Dissecting the Frog

Found this wonderful reflection at the Circe Institute from another English teacher like me. I can really relate to Mr. Kern describes here:

I’m torn between opposing approaches: 1) to break the work down so that they see the structures and the devices and all the things that we English majors find so fascinating but most students find so mind-numbingly similar to biology, and 2) to simply let the stories be, to them do the work themselves and to simply be a facilitator. The first option is practical and concrete and I can quantify my student’s knowledge and assess his understanding. The second functions within the realm of mystery and is less easily quantified. On the one hand I can dissect the work, on the other I can observe.

My instincts tell me to go with the second option but the strangest thing has been happening when I do: the kids want the first option. My students don’t want to have to observe because observation demands patience and attention and time. Dissection, on the other hand, requires only a scalpel and something to clean up the mess later on. (Kern, “Flannery O’Connor On Teaching Literature,” The Circe Institute)

I found this to be true even more so of my kids in Louisiana than my kids here in Denver, though I am not quite sure why. The honors students, in particular, seemed to suffer from this empiricism-obsessed affliction (though not all of them). A lot of them hated reading “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” yet they did not recognize that Mr. Shiftlet was really talking about them:

“‘Lady,” he said, and turned and gave her his full attention, “lemme tell you something. There’s one of these doctors in Atlanta that’s taken a knife and cut the human heart‑the human heart,” he repeated, leaning forward, “out of a man’s chest and held it in his hand,” and he held his hand out, palm up, as if it were slightly weighted with the human heart, “and studied it like it was a day‑old chicken, and lady,” he said, allowing a long significant pause in which his head slid forward and his clay‑colored eyes brightened, “he don’t know no more about it than you or me.” (O’Connor, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”)

Mr. Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater observe Lucynell – rather like the doctor observes the human heart in his hand.
Source: oliviawhen.blogspot.com

Mr. Kirn, in his essay about this problem in teaching English, goes on to say that “literature isn’t science and I don’t believe it should be treated like it is.” Which I definitely agree with, and I could discourse at length about how our technology-obsessed culture is suffering from an appalling suffocation of our artistic and literary desires.

But then he says, “Literature is best learned through experience and experience is driven by observation and observation doesn’t cater to this instinct, this desire.” Notice his conflation of terms – and notice also his reversal of what one would normally expect. “Experience” and “observation” are associated with “literature” and “desire” — not science. I found that very interesting – especially in light of my own belief (discussed in this post) that reducing knowledge to experience is part of the very problem Mr. Kirn is describing.

He describes it very well here:

“For to examine only the parts of a thing is to examine only what that thing has, not what it is. If I want to know what a frog is I should go to the pond and watch it do, and be, and inhabit. If I want to know what a frog has I should dissect it.”

Unfortunately, so many of my past and current students don’t really care about the frog. Nor they do not care what the frog is. The struggling students often do not care altogether, about the frog or its parts, and the strong students often only care insofar as they can gut the helpless animal for the correct organs they need to pin onto their test for an A.

Maybe I’m being a little harsh here. I’m not blaming my kids. I’m not even blaming their parents. Maybe I’m blaming bad English teachers – or, perhaps, the culture at large. Or the devil who has taught us not to care anymore about being, but only about doing and having.

Yet Flannery O’Connor–whom Kirn is following in his article–is not entirely “impractical.” I think Regina kept her on her toes too much for that. I think Flannery would agree that you can’t just sit gaping at a frog–or a story–all day. You need to find a way to train your eyes to see it properly, and that does involve skills, tools, and all the rest of it:

The student has to have tools to understand a story or a novel, and these are tools proper to the structure of the work, tools proper to the craft.  They are tools that operate inside the work and not outside it; they are concerned with how this story is made and with what makes it work as a story. (O’Connor, “On The Teaching of Literature.”)

My recent lesson plans on reading strategies are my own attempt at this. So is my (in)famous unit on essays and my “Writing Fridays” (formerly known as “In-Class Essay Fridays”).

And–oddly–most of my students, at least in retrospect, respond well to these parts of my teaching. And I am very happy about this. And yet… These skills I insist upon so forcefully with my kids are indeed essential, but they are only meant to move my students toward the Real Thing itself. I do not know if I have done so well in helping my kids to contemplate the mystery in literature. I do not know if I have really been able to help them simply observe the story as it is–and perhaps hear the Logos speaking through the logos of the particular poem or myth.

source: nytimes.com

Flannery says, in her characteristically incisive way:

English teachers come in Good, Bad, and Indifferent, but too frequently in high schools anyone who can speak English is allowed to teach it. Ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning. In other ages the attention of children was held by Homer and Virgil, among others, but, by the reverse evolutionary process, that is no longer possible; our children are too stupid now to enter the past imaginatively. (“On the Teaching of Literature,” Mystery and Manners)

Some of my kids would protest her harsh characterization of them here. I think they would mention Harry Potter and The Hunger Games in an effort to refute her– a response which, unfortunately, speaks for itself. For as much as I enjoy Harry, and as much as I appreciate the fleeting moments of true greatness in Rowling’s enterprise, I know that Harry and Katniss and these others cater to my students–not the other way around. If my students do read on their own, I am happy, but I am not satisfied. They usually read the kind of book that bends over backwards to please and entice them–and judging by the Reading Autobiographies I had them write recently, they actually believe that literature ought to do this. As if a story owed you something. When really you owe the story something – your attentiveness.

If you prefer a “tame” frog that hops around after you and abhors nasty places like swamps, well, you don’t really like frogs at all, but toy frogs.

If you prefer capturing real frogs yourself and cutting them up so you can “understand” them, you understand only a very little about the frog. You possess the frog, so you can figure out what it possessed while it was alive– but not much else.

Or, you could go out to the swamp and wait and see if you can catch a glimpse of a real live frog doing real live froggy things. You may see one, and you may not– but either way you’ll understand the frog far better. And maybe yourself as well.

Sacramentality and the Short Story

Here are my rambling (key word: rambling!) thoughts on sacramentality and short stories, inspired by my students.

I just started a unit on short stories with my sophomores. As an introductory lesson, we’ve been learning about the 6 characteristics of a short story according to Edgar Allan Poe:


1. A short story should be able to be read in one sitting. (About one half hour to two hours)

2. A short story should have nothing in it that detracts from the design (no extra or un-necessary stuff).

3. A short story should aim for truth. Although most stories are fiction, and many of them include fantastical elements (e.g. “The Fall of the House of Usher”) they should nevertheless remain “true to the human heart.”

4. A short story should strive for unity of effect – one ambience or mood.

5. A short story’s effect should begin with the very first sentence.

6. A short story should be imaginative, inventive, and experimental – it should be trying to do something.

Then we read “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” by Flannery O’Connor as a class on Tuesday. I encourage you to read it, too. I tried my own unique versions of Southern accents for the voices of Mr. Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater, to help them hear how funny O’Connor is. They loved it.

But they stopped loving it when we got to the end of the story.

“What? That’s it?”

“What’s that random boy doing at the end?”

“You mean he just left her there?”

“That don’t make any sense, Ms. Shea.”

“I don’t get it.”

“What does it mean?”

“It don’t have no meaning.”

“This is stupid.”

I had, of course, tried to warn them beforehand. On our guided notes sheet I had included this interesting quote (below) by O’Connor about the art of storytelling. But it’s one thing to read a quote that challenges traditional notions of “theme” and “message.” It’s another thing to be put through a whole short story–which you enjoy–only to be disappointed at the end by confusion and–gosh darnit–mystery.

Also, they’re in high school. As much as they protest otherwise, they like to be told the meanings of things by authoritative adult sources.

In this quote I gave them, however, O’Connor pretty much dismantles traditional notions of figuring out the “message” lifeyousaveor “theme” of a story, and the very notion that one can simply be told what the meaning of a story is. I can understand why my kids are frustrated, though. Aren’t they expected to explain the message of stuff they read in high school? If the story doesn’t yield that message easily, isn’t it understandable that they be angry or annoyed? After all, we’re talking about my grade in this class, here!

I should just let O’Connor speak:

I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.

–      Flannery O’Connor

This is, of course, what our beloved Dr. Lowery of the University of Dallas Theology Department would call “the sacramental view of reality”–or, in this case, the sacramental view of storytelling. The meaning of a story is “embodied” and “made concrete” in it, and as such cannot be pulled out of it. For O’Connor, if you can say in a statement or two what a story “means,” then the story probably isn’t “a very good one” to begin with. It’s a mere moral dressed up in fancy garments.

I gave my students the example of the Eucharist. “What’s the Eucharist?”

“The body and blood of Jesus.”


“Yes, really.”

“So I can’t just pray and receive his body and blood in a symbolic or ‘spiritual’ way? I have to eat the bread and wine?”

“Yeah you have to eat it.”

“Okay. Well, O’Connor is saying it’s the same with stories. You can’t get the ‘meaning’ or ‘message’ of a story any other way. You have to read the story itself – you have to eat and drink it. That’s where the meaning is. You can’t just pull it out in some abstract way. That’s what O’Connor thinks, anyway.”

For the typical high school student, this is very hard to accept. Like most people these days, they are Gnostics, and they would prefer to separate body and soul, sign from sacrament, story from meaning. It’s easier that way.

life you save 3One of my very best students–a devout Protestant–was particularly offended by O’Connor’s view of stories. Not the Eucharist part, but the meaning part. She (very rightly) pointed out that O’Connor was basically saying that not everyone can figure out the meaning of a story. If the meaning is so embedded in the story itself, then it’s almost impossible to get it out. (O’Connor would say that it IS impossible). My student firmly believes, however, that stories should be accessible to everyone. If the message of the story isn’t clear, then why bother reading the story? Authors should make their messages understandable to us. God and Jesus, of course, make their messages understandable. (Do they?)

I did not say this in class, of course, but I was strongly reminded of sola scriptura and the Evangelical Protestant notion that individual Christians should be able to read the Bible and understand it without the mediation of Magisterial Authority or Tradition.

And then there is this, too. In my students’ essays I have long combated their habitual use of cliches–things that everybody already says or believes, therefore there is no point in saying them again–but I saw the other day that they not only write cliches, they look for them in stories. If a meaning is to be found, then it is most certainly a cliche meaning. Mr. Shiftlet, although he appears to be kind of a nice guy at the beginning, ends up abandoning Lucynell and stealing Mrs. Crater’s car. The high school student says, “This story shows us that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover.”

Well, yes.

But such a trite moral doesn’t justify O’Connor’s story.

And that is what the high school student DOES understand. “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” “Don’t steal,” “Don’t be a hypocrite” — all of these things they already get. And they don’t want to be put through the emotional grinder of a Flannery O’Connor story if that’s the only thing they are going to “get out of it” at the end.

The hard task is to get them to see that there is more in the story–much more. It is THE hard task because I don’t fully understand what that”more” is. It’s mystery. It’s–as O’Connor says elsewhere– “pure idiot mystery,” and that’s what the modern gnostic cliche mind cannot stand or understand. The high school student in particular struggles with accepting and entering into mystery. It’s frightening.

I think this story by O’Connor is “true to the human heart” as Edgar Allan Poe would say–and indeed there are lots of images of the actual human heart in this story, being cut out of people’s chests and held by doctors–but I’m not exactly sure how to explain why.

But O’Connor told us it would be that way:

“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”

So, if you haven’t already, you should just go read her story.