About this course
|Note: The present document is Part I of a series on this topic. (A link to the following part appears at the end of this document.) If you want to take a copy of "About this course," you may prefer to print the complete version.|
"Why this course?" For some of you, the first thing that will come to mind may be something like, "Well, it fulfills a humanities requirement in the degree program I'm enrolled in." For others, perhaps it's "I like reading fiction, and I thought it might be fun to get acquainted with some stuff I've never heard of." These answers aren't mutually exclusive, of course. For some of you, both will apply. In any case, they're both answers to the same question - How did I end up in here? And that's one of the things - "What motives brought you here?" - we might mean by the formula "Why this course?"
But there's another thing we might be asking under that same form of words: "What is the purpose of this course?" What it is designed to do? And how does it set about getting that done? Why is it that the course is the way it is?
It's these questions - one of them about ends, the other about means - that I want to say something about, here at the outset. When I'm done, you'll be in a better position to ask yourself whether this course really suits your reasons for enrolling (or staying enrolled) in it.
Goals of the course
Let's take up the question of ends first.
Here we need to make a distinction between central purposes and peripheral ones. Some disclaimers are in order. Reading sophisticated fiction competently is a deep pleasure. Learning to read such fiction competently can be fun, too. But it can also be frustrating at times. And in the context of an academic course in which grades are at stake, it can be charged with a good deal of anxiety that isn't fun at all. Our central goal in this course is not to afford you pleasurable experiences in reading; it is rather to increase your competence in reading a fairly wide range of types of sophisticated works of literature. That is, the course aims to put you on a better footing for deriving appropriate pleasure from reading literary works. But it does not aim directly at affording you a good time (and certainly not an easy one) either in class or in your reading in preparation for class. Of course it is possible and desirable for these assignments and discussions in class to turn out to be enjoyable (I promise to do what I can to help this to happen), and when they do, that's great. But that is peripheral, not central to the purposes of this course.
The same needs to be said for what is another justification for reading literature in the first place: a broader experience with human possibilities, a wider and deeper capacity for understanding other people and other ways of life, and an acquaintance with the remarkable minds that were driven to produce the visions conveyed in great works. I would be very surprised if, at the end of the course, you were not able to say you enjoyed something of these important benefits! But I want to stress that these rewards are incidental to the central aim of the course.
What then is at stake, given the fact that the central goal of the course is to increase your competence in reading a wide variety of types of sophisticated works of literature? By "competence" here I mean "a repertoire of appropriate moves for making sense of" the particular work one is confronted with. By "a fairly wide variety of types" of literary works I mean a range of "realistic" and "non-realistic" works. As we'll see, such works can turn up in prose, poetry or drama. And although we will be studying works in all three of these genres, the differences among them as such will not be of primary concern to us. Rather, we will be interested in getting a feel for differences among works that aim at "circumstantial realism" and those that aim to achieve one or another "psychological realism." We'll be looking to see how these works require different behaviors on the part of the reader, and how these in turn differ in some ways from the agendas of curiosity presupposed by "visionary" and "surrealistic" works, including fables, parables and other allegorical ventures.
Here, to whet your curiosity, are a couple of terse examples. The first is an instance of (one kind of) "realistic" work.
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)
And now for something completely different. Here's a piece that strikes us pretty quickly as weird. We might characterize it as "surrealistic."
Franz Kafka (1883-1924)
They were given the choice between becoming kings or the couriers of kings. In the manner of children, they all wanted to be couriers. As a result, there are only couriers. They rush through the world shouting to each other messages that, since there are no kings, have become meaningless. Gladly would they put an end to their miserable existence, but they dare not, because of their oaths of service.
In important ways, these two works cannot be profitably "gone at" in the same ways. They won't, we sense, open up to the same set of keys. They invite different sets of moves on the part of the reader. They puzzle us in different ways, and expect us to pursue these different "curiosities" - intellectual and imaginative and emotional - along different paths. And the result, we suspect, is that they will afford us different sorts of gratification.
It's as if the authors of these works were up to different "games" that they were offering to play with the reader - just as we might meet someone out at the rec complex who was looking for someone to play a 2-on-2 game of basketball and someone else hoping to pick up a partner in a wallyball or racquetball match. To the degree we knew how to play all of these games, we'd feel comfortable taking up whichever offer we pleased. And knowing how to play any one of them is nothing more, in the end, than having at our disposal the corresponding "repertoire of moves" - the ability to know what situation one is in (within the "universe" of the game at any given moment), and the disposition to respond in some one of the called-for ways. If yesterday you were playing center forward in field hockey and today you're playing right fullback in soccer, it's still the same "you," of course, but you've taken on different roles.
This analogy - between being able to play a variety of athletic games and being able to read well a wide range of radically different kinds of materials (within, among others, the domain of literature) - turns out to be illuminating in lots of respects. And as it happens, the analogy breaks down at certain points that turn out to be illuminating, too. This is a good place to spell out some of the more important of these similarities and differences.
For one thing, it turns out to be as misleading to speak of "what the competent reader is" as it is to try to talk of "what the defining behaviors of the athlete as such are." Of course there are highly general things that can be said to be required of all reasonably good athletes: they should be alert, in condition, co-operative with teammates (in non-solo sports), etc. And one can say of good readers that they are attentive, imaginative, disposed to check their hypotheses against the actual details of the work, etc. But these observations are not very useful, to say the least, in helping us improve our actual athletic or reading skills. For that we need to get acquainted with the demands of particular sports and kinds of works. And this is because playing a game (or, in many games, playing a particular role in a game) is a matter of undertaking the appropriate particular move in a particular sort of situation. The same goes for coming to terms with a given work of literature. The job is to become the particular sort of reader demanded by the work at hand.
Here's another important point of similarity: since performing in sports and reading different kinds of writing are activities (processes), they are by their very nature learnable by people with ordinary human capacities. To be sure, not everybody can be Michael Jordan or Pele or Richard Gilman or Harold Bloom. But those of us who aren't physically handicapped (and many who are), or sufferers from Downs Syndrome, can learn to hold up our end of the stick quite decently in pickup games in any number of sports. And we can all develop the skills it takes to make reasonable sense of philosophical essays, historical analyses, technical reports and all sorts of highly sophisticated works of literature.
It's worth pausing a moment to note that what I've just said contradicts what many students believe. In 30 years of teaching I have run across thousands of folks who are firmly convinced that academic intelligence is highly specific in its particular varieties, and that it is distributed among individuals in quite idiosyncratic ways. People somehow believe they "weren't there when math brain was handed out," or that, while they are quite good a solving calculus problems, they are inherently inept when it comes to getting the point in poetry. In fact, though, anyone who can catch on to chemistry can catch on to Shakespeare or Donne (and hence construct a respectable picture of late pre-modern European culture) - just as anyone who can play a decent game of basketball can learn to play a decent came of tennis. The skills, in "intellectual" work, are definitely activity-specific. But the intelligence necessary to acquire and use those skills is quite general, and native to the species. The same goes for the abstract capacity to acquire the moves called upon by any particular physical sport or instrumental manipulation (musical or practical): it is built into the human frame.
To repeat: (1) Nobody is born with the moves. (2) The moves have to be learned. (3) With certain overwhelmingly rare exceptions, the moves can be learned by anyone.
How does one learn moves? Pure trial and error has a place, but it's far smaller than one might think. Largely, and most efficiently, we learn moves by imitation: we pick up the moves by watching competent performances. This obviously makes sense with activities that are culturally mediated - for example, games and other social practices that are already going on when any particular individual arrives on the scene. It makes no more sense for someone today to undertake to discover calculus for himself than to re-invent the wheel. And even more efficient than just watching others perform tasks they have learned to do well is to go get some coaching. A coach is someone who can demonstrate moves on demand, who will repeat them, point them out explicitly, break them down into their constituent moves, demonstrate how they co-ordinate with other moves to constitute more comprehensive moves, explain their point, set useful tasks for getting you to rehearse certain moves, give you pointers on your performance, etc.
Most learning, in fact, takes place under coaching, though most coaching is also informal. You probably learned to drive a car this way. Your repertoire of card games probably didn't come from a book, still less from a classroom, and certainly you didn't invent it. And this is how, in our culture, one learns to make sense of (as distinct from playing) athletic contests. You go along with friends or relatives and listen to the conversations they have during the course of the game and afterwards. Occasionally you break in with a question and get an answer. If you express an interest, someone will give you pointers by way of a running commentary. If nothing else you can bring along a radio and listen to an on-going mixture of reportage and interpretation. If you had grown up in Italy, that's how you would have learned to appreciate soccer and opera.
One learns by doing, yes, but first one sees what is to be done, and what the point of doing it is.
But here is a point at which our analogy breaks down in a way that is illuminating for correctly interpreting the frustrations you will undoubtedly experience in this course. What is it to "see what is to be done?" How does one do that? And how does that relate to what else one has to do in order to develop a competence? The answer is not the same for mental activities as it is for other sorts.
Let's imagine a series of activities: playing the piano, playing tight end in a game of American football, watching a football contest, swimming the crawl stroke, driving a car, solving a pair of linear equations sharing two unknowns, and making sense of Kafka's "Couriers."
Of these, by far the most complicated is watching the football contest, at least if we mean by "watching" it appreciating it. Yet this is a competence that millions of people have picked up in their spare time, almost without thinking about it. At the same time, we can be sure that anyone who's playing tight end has had plenty of experience in watching football games: otherwise he would have no idea of what the point of his role as tight end is.(Nor would he be able to figure out the point of the position if he were to focus all of his attention as a spectator on examining the physical movements of tight ends.) We also know that just watching a lot of football games will not turn one into a good tight end. There is a lot of painful (though rewarding) effort of a quite different sort involved: wind-sprints, weight training, getting one's head rung by experienced defensive tackles and one's kidney's bruised by linebackers and safeties. And of a different order still is the frustration of failing to execute one's part in all sorts of plays, in practice and in games, or of executing well and seeing the play fail for lack of a teammate's good execution, or of the team's executing well but just being whupped by a superior team.
These points are obvious, but they have some not-so-obvious implications.
1. Discerning the moves
Learning to swim the crawl stroke, to
drive a car, or to play the piano share something with learning
to play tight end that sets all of these off from learning to
watch a football contest or to make sense of a piece like Kafka's
little parable or to solve algebra problems. Remember the
question we began with: how does someone who wants to pick up the
moves that make up competence in these activities find out what
the moves are? In athletics, playing musical instruments, and
operating machinery, the mentor's moves are
there directly to behold. That's because the moves are
accomplished in the medium of the body. The coach can thus easily
point to whatever moves he wishes to draw the student's attention
to, and the student will have no difficulty in seeing exactly
what it is that's being pointed to.
The case is quite otherwise with making sense of a story (or sales report) or with solving algebraic problems (or deciding whether to get married). The patterns of moves that make up such intellectual tasks are carried on independently of overt bodily movements. We can watch a person read or solve an algebra problem or reach certain decisions without ever witnessing the processes we would need to be privy to if we are to learn from our watching. To "get" a move from a competent practitioner, we have to infer it - construct it for ourselves in our imagination - on the basis of some overt clues . These will typically be in the form of discourse: some remark the person makes on the basis of what he has thought - some inference on the basis of his reading or the announcement of what he thinks is the solution to the problem.
Now it sometime happens that a person acts as a coach from his own performance, and describes a sequence of moves he made, but usually this happens when we have asked the person why he made some remark he did. But even when it does, we usually still have to infer a great deal about the assumptions from which he was working and about additional inferences he made beyond the ones he happens to make explicit to us.
Yet it's crucial to realize that, in the ordinary case, even coaches of these invisible activities don't describe the moves they have made. At most they re-enact them, or justify them, or point out some consequence of them. But usually they just talk about the matter under discussion - the poem, or the problem or issue at hand - in a presumably competent way. That is, they don't talk about the moves they have made. They just do the moves "in" or "behind" or "prior to" what they say. It is up to us to infer on that basis what moves are they must have made in order to be talking about the matter at hand in that way.
In other words, we have imaginatively to construct the invisible playing field on which our performer is playing and the moves he is enacting upon it. All this we must do before we can rip off any of our mentor's moves and try them on for ourselves!
Let's look briefly at how this works. Here, for example Michael Meyer (the editor of one excellent and widely-used introduction to literature text, The Bedford Introduction to Literature, 3rd Ed., St. Martin Press), has to say (pp. 645-6) about Williams's little poem:
Images give us the physical world to experience in our imaginations. Some poems, like [Williams's], are written to do just that: they make no comment about what they describe. . . . This poem defies paraphrase because it is all an image of agile movement. No statement is made about the movement; the title, "Poem" - really no title - signals Williams's refusal to comment on the movements. To impose a meaning on the poem, we'd probably have to knock over the flowerpot.
We experience the image in Williams's "Poem" more clearly because of how the sentence is organized into lines and groups of lines, or stanzas. Consider how differently the sentence is read if it is arranged as prose.
The poem's line and stanza division transforms what is essentially an awkward prose sentence into a rhythmic verbal picture. Especially when the poem is read aloud, this line and stanza division allows us to feel the image we see. Even the lack of a period at the end suggests that the cat is only pausing.
There is a whole host of moves we can infer behind these observations. Here are some of them.
(1) Meyer has noticed a number of features of the poem that might pass a less experienced reader of poetry by. A number of these are pointed to by what we recognize as a special vocabulary evidently developed, in the course of history, for referring to aspects that, depending on how they vary in a particular case, can, together with others, work to produce certain effects. Some of these - "image," "comment," "paraphrase" - we probably recognize from general discourse, although we sense that among them may be some (for example, the first and possibly even the second) are being used with different commitments (content, implications) than when we use them in ordinary talk. Others - "line and stanza division" - we figure we won't meet with outside of quite particular sorts of discussions.
(2) Some of these, taken together, have led him to suspend one kind of standing presumption that he, as a reader, brings to a work: that it is designed to convey, implicitly if not explicitly, some larger observation or insight.. He concludes that, in this case, is otherwise quite appropriate expectation is out of place, and that we have to set it aside if we are to tune in to what this particular work is undertaking to make available to us.
In this case, this seems to be to invite us to "see" something in a particularly vivid way - a way that goes beyond the visual to the physically "rhythmic" qualities of the cat's motion with respect to the objects in the scene. His comments invite us to reread the poem, focusing our attention on (and perhaps even imagining ourselves into, "identifying with") the particular muscular stretchings and placements, the combination of the deliberate and the apparently spontaneous, a kind of molasses-like flowing over of the body from one level and position into another, the simultaneous sense of flowing motion and inner collectedness of this cat.
(3) To explore what is at stake in something's being the way it is in some particular respect - why the spark plug gap is just the way it is, why the knob on grandmother's radio is set in the position it happens to be, what ripples of relationships are set loose by a particular choice of word at a particular moment in a poem - we meddle, and see what happens. Meyer does this here when he calls attention to the particular qualities of Williams's deliberate but deftly unobtrusive care in handling the line and stanza divisions in "Poem," by imagining an alternative way of "saying the same thing," and checking to see how the effects of the two ways are different. This brings into focus for our further inspection striking (but formerly perhaps "invisible" or at least "fuzzy") effects built into the poem as in fact it is. These have to do with the way the forward-pushing sense of the sentence, draped over the line and stanza divisions Williams has settled on, has, at precisely chosen junctures, to "spill over" the line and stanza units the divisions define - paralleling the way in which the cat's limbs extend and descend and set themselves in the course of the action that constitutes the sense of that sentence. We are subtlely drawn into empathetically performing, in ourselves, a series of flowings and pauses corresponding to those of the cat.
But - and here is the crux - we cannot expect to find the move itself in the content of the remarks of the person to whose discourse we are attending. Moves are conveyed in the relationships between what is said, clause to clause, sentence sentence-cluster to sentence-cluster, and so on until the discourse (conversational remarks or printed essay) ceases. Meyer is not telling us what to do in order to appreciate "Poem." He is showing us (part of) what doing that is by doing it. Our job is to execute a kind of double vision: we have to keep our eye on what he is saying (about the poem) and simultaneously catch on to what he is doing in saying that and what he must have done as a condition of being able to do that.
In other words, your job in this course is not
to collect observations about particular works of literature.
It will be a waste of your time to record what you read and what
gets said in class with a view to recalling it for regurgitation
on exams. Rather the job is to pick up
and be able to go through different sets of moves that are
appropriate when one is confronted with works of literature of
various types. It will indeed make sense to highlight
certain things you read in our main text or in the handouts
distributed in class, and to take notes on what gets said in
class. But the point of doing this is not to record points for
memorization. It is to retain a trace of some series of moves
made on this or that occasion in which someone (Meyer, myself,
another student, some critic, yourself) is engaged in the
activity of constructing the sense of some work we are exploiting
as a specimen.
What would be a sign that a student has caught on to this task? Well, having noticed the move I described in (3), above, it might occur to an experienced student to try out the same generic strategy with some other features of the poem. She might then pose the following couple of questions: (a) What would happen (or not happen) if, instead of "flowerpot" in the last line of "Poem," we had something like "garden pot" or "cardboard box"? (b) What's the difference between what Williams has given us (on the left) and something like what we could contrive (on the right):
That is, what is the effect Williams gets by assigning agents to actions as he does in "Poem"? A student who asks such questions on the basis of Meyer's remarks is not only on to something about the poem. She's up to something that's on-target with the goals of the course: she's trying to make Meyer's move her own by adapting it to novel circumstances.
Of course, when we have a live coach at hand rather than just a model, we have the opportunity to ask questions. And if we don't ask specific questions about how the coach was led to say this-or-that about the matter at hand, then we are not really interested in learning how to make the moves. We forgo the opportunity to turn a monologue into a conversation, and to get the actor to clarify the acts behind his pronouncements. We pass up the chance to get the coach to spell out and explain the justification (grounds and point) of the inferences he has made, and to judge and challenge the adequacy of those moves. (If we do this in the context of a formal course in an academic institution, we need to ask ourselves why we are paying good money to enroll in the course.)
 There is a difference between genius and thoroughly respectable competence. I am willing to concede that genius presupposes extraordinary talent, just as I concede that people born without legs or who suffer amputation of one will never be sprinters. But I do insist that we set aside such rarities as irrelevant to the situation with which the vast majority of us as confronted.
Besides, for the point at hand it is worth pointing out that outstanding athletes do in fact tend to be versatile, even when, if professional, they rarely participate professionally in more than one sport. And the same seems to be true for the folks whom we feel inclined to call geniuses: they may or may not make a professional mark in more than one specialty, but they do seem to exhibit broad intellectual appetites.
Finally we should note that ordinary respectable professional expertise (as distinct from decent amateur performance) in a given specialty requires something far short of genius. It is certainly worthy of admiration -- but as an achievement, not as the sign of extraordinary gifts. Return.
 I have put the term "intellectual" in quotation marks here in order disassociate myself from the implication that athletics, music and practical activities are not also themselves forms of intellectual work. I would have said "non-physical mental work," except that the phrase is too awkward to keep resorting to. Return.
 Calculus wasn't invented until the 17th century, and then only by two individuals (Newton and Leibnitz) who had inherited, by study, the achievements of mathematical tradition up to their time. When Newton said that he was "standing on the shoulders of giants," he was not merely paying homage to his predecessors. He was confessing that no individual is capable of inventing single-handedly the full complement of preconditions for any complex step forward. Put another way: Newton was declaring that, had he undertaken to invent calculus from scratch, he would have needed as many years as it took to produce the human species up to his moment in history. Return.
 Of course I am supposing the learners in question are already able to walk and run, to speak the language of the texts in question, to read them, to do basic operations (addition, subtraction, etc.) with number. These competencies in fact are far more complicated in fact than any of the ones we are considering at the moment. And yet children almost invariably manage to master them, given the opportunity. Return.
 Again, readiness to learn simpler activities may presuppose competence in more complicated ones. At the same time, learning to do some complicated things can sometimes be easier than learning to do some simpler ones. Return.
 It's essential to keep in mind that "mentor" here is not restricted to "class instructor." It is anyone who talks about something from whom we can learn how (or how not!) to think successfully about something. (Nor is "mentor" here synonymous with "coach": coaches are mentors, but mentors -- people we pick up moves from by watching them closely -- don't have to act as coaches: they can just be "doing their thing.") Return.
 I'm not saying that one must be able to form some "explicit reflective picture" of the mentor's move. Still less is it necessary, for "tuning into" someone else's sequence of mental moves, to be able to state some explicit articulate account of what they are. In the following paragraph I'll spell out the paradox as I see it, but be advised that you can skip it if you want. If it leaves you confused, you can forget it.
To be sure, we would have to imagine what the moves of our mentor must have been before we could undertake to imitate them in a reflectively conscious way. But to imagine what these moves are is to reconstruct them in our imagination. Yet in order to construct them for beholding, we must already in some sense have participated in them. But that means we have already "done them along with" our model, (And yet this can only be retrospectively,) So in a sense we have already imitated them (or what we tacitly took them to be). But this means we have already accomplished, as it were, our "first rehearsal" -- even before we have reflectively grasped (to say nothing of articulately described for ourselves) what the move was. And if this is so, we must admit that it is possible to ingest a mentor's mental moves in dealing with an intellectual matter by attending to his talk, not about the moves themselves (though he may well favor us with some talk of these), but of the matter itself. And this in turn means that we need not, in fact, reflectively imagine to ourselves the nature of someone's mental moves in order to "tune into them" when he simply does them in and through words (as distinct from in and through gross body movements). Return.
 Mastering a new technical vocabulary is something far different from memorizing definitions -- in itself a witless activity. Memorizing can be a useful first step, because it enables us to reproduce for contemplation the complex of elements that constitutes the definition (supposing it is well-formed) -- so that we can proceed to the real business of forming and appreciating the point of a concept that we have never before entertained. To do this we have to think through each element of the definition (each constituent concept out of which the definition offers to fashion it) and each relationship the definition puts these building blocks into with others. This means we have to carry out a whole series of thought experiments, imagining how the concept we are seeking would be altered if any of these elements were dropped or substituted for by some close cousin, or if any of the relationships were made into something else. And we have to do this all the while trying to figure out what difference such differences in turn would make. Why does the community of people who employ the concept choose to use this tool for the job instead of some concept different in just this or that respect. What, indeed, is the job they are getting done with it? And what's the role of this task, in turn, in some larger activity they are up to?
In other words, learning a new technical vocabulary is simultaneously (1) training in perception and (2) training in a for-us new theoretical perspective. We are being inducted into a new way of seeing things -- learning to notice matters we have never taken into account before. And we are being invited into a way of seeing relations among these things, and familiar ones, that makes sense of them in some fashion we have never imagined before.
To take a simple example: if you truly master the botanist's language for describing leaves, you have to notice things about foliage that, before, you passed over in a more or less indeterminate greenish blur. And you are primed with curiosity about function (how and why these things as they are) that never before entered your mind. Your eyes are opened to a new world. (This does not happen, of course, if you bore yourself to death memorizing gibberish for a multiple-choice exam.) Return.
 Sometime a coach will step back from acting as a mentor and comment directly on what he just did as a mentor. These special remarks do feature, as their content, the move to be noticed and appropriated. It may help for the learner to describe the move in his own words. Or this may be dispensed with. His task in any case is not to describe moves but to acquire them -- and this in the form of the ability to do them elsewhere, when called for. Return.
 See if you can complete these moves by coming up with answers to these two questions. [Or, if you've already done this, return to the main text at note 10.]
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Copyright © 1998 by Lyman A. Baker.
All rights reserved, except that permission is granted for non-commercial educational use. (Please inform the author if you are not currently enrolled in on of his courses and you wish to make such use of this document or any part(s) of it.
This document last revised on Monday, August 23, 1999.