… this is what it would be. I don’t know how I can really teach this, or rather, impart it. I do not know even if I have grasped this myself really.
“Wouldn’t it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write than to impose one? Nothing you write will lack meaning because the meaning is in you.” – Flannery O’Connor
I had a conversation the other day with someone asking my opinion about Ayn Rand. Suppressing an (involuntary) shudder, I replied that if you’re vocation is propaganda, go into advertising, not novel-writing.
But Ms. Rand is just an extreme example of what most bad writers do. They come at a work with an “idea” they wish to impart– a “meaning”– or, much worse, a “moral“. You see this especially in bad fiction, but also in bad essay writing where the essay is supposed to be concerned with drawing out the meaning of a poem or work, and instead imposes a meaning upon it like a straightjacket.
You hear it in the worst English classes: “water means baptism, renewal. the sun means energy, new life. green always means X, and red Y, and this that, and blah blah blah….”
I want to tell my students: life just isn’t like that. Stop trying to impose your own patterns on it and let the God of all patterns show you His strange and forever-suprising designs. They might not be what you think. And if He doesn’t show them to you, so be it. It is okay. You don’t have to know.
It’s better to say, “I don’t know” than to pretend like you do.
Even in essay writing. Even in English class.
Some of my favorite essays I have ever read express an honest uncertainty– not a cop-out-I’m-too-lazy-to-think-about-anything– but rather a truthful and painful acknowledgement of inadequacy before the truth: “It seems like Dickinson could be saying … although it is possible that she … and ultimately this ambiguity shows the reader that …”
Flannery got it right when it comes to fiction. As much as she was (and is) an opinionated and ornery Southern lady, she was also a humble Christian and knew when to shut her own mouth and let the mystery speak for itself–whatever it meant to say.
The hard thing is literature is like life–and tells us about life. Life, too, is far beyond our silly pattern-making. I know several people (including myself) who love to “discover” patterns in their lives and thus ascribe different meanings and morals and oh now I get its, but these are just silly.
How do I tell you that writing reveals the secret?
It is better–far better– to discover a meaning in your writing, in your reading, in your life than to impose one.
And, as Flannery says, don’t be afraid. Nothing you write–or live– will lack meaning, because the meaning is in you.
There is the Holy Spirit, who “breathes in us sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
So, good English teachers try to teach their students to support their ideas with evidence. Indeed, the new Common Core standards state this objective specifically:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.11-12.1b Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant data and evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both claim(s) and counterclaims in a discipline-appropriate form that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level, concerns, values, and possible biases. (Common Core Standards)
And this is a very important skill to learn. You can’t just claim anything you want. You need to be able to back it up. That’s just part of good thinking.
However, Mallory* and her peers realized providing strong textual evidence was the way to earn full credit on my assessments, and I realized that this incentive was somewhat misleading. Many of my students were no longer concerned with finding out what the poet was really trying to say to them—instead, they were concerned with trying to use the poet’s words in such a way as to justify whatever ideas they could come up with. This is not to say they were intentionally lying—but they were no longer primarily concerned with being truthful, as I tried to demonstrate in my own expert mishandling of evidence.
However, in his “Discourse in the Novel,” Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin suggests that such manipulation of language is a challenge inherent to communication itself:
Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated — overpopulated with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one’s own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process. (294, as quoted by Lee Honeycutt)
It is also, above all, a moral process that inevitably reaches beyond the borders of the English classroom. In his essay on the often-concealed relationship between power and language, Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper succinctly describes the unique challenge language teachers face in helping their students learn to engage and even “expropriate” language, since their subject can never remain safely behind the confines of a class:
Word and language, in essence, do not constitute a specific or specialized area; they are not a particular discipline or field. No, word and language form the medium that sustains the common existence of the human spirit as such. The reality of the word in eminent ways makes existential interaction happen. And so, if the word becomes corrupted, human existence itself will not remain unaffected and untainted. (Pieper, “Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power” 15)
I think Pieper has revealed the precious—and precarious—nature of language in a way that should give English teachers pause. Are we aware of our own capacity to nourish or to “corrupt” our student’s relationship with language? Demolishing one of my shyest student’s arguments with our class’s agreed-upon standard for legitimacy—textual evidence—had indeed “corrupted” the word in my classroom and momentarily tainted the delicate relationship of trust I had formerly established with my students. I did this purposefully, but rather recklessly.
Why is it that my action seemed so violent?
Because I had abused Emily Dickinson’s language and Abbey’s interpretation of it with my own misuse of skillful argumentation—I had been untruthful. In doing so, I presented the problem of what ‘rightness’ really means (or, at least, what it does not mean) to my students, with rather powerful results.
However, I had also inadvertently touched upon the twofold reason why sensitivity and care is required in experiments like these. Pieper expresses it this way:
Human words and language accomplish a twofold purpose […] First, words convey reality. We speak in order to name and identify something that is real, to identify it for someone, of course—and this points to the second aspect in question, the interpersonal character of human speech. (Ibid, emphasis added 15)
Inevitably human beings are given the responsibility of trying to “name reality” in an “interpersonal” context—and perhaps this is the real reason why teaching English is so challenging. Finding authentic ways to help students name reality involves approaching the question of truthfulness in a developmentally-appropriate manner for adolescents.
Accosting Abbey’s argument about Emily Dickinson’s tone worked to an extent—it roused her peers to come to her defense, for they could see the issue was, at heart, an important moral one—but unfortunately I did not know how to follow up my experiment. I certainly made an impression, but probably a fleeting one. In the rush of that first year, I did not pause to tie up any loose ends I had unstrung in that conversation, nor did I really give my students the opportunity to do so because in many ways I was fumbling around in the dark as much as they were.
I had, indeed, observed my student’s cognitive construction of a certain skill—that of learning to use textual evidence to back up claims—and I responded spontaneously to the moral dilemma that arose as a consequence. However, I failed to follow through on my experiment by giving my students a way to process this experience. For instance, I could have given them the opportunity to write about it—and to provide evidence demonstrating why my response to Abbey was unjust. This would have been a metacognitive task indeed—and one that would have reinforced the moral possibilities in writing and providing evidence for one’s claims.
Although I had successfully shown that the academic task of providing evidence for one’s claims is morally complex and problematic, I hesitated to pursue the issue further. I fear that, if we get this far at all, many English teachers are also hesitant about going further. We are not philosophy or religion teachers. Besides preaching against the evils of plagiarism, how else can we justify an exploration of truthfulness in language?
I would respond to this question with another: how can we justify not exploring the issue of truthfulness in language in our classrooms, when it remains the implicit moral dilemma students face on every test, every quiz, every essay—indeed, every conversation?
“So even if I have a different opinion than you, you won’t mark it wrong?”
This had been an easy and gratifying question for me to answer during my first year teaching English; I was the young, open-minded teacher a’la “Dead Poet’s Society” who would encourage my students to think for themselves and to trust their own ideas.
“Of course not,” I said, smiling as I added, “so long as you support what you have to say with evidence.”
My students’ dubious glances gradually turned into confident nods as the first few months passed and they realized I not only valued their ideas, I was eager to hear them. Moreover, I had done my best to demystify this process of supporting claims with evidence. Like many secondary English teachers, I had prided myself on requiring all of my students to incorporate “evidence” not only in their writing, but also in their oral responses to questions in class. My students had become much more proficient in practicing this skill, and now we were working on how to incorporate evidence in more sophisticated ways. Instead of haphazardly attaching a quote to various claims, I was trying to help my students take quotes apart and use only the pieces they needed to incorporate them elegantly and seamlessly into their arguments, whether verbal or written.
“So, as long as I support what I have to say with evidence, I’ll get it right?”
The first time I heard Mallory’s* revised version of the initial question, I had replied, “Of course.” But something bothered me about its implications that I could not quite put my finger on. What did she mean by “right”? For that matter, what did I mean by “right”? To what extent had our formal assessments become a kind of business transaction based upon our previously agreed upon deal—you give me the evidence, I’ll give you the grade? And why did this ostensibly fair economic approach seem untruthful?
As I began to hear Mallory’s request of assurance echoed frequently by other students—usually before tests, essays, and other formal assessments—I found myself hesitating before coming up with an inarticulate affirmative: “Yes, you’ll get it ‘right,’ but of course you have to demonstrate strong evidence”—“Probably, so long as you incorporate specific details”—“Well, don’t forget to explain who is arguing what here. Is this what you think or is this what Walt Whitman thinks?”—“Before I say yes, what do you think ‘getting it “right” really means, David?’”
I began to see that the age-old expectation of all reasonably competent English teachers—that their students learn to support their claims with evidence—actually raises not only academic, but moral questions. What counts as ‘right’ or ‘true’ in the English classroom—and how is this connected to grades and success? Indeed, the almost daily exchange between teachers and students about what counts as “enough” evidence and what qualifies as a correct answer exposes the difficulty of language’s potential for truthfulness, power—and abuse.
I decided that I needed to find a way to help my students see these complexities. I needed to give them more than just a way to cultivate an analytical skill; I needed to give them some context about the responsibility involved in exercising that skill. But I did not know how to do this.
Fortunately, my juniors and I were in the midst of an American poetry unit in which Emily Dickinson’s ambiguous expressions of truth provided a good place to start exploring Mallory’s question in depth. I had my students analyze an Emily Dickinson poem of their choice for tone and mood. Abbey, one of my shyest students, offered her interpretation bravely to the class, admirably including multiple examples of textual evidence.
Inspiration dawned on me (my students would chide me for using such an obvious cliché). But it certainly did feel like enlightenment: I decided in that moment to take a risk that, as a more experienced teacher, I would be much more cautious in taking now.
“Abbey, I’m sorry, but you are absolutely incorrect. Dickinson’s tone here is neither somber nor sad—actually, she is delighted, and she wants her reader to be, too.”
Abbey’s surprise was expressed by her more vocal peers. “What do you mean, Ms. Shea?” They were used to me finding some kind of good in every response, even if I usually pressed them for more.
“Well, I’ll explain it to you,” I said calmly.
I proceeded to re-explicate the poem on the spot, carefully refuting every single point Abbey had made with devastating speed and ease. I made sure to back up every single statement I made with unmistakable evidence from the poem. I made sure to speak quickly, confidently and seriously. The result was rather alarming.
This display of power—for that’s really what it was—stunned my students. They looked at one another, and then they looked at me—with reproach in their eyes. But they did not feel they could refute what I had said. I had used my authority and position as a teacher in a way they had never seen me use it before.
After a moment, I asked them, “What do you think of my interpretation?”
There were shrugs and exchanged glances. They were more upset with me than I had thought they would be.
So I said, “Was that fair to Abbey?”
I encountered a resounding “no” and many other indignant responses as well. I was a little overwhelmed by their anger. “Why did you do that?” “I thought Abbey did a good job.” “She’s not an English teacher like you.” “That was really mean, Ms. Shea.”
“Yes it was,” I said. “Will you let me explain what I was trying to do?”
After I had apologized to Abbey, my students were more willing to listen to what I had to say. I explained that Abbey’s interpretation was actually very strong, and that she has supported her ideas with evidence well—but that I had decided before even hearing her explanation that I would respond with an opposing argument, no matter how ridiculous or untrue I thought my position was—and that I would back up whatever I claimed to be true with lots of evidence from the poem. I wanted to show them that evidence could be manipulated in all sorts of ways—that in English, you could prove almost anything, whether or not you believed it to be true.
“Do you think, if I answered that way on a test, that I would get full credit for my answer?”
My students nodded slowly—and unhappily.
“You backed it up with evidence,” they said, echoing the mantra I had instilled in them over the past five months.
“But you weren’t being real,” one of them added.
As I have indicated, the heart of the matter exists somewhere in the tenuous relationships among truthfulness, freedom, and power. As English teachers, we want to empower our students by giving them the tools to understand, use and even create language. That is, we are responsible for helping our students feel the power of language and negotiate its demands.
But the question about evidence and correctness—what constitutes the “truth” in an English classroom—affects both strong and struggling students alike. The ability to manipulate language and evidence is a skill struggling students often feel they were simply born without—and it is a skill strong students sometimes abuse because they do not understand it. They are often too worried about the ‘right’ answer to bother finding the truthful one.
For years now, I have noticed that one of my greatest pet peeves, one of the things that ALWAYS makes me frustrated, are “the conversation police.”
I think you might know them.
Whenever a conversation (usually among at least 3 people) starts to become serious — or someone mentions something sad on the news, or someone else mentions politics or (worse) religion, or the general tenor of the talk shifts from superficial to profound — the conversation police intervene. And they say something like,
“Wow, Anne, way to be a downer.”
“Well… this is awkward. ANYWAY – I was shopping the other day and…”
“Man, this conversation got really SERIOUS all of a sudden!”
“Okay… MOVING ON!”
Or, sometimes, they even police themselves, and say,
“Ah, sorry to ruin the conversation guys. We can talk about something else.”
“Ruin” the conversation?? When you actually said something significant, and everyone was listening to you??
That’s when the frustration starts to boil up inside of me and I encounter (the increasingly frequent) temptation to despair of humanity’s ability to communicate at all.
Have you experienced this phenomena too?
Why is it that when people start talking about something that really MATTERS, a lot of people feel awkward enough to change the topic to something that DOESN’T matter? Why are we so afraid to really speak to one another? Why do our conversation topics always have to be “happy” (but not truly happy)? Why do we shy away from what is serious… from what is true?
Okay – a caveat is in order:
I do understand that there are times when certain types of conversations are appropriate, and there are other times when they just aren’t. Setting matters, context matters, timing matters – the people involved also matter. You can’t talk about gay marriage or abortion or God or death or the poor just any time you want, without considering the situation you are in. Yes, I get that.
I also understand that some people don’t like talking about controversial issues in public–although I vehemently wish they would try to get over this, because I think the public square (whether that’s in a high school hallway, on the street, or in the news) NEEDS people who have the courage to talk about what matters. I am (according to Myers-Briggs) an INFJ, and therefore a very private person. But as an INFJ I also get really sick of superficial conversation that starts nowhere and ends nowhere, just because it is “safe” and “easy.”
As a high school English teacher, I am surrounded by young people who are either 1) scared to talk about stuff that matters or 2) ignorant of how to do this charitably and reasonably. I think they see older people who are unwilling to talk about what matters, or who talk about it in a very unkind way, and so they are turned off and never really learn how.
In my honors class the other day (we’re still studying mythology), I was so proud of my kids because we actually DID have a good conversation. They handled it really well. Having read Dr. Mark Lowery’s article on C. S. Lewis’ idea “Myth Become Fact,” one of my students asked a really good question about whether or not we were dishonoring other religions by claiming that Christianity fulfills all of them and is the ONE “myth” that actually became a historical fact.
A plethora of hands shot up in the air (I could see the “oh no! moral relativism!” gleam in their eyes) as they tried (rather unsuccessfully) to communicate to this student their versions of an answer.
So I had them write down their answers for homework and we talked about it again the next day, with more success I think.
I tried to bring in Pope Benedict’s Caritatis in Veritate a little bit: people tend often to either value truth without love (the uberconservatives, for lack of a better term), or love without truth (the uberliberals, for lack of a better term). When really, truth without love isn’t truth at all – it’s a lie. And love without truth isn’t love at all – it’s a well-disguised cruelty.
Benedict says, “To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity” (CIV 1).
And I think herein lies the real point:
If you want to have a real conversation, you have to strive for the marriage of truth and love in whatever you say. And that takes courage.
So, as the wonderful Daily Dose from Verily Magazine suggests:
“Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.”