A student for Easter Sunday

A couple of years ago, in the “Bible Literacy” course I used to teach, I received the following wonderful statement from a student. One of the nicest things that has ever happened to me as a teacher, I think. I did ask the student if I could share it, so here it is. JDF

<<This is probably more of a rant though it rambles on – and I suppose being a rant it delves to something more emotional than strictly academic, but I can’t seem to help having an emotional response to the text. Having now reached the end of the semester, the end of the text, and apparently the end of the world, my perspective is an entire glance backward from beginning to end and my response to it. My rant is mostly about perspective, though it does ramble to adjacent subjects.

<<I personally find the Bible difficult to engage with. When I signed up for “Studies in Non-Dramatic Seventeenth Century Literature”, I did so at a glance, and didn’t even realize it was a Bible-centric course. I thought it would be the usual Miltons and Donnes (which we did touch upon) and not simply the King James Bible as is. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first but opted to give it a go, albeit hesitantly. Christian and Biblical imagery is scattered all over western literature, but studying the Bible and analyzing it as a text on its own is a different story.

<<To be blunt, I’m a gay woman who grew up in a very Christian environment and these two realities did not mesh together kindly at all. For a very long time, the Bible was nothing more than a traumatizing text that, in my eyes, was a barely coherent strung-together mess of ancient prejudices. It was a simple and stagnant text that had no place in the modern world, a text that only encouraged a single perspective and the cruelties that came with it. I did not always like returning to this text and these stories and words, and even considered dropping the class a couple times, but our approach to studying it kept me engaged in a way I did not expect. I did not anticipate finding anything new in a text I had already had hammered into me, sometimes in not so-great ways, for the first two decades of my life.

<<Reading the Bible as a piece of literature, as a narrative, as something with a beginning (or many beginnings) and something with an end – as a text that had been stitched together to form something of a literary tapestry to relate the mythos of a subjugated people – as a reflexive piece of literature that grows and builds upon its own narrative rather than stagnates – was a revolutionary perspective. Part of my mind is still in week one, learning about how the text has always existed as a translation, and what that means when it comes to interpretation – namely that our readings are always interpretive and not definitive.  Not only that, but it is a text that needs to be re-interpreted.  

<<I never noticed before how some stories repeat, how we have multiple beginnings and how they differ slightly – for example Adam and Eve being presented equally the first time but with Eve assuming a secondary role the second time. Learning these variations existed because they were particular selections taken from a larger collection of stories made me view them differently. The text was less stagnant. The different authors and different voices came through clearer. Still confusing at times, but not necessarily incoherent so much as just very busy, very active.

<<For further example, I’ve heard the gospels all my life. There is hardly a parable I don’t know. However, I always heard them out of order. I never even took careful note of who wrote each one. It seemed like the same stories repeating in a bland drone, but reading it in order revealed stark differences. Different perspectives, different voices, such as the (sometimes more colourful) stories in the Book of John compared to the first three gospels. I never noticed the little details in the stories. I was so taken with Mary and Jesus having their little back-and-forth in the story of the wedding at Cana that I actually went home and showed it to my sister. It was something neither of us had ever really noticed.

<<I liked some of the literary visuals and thought there were beautiful images. The Book of Exodus was exciting, and the story of Rahab had that lovely visual throwback with the red string in the window resembling the red blood of Passover. Her role in that story remained with me, the image of the red string a striking one. The story of Jael in the book of Judges, who kills a man by driving a tent stake through his head, and who is a heroine to the Jewish people, was a story I had never even heard before, and I thought that was too bad.

<<I said this rant was on perspective and it somewhat is, but I suppose if I really wanted to rant and be mad about something, it would be about how this text is often delivered. Because I am mad and upset. Upset that I was made to hate what is a colourful and diverse narrative. Upset that until recently I could not enjoy these details and these stories or appreciate any beautiful images thanks to the distorted simplification that was a single perspective, one that was used only to cause pain. I hope to go forward and rectify this, and expand my own perspective, one which until recently has been woefully narrow.>>

Proposal for a first-year lit course: Small Data

Big data, as we all know, is what it’s all about. As the CEO of the AI company ImageNet has put it: “Data drives learning.”

Except it really, truly does not.

Consider a rock on the beach. It’s surrounded by data: from the local ecosystems, to the weather patterns on the horizon, to the stars that come out at night.

But that rock will never learn a thing. 

Data doesn’t drive learning. Learning drives data. The capacity to learn—interpret, and understand—determines what even counts as data. 

That’s where literature comes in. It’s just some marks on a page. But literature is what happens when some of the those marks, strangely, start to matter. 

Since very ancient times, writers have been attracted to exactly this kind of moment: when we suddenly see where the data are headed. Even—the singular—a datum. 

So, in this course, we will read and comment on some classic (and, mostly, very old) works of small data. Texts that do a lot with a little. Poems, lines, even single words that demand our attention. Plays and stories about the necessity of noticing, the challenge of interpreting, and the detail that changes everything.

the safe side

Bin thinkin again about dialogue – a big theoretical topic for me. My thinking about it is based on my reading of Hans-Georg Gadamer, for whom the ordinary business of talking with another person is the venue, and the model, for any understanding of anything. The significance of dialogue is primarily epistemological, not civic or ethical – except insofar as Gadamer’s insights tend to run counter to soft-left cant. There is no such thing, according to Gadamer, as seeing a given question from somebody else’s point of view. If there were, we wouldn’t need to talk to others at all. By the same token, there is no dialogic imperative to temper or suppress your own views, in the name of politeness or respect. For the only way your interlocutor can gain possible access to your perspective is if you try to express it, clearly and fully.

Indeed, Gadamer argues that we do not succesfully show respect by holding ourselves back in conversation – as though supposing that the other is too weak for us, or that we know all about him already. Quite the contrary: the true dialogic attitude is an attempt to maintain complete openness, which extends to our interlocutor precisely because it starts with ourselves. The goal, meanwhile, is not to obtain or maintain good relations, but to understand something – what the dialogue is about, its subject-matter. For the other’s view of the subject-matter is the indispensable confirmation, or disconfirmation, of our own.

Thus Gadamer’s philosophy of conversation is Socratic, and, in a sense, selfish. Conversation is the interactive game that we must play if we want to know. As in any game (contra Derrida), it is normative to try to play well. Finally, the game cannot even get going without a kickoff – which, as Gadamer puns in German, amounts to giving offense (Anstoss). Conversation is a space of risk, or it ain’t conversation at all.

So I have thought, for the last ten years or so. As a matter of fact, Gadamer’s view of conversation has seemed to me so compelling that I have not really even granted the possibility of a validly countervailing theory. Obviously, this is an attitude of meta-dialogic complacency, itself standing in need of an offensive shock. And perhaps there is another, opposing, yet possibly correct way of theorizing the very nature of conversation; which has the capacity to enrich thinking about it, without displacing the Gadamerian view.

This possibility was opened up for me, as often happens, by a student. The student was very bright and capable, but not especially keen on my teaching – you can always tell – which she seemed to find questionable or dubious or troubling. I am always fascinated by students who aren’t buying what I’m selling, in part because they frustrate me (I’m not going to lie about that), but also in part because I take it for granted that they may have something to teach me. Anyway, this student – let’s call her Leah – was a member of an upper-level, theoretically-inflected seminar I was teaching. The students in the group were all working on projects they had formulated themselves, with the help of different faculty supervisors in the English Department. The literary profession being what it is, few of these students had projects that we might call transitive to the world. Rather, their projects were reflexive to the profession. Their goal, in other words, was to write a certain kind of text – a clever essay; not to figure out, or even identify, a problem with a certain subject-matter.

As usual, in this sort of situation, my pedagogic approach was to ask questions – questions about questions, if we want to be cute about it. I pressed my students to try to tell me what they were fundamentally after; what they were trying to ask; and about what; and why. Some students responded well, and I felt that our conversations were useful for them. Leah, by contrast, clammed up. I could see that she was smart, and that she had something she wanted to push back at me. But I could also see that if I asked her what it was, she would find my inquiry aggressive and back off even farther. So I left her to herself, and kept up my hermeneutic pressure on her classmates. Leah just sat there, for weeks, dutifully and rather grumpily, poking at her laptop, looking at her nails, and rolling her eyes.

Until one day she put up her hand and said: “I guess I have some problems with the approach we’re taking here. You’re always asking us to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing, and what the theories we’re working with actually achieve. Why do they have to achieve anything? I mean, we learn these theories, and they apply to texts in certain ways, and once we know the theories we can apply them to the texts. We can do the kinds of readings that the theories let us do. You always seem to be asking us what we’re finding out about from our texts, but I’m not really sure we need to be finding anything out. We’re not like researchers in biology or computer science or anything. We’re just producing readings.”

Leah’s rant had been worth waiting for. It amounted to an indictment of contemporary literary education that was all the more damning for being offered as a defence. I had been teaching, as she correctly perceived, the standing need to avoid dialectical vacancy in literary-critical practice. Leah took that claim and responded, positively, that dialectical vacancy – not being about anything – was the point of literary-critical practice. The literary classroom, in her view, was not a place where subject-matters were opened up through the asking of questions; but rather, a place where subject-matters were kept at bay by the reiteration of answers. This was “producing readings”: the interminable application of unfalsifiable theories to incidental texts with indeterminate results. This was what Leah felt she had been taught, in the four years of her B.A. It was conversation as finger-painting. I would not have thought that the antithesis of my own position could have been stated so baldly.

I told Leah that she had certainly sketched a different view of inquiry from my own. That was true, but lame. And here is the beginning of the point – or the asking of the question. I didn’t tell Leah exactly what I thought. Why not? She had certainly done her best to hit me with a rocket – which, in my Gadamerian view, is consistent with the way in which the conversational game ought to be played. In that sense, Leah’s defence of dialectical vacancy was self-cancelling – a good starting-point for refutation. But I didn’t offer one. Why not?

I suppose because, as Leah’s teacher, I wanted to encourage her to stay in the conversation. I wanted her to feel safe there. This, perhaps, indicates a confound to the Gadamerian dialectic. True, I had left Leah alone for all those weeks because I did not want to presume that I knew what she was thinking, or how her end of the conversation ought to be managed. It was part of my own exposure – my own risk, as it were – not to claim the right to compel her participation. And that refusal of compulsion extended to holding open her retreat, and even to making her feel that she did not need to take it. In other words, I could do a work-around on my tactical reticence to make it consistent with the Gadamerian dialectic of openness and fullness. But this would be evasive. Falsifying the conversation is falsifying the conversation – especially if it is done for the sake of the conversation. I held back on the offense I could have given in response to Leah, precisely in order to hold open the possibility that the conversation might continue to be productive. And I felt, and still feel, that this was optimal dialogic procedure. And so the confound: conversation as a space of safety, perhaps, is prerequisite to conversation as a space of risk.

What do we do with this insight (if it is one)? I’m not sure. But I am grateful to my student for helping me to see the complacency in my own relative comfort with conversational risk.


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