Intellectual Patterns: The Moves We Make to Interpret Literature

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This post originally appeared on February 19, 2013.

I’m always looking for ways to explain to students how reading and writing about literature is relevant to what they’re doing in their other classes—while I might think it’s obvious that reading carefully and writing clearly about a poem is of enormous benefit, many of my students need a bit more persuasion. I need to be more direct about what it is that we’re actually doing.  My thoughts on this come in part because the longer that I’ve taught and the more students I’ve encountered, I’ve found myself persuaded by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s argument in They Say, I Say: while good students will intuit the moves the academic writers make, most students will not.

And I think that’s true of much of what we’re doing in the classroom. My students need to know why they’re writing the types of things that they’re writing, and why reading literature can help them in other courses. (A side note: I absolutely think appreciation and refinement of taste is important: however, that doesn’t exactly fly with first-year students who view my class as a school subject to suffer through. I think it’s worthwhile to try to persuade students of all of the values of what we do.)

Over time I’ve come to look for metaphors for reading literature and writing about their interpretations that might help put the intellectual work we do in some context. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

Writing and reading is like practicing for a game: Athletes have to practice certain moves over and over again. We’re doing the same thing in the literature and writing classrooms. Whether it’s practicing how to write a thesis statement or how to pick apart a poem, we need to practice it alongside someone who has more experience and who can help us improve our technique. (Of course, that’s simply the teacher-as-coach metaphor favored by some educators.)

Writing about literature is like writing a lab report: Analysis is taking something apart.  In science, we work in the lab to take things apart and to figure out how they work together (whether it’s a chemical reaction or the internal organs of the frog), then we figure out what it all means in our lab report. When studying literature, we’re doing much the same thing: dissecting the work in front of us. The words on the page are like the data we collect. The work that we do in interpreting those words – and in writing that essay about our interpretation – is like the lab report, because we’re explaining our thought process in a way that is clear to another reader.

Of course, reading literature isn’t quite the same as a scientific experiment, because we have different ideas about the value of ambiguity, which leads me to anther metaphor that might be useful:

Interpreting a piece of literature means making some of the same moves a musician does: This one might be more of a stretch, but hang with me: the pianist, the tenor, and the violinist all make choices about how to play the piece of music. But those choices are dictated by what’s on the page – the musical notes and notations on things like tempo and volume. When we read a piece of literature, we have to stick with what’s on the page – there’s no evidence of zombie activity in, say, A Doll’s House.  Or space aliens of “Ivan Illych.” But we don’t all read a passage quite the same way.  And even our own individual interpretation of a given passage will change upon repeated readings.

We can also learn a lot about the intellectual activities we need to engage in while we interpret literature—and while we write about literature—from other disciplines besides music. I think most important to keep in mind is the idea of the scientist who has to throw out huge amounts of data because an experiment failed. Or the failure of the code that the computer scientist writes.  Or the engineer who designs carefully and pays attention to very small details. While we may embrace ambiguity—and eschew a definitive interpretation of a text—we can certainly accept that some of our ideas fail. And most importantly, that sometimes our writing fails.

All of this leads us to an opportunity to talk about why some readings of a text might not work—and in turn, we help our students strengthen their interpretations. If we can encourage our students to recognize where an initial interpretation to a piece of literature goes somewhat awry, we can help them learn to return to the information—the text—and find new, better evidence; we can help students go back through the steps of their thought processes, and find better, more logical links among their ideas. That way, we help students develop more focused, plausible interpretations of literature, but also more focused, critical thinking and writing skills.

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.