lengthy read.

When planning the microteaching exercise, I did my best to include variety in the lesson plan so that students who learn best in different ways might have their needs met and so that the short story could be approached in more than one way.  I’ve always been a fan of discussion-based classes, but I think that might simply be because they work very well for me, personally, and because I enjoy interacting in that format.  I tried to set up the lesson in such a way that students who didn’t necessarily enjoy or learn from that style as much would have some other way of getting something out of the story.  The lesson plan goes from individual silent reflection to individual open reflection to a group “project” of sorts to finally end with a full-class discussion.  My thought was that this would help students “ramp up” to a discussion by letting them think of and develop ideas alone and in small groups together before bringing them up to everyone (and potentially having to argue over them with their classmates).  It would also emphasize the existence and importance of multiple interpretations and readings of a text; starting out with a discussion might have led some students not to bring up their interpretations in the face of a majority opinion or a particularly well-constructed or forcefully-argued reading from one or two particular students.  Allowing students to quietly reflect and then requiring them to share aloud before putting them into small groups just seemed like the best way to alter the traditional discussion format without completely changing the way it worked.

Obviously, I didn’t get to demo my entire lesson to the class, but I think that what I did go through went rather well, if the class’s response and my impression of my own teaching are anything to go by.  In general, everyone in the class had appreciative things to say about the class structure, the introductory activity, and the perspective activity that I had them start on before time ran out.  People (including myself) seemed particularly happy with the small group activity on perspective; I honestly did not think that that section of the lesson would have been the most popular or the most effective part, but it seemed like everyone was very much on-board with the concept of it and my execution of it (i.e. walking around to different groups, checking in with them, asking leading questions, etc.).  In my mind, the really important parts of the lesson were the first part (individual analysis) and the last part (full-class discussion), and the middle activity was as much a transition as it was about demonstrating the importance of perspective.  I think, in the future, that I will streamline that activity by making sure to assign characters who would have particularly varied perspectives on the events of the story to emphasize the point of the exercise rather than make it seem like I’m arbitrarily assigning characters for people to write through in order to take up time.  It also seems like people readily understood that the activity was meant as something of a preface to the character-based reading journal that I would assign next to accompany As I Lay Dying; I’m glad that came across with little explanation.

I also got the impression that everyone was happy with the initial analysis and sharing activity.  I feel like I could have made it a bit more organized, either by literally having everyone in a circle and just sticking to the order that people are sitting in, or by being a bit more focused with my groupings of responses.  I’m glad that people got a lot out of it, but I think it needs some tweaking in order to make it seem more cohesive and connected to the remainder of the lesson.  I do, however, really like the nonspecific nature of the assignment; I had no idea I would get such varied responses, and when I was brainstorming what the potential responses might be, I put down several that no one ever brought up and missed several that quite a few people brought up (e.g. Miss Emily’s house itself).  The danger in the exercise is if I (or any other teacher using the lesson) am not prepared to talk about any and every aspect of the story, the class could get derailed by unanticipated student responses or those students might have their responses ignored or brushed over, which is both ineffective and insulting after they’ve done all that work.  Ultimately, I’m impressed with how much this first portion of the lesson got people to think and how varied their responses were, and I think that that unexpected variety of responses meant that I wasn’t as prepared to facilitate it as I’d thought.  In the future, I’m not sure I’ll change much about it, but I will definitely spend more time working through the material just in case a student gives me something I’ve never heard before.

As far as the teaching exercise as a whole goes, I think it was definitely a worthwhile thing to do, from both a planning and an execution standpoint.  I’ve never had to write so much about my own lesson plans before or really justify them to anyone but myself, so I think all of these written responses are quite valuable just for them forcing me to think about my own thinking.  And with execution, it’s always better to have a trial run, so to speak, than to go into a classroom cold and just expect things to work with high schoolers or even undergraduates.  That being said, I do wish I could have gotten more feedback in terms of critique.  I understand the reasoning behind restricting comments to, “I think . . .” or, “I found that . . .” but I personally would have liked to hear more of what people struggled with or thought didn’t work.  I know that students were encouraged to talk about things they didn’t understand or times when they weren’t sure what to do, but I don’t think there was a single comment like that amongst any of the responses to any of the teaching presentations.  I guess that speaks as much to our hesitance as students as it does to the format of the class responses, but I do think we all got the impression that there would be no critique unless it was to talk about why particular things worked well.  I find myself constantly going back to my training as a Princeton Review instructor, but I think it’s relevant here: one of the most iconic and effective aspects of training was that our evaluations were given aloud immediately after each one of our teaching presentations by the trainer.  Everything was covered, including mistakes, flubs, points where we went completely off-track, etc., and I think that approach helped me improve quite a bit as a teacher.  I wanted just a little bit of that here, some suggestions for improvement, because I’m still not sure if anyone thought any particular thing that I did just flat-out didn’t work.

Ultimately, I am quite happy with how my teaching presentation worked out.  I think that it demonstrated the effectiveness in practice of what I had intended to do in theory when I wrote the lesson plan up in the first place, combining elements of different teaching approaches into a straightforward, cohesive lesson.  I think simplifying and focusing Blau’s “pointing” exercise for the opening comments was a good idea, and I’ll probably end up doing that for most any literature lesson I teach.  I also like that, as far as I can tell, the full-class discussion of a text can remain intact in combination with other kinds of analytical activities; I really would hate to lose that in the wake of newer styles of presenting the material.  I’m glad that people got enough out of my lesson that they feel the desire to use parts of it (e.g. the character-focused small group activity), and even more glad that other people’s presentations had elements that I’d like to adapt to my own lessons.

The facets of understanding from Understanding by Design are interesting in that they present a multi-faceted, well, understanding of the process of understanding something.  It is a refreshingly thorough analysis of what goes into actually understanding a concept, theory, work, or piece of media, particularly because it goes to great lengths to explain each facet and provide relevant examples of them.  It’s also a good replacement for what we might think of as the “traditional” method of understanding, which usually just consists of being able to recite facts and sometimes to demonstrate them via explanation, interpretation, and application.  Understanding is far more complex than recitation, and while it’s certainly an impressive (and sadly disappearing) feat to be able to recite, say, the poetry of Yeats from memory, that doesn’t delve into what really qualifies as understanding said poet’s work.

However, there seems to be something of an issue with the way understanding is presented in these facets, especially with their order.  It seems to me that the author isn’t presenting them in sequential order (i.e. that you must first be able to Explain before you can Interpret, and that you must first be able to Interpret before you can Apply, etc.), and while that makes sense for some of them (knowing one’s limitations and outlooks in Self-Knowledge could certainly come before or after the most basic Explanatory ability, but it also often isn’t even present in people who can Explain, Interpret, Apply, etc.), others seem to require each other in order to be possible.  For example, Explanation is the ability to go beyond knowing the basic plot of Catch 22 and being able to draw out the motivations of the characters, the imagery and the symbolism of Yossarian’s nakedness, the comparison between Milo’s capitalistic endeavors and the entire structure of the military.  How could one possibly have Interpretive understanding of the book without already having that Explanatory understanding?  Can anyone explain why aspects of the book matter if they cannot first explain why things happen in the book in the first place?  And how is it possible to Apply the “why does it matter” of the book to, say, the modern military industrial complex of the United States or to the changing (or unchanging) nature of war if one cannot Explain and Interpret Joseph Heller’s work first?

On the other hand, it’s pretty clear that many people could look at the book and identify their Self-Knowledge and the Perspectives present in the book and in the author’s writing of the book without Explanatory or Interpretive or Applicative understanding of it.  I don’t need to be able to Explain or Interpret a poem to have Self-Knowledge of the way I read poems, of what makes poems difficult or easy for me, of how I can best approach a poem on the first go-round; in fact, I think it is my lack of Explanatory and Interpretive understanding of poetry that makes my Self-Knowledge in regards to poetry that much easier to ascertain.  An experienced poetry critic might have a much tougher time talking about their limitations and approaches than I would, while I would have a much tougher time giving an account of the what, how, and why of any particular poem.

And what of Empathy?  That seems to vary wildly; sometimes I’m sure I could Empathize with an author or a character in some cases without any other kind of understanding, but in others, I think pretty much every other kind of understanding is a prerequisite for Empathy.  Or at least for Empathy that is backed up by anything.  And how does one Empathize with a physicist who discovers a particular theorem to describe gravitational forces in deep space?  Is Empathy even remotely relevant, even by the expanded definition that this author is using?  I don’t think so; I’m not sure I would ever expect or even care about someone’s Empathetic understanding of geometry, partly because I’m not even sure what that would look like, or why I should care about it.  In fact, isn’t Empathetic and Perspective understanding of scientific knowledge quite irrelevant?  What matters about relativity is whether or not it accurately describes the universe, not what Einstein’s social and political situation were, particularly because we can empirically demonstrate (or refute) the myriad parts of that theory using basic logical forms and operations we call “mathematics” which have absolutely nothing to do with sociopolitical circumstances.

On the other side of the coin, I’m not sure that specifically Applicative understanding of works of literature is always necessary or even possible; it’s pretty clear how we’re supposed to apply Fahrenheit 451 (i.e. censorship and the destruction of knowledge and creativity is bad, and you should prevent it), but how on Earth am I supposed to Apply In a Station of the Metro?

Finally, it seems to me that Perspective and Empathy could be easily and effectively covered by Explanation and Interpretation.  It could be argued that Perspective and Empathy are absolutely necessary for Interpretation to have any sort of impetus or merit; how can you Interpret a work if you do not first understand the Perspectives involved and Empathize with the author and the characters?  Couldn’t this all simply be reduced to Explanation, Interpretation, Application?  Self-Knowledge would be spread across all three of them, and Perspective and Empathy would be part of Interpretation.  That would also solve the problem of order.  Either that, or maybe understanding is even more complex (or simpler?) than this chapter would have us believe.

Was Turner Foiled By His Own Rebellion?

(Sorry this is late; I wrote it up yesterday and then completely forgot to actually post it!)

Two things struck me on my second reading of Nat Turner, both of which end up being somewhat problematic in light of the “in context” reading we had about the historical understanding of Nat Turner’s rebellion.  Firstly, there is the issue of Nat Turner’s success (or lack thereof) and the extent to which it rests on his shoulders, on the shoulders of the group as a whole, or on the shoulders of only those who followed him.  This is something I noticed in the first read-through, and which I highlighted in my tracing exercise; Kyle Baker spends a significant amount of time and effort and devotes a significant amount of space to portraying the less than stellar behavior of many of the men who were part of the rebellion, even going so far as to differentiate them from Nat Turner in terms of how they are drawn.  Secondly is the extent to which Baker seems to ignore the confused and unclear voices of the Confessions on which he based his graphic novel.  We know that the Confessions are as much a product of Thomas Gray’s writing and perspective as they are of Nat Turner’s actual spoken retelling as he awaited execution, but Baker seems not to address that whatsoever and takes the Confession more-or-less at face value.

The former observation came about initially when I noticed that Baker was making a deliberate choice to portray some of the black men as complicit with the white men in stopping the rebellion, and that those black men were literally stereotypes, drawn with round, wide eyes, huge lips, big noses, exaggerated proportions, and an overdramatic and confused demeanor.  This is in contrast with Turner who is drawn with sharp angles and straight lines, always seeming to be aware of his surroundings, his goals, etc.  While he is busy planning and carrying out his rebellion with the help of a very small core of dedicated men, everyone else is shown as content to tag along for the looting and drinking.  Beyond the obvious issue with using the stereotypes of the time to seriously portray characters, Baker raises an issue of historical accuracy: the way he has written his book, he shows Turner’s rebellion undone by his own people, by forces outside his own control.  If only all of the men under his command had stayed sober and been truly serious about his vision, they might have succeeded in taking Jerusalem by surprise, but instead, someone went and betrayed them, and then everyone got drunk and failed to keep up their end of the bargain, resulting in the failure of the rebellion and the execution of Turner.  We know that this isn’t exactly accurate.  It only amplifies the question I had before about Baker’s view of the story and his motivation for telling it this way: Does he really think that the slave uprising was entirely undone by “snitching” and laziness?

The latter point is something that I had not thought about until I read the contextual article, but is quite present now in my thoughts about the novel.  Did Baker realize the conflicted and biased nature of the Confession?  And if so, how much?  He only shows Gray writing it down across a couple of pages toward the very end; nowhere else is there any acknowledgement that the story being told is heavily filtered through the perspective of a white man with a vested interest in obtaining a gripping story, whose acquaintances and friends were killed in the uprising.  From my reading, Baker takes the Confession at face value insofar as it portrays Turner as especially conscious, calculating, and motivated about his actions, and then moves beyond it to give a vision of Turner as a sympathetic character surrounded by, as I said above, temerity, overindulgence, and subversion.  There is very little in the novel to show Turner as anything but a great man with a great plan; the vast majority of the brutal murder is carried out by others (in words and in pictures), and the failure of the rebellion is placed squarely at the feet of traitors and layabouts within his group.  Baker seems to just be taking the basic facts of the rebellion as they are presented in the Confession and then arranging them as he has seen them, with Turner as a tragic hero undone by circumstances outside his control.  Is this accurate?  Not really; not as far as we know.  And I think it cheapens the story a bit.

Shallow End of the Pool, but No Floaties, or: Robert Talks At Length About Videogames

Foreword: I would just like to say that it has been extremely hard for me to write this blog post without geeking out over the particular videogames that were used as examples. This is primarily because many of them are my absolute favorite games, and because the arguments about video games being a “waste of time” are almost verbatim what I experienced growing up. The Tomb Raider (particular TR1 and TR4/Last Revelation . . . the whole Von Croy sequence was a long-running inside joke between my friends and me), Sonic the Hedgehog, Half-Life, Elder Scrolls, and System Shock (and their spiritual successors, Bioshock) series pretty much defined my childhood and adolescence. So please forgive me as I try not to ramble.

One of the most interesting synch-ups Gee makes between videogames and the learning process is in “Telling and Doing”, Chapter 5, regarding tutorial levels. He explains that the videogames he played and observed contained either explicit or implicit tutorial sequences that taught the player the rules of the game and essentially put them in the shallow end of the pool to muck about before pushing them toward deeper water. They begin relatively easily, even as they set up the premises of the game and its characters, plot, and atmosphere, and gradually give way to more and more challenging levels and tasks that assume your accumulated expertise. That doesn’t mean that the tutorials are always necessarily cakewalks (though some certainly are, as in Half-Life, where the tutorial is entirely separate from the main game), or that they are always necessary (if you’re an already experienced player, why can’t you just skip the “how to play” bits?), but they are always there for first-timers or people who have fallen out of practice, and they ultimately help a broader audience connect with the game.

So too do we have “tutorials” for teaching literature. Even the best English student in 9th grade will be lost if you stick Ulysses, or even A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, in front of him. You have to give him “Araby” first. And then “The Dead”. And so on, and so forth. That doesn’t mean that “Araby” is an easy piece to work with by any means, or that it is lacking in quality; quite the contrary, it’s one of the best stories ever written, and it’s relatively dense and difficult compared to, say, Animal Farm by George Orwell, which is dense and difficult in relation to other things, etc. But generally speaking, I’ve noticed a trend, at least with my education, of teachers prefacing longer, more difficult works with shorter, more accessible ones that contain the same qualities and patterns as those we might be expected to look for in the longer work (think: game controls and environments). It is important to challenge a reader, but not to destroy them. Don’t give them Orlando first; give them Mrs. Dalloway. Don’t give them Ninja Gaiden first; give them Super Mario Bros. They will surely have trouble with anything you give them if they’ve never read a book/played a videogame before, but some things act as tutorials that challenge without the intimidation of failure (even though failure is definitely still possible).

It is interesting then, to note that games in the 80s (and before) often did not have tutorial levels or tutorials of any sort at all. If you happened to play on an arcade cabinet, they would have a “demo” screen showing some pre-programmed circumstances in the game, and labels for the controls in front of you, so you could get some sense of what you would be expected to do. Beyond that, they threw you straight into the deep end, and you got better by continually putting quarters into the machine every time you died; obviously, this was done to make as much money off of the cabinets as possible, and (I would hope) is nothing like how we would want to approach teaching literature and reading skills. Conversely, we now have a phenomenon where games essentially refuse to end their tutorials; rather than escorting the player through the basics in the context of the game at the very beginning, many games now are guilty of “hand-holding”. For example, a game might continually prompt players to press the ‘E’ key in order to perform an action that they’ve performed thousands of times before, all the way up until the very end of the game, even though the player has known how to do that since 5 minutes into the game. It’s seen as “dumbing down” the games for a wider audience, and that could be analogous to teaching literature as well: if you assign students to read Hamlet, you should not expect to have to walk them, step-by-step, through the entire play. Ideally they’ll have had a “tutorial” of some sort with a previous play, and then a “refresher” with the beginning of Hamlet, but after a certain point, they can be expected to lead themselves, and have the game/instructor simply provide the framework and occasional game over/correction when necessary. Arin Hanson, an online game reviewer, voice actor, and comedian who goes by the name “Egoraptor”, famously criticized games for hand-holding and analyzed (in an effective, nuanced, hilarious, and extremely profanity-laden, adults-only manner) the phenomenal implicit tutorial of the first level of Megaman X, a game for the Super Nintendo, and used that analysis to point out flaws in newer games that “hand-hold” players through the entire game, depriving them of the challenge and learning experience that the game might otherwise provide, which in turn deprives them of the fun and enrichment they would have*.

What I’m trying to say with all of this is that there seems to be a balanced approach to teaching literature, the same way there is a balanced approach to setting up a videogame. Not every book requires the same style of tutorial, nor the same depth or length tutorial, but generally speaking, we should be able to provide one as instructors. Feeding answers and interpretations to students beyond a certain point becomes “hand-holding”; it defeats the purpose of reading in the first place, and prevents students from coming up with their own skillsets for a particular work and transferring those skillsets to other works.

*For those of you wondering, the review is called “Sequelitis: Mega Man Classic vs. Mega Man X”, and it’s great but, once again, it’s incredibly profane, so viewer discretion is advised.

We’ve Got to Go Deeper

The ninth chapter of Sheridan Blau’s The Literature Workshop, “Honoring Readers and Respecting Texts”, deals quite thoroughly with what seems to be a fundamental and recurring problem amongst students and teachers of literature, namely, how to arrive at and determine the validity of an interpretation of a text. Blau, as is the case with several of the other writers we’ve read in class, straddles the line between the authority of a text and the authority of that text’s readers; there is not necessarily a single, correct, best interpretation of any given text, but at the same time, it is not at all accurate or honest to say that any and all interpretations of said text are equally valid. Not to beat a dead horse, but this reminds me, once again, of Rabinowitz’s swing-set metaphor: the author gives a set of instructions for the swing-set, and everyone who reads the instructions builds their approximation of it. Blau falls squarely on the side of readers needing to support their interpretations with textual evidence (which implies that close reading, as a strategy, is necessary in some capacity, even if people are relying on specific interpretive lenses) and to re-read the work multiple times in order to cover anything that’s been missed. Even then, there is the possibility that their outside knowledge (as in the case of the Ball-Turret Gunner) simply isn’t expansive enough for them to understand fundamental parts of texts, and so their interpretations, while not invalid, are still clearly flawed or lacking in some way. Someone who builds a swing-set, even if it is the wrong size, still has built a reasonable fascimile of a swing-set; someone who has no idea what a screwdriver is would probably have some trouble even getting to that point in the first place.

This “compromise” approach is much more engaging than relying entirely on texts or readers (to each others’ exclusion) to provide meaning; as Blau points out, providing the “correct” reading to students does not require them to put in any effort, and their literary muscles atrophy, forcing them to rely on being spoonfed “correct” meanings indefinitely. On the other hand, the “anything goes” approach means that readers don’t have to provide more than an incredibly basic, shallow set of textual evidence (if even that) to back up whatever their first impressions were, and reading literature becomes pointless. It’s also just much more intellectually honest: we cannot point without error to explicit formulas or plans embedded in every text since the beginning of writing, nor can we say that all text is entirely without intent or meaning until a reader invents it out of thin air. So we need thorough, thoughtful reading(s), and evidence from those readings, in order to have an interpretation that can be thought of as, at least, not completely flawed (“correct” is too much to hope for).

But this still doesn’t address the problem of how deep one must go, and how informed one must be to get beyond misinterpretation. The poems that Blau picks are relatively straightforward in the ways in which people might misinterpret them: if you don’t know what a ball turret gunner is, you are bound to misinterpret the poem; if you can’t read Spanish or focus on the narrator literally living in a doorway (being homeless), you are misinterpreting the poem. And so on. But what about, for example, William Faulkner’s Light In August? I took a class on Faulkner as an undergrad, and when we came to this book, the class’s interpretations were wildly divided. Some students felt that it was a nuanced examination of the impossible situation that mixed-race individuals are forced into in our society, while others felt that Faulkner was essentially saying that miscegenation creates flawed, fallen people who cannot be anything but destructive to society. In a five-hundred-plus-page novel, there is ample evidence for both interpretations (I fall on the side of the former), and it wasn’t simply an issue of a class being unfamiliar with the themes and viewpoints that Faulkner writes about in his other works; we’d all read several novels and much of his short fiction by that point. These are, I think, irreconcilable interpretations: you cannot have real sympathy for a group of people marginalized by society and simultaneously feel that those people should not exist because they are somehow fundamentally flawed. But these were not inexperienced readers giving shallow, uninformed readings of a text. How deep did we need to go to reconcile these interpretations, or find which one was flawed in some way that we had not noticed? That point is clear in the poems that Blau used; it is not so in dense, lengthy fiction. Can we make a judgment as to which interpretation might be missing something?

Teaching Reverence Before Breaking It Down

Though she took some time to get there, Arlene Wilner makes a relevant, humbling, and surprisingly funny point about the viewpoint of average college freshman when it comes to reading literature. In direct contract with Scholes, who she otherwise agrees with, Wilner points out that often the difficulty of teaching literature to students is not in getting them to stop revering texts, but rather to get them to care about texts in the first place beyond a basic, shallow understanding (or lack thereof). This reminds me of my personal experience of teaching writing to 5th graders and to high school students. I joke that talking about literature to 5th graders is easy because they are just old enough to be obsessed with reading and just young enough not to be a self-conscious and uncaring middle schooler. On the other hand, high schoolers seem to have the same approach that Wilner observes in college freshman: a distinct inability (or even a refusal) to engage a text without fitting it clumsily into their existing views and opinions, often at the expense of deeper understanding, which Wilner calls “assimilation” (as opposed to “accomodation”). With 5th graders, the difficulty is in moving them beyond the basics of plot, character, and conflict to more detailed, analytical concepts like theme, metaphor, and symbolism; they simply haven’t dealt with these things. But they are not, at least in my experience, resistant to understanding a text regardless of what it might be saying. They are perfectly happy recognizing that the titular character in the Artemis Fowl books is not necessarily a “good” person, as they might have expected from their previous knowledge of stories, and accepting the concept of the antihero, though the terminology would need to be explained to them in a lecture. My students who initially stated that Artemis was a “good” character needed only to be shown places where he was acting in ways that were “not good,” and they revised their interpretation of the books accordingly.

What Wilner is talking about with the college freshman is more akin to my experience with high schoolers; they do not lack understanding of the terminology or of the idea of deep analysis of a text, but they are resistant to it because it is not just a challenge to accomplish, but also often a challenge to their opinions and views. Her examples of students continually misreading an article about corporate influence in journalism and the story “Sonny’s Blues” have echoes of Shulman’s fantasia. These students have developed detailed opinions, tastes, preferences, etc., and moving against those is difficult and a bit scary. Heroin is obviously bad, so Sonny from the aforementioned story must be the person in whom we see significant change; grappling with the changing perspective of the narrator might suggest that the biggest problem here is not drug addiction. It’s a long way away from saying that drug addiction isn’t a bad thing, but what might those students think upon reading On the Road by Kerouac? Every character in that story is drugged out of their minds, and yet the book is hardly one that seeks to deal with the problems of rampant drug abuse. The Catcher in the Rye is often polarizing amongst students because many cannot get beyond Holden Caulfield’s “whiny” nature; they wonder why he can’t just “grow up” and stop being such a spoiled child, ignoring his fairly traumatic journey in the novel and Salinger’s ultimate point that Caulfield values childhood and innocence, spurring his dream about being a “catcher” in the rye, stopping all the children who might fall off the cliff (of adulthood) so that they can continue playing in the fields indefinitely. To many students, the tug-of-war between the responsibility of adulthood and the innocence of childhood is lost in their concern over Holden’s complaining demeanor as if he were literally their peer.

What Wilner suggests through her teaching example is a very astute way of addressing this problem, I think. She uses the narrow, personal reactions of the students to frame larger questions about the piece she assigned, which leads students beyond those personal reactions while still framing the entire discussion in terms of them. This is the difficulty of dealing with the unwillingness or inability of students to move beyond surface readings of texts (“it is/isn’t relevant to me because of my personal experience”); a student’s personal experience and perspective is relevant to the meaning of a story, but it can also be a hindrance, and so teaching students to read stories needs to channel that impulse productively. Before we can do as Scholes suggests and break down established methods and textual reverence, we have to teach students the methods and the reverence in the first place.

Teaching People to Build Swing Sets

The excerpt of the Rabinowitz Book, Before Reading, clearly illustrates a point that I have seen argued about before many, many times: does meaning come from the readers, the author (as a reader), or the text? This has been written about since the existence of literary criticism, I’m sure, though most of the things I’ve read regarding it are from the mid-20th century onward, and very clearly fall on the side of the readers in terms of creators of meaning. Rabinowitz uses the term “readerly idealism” to describe meaning as assigned by readers to texts, rather than provided by texts to readers. What he does that I hadn’t seen before is essentially propose a compromise with his swing set assembly metaphor. The author has a swing set in mind an provides the readers with the pieces to assemble it. He assumes the conventions of construction are well-known (maybe he provides an obscure one or two directly) by the readers, and then steps back, whether he wants to or not, to let the readers do their work. They may end up with a swing set that is nearly the same as the author’s, or they may end up with one that is a bit different, but that they built using the same pieces and similar conventions.

This approach strikes a balance between older notions of the text as a sort of godlike authorial surrogate and newer notions of authorial absence and textual malleability. We cannot reasonably say that every single person, given the same set of tools, will read the same text the same way because, well, they don’t, and they won’t. And where are we getting the exact “correct” meaning from? Dead authors cannot provide it, and living authors refuse to, or purposefully provide varying meanings, obfuscate it, or lie about it all the time. But we also cannot rely solely on readers for the aforementioned reason: they provide different readings of the same text using similar tools. If they are the ultimate authority, then the logical conclusion is that all texts are essentially meaningless; the meaning is entirely external.

The swing set just says that all of these things are important. What the text says, what the author meant it to say and wants it to say, what the readers see in it, etc. The danger now is only that someone without the proper conventions (tools, to keep the metaphor going) will be simply incapable of building anything from the pieces, or will build something so alien to a swing set that it cannot be reconciled with other readers, the author, and the parts in the text. It seems a bit democratic (e.g. if fifty people say it’s a swing set, the author says it’s supposed to be a swing set, and one other person says it’s a swimming pool, then that last person is doing something wrong), but it’s a much more refreshing and balanced way of looking at how people read and how meaning is derived from reading.

This actually reminds me of the discussion we had in class about the book How to Read Like a Professor, a book that claims to provide “rules” for teaching people to read “properly”. It may be inaccurate or simplistic (I’ve not read it, so I honestly don’t know), but trying to provide as many people as possible with the basic tools of reading so that they can all make a reasonable fascimile of playground equipment out of the swing set text is, I think, one of the major facets of teaching reading. A teacher would provide context in the set of a manual or instructions where the author would provide the pieces, and then the reader provides the elbow grease to get it all assembled.

Should We Try To Make Experts?

In this week’s readings, I was most struck by the relatively straightforward “How Experts Differ From Novices” chapter, particularly in its treatment of the clearly varied skill sets of experts and novices. Some examples, such as the comparison of veteran teachers with inexperienced teachers, seemed to paint a simple picture of a lack of understanding and pattern-recognition that would eventually be gained through experience. My expectation, and I am assuming the general expectation of others observing these two groups, is that the novices would learn how to recognize details and patterns over time and with practice. The same might be said of the master chess players and their “chunking” abilities in relation to novice players: they are seeing the same things as the beginners, but they are effortlessly and automatically recognizing, sorting, and prioritizing complex patterns within the game. With enough practice and guidance from the Experts, the Novices should eventually become Experts themselves, right?

The mention of “chunking” reminded me of my time working as an SAT and ACT teacher for a major standardized test prep company (there is a reading prompt on one of the practice tests about chess masters “chunking”), and how the approach of test prep classes diverges from this notion of turning Novices into Experts by emphasizing pattern recognition and de-emphasizing rote memorization of facts. In our classes, we teach that pattern recognition is far more useful on the test than memorizing facts, particularly because the ACT and SAT tests don’t actually test a student’s knowledge of facts. Being able to see patterns and blaze through problems almost by reflex is much more important than being able to provide complex proofs or even show one’s work.

At the same time, Expertise, as it is presented in the case of the historians and the history students, is very bad on these tests. Being able to get a bunch of multiple choice questions right is actually much more important than being able to really create an essay full of nuance and conjecture. Simply plugging numbers into formulas, as Novices apparently do, is much more effective on a standardized test than complex, overarching understanding of concepts. A physicist might go into the ACT Science section and try to understand the broad patterns and ideas behind the sections, and while that is all well and good in for a laboratory or PhD program, he would end up with a very bad score on the test because he would probably fail to recognize that specific understanding of scientific concepts is completely irrelevant there. The same goes for essay-writing skills, reading comprehension, and math on these tests: breadth of knowledge is much more important than depth on a standardized test; being an Expert in that context can actually be quite harmful.

I suppose, then, this brings up a question: should we always be striving to make Novices into Experts? Is being an Expert in this sense always a good thing? The academic value (or lack thereof) of standardized tests aside, is depth of understanding always superior to breadth? I am not a physicist, and I do not ever intend to be one; is my Novice understanding of a series of facts and formulas bad? Should I have been taught physics differently? There’s a value judgment here that I think needs to have attention brought to it, especially when we are using such loaded terms as “Expert” and “Novice”. Who doesn’t want to be an Expert instead of a Novice?