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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Scratch that

Okay, so I'm back on the blog to report on a new pedagogical problem.

Backstory: All 75 of my students have papers due on Monday (I know! and it's completely my own fault, too), so I've been putting out fires all day long: questions about theses, requests to review introductory paragraphs, pleas for extensions--you name it.

One kid sent me the rough draft of his paper, a close reading of a poem by an author I happen to work on, and since it seemed to be going in a dangerous direction, I wrote him back quickly to say that, well, actually, the poem isn't really ABOUT the issue he claimed it was about. It wasn't a case of a totally boneheaded misreading--just an anachronistic and ill-informed understanding of the psychology of the period combined with not quite enough attention to the signals from the poem itself. I complimented him on getting certain things right, but told him he had to take a new look at the poem and think about X and Y and Z as he re-read it.

I was a little worried, since this is a sweet and well-intentioned kid (a first-semester transfer from a resource-strapped community college) who's working hard to pull a C for the class after bombing some major early assignments. And I did right to be worried, because he wrote me back this email:

I feel this poem is about [subject]. [Insert several unconvincing explanations for why his reading is plausible.] I feel that I am entitled to my interpretation of the poem and I feel that there is a notion towards [subject] in these lines, and by that I mean all of the lines in the poem. Maybe I'm just not fully expanding on my ideas, but I feel they do make sense. And if that's not what the poem means, then what is its meaning? Cause I feel that's what [Author] is talking about. I will use the literary elements in this paper to strenghten my argument like you said, but I feel this argument is valid and it is something that 90% of the readers don't agree on.

Sigh. I wrote back and told him that, yes, he's entitled to his interpretation, but that not all interpretations are correct. I then spent quite a bit of time explaining how the phenomenon he noted could be the result of all kinds of different things, but that it probably wasn't the result of THIS thing.

I doubt he was convinced, I doubt he'll write a decent paper, and I doubt that he has the ability to see outside of his own frame of reference.

Because, really--how can you teach that in any overt or effective way?

I actually got an email back from the kid saying that what I said made a lot of sense, and that he was going to rethink the poem. I'm not sure if he was just being politic--but I'm hopeful that I convinced him that he didn't fully understand the issues involved. We'll see.]

link | posted by La Lecturess at 9:15 PM |


Blogger Ianqui commented at 8:32 AM~  

This seems like the kind of thing one needs to be careful about. Luckily, there's no political spin here (is there?), but this is kind of like those situations where students accuse their profs of squelching their opinions. Of course I don't think you're doing that, but how does one teach that not all interpretations are the right one, and that a student can get a low grade if they don't get the right interpretation?

Blogger Dr. Virago commented at 3:20 PM~  

I've had these conversations before. You wouldn't believe how many students want to insist that John Donne's "The Flea" is an anti-abortion poem. *head smacks desk* Then there was this one student who, in conference over his draft, insisted that "Leda and the Swan" was using rape as a metaphor for sex. No matter how many times I tried to tell this kid that a metaphor compares two otherwise *unlike* things, and that rape is still, technically, sexual intercourse, he just couldn't get it through his head that his paper was unconvincing and starting from a flawed premise. (I think he'd bought in too literally to the "rape is violence not sex" idea, which was sweet in a way, but a real stumbling block in this case.) Anyway, we went round and round and he still stubbornly handed in the same paper.

What I *should* have done, what I'll do in the futre, and what maybe you can do with your student (if it's not too late -- otherwise, with a future student) is explain that their job in their papers is to be persuasive and then say, firmly, that I'm/you're unpersuaded by their argument as is. (Then go on to particulars and advice for revision.) If they stick with the current argument still, offer to have *another* professor read and even grade it.

That last bit (having someone esle grade it), in fact, is especially important if, as Ianqui worries, you think this student thinks its personal and/or political. You could do that still, even if you don't have an opportunity to talk to the student again.

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