Someone else has already noted that Salvatori and Donahue have a somewhat superior tone in “Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty.” I did not quite consider that while I was reading, however, once I read that blog post, it suddenly clicked: they were a bit off-putting at times. Not that I did not agree with them at several points, but as a reader, I did feel a bit defensive when I disagreed with them. Every rhetorical question they asked was answered with a seemingly irrefutable answer, which at times caused red flags to come up.
Still, I did find this book very interesting, and I learned a lot about how people read. I also found the idea of “difficulty papers” appealing, and I think I would like to try that in one of my classes-particularly since we are about to enter Shakespeare.
Which brings me to my next point: I have been dreading Shakespeare all year long. Not because I dislike Shakespeare. To the contrary: I am a Shakespeare fan! I have been dreading teaching Shakespeare, largely because at the mere mention of the name, my kids moan and groan and mutter choruses of torture. As I read The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, I found myself faced with the same problem Salvatori and Donahue describe: the man himself. None of these kids have actually ever read a Shakespeare play before, and only one of them has every actually seen a Shakespeare play performed. How is it, then, that they all cower in fear when I suggest studying him? They did not make such a fuss when we studied Mark Twain or W.W. Jacobs or George Orwell! In the book, S. and D. say, “…a reader brings to texts a repertoire of expectations, experiences, and knowledge (whether implicit or explicit) which she can use to negotiate meaning (no reading is ever “pure” or “original”), that repertoire may produce so much noise that alternative readers are inhibited” (107). This seems to be the battle which I, and so many other English Lit. teachers, are up against. Perhaps they have heard from older students who say he is difficult; perhaps their parents had bad high school Shakespeare experiences and have whined about him; perhaps a television show quoted Shakespeare, and to the child, it made little to no sense. Whatever the reason, it is now a war I must wage to dissapate all their previous (mis)conceptions about the man himself to get them to see the beauty and excitement inherent in his plays. I think I might try to have the students do some difficulty papers, so we might begin conversations about what we don’t know to figure out what we do know. One of the examples in the “How Experts Differ from Novices” also suggested that when students start with what they do know (by identifying with the experience), their response is overall more positive (the Jake vs. Steven example; I don’t have a page number to reference). Perhaps by starting with what they do know, we can overcome Shakespeare’s great aura and start from ground zero, building only positive experiences from here on out!