Conceptualizing Difference

Note: This post is mostly for future reference: something I can point students to if this topic comes up in class (as it sometimes does), although comments are of course welcome.

One of the features of our current age is a breakdown in representation. A few decades ago we were comfortable bunching people into various groups and representing them in various ways: “Americans believe such-and-such,” or “Japanese think in such-and-such a way.” Of course, this wasn’t limited to national groupings, we would say “East Coasters are such-and-such,” “women are such-and-such,” “men are such-and-such,” “Californians are such-and-such,” etc. But in our current age we tend to view this totalizing or essentializing impulse with increasing skepticism. After all, there is a huge amount of variation between individuals. Even neighbors or members of the same family have different priorities, belief sets or tastes. How can something that claims to represent a huge group of people, like “Americans” or “Japanese,” possibly be valid? Think of the fairly simple statement “Americans like cheese.” We might recognize that a lot of US cuisine features cheese, or that per capita cheese consumption in the US is higher than some other countries. But at the same time, we realize that not everyone who is American likes cheese, and we each probably even know several cheese haters ourselves. Therefore we have increasingly come to realize that such representative, totalizing statements are invalid, that even small groups are not uniform, and that we’re all defined individually.

Solving Poetry

There is an article by Andrew Simmons over at The Atlantic about the importance of teaching poetry. Most of the article advocates teaching more poetry in schools, which I wholeheartedly agree with. One section, however, takes issue with the approach to teaching it:

Even the in-class disembowelment of a poem’s meaning can diminish the personal, even transcendent, experience of reading a poem. Billy Collins characterizes the latter as a “deadening” act that obscures the poem beneath the puffed-up importance of its interpretation. In his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” he writes:  “all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it./They begin beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means.”

The point of reading a poem is not to try to “solve” it. Still, that quantifiable process of demystification is precisely what teachers are encouraged to teach students, often in lieu of curating a powerful experience through literature. The literature itself becomes secondary, boiled down to its Cliff’s Notes demi-glace. I haven’t wanted to risk that with the poems that enchanted me in my youth.

As as someone who both appreciates and teaches poetry, I have to disagree with this. Analyzing a poem does not detract from the aesthetic enjoyment or emotional resonance one receives from reading it; in fact, it allows readers to appreciate it on a new, additional level. I can’t count the number of poems I’ve read through without interest, only to realize hours or days later that a close reading reveals something really interesting going on, making me appreciate its beauty in a way I did not before. I’ve never understood those who insist that approaching art critically somehow destroys appreciation of it. Is poetry really so frail that it can only remain beautiful if left unexamined? And teaching a critical approach to poetry is especially important, since students consume huge amounts of poetry (in the form of popular music), usually uncritically.

Teaching Literature and Information Resolution

Recently there has been a lot of conversation about the value of the humanities. It seems that increasingly people have been questioning the value of disciplines like literature. If, as seems to be the popular perception, higher education exists primarily as institutions for job training and credentialing, what is the point of teaching literature? Reading Flaubert doesn’t train any job skills or increase anyone’s employability. And as the cost of higher education goes up, these seemingly irrelevant courses begin to just look like a frivolous expense ripe for cutting, at least from general education requirements. And, of course, the study of literature doesn’t generally lend itself well to machine-graded tests and large lectures, meaning teaching literature is largely unaffected by the efficiency gains technology might bring to higher ed, making its cost relative to other courses seem higher. So why teach literature, much less require a couple of literature courses of every student, as most universities now do?

Well, I tend to think that the study of literature is inherently valuable (although I admit I’m a bit biased there). The ability to analyze a text is a critical skill that is immediately transferable and applicable to many areas of life: a law, company memo, conversation with a boss or TV commercial can be picked apart and analyzed for meaning in the same way literature can. Indeed, the move to emphasize job training over the humanities and the analytical skills they endow is a little creepy to me; an attempt to turn higher education into an apparatus that produces workers with the skills to be productive but none of the analytical capacity to question. And the ability to write, which students learn in humanities courses, is a crucial communications skill that anyone with even a modicum of responsibility in the corporate world must have.

But those are the arguments already out there, and many people remain unconvinced. So I’d like to throw another idea about why literature is valuable into the ring. Continue reading

The Mulan Effect

I want to take a brief pause from the usual topics I discuss on this blog to talk a little about pedagogy. I recently ran across an article by Luke Epplin in The Atlantic: “You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids’ Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?“:

These films have been infected with what might be called the magic-feather syndrome. As with the titular character in Walt Disney’s 1943 animated feature Dumbo, these movies revolve around anthropomorphized outcasts who must overcome the restrictions of their societies or even species to realize their impossible dreams. Almost uniformly, the protagonists’ primary liability, such as Dumbo’s giant ears, eventually turns into their greatest strength.

But first the characters must relinquish the crutch of the magic feather–or, more generally, surmount their biggest fears–and believe that their greatness comes from within.

This sounds like a fine theme for upbeat children’s movies, but a steady diet of these films leads, perhaps, to the assumption that life really works this way, and that furthermore all narratives should be structured this way. I have noticed this effect in my students.