Home » Novel Readings

This Week In My Classes: Being Beginners

By (October 28, 2015) No Comment

woman-writing-1934My previous post on struggling to appreciate Persepolis (like the one not long before it on reading Maus badly) exemplifies one difference between the writing I do here and most of the writing I do elsewhere (especially but not exclusively writing for academic publications). Here I’m allowed — or perhaps I should say, here I’m not afraid — to be openly imperfect: hesitant, confused, even flat-out wrong. Here, it’s OK for me to be new to something and struggling with it … and to say so.

I can imagine someone reading those posts (and the other ones like them) and wondering what’s the point. Why bother writing about something I know I don’t fully understand? Why not do the research first and then write, from a position of informed confidence? Why not earn some authority before opining? Why opine at all, really, when with the right preparation I could pronounce instead?

Some of the license I enjoy here stems from the format and ethos of blogging. Though some blog posts are highly polished and, on their own terms, complete, the set-up of a blog is always potentially conversational, and good conversations flow from provisional statements, not definitive declarations. When we’re not quite certain, not really experts, not authoritative, we leave room for other people to join the discussion, whether by sharing their own confusion or, as with most of the comments on my Persepolis post, by trying to help us reach a better understanding.

That reciprocity is something I cherish about blogging. But I think there’s also intrinsic value in writing occasionally from weakness rather than strength. The truth is, after all, that we all start out as beginners in everything we do, and that’s not something we should forget, especially if we’re teachers. Doing things, reading things, that are new to me and thus puzzling for me gives me a healthy lesson in humility. It’s also a useful reminder for me about the process of learning, and it’s an opportunity to model that process, which is one that inevitably includes at least some confusion, frustration, and wrong turns.

fordTime, context, and need typically determine how far we go in learning about something new: if there is no obligation, we might set limits based on our current personal preferences, and not get much beyond that initial stumbling phase. That certainly happens for me with my reading: if my curiosity is strong enough, I might persist past an initial bad experience, but sometimes I will just let something go, knowing that my understanding remains superficial. When there’s a need, though — for scholarship or teaching especially — I put in the effort. For example, I still wouldn’t pick Hammett or Chandler to read for fun, but I knew I couldn’t responsibly teach classes on detective fiction without them. So I have done some research and a lot of rereading, and though I still don’t necessarily love The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, I get them. (And as a result, I like them much better than I used to, which is often the case.) If for some reason The Good Soldier or Persepolis became an obligation for me, I’d try again, and try harder, and, at the very least, fail better.

My point is that there is a rhythm, a pattern, to learning, and it helps to be self-conscious about it, and not to render it invisible, as if understanding isn’t something we’ve always had to work for, to earn. What does this have to do with my classes? Well, for one thing, thinking about what it’s like for me to be a beginner gives me, I hope, some insight and sympathy into what it is like for my students. I’ve talked before here about my efforts to demystify the process of literary analysis and to encourage students to think about the process of their work as much as the product. It should reassure them to know that confusion and frustration are normal parts of learning. My students are not likely to read these posts about my own struggles, but my work here helps me think of how to talk to them about and guide them through their own. One good thing about taking a class for credit is that it provides a strong incentive to get further than that initial stumbling phase: not to throw your hands up and say “not for me” (or “not now,” which is where I am with graphic novels) — and the result is that you will learn to do and learn about things you might otherwise turn away from. That pressure to stick with something unfamiliar and thus difficult is at once one of the best and one of the hardest things about being a student.

penguinMy first-year students are beginners in some obvious ways. All term I have been trying to work with them in a way that recognizes that for most of them, not just the readings but the kind of writing they’re being asked for is more or less unfamiliar, and I’ve tried hard to provide steps and supports and suggestions that will help them get better at it all. This careful scaffolding comes with the territory for introductory classes. What I hadn’t quite anticipated, or thought as much about, is that in some ways my graduate students are also beginners. For instance, most of them have read very little, if any, George Eliot before. I’m finding this situation trickier to address pedagogically, because the strategies I would usually use to lead undergraduate students towards greater expertise seem out of place (not just more lecturing but also things like worksheets, exercises, or tests). Even for readers who are already quite sophisticated, four George Eliot novels in a relatively short time is a lot to wrap your head around, and the specialized academic articles we’re reading alongside the novels are not that helpful for just getting oriented. I feel rather as if I threw them right in the deep end, and though they are staying afloat, that is almost as much as I ought to expect from them. (I’m not sure how to finish that thought using the same metaphor – they won’t be doing any fancy diving? they’re not about to swim laps?) This is a criticism of me and my preparations for the class, not of my students. When (if) I teach another graduate seminar, I may structure it somewhat differently — though at this point I’m not really sure how. This time around, all I can do is be as explicit and helpful as possible. I will be their flotation device! (I can’t help it: “We all of us … get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them.”)

Painting: Woman Writing (Picasso, 1934)