My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Mailbox: Recant. Reflect. Refine.

I'm starting to get some mail to respond to (so thank you all for that), but today I wanted to take some time to follow up with some amazing comments I got from my entry a few days ago about that What the Author Meant meme.  This is because the few people who do read Writing About Writing are not just made of Carbon and Hydrogen, but are also comprised of Pure Awesome. They are just one commercial break in the drama of our life away from evolving into beings of pure energy that travel beyond the galactic rim to do whatever it is evolved energy beings do out there.  (Stare at the black or have energy orgies or something.)

At the time I wrote the entry, I was just sort of having myself a good rant.  I flashed back to all the times I've seen this meme and (with the exception of one that was intended explicitly to irritate ME) how the replies have been a horrifying indictment of U.S. attitudes toward education.  In much the same way you see stories about politicians refusing to honor veterans, eggs balancing lengthwise on the equinox, or Obamacare requiring sub-dermal microchips that can track everyone from satellites go viral apparently without a single person thinking that the internet might be a decent place to check on the veracity of something like that, I watched social media explode with the jubilant validation that this meme apparently substantiated their feeling that they were wasting their time in high school.

As you can see from the comments, I have amazing and wicked smart friends who won't hesitate to call me out if they think I'm missing a piece of the puzzle, and they gave me plenty to think about and reconsider.  I'm not going to repost everything they said here--you're welcome to follow that link back and check out their unadulterated amaziballs. The comments ended up being better (far better) than the entry itself. I'm also not going to reiterate everything I said in the comments on that page, nor am I going to reply to each response point by point since that tends to get too hair-splittingly defensive.

And if I do that, they won't bring me back pics of their energy orgy.

Instead I'll just encourage you to read those comments and mention that both Amy and Jess brought up ideas I hadn't really thought of in my original rant.  (The idea of teaching Creative Writing and the privileged voices in the canon respectively.)  If you ever get the opportunity to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and won't agree with everything you say, I highly recommend you take it.  They are gold.  The only people you want to think you are an infallible genius should be your groupies.

So let me make a couple of points by way of explanation that I wouldn't normally put in a fire-and-forget rant, but that seem to be more appropriate here since that fire-and-forget rant got me more responses than most of the posts where I actually ASK for responses:

1- Our education system is overloaded.  In a class of 20-30 (or more), there are going to be people who are reading higher than the level of the class, and most of my friends are exactly the sort of intelligent-as-fuck peeps who would end up in that position. They're going to be a little unimpressed by the lesson. In high school I read at a higher level than my honors counterparts, but when given the choice between Sword of Vermillion or homework, I was pretty consistent about being a slacker student. So I regularly sat in "college prep" classes reading books for the second or third time and being the student with all the answers. (Yeah, I was that guy.) I didn't exactly think it was a great use of time to spend a whole hour on the chapter about the turtle crossing the road in Grapes of Wrath or "memorizing" the symbolism. A good teacher will challenge their advanced students to do something a little extra, but no teacher can cater to the bored student when most of the class is still wrapping their heads around a concept like metaphor.

If you were that person who didn't need to be spoon fed what the reading meant, more power to you. But I bet that not everyone in that class was as good at reading as you were, and needed a little help. Don't forget that there's a bit of self selection in the audience of a blog about writing. We are not an accurate cross-section of Americana.

And by the way, the turtle isn't just a turtle. And you can draw a nasty anti-education Venn diagram all day about it, but it won't make you any more wrong if you think it is.

2- We tend to remember high school through a specific lens of our teen angst and teen awesomeness.  I know I do. I was obviously the nicest guy in the whole fucking universe, but I could not get a date with Heather Thompson (until I got a car). Hormones make you the best person ever, and surround you with fools who can't see that. If I knew 25 aspiring writers in high school (and that's lowballing it), I can guarantee you that 24 of them were convinced they knew more than their English teacher about...everything. Especially English. People regularly insisted the faculty were "utterly stupid." I even remember one of my classmates promising to mail a copy of her first book to Mrs. Hassle to prove that the C- she'd gotten on her paper wasn't warranted.

I Google her name every year or two just to check. I think ol' Hassle is still safe.

Now I'm not saying there aren't any bad teachers in the world, and I'm surely not saying there aren't any slacker ones, but they do have four year degrees and teaching credentials, and they generally care about teaching, and they probably have some modicum of enthusiasm for what they're teaching. An English teacher with just a BA probably had to write about thirty papers in literary analysis to get their degree. Whatever else you want to say about them, a teacher probably knows more than their teen-age student about the subject they're teaching.

Also, if you've ever actually met a teen-ager and heard them talk about adults you may be aware that from time to time teen-agers don't completely respect their elders. Human memory is terribly fallible, and when someone tells me how an authority figure treated them badly 20 years ago when every hormone in their body was screaming "LEAVE THE NEST AND BE YOUR OWN MASTER!" my first reaction is that just maybe perhaps they are remembering the event through the filter of their own memory's bias. Maybe.

Remembering that you THOUGHT you knew more than your teachers is probably a bit different than what you actually knew. Eye witness accounts are some of the worst evidence in law. Psychology has proven time and again that memory is demonstrably fallible. And that is a period of time where people's blinders and filters are turned up to eleven.

So even when people tell me today that they knew more than their teachers, my first thought is to wonder if they didn't really just know more than that day's lesson, and that their attempts to communicate their grasp of one concept and readiness to move on to the next concept probably looked a lot more like, "This is stupid. When are we ever going to use this?" and a lot less like, "Is there a lens of greater complexity with which I might analyze this reading in order to challenge myself?" Cause I've never heard even my freshmen college students talk like that. Ever.

Though it is also true that a lot of teachers need to treat their students like humans instead of little heathens. I'm not blaming anyone. And I certainly would never suggest that a few burnt out, washed up horrors coasting toward retirement haven't slid under the radar. I just don't think "all teachers are idiots" quite grasps the nuance of the U.S. educational system–and that's basically what this meme is saying.

3- My "close reading" of this meme is wrapped up in the Venn diagram and the word "thinks."  The Venn diagram proposes that what the author meant and what your English teacher thinks they meant have very little overlap. Memes aren't known for their nuanced portrayal of situations, but this one is pretty clear that your English teacher has no idea what the author really meant. There is only a small area of overlap. Most of what your English teacher said is not in the mind of the author. My five part response  to that idea focused on four reasons your teacher probably does know EXACTLY what the author meant, and one reason that what the author meant absolutely doesn't matter to literary analysis or to teaching critical thinking.

When teachers teach symbolism they're trying to get students to think about the world in terms of figurative language and higher conceptual ideas. It's an invaluable critical thinking skill, and in the US, most English curriculums still do it through literature (so that you can read a few classics along the way).

Different people responded to different parts of that post. My roommate Uberdude took great umbrage with any literary interpretation that wasn't at least unconsciously in the mind of the author at the time of the writing, even though that has been the predominant literary analysis theory since the 60s. And while I am the last person to defend the highest reaches of the ivory tower, seeing shapes in the clouds is one of the most human things we can do (even if that was never the cloud's intention), and being able to communicate to another how and why we see the cloud the way we do is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of communication itself.

Not exactly "when are we ever going to use this?" territory.

4- Like Jess points out in the comments, I should probably mention that I don't think English teachers have THE right answer. I think they have one possible interpretation. (Which is why I brought up point 5 on the original page.) It's a good interpretation–if simplistic enough to teach high schoolers about reading and writing and critical thinking. It's been vetted by many educators in the district while they set the curriculum. It's possibly even been run by the author themselves. (Steinbeck, for example, talked at length about his symbols, so we know that he intended them.) It isn't based on nothing. And our meme-creator and its legion of followers seem more content to insist that the English teacher is making things up than to discover why the English teacher thinks what they do.

Should an English teacher tell students that interpreting literature is limited mostly only by their own ability to draw connections? Maybe. I'm big on metacognition when I teach; however, I also recognize when I'm teaching grammar to 78 students, I will be more likely to say "this is right and this is wrong" than I will in 98A when I teach them that there are different style guides that might make exceptions in certain situations. High school students might do worse without some guidance when they're first doing literary analysis. The question is more about pedagogy than it is about an English teacher just making up random shit to teach their lesson.

One is a problem with the cookie cutter, assembly line approach to education. The other is just assholery.

5- I do have my own bias in this situation. I must admit it and own it. This meme causes me to flashback to a young Chris in my junior year American Literature class who (after class) listened to an honor roll classmate insist that the teacher was a "complete worthless idiot" for suggesting that a poem about a horse in the snow might really be about suicide. This student went off for like five minutes on how she was way smarter than the teacher, and that was the stupidest thing she'd ever heard. And the whole time I'm thinking "I've actually seen the interview where Robert Frost says 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' had metaphorical connections to endings--and where he talked about suicide as a possible interpretation." This would turn out to be a formative experience for me and color, for the rest of my life, my perception of people utterly dismissing those with more expertise.

The reaction of a high school student who just switched from book reports to analysis is a very predictable rebellion to the idea of reading any deeper, but at that point their skill at simply reading (anything) is developed and it's time to learn to go deeper than the surface meaning.

I have met WAY more people who don't want to deal with subtext, metaphor, symbolism, or anything beyond the literal meaning than I ever have who wanted to challenge the way in which a work is taught in the high school curriculum. Their cries of "can't you just enjoy the story" echo in my ears even twenty years later. Enjoying the story is fine. Appreciating some of its deeper meaning is also fine.

Saying that there is no deeper meaning is less fine.

I have to admit that I have never, ever, ever, ever seen someone discuss another possible interpretation of a literary work and get shot down by an English teacher. Ever. EVER! "EVAH!!"

There's a lot to be said about education, creative process, authorial intent, symbols on the page that were not consciously in the mind of the author, and and also for teachers being fallible. My rant didn't address these things because the meme didn't address these things. The meme says simply "Your English teacher is full of shit."

And that just isn't true.

6- There is so much more meaning in life for people who can interpret subtext, metaphor, allegory, symbolism, and other figurative language. In many ways it is analogous to learning to read or understanding when a person is being sarcastic. It opens up doors to deeper appreciation, but even actual meaning and understanding. A person will get so much more out of many experience, especially reading. They will be better at interpreting events. They'll pick up on little things in everything from books to movies to people's behavior.

We learn symbolism in high school to teach us how to better think critically about how language doesn't always mean only what it literally means. This is invaluable to being human when we come into contact with people who use words differently or can layer meaning.

To instead insist that education in understanding literature at this level is a fool's errand with no more utility than tilting at windmills is an embrace of willful ignorance. It's like saying there's no merit to eating anything but nutritional paste because that's got all you need to survive. Good food is good because of it's texture, subtlety, flavor, and such. These people who just want to read without analysis may miss the delight of a well done metaphor, the comprehension of social criticism in a hidden symbol, and even "what the author meant" when they insist that the author meant nothing but the denotative, literal text. In a very real way, people who have a skill at reading live lives of deeper significance.

To mock that seems less than petty. It seems to celebrate the snub of expertise. It seems to delight in remaining ignorant as preferable to taking the time to understand why an English teacher might be teaching something.

I mean I know English teachers make huge paychecks, enjoy a totally supportive community, are the idols of their appreciative students, and have near superhero status in the greater society for the job they do, but honestly some of them actually like to teach English.


  1. I had never read Stopping By The Woods on a Sowy Evening.
    Here is my question for you: why do you think all the lines in the last stanza rhyme, breaking the pattern off aaba bbcb?

    1. Personally? I think that the poem is kind of weaving a spell about the darkness and the woods and it's seductive power. I think the mood that is used by maintaining the language but changing the rhyme scheme is of someone shaking off a trance enough to keep moving, but not enough to be fully back to their faculties.

      But...I'm not super duper at poetry. I did a paper on Seamus Haney that blew my prof away, but I had weeks to work on that one.

  2. I think that students only embrace ignorance because that is the only alternative they see to accepting education. It is not so much a rejection of subtext and symbolism--the same young people can love the impact of metaphor in the music they listen to precisely because it feels "deep" or multi-layered--as it is a rejection of the works given them to analyze. Who wants to spend the energy looking carefully into what the racist sexist depressing and boring dead white guys really mean when they're talking about curtains? Where's the emotional payoff for the effort?

    My best friend went to an all-girls high school where her class put together a petition protesting the fact that EVERY SINGLE book they had to read involved at least one female suicide. If you already suspect that the curtains are going to be about despair/suicide/colonialist oppression/the horrors of slavery/genocide/nuclear war/etc., why bother? I think there's some emotional value in willfully insisting that the curtains are only blue because they match the bedspread and then being angry at the stupid teacher who keeps bringing you down. Thoughts?

    1. Well, like I said, I think there are lots of deep and wonderful counter-arguments to both the curriculum and the pedagogy of your average English class, but I have personally never gotten the impression either from this meme or the types of people who gush about how poignant it is that this is really what's going on. (But I admit that might be my bias.)

      I think what your friend did is awesome if it lead to alternatives on the curriculum or different interpretations of the literature. One of the points I made, which I know isn't generous but it tends to be true of adolescents in packs, is that sometimes they protest what is being taught because they'd rather be doing nothing. [I teach ESL students who want to be there and Developmental English students who really don't, and you can imagine which group is constantly insisting that I have nothing to teach them.] Your friend sounds like a slightly higher caliber, considering she had a specific point of contention and worked to get a petition filled out. (Which is really awesome.) Fortunately, it isn't hard to find some great literature where no female suicides occur.

      Ultimately, I think there are very limited returns in refusing to learn a literary analysis (especially not because it's too depressing). You learn it, so you can turn around and beat people over the head with alternative theories. So getting different books on a curriculum would be awesome, but simply insisting the teacher is full of shit (which is basically what this meme does) is disingenuous.

      So I would mind less if a meme spelled out the objections to what the English teacher was teaching. I would object less if them meme threw out alternative theories. I would object less if the meme pointed out that the English teacher was teaching A theory as if it were THE theory, but ultimately, it proceeds as if the English teacher is just making stuff up...and that's what rankles me.

  3. Oh I agree that refusing to analyze beyond face value is intellectually shooting yourself in the foot; I was just pointing out some reasons why this path seems to be chosen as often as it is. The meme seems more about expressing anger than anything else, and while I can't really support the anti-intellectual "learning stuff is stupid" viewpoint you describe from the commenters you've seen, I can understand some of the anger. Even teenagers who do not know enough to describe themselves as feeling marginalized could tell you that there is nothing taught in high school English that speaks to who they are or what is important to them, and I think it is a cop out to attribute this just to laziness (I was among generally hard-working AP students, and they were not really any more engaged, just better at slogging through the work).

    1. Fair enough. Though, other than the word "fucking" in the meme, I mostly didn't get anger from it. And frankly I thought that was more an "edgy" thing than anger. Honestly, I could get behind a meme that seemed angry about what was being taught or how or how it doesn't speak to them. I think those are AWESOME things to say, and I'd frankly love it if more high school students would shake off their torpor to say them.

      The thing I got from the meme was that the English teacher didn't know what they were talking about. :-/

  4. VENN diagram dude.

    1. Thanks. Not sure why I always get that one wrong if I'm not paying attention. Fixed.

  5. Brilliant points, thank you. I had some tenth grade students figure out the suicide interpretation of Frost's poem all on their own. One came back to me a few years later to express her appreciation that I taught that. (Thanks, but, I just showed you the poem, and reminded you of some symbols and metaphors, you put it all together.) I think that's something more closely resembling true education.
    Anyway​, could you direct me to that interview with Frost about "Stopping by Woods..."? Thanks.

  6. Chris - I agree with pretty much everything you say here, and I think there is something else going on as well. Most people don't do algebra for fun, but we all without exception consume stories for pleasure. Even if we 'just' watch them or listen to them rather than read them. Indeed people such as Jonathan Gottschall have argued that consuming and telling stories is an integral part of being human. So I think that some people bridle at teachers effectively telling them (correctly!) that they are bad at doing something which is central to their identity. The smarter, more self-reflective students eventually realise that the teachers are right, and get a lot out of what amounts to a forced reprogramming. Conversely lots of people (most people?) are not that bright and not at all self-reflective, and English class is wasted on them. Hence the meme.

  7. Although my BA didn't include any English classes, I do consider myself to have had a fairly thorough education in it thanks to a good high school program. I'm the person my friends ask to proofread everything. My husband, bless him, is always asking me to correct him when he speaks with incorrect grammar. I have pet peeves about the Oxford comma and using the subjunctive. So, I have more enthusiasm and a better knowledge of English than the average person (sadly) but I'm no scholar.

    When I first saw this meme on Facebook, I actually "liked" it. This is because, despite a stellar assortment of high school English teachers, I am still upset by my middle school experiences in Language Arts classes. I liked this meme because I had three straight years of teachers telling me "this is what the author meant" and shutting me down when I interpreted anything differently. As an avid reader from an early age, I was not new to the idea of a text having an underlying meaning. So if my teacher said "the curtains represent his depression" and I said "Blue commonly represents loyalty, maybe the curtains represent how he still loves his estranged wife," my teacher would tell me that I was wrong and the curtains represent depression.

    If my interpretation could be unequivocally dismissed without reason, what made my teacher's interpretation gospel? It was never explained or defended, just dictated. So I rejected literary analysis for a long time because it seemed to me that it was just a means poor teachers used to shove their ideas down students' throats. We weren't being taught how to think, only what to think. It seemed to me that if one interpretation could be designated as correct, in dismissal of all other interpretations, then the curtains didn't intrinsically represent anything at all. The curtains were just fucking blue and we only gave them a meaning in order to explain symbolism as a concept.

    I didn't ever really think my teachers were stupid or that I was smarter than them. In fact, Language Arts was my favorite class and those were my favorite teachers because I loved to read. I thought that literary analysis itself was a heavy-handed method of teaching symbolism to idiots. I honestly had no idea what literary analysis actually was until I went to a magnet high school that was centered on communications. That was where literary analysis became actual analysis. Before then, I thought that discussion involving the interpretation of literature was a personal thing. I had been taught that the Language Arts classroom was not a place for debate or creative thinking, but for reciting what the teacher said.

    My point here is that although it may not be the most common response, there are intelligent people who are enthusiastic about English and education who still enjoy this meme because it calls out a frustrating aspect of the education system that is perpetuated by teachers who are burned out, or don't care, or are forced to strictly follow a lesson plan that doesn't have time or room for individuality - teachers I unfortunately had for several years in a row. And although I was rescued by later teachers, I am sure that my middle school teachers permanently ruined the idea of analysis for many students, who are now the anti-education trolls who feel validated by this meme.

  8. Really loved this pair of articles. And I agree with you. I will point out two things that influence this--but only conversational as I think your take is pretty much correct IMO, for what that's worth. 1) this is a soft science. So anytime you defend soft science to a literal person (I mean engineering and accounting literal, not a "they're spectrum literal" as a troll remark) this stuff, just like psych and soc and women's studies is going to sound slightly defense because it's not rooted in hard foundation like chemistry or physics. It just isn't built that way. Doesn't mean it's wrong (I don't think it is) but unless you buy into it from ground zero, those big thumbs of Toni Morrison is just kind of weird and you can't use math to explain the way you can for why the Golden Gate doesn't fall down. 2) Once you know about allegory, methaphor, and symbolism, you can SO take any book and pull adjectives and nouns out and suddenly turn it into something deep, even if it isn't. This becomes compounded if you do it from "this was MY experience," because how do you 1+1=2 my emotional response to the heavy undertones of Captain Underpants. That sort of obvious ambiguity drives certain types of intelligences bonkers--not stupid people, the people you want designing the Mars Rovers, and to them that meme just FEELS like truth. It's their authentic reader response to the text ��

    1. I apologize for grammar I'm in the car on my phone😳