Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Teaching Making Meaning

I'm about half-way through a (virtual) stack of student papers (they're short, so I'm writing comments using the comment function in Word), and I'm realizing that I haven't worked nearly enough with my students on how to make meaning when they read a passage. Time for damage control: go back to that classroom and teach them how to make meaning!

If you're a literature person, you may have an ambivalent response to this: in essence, I'm working with students to teach them how to read a short passage and develop what we have a tendency to call "close reading." This term, of course, was largely used by a group of guys called the New Critics, whose attention to the text was so focused that they refused to consider how things like culture, time period, gender, politics, etc. might be pertinent to an analysis of a particular passage. Once those kinds of ideas began to ripple through literature programs, the New Critics were dismissed as passe and their ideas, in large measure, were discounted as at best blindly apolitical and at worst ignorant and laughable. Despite these trends, however, we Lit. types do maintain (I think--somebody check me
here) a devotion to the ways one analyzes sentences for meaning and uses these analyses to make an argument about a particular literary work.

What I've been trying to articulate--for myself and for the students--is: HOW DO WE DO THIS? What is the process by which we make meaning from a passage? Think about how you read and begin to develop an analysis of a text (even something as intuitive as "The appeal of the Harry Potter books rests in their ability to tap into common,deeply-held ambivalent desires about wanting to be special and simultaneously afraid of the responsibilities of specialness" has to start somewhere). Where does it start? How would you break down the steps in the process? How do you "do" a close reading? How do you make a text mean something--and mean something other than its most literal conveyance of information?

This is what I did today. I chose two sentences from their pages of reading, and typed them into Word. This was then projected onto the screen so everyone could see it. I asked the students to read the sentences and give me a short summary of them. Then, I asked them to read the sentences again, and identify which words seemed most important to them. For each, we then inserted a parenthetical list of associations with the word. After we had developed a series of lists, we went back through and looked for the words or ideas that kept recurring. These, it seemed to me, would be the consistent basis for various meanings for the passage. But here, dear readers, I got hung up. What's the next step? What do we do after we note that a word excites an association in our head? How do we then go about articulating what the piece means to us?

Let's get specific. Chew on this one for awhile--it's the opening sentence of Thomas Mann's tetrology, Joseph and His Brothers. Yes, for the record, it is just sitting around in my office. All 1492 pages of it.

Deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?
So, a summary of these sentences might say: "narrator questions whether past goes on forever." But what does it mean? The narrator wants to correlate the past with a well. What do we associate with a well? Still water, deep, digging, bucket, cool, clean... Some of these are not going to match up with what we associate with the past (history, future, human events, etc.). But the others--stillness, deep, etc.--intuitively I can get the well as metaphor for the past. But then "bottomless?" You can't have a bottomless well, right? that engenders different associations: vertiginous, impossible, without boundaries, falling, incomprehensible... Suddenly, the comforting images of the well become scary images. Thus, if the past is correlated to the well, then the past too must take on a that scary tone. In addition, if the well is bottomless, then the past is also bottomless, meaning that we can't touch the end of it (there's the vertiginous part.) Hell of a way to open a novel.

So what just happened there? The associations are necessary, but they are coupled with a return to the text to make the connections between sets of associations. But how do you explain that as a process?

Some people explain the human condition as one that is marked by the idea of making meaning. Colloquially, I've heard the contention that given a random set of events, the mind will turn itself into a pretzel to create a narrative that makes sense of those events (if you doubt this, check out any online discussion of Lost). In many ways, however, close reading becomes the opposite move--given something that already "makes sense," how do you open it up to allow for different and multiple meanings?

Intuitively, I want to make the jump here to the ways that I want students' experiences with literature and their lives to be grounded in this move: given any text (an advertisement, a contract, an expectation of your abilities), you can go beyond what it says, open it up, and bring new meaning to it. But if I can't explain how to do this, then what exactly is literature (and by extension, my teaching of it) good for?

1 Comments:

Blogger FrenchieF said...

I struggle with this almost daily -- just did a similar exercise with a text, and while I felt like some of them latched on immediately; others seemed to be floundering. I'm starting to wonder if I can only push my students so far, then they have to take the leap independently. Is that a cop out?

Thursday, October 12, 2006 8:20:00 AM  

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