Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Bobbing for apples

I have nothing against Halloween customs, but I dislike bobbing for apples. That’s my name for a habit that makes classroom discussion more difficult and less productive than it should be. A student who bobs for apples might offer the following observations in discussion:

The speaker in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is asking someone he loves to go for a walk: “Let us go then, you and I.”

The father in Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays” works in an office.

The poet in Sappho’s fragment 31 sees the man she loves talking with another woman.
In each case the bobber, largely or wholly unprepared, has bent down and come up with something. Someone who had read these works (and accompanying assignment pages, full of guidance) would not — could not — make the bobber’s mistakes. The possibility that Prufrock can speak to anyone but himself (much less that he is in love) is one that the poem belies at every moment; the “overwhelming question,” whatever form it might take, is one that never gets asked. The father in Hayden’s poem has “cracked hands that ached / from labor in the weekday weather”; the poem’s “offices” are the lonely rites the father performs for the members of his household: building fires, shining shoes. And in Sappho’s poem, pronouns make clear the object of the poet’s desire: the man is seated next to “you,” and it’s the sound of “your” delightful laughter and one glance at “you” that leave the poet unable to speak.

Bobbing for apples makes things difficult in several ways. It impedes the give and take of discussion by requiring a teacher to function as an arbiter of interpretive truth, one who must take up the unpleasant task of saying no — or let any old absurdity fly. There’s little point in asking about the basis for the student’s response when no reasonable evidence could be forthcoming: to ask would yield only embarrassment. (What, for instance, could be the evidence that the father works in an office, aside from the glanced-at, not-looked-up word offices?) Another problem: bobbing for apples fosters the notion, especially among students who might not recognize bobbing as such, that literary interpretation is an arbitrary, haphazard affair: to vary the metaphor, a Rorschach test. You see something (or think you do); you say something. Who’s to say whether it’s right or wrong?

One good answer to that question: literary study is typically not about right and wrong. There are many plausible things one might say about a poem, some of which will contradict others. Another answer: every reader of a work of literature — anyone who really reads it — has a say. And to read, really read, one must do much more than bob. Repeated immersions, to the limit of one’s ability to remain underwater: that’s what will let you come up with something worthwhile.

A related post
Zadie Smith on reading

[The examples in this post are from my imagination, not from life.]

comments: 5

Matthew Schmeer said...

"But, gee, Professor Leddy, reading is hard! I'd rather slide my finger across this doo-hickey which will tell me the answer via the magic of Google!"

I expect you get this quite often--or at least see it.

My students don't know how to read for anything but the barest of surface information and textual features. They do not know how to do a reverse outline, to break a text down section by section, paragraph by paragraph (or stanza by stanza), and then line by line. They are too self-assured about what they think they know and looking something up they do not know is an unpleasant task.

In other words, they can read to answer question on a standardized "comprehension" test, but they cannot read to truly comprehend, to know, to make the work part of themselves.

We do not teach reading in K-12 education--we teach familiarity, we teach skimming, we teach reading for utility, for immediate use. We do not teach for reflection or self-awareness.

But deep reading, close reading, is necessary to learn--not only about the text or work under discussion, but about yourself as a person, and what you value, and why. The humanities teach us what it is to be human through the lens of those who have thought about it, and then it leads us to examine our own humanity, not who we are on a superficial level, but who we are conscious--some would argue "spiritual"--beings. The humanities are about the state of human soul.

Part of the problem with teaching reading is linked to how we teach writing. As a teacher of both composition and creative writing, I know the pitfalls of writing about the self. If we privilege the self--the ego--when we write, then we lose sense of whatever greater purpose we might have. Too many writing teachers ask students to write about their experiences or write about how they feel, and since everyone has feelings and every student has unique experiences, then we must, of course, accept and reaffirm student interpretations of student experiences because students are authorities on themselves.

But, of course, students aren't. Deeply self-aware 18 & 19-year-olds are a rareity. Deeply self-aware 30-year-olds are a rarity.

We no longer educate people in the American educational system. We certify.

Matthew Schmeer said...

"rareity" = rarity, obviously.

"conscious" = "as conscious"

Damn typos. I type faster than I proofread.

Michael Leddy said...

Matthew, you won’t be surprised to know that virtually every piece of reading I assign gets a page (or several pages) of questions and notes to read with. I can’t remember anything comparable when I was a student (or when I began teaching). I also bring in all sorts of observations about reading (such as the passage from Zadie Smith). I don’t mind; it’s better than giving up. :) What do you do so as to not give up?

Matthew Schmeer said...

I spend two weeks on how to read a college text, how to annotate a text, and how to take notes on a text. Yes, six class sessions, starting on day one. We cover how to read for information, how to read for structure, and how to read for technique. For many students, it is quite eye-opening, as they have only ever read for information--and cursory information at that. Many have trouble identifying a main idea, instead focusing on evidence and examples instead.

Since I do not teach literature, I do not provide glosses on a text.

I do, however, engage in efforts similar to your own in terms of requiring questions or responses to a text. I also ask specific questions directed at individual students about the readings, which often being with "Where in the text does the writer. . ." or "How does the writer employ specific word choice to . . ." type of questions, questions that get them to think about what the writer is doing with words to create meaning and structure, which is what I want them to do in their own essays.

I'm not giving them easy surface questions, either. Oh, I'm fairly easy the first three weeks or so as they adjust the class, but then I start to get serious and their answers start to become part of their participation grade. And yes, I keep a checklist on my attendance roster.

Many students hate this at first. They are embarrassed at being called out and not knowing an answer or "apple bobbing" or, more often, having to admit they have not read the reading. To which my response is often, "then why should I read your essay about this reading when it's clear you don't know what you are talking about?" They waste their time and mine when they are unprepared.

Shame is a great motivator. But so is respect, and I will go out of my way to praise an insightful response.

You are right that we have the "unpleasant task of saying no"--but we only say no because the student isn't doing the work and attempting to get some credit for not doing it.

Of course, I'm teaching at a two-year school, where the student demographic is fairly non-homogenous in terms of academic preparation. As an open access institution, we get folks from all walks of life and ability levels.

The adults returning to school thrive on the sort of give-and-take and intense discussion; the young 'uns fresh out of high school, not so much at first. Those who had to work their way through the remedial classes definitely struggle in my classes, but if they stick it out, they exit as much better students--maybe not great or good writers, but they are more focused learners.

Michael Leddy said...

Your account is inspiring, to me and, I bet, to other readers who teach. Thanks for writing it out here.