Today's featured guest blogger is Colleen Kolba, Digital Teaching Fellow at University of South Florida
Each semester, I teach an Introduction to Literature course for non-English majors. One of my goals in this course is to break down an idea they tend to bring with them from their high school English courses: there is one right way to interpret a text. We talk about our personal frame of reference for seeing and understanding the world and the role that this plays in how the meaning of a text is constructed. However, it’s easy for undergraduates to fall down the slippery slope of “we can each understand this work differently” to “literature means anything” or “any interpretation is correct.”
To reach a middle ground in the way my students understand interpretation, I turned to concept artist Sol LeWitt. Starting in the late Sixties, LeWitt created instruction-based Wall Drawings. He would write instructions for a piece of art and then a group of artists would execute the actual drawing. I’ve always found LeWitt’s Wall Drawings compelling since the instructions, while fairly simple and clear, can be interpreted differently, depending on the reader, and inevitably yield a different result reliant on the group executing the drawing. These drawings felt like a wonderful visual metaphor for literary interpretation.
On the second day of my literature class, I bring in a large roll of paper. I write the instructions for one of LeWitt’s Wall Drawings on the whiteboard. As students file in, I cut large squares from the paper. I usually get a few apprehensive glances. Class starts and I put students into groups of three or four. I ask them to:
read the instructions on the board and write them down
take one sheet of large paper for their group
find a hard surface in the classroom or hallway to execute the instructions
Students disseminate with their groups and paper. On their way out of the classroom, some usually ask me to clarify a sentence or two in LeWitt’s instructions. I answer by telling them to give the instructions a close read, break them down part by part and examine the relationships between the sentences, and work together as a group to make sense of them.
I wander between my students. They chat happily, debating interpretations of the instructions and how to best execute their drawing. Students come alive when tasked at creating something in the classroom, especially creating in collaboration (which means the activity serves a secondary purpose as an ice breaker in the first week of school).
As each group presents me with their finished product, I tape them up in the classroom, side-by-side. Then, students free write in response to three discussion questions:
What do you notice about the drawings in front of you?
Who is the artist of the drawings? Who can claim ownership over the creation of these drawings?
What does this activity have to do with literature?
The class discusses their answers to the three questions. Virtually all my students come to the consensus that there are many similarities between the drawings, due to the fact that parts of the instructions are more objectively understood. However, they point to differences in the way some more complex parts of the instructions are interpreted by each group. There are some facts we can agree on in the instructions, but other areas required interpretation. Thus, it’s not surprising that my students then slide into a discussion of the way that our interpretations of literature can be grounded in facts, but influenced by the way we read and construct meaning.
As a bonus, the second discussion question prompts my students to debate the roles of writer/artist and reader, raising questions about authorial intent, how much space a reader is given in co-constructing meaning, and how these dynamics impact our interpretation of a text.
Sol LeWitt not only serves as a way to introduce my students to the questions that literature raises and to think about interpretation, but it also gives the class a memorable touch-point for the rest of the semester. Students reference our “LeWitt activity” discussion as we interpret new works. And when my students start to say that “this poem can mean literally anything” I can remind my students of their drawings and the way they constructed their interpretations.