Embracing Ambiguity

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[[This blog was originally posted on January 1, 2013]]

I once had a delightful student who, despite her actual talent for interpretation, would get incredibly frustrated by the ambiguity of much of the literature that we would read for class.  I could always see the wheels turning and her brows furrowing when she would begin to explain her interpretation, particularly when she didn’t quite have an end in sight.  As a major in social sciences, she wanted unambiguous results and quantifiable answers.

And that’s just not what we do in literary studies.

From my perspective, it was actually delightful: when I see students struggle like that, I know that they’re developing intellectually.  I’ve always enjoyed the ambiguity of interpretation – or at least the possibility of multiple interpretations.  I’ve also generally been most interested in the many links that we can make across works of literature.

Most importantly, though, I think it’s important to emphasize with our students that this is a valuable skill: I’m reminded of Keats’ idea of negative capability or of James Baldwin’s idea in “Notes of a Native Son” of holding two apparently opposing ideas in his mind.  An ability to operate within that ambiguity, or to balance opposing ideas is necessary in our modern world: it allows us to deal with nuance and to sort out the complexities of our global lives.

So how do we do this?  How do we encourage students to feel comfortable with ambiguity?

One way would be to have students work through their own interpretations in small groups in the classroom, without the immediate intervention of the professor/authority figure. They could then report back to the class, offering possible readings and asking questions to spark discussion. It’s important, at the outset, to point out that there are some interpretations that will be more plausible than others, and that there’s no single correct interpretation. At the same time, each interpretation needs to be supported by evidence from the text. So students need to be able to make a claim and back it up with specific passages.

This approach would be most productive for students in introductory literature courses – it could work particularly well for non-majors – because it encourages interdisciplinarity in interpretations.  Asking students to talk about a text in terms of their own majors and areas of expertise will benefit the class discussion as a whole.

This approach does require a level of comfort on our part as instructors: We have to be willing to admit a lack of knowledge about something to our students (e.g., I’ve had students explain rules of football, the bone structure of birds, and music videos to me).  It also means linking literature to things in our own lives, or with our own interests.  It also means, I think, recognizing that our goal in the introduction to literature classroom is to develop the ideal reader, which is different from our goal in a graduate-level course on English.

And really, deep down, it’s about sharing our own love of reading and our own comfort with that ambiguity.

About the Author
Emily Isaacson received her BA from Augustana College (Illinois) and her MA and PhD from the University of Missouri. Previously at Chowan University, where she was the coordinator of the Chowan Critical Thinking Program, Emily is now working as an assistant professor of English at Heidelberg University. She has presented her work on early modern literature and on teaching literature at meetings of the Shakespeare Association of America, the Renaissance Society of America, South Atlantic Modern Language Association, and the College English Association. She also frequently reviews books about teaching literature in the classroom.