About this course
|Note: The present document is Part III of a series on this topic. If you want to take a copy of "About this course," you may prefer to print the complete version. In any case, the present section will not be intelligible unless you have already worked through Part I and Part II.|
What we'll be doing in the course
So much for the ends of the course, and the problems we have to be prepared to confront because of them. With them in mind we should be able to understand the reason for being of certain features of this course.
(1) In selecting our readings, I have sought to provide a representative range of works that expect different agendas of curiosity on the part of the reader - different sorts of "realist" and "surrealist" works.
(2) In arranging them, I have tried to exploit as much as possible the advantages of contrast rather than sustained continuity. Hence, rather than building a systematic and comprehensive picture of "realisms" and then marching through a strict classification of "surrealisms," I have designed a sequence in which we can skip back and forth between works (or pairs of works) of these two general kinds. You should always be looking for the rationale that governs the sequence by which we move from work to work. Sometimes there will be a thematic connection behind stylistic or formal divergence; sometimes it will turn out that important parts of your building repertoire of moves will pay off in addressing works of radically different spirit. Sometimes we will take the opportunity to explore the grotesque results that would turn out if we were to push through with one work ways of interpretation that are on target with another, and vice versa.
(3) In general, the works we will take up, whether extended or brief, are fairly sophisticated. Even when they work within conventions with which you are likely already to be familiar, they presuppose a reader who is more actively engaged and open to challenge than marketers of popular fiction imaging their target audience is willing to be. If we rely exclusively on the readerly moves we are already practiced in, then (depending on how sophisticated and various they already are) we will end up rehearsing habits of superficiality.
(4) If our aim were to familiarize you with as many different great works and authors as we could cover within the confines of a semester, our list of readings would have to be far longer than what it is. But this would be to run counter to the central purpose of this course, because it would pressure students to rehearse the habits that condemn them to reading sophisticated works superficially. Given our ends, it is important that we read intensively rather than extensively. I have therefore designed the course to enable us to go deeply into a limited number of works.
But if this feature of the course is really to pay off, it is essential that students be willing to read the assignments several times, and that in their subsequent readings, they seek to press novel questions beyond the first possible answer that happens to occur to them.
In the classroom
Learning to read intensively also means that, in class discussions, and in studying interpretive commentary by critics we read along the way, students must extend an important kind of patience. This will be easier to if you keep in mind certain crucial distinctions among four closely related but importantly distinct things: (a) reading a sophisticated work with appropriate competence; (b) talking in an adequate way about what one has provisionally turned up in one's (more or less competent) reading; (c) coaching others in reading sophisticated stuff; (d) learning how to read such works competently, by trying out unfamiliar moves (hence doing a lot of re-reading) and by trying to make sense of what one hears of other people's talk about works and of coaching.
The second is much more time-consuming and laborious than the first. The third is necessarily yet more convoluted and drawn-out than the second. It requires moving back and forth between demonstrating moves and stepping back to describe, explain and justify them, then re-performing them in other ways, and asking questions to discover if people are tuning into them or puzzled about them. For that reason - even apart from the fact that trying out moves that aren't already firmly in one's repertoire is always halting and awkward - the experience of the fourth is not merely more frustrating but far more time consuming than the experience of the first.
(1) In class we will often engage in free-wheeling discussions of things we have read. Of necessity, such conversations have to be able to "go with the flow," and follow wherever multiple curiosities lead. In any case, building up an imaginative world on the basis of the cues that make up a text, and drawing out the significance of that world is not a linear process. Many issues arise, and there is often no particular order in which we have to address them. And when we are exploring some given train of thought, we often cannot carry it through to conclusion at a single go. We may have to leave it on a back burner for returning to when we have turned up some other idea in the course of working with some other train of thought. Reading texts that go beyond the most familiar stereotypes and formulas is an immensely complicated buzzing back and forth, full of leaps and bounds, backing and filling, guessing and revising.
If we insist on finding a cut-and-dried presentation of what some story means, or even of how to go about interpreting it, we will not learn how to read better. We will end up with a collection of inert ideas, facts that may be true but that are useless for the purpose of the course. Even when we read a logically organized discussion of some aspect of what is worth attending to in a literary work - as we will when we look at what some critic or author has to say on the subject - our primary job here must be to notice what we can profitably take away of the interpretive moves indirectly on display in the writer's talk about the work. We will not be aiming at storing away, for their own sake, the knowledge about the work that the commentator develops in the course of his analysis. Still less would it be to the point to look for the point of class exchanges in the insights it may happen to develop about works. If the point were to convey insights, they could far more efficiently be conveyed in some other - for example, a lecture - format.
(2) Frequently I will be confronting with a very particular kind of monologue. It is absolutely crucial that you do not confuse this sort of talk with a LECTURE. This it is definitely not. If a lecture were to be structured as these talks will be structured, it would deserve to be judged to be completely disorganized. On the other hand, if a lecture were resorted to for the purposes I will be up to when I engage in the kind of talking I'm referring to, it would be completely beside the point. Worse, it would explicitly direct you to look for its significance in something that is altogether different from what it is the business of the course to afford.
Remember that despite the title of the course - "Introduction to Literature" - this is not a "subject matter" course. It is actually instead a "techniques" course. Thus it has more in common with physics lab and recitation than with the central lecture component of a physics course. A main part of the business of a lab instructor is demonstration of the procedures the students are then turned loose to go through on their own. Typically she accompanies her enactment of the procedures with a commentary that consists of description and explanation (the hows and whys) of what is being carried out.
That's the nature of the sort of thing I'll be doing here. I'll be illustrating (via a somewhat simplified, edited version) what I would be thinking if I were to work my way through (some part of) the work. In other words, what I'll be presenting, instead of a lecture, is something that might better be described as a DEMONSTRATION. If you get misled by the superficial resemblance to what you know as a lecture - the mere fact that the instructor is monopolizing the talk for an extended period of time - you are going to be frustrated to no purpose. Eventually you will get angry - at the talk going on, for not giving you what you're after (tidy insights about the subject under discussion), and at me, for "being disorganized."
Some frustration, as we've repeatedly said above, is unavoidable, and simply has to be anticipated, tolerated, suffered through. But the frustration you will experience if you look to these demonstrations for what it would make sense to expect of a lecture is something altogether different. It will be overwhelming. And, unless you start approaching the whole thing from a quite different perspective, it will not end.
You will also be chagrined if you mistake what I am doing as a "rap." I will be trying to "think aloud" in an appropriate way about the work under discussion. But the thoughts are not just "any thoughts." They are not just "what happens to come to mind" at the moment. You will be mistaken if you approach them as just so much "subjective opinion" that the rapper is seeking to impress upon his audience.
Of course, the ideas will be "subjective" in two important senses. They are, unavoidably, coming to you from a particular mind, and not from either "universal human rationality" (whatever that might be) or God (by way, it would have to be, of inspiration). Another experienced reader - or, for that matter, I myself, if I were to start from a different point of departure - would come up with something quite distinct. At the same time, if you are bothering to put yourself "under my instruction," it is hardly to the point for you to be assuming that I am "just any" particular mind. You ought (at least as a rebuttable presumption) to suppose that I am able to show you some moves that you would want to appropriate for your own tool kit.
Secondly, the ideas I will be 'putting forward' along the way are by no means infallible. In fact, one of the things my working through them is meant to demonstrate is that the business of constructing what the text prompts us to imagine, and of tracing out the implications of that situation, has to always be provisional. I will be trying to dramatize an agenda of curiosity that, as a fairly sophisticated reader, I take to be called for by some particular features of the text. In exploiting me as an "authority," you are not expected to agree with what I happen to say about the work in any one moment. (Indeed, you can expect to find me talking myself out of hypotheses I've been trying out.) Your job, as apprentice, is to try to see how the "building" is being put together and revised, and why - and to ask questions when you want to confirm whether you're following how things are shaping us and why, or when you think you're no longer following the path that's being explored or its rationale. Perhaps the most important thing to notice about the behavior I will try to put on display before you is the different conditions in which I find myself compelled (again, provisionally!) to change my mind.
In sum: if you take the demonstrations I enact as lectures or raps, you will be barking up a wrong tree. On the other hand, if you approach what you hear in these demonstrations with the curiosities they are designed to gratify, the experience will very shortly start to pay off handsomely. They may even turn out to be fun.
At the same time, for reasons we've mentioned above, you will probably at least initially find it more difficult to deal with than demonstrations in a science lab section. There, one has a clear separation between the moves being demonstrated (which are carried out bodily, with observable physical objects) and the description and explanation that accompanies it (which is carried out in the medium of language). Here, both the moves and the commentary upon the moves are carried out in language. The moves themselves, being enacted, are not the topic of the talk through which they are exhibited. Rather they are at work in and behind the way the topic is being dealt with. And there is a continual shift between this kind of talk, and the talk which does take for its topics the moves that have been or are going to be undertaken. In following this sort of discourse, we have to "rise to" the moves, which are not directly present as the subject of what is being said. And we have to notice when the talk shifts from enactment to commentary not on the work, but on what has been or will be enacted.
Furthermore, the activities that constitute the business of science lab courses - experiments - are processes that, just as much as the equipment employed in the course of them, are themselves already engineered "things." They are designed to be carried out in some definite - indeed standard - order. When we break them down, we find that we have to do with a well-defined hierarchy of modules (the sub-processes). This is why one of the best ways to get a grip on what is going on is to translate it into a flowchart expressing the algorithm it embodies.
But the process of reading a work of literature - even a simplified version of what is entailed in making sense of some particular aspect of a concrete actual work - is nowhere near so linear and straightforward. In some ways, it's much more like the process of designing an experiment or a piece of machinery in the first place. Such invention cannot be routinized. It is an art. It is full of hypothesizing, of tracing the implications of one's guesses, of checking to see to what extent what one further comes across confirms or disconfirms one's hunches, and of reconsidering and revising accordingly. And all the while, several inquiries are going on "at once" - some in momentary abeyance, to be gotten back to eventually, one always in the foreground, being pursued until it hits a snag or turns up something that bears on the solution of one of the postponed puzzlements.
(3) Having warned you not to confuse my demonstrations with lectures, I need to say that from time to time I will have recourse to traditional lecture. I will do so on those occasions when I need to spell out the assumptions that constitute some belief system an author presupposes his readership is aware of. As we will see, this connects with that aspect of fiction we call "setting" - in this case, the cultural postulates at work in the world presented for our contemplation or presupposed as the framework for making sense of them. If we are not familiar with issues a work takes for granted we can recognize in the imaginary world it invites us to construct and address, then clearly we are in for major misunderstanding, if not unresolvable confusion.
Certain works we will practice with take it for granted that we know how the world looks from the standpoint of traditional Christianity, or modern Darwinism, or "primitive" magic. Since I know from experience that important elements of these will be unfamiliar to many people in the class, I will undertake to spell them out in capsule form.
This kind of discourse on my part will be the exception rather than the rule. When I engage in lecture, rather than in demonstration, I will explicitly tell you in advance. When this happens, you will need to shift to the kind of attention that is called for in making use of logical exposition. You will be looking to take away a structured picture of a system of ideas. But your ulterior curiosity should lie in bringing them to bear on the work that gives rise to the discussion.
(4) Especially as the course progresses, I will be trying to get going a kind of combination between demonstration on my part [item (2) above] and a classroom discussion [item (1) above]. From my end, this will involve shifting back and forth between "thinking out loud" about some features of the work at hand and addressing to you the questions I find myself generating ("asking myself") in the process. From your end (if we can get this going), it will consist in trying to come up with some provisional answer to the questions I find myself posing, in asking questions about where my questions came from, in picking up from other students' answers and questions.
This kind of business is -- if we can get it going, and sustain it -- probably the most productive and exciting sort of thing we can aim at. But it requires a large commitment of attention and energy on your part. And it will work only if you can find your way to a quite paradoxical-sounding but nevertheless attainable state of mind. You have to be willing care whether what we (and you) come up with is ultimately adequate to the "facts" (the actual details of the work). And, on another level, you have to be unconcerned about whether you - or anyone else - are going to "make a mistake." The best advice I can give you about how to pull this off is based on my own experience. It liberates us from our anxiety of making a mistake if we make our overriding concern "the truth." Then instead of competing against each other (student v. student, student v. instructor, instructor v. student), we can collaborate in wrestling with the objective problem we confront in common: what best to make of the object we are discussing. The more experience we have with trying to do this, the more we appreciate that no progress can be made without discovery, no discovery can be made without change of mind, no change of mind would be called for if there were no error, and error is unavoidable.
(5) There are two other kinds of discussions we will undertake in the course of the semester. Occasionally we will break into small groups to discuss a particular question or to trade reactions to each others' writing assignments. And from time to time I will ask students to contribute to an on-going discussion via our message board on the web.
There will be two to three written exams during the course of the semester -- a mid-term and a final -- plus a number of short writings and, possibly, a longer paper. The exact combination will depend on the semester in which you are taking the course. For details, see the home page of the course.
If you score below C+ on the first, you will have the opportunity to do one or more extra assignments to bring your grade on those items up to the equivalent of C+.
The shorter writing assignments outside the exams are designed to foster a bit more "lateral" communication among students in the course, and to make sure that everyone takes several doses of fairly detailed coaching in working through sophisticated agendas of curiosity. The memo on Writing Assignments discusses these goals in more detail, lays out the various options open to you, and sets forth the guidelines you should follow. The specific writing assignments themselves are listed in the Course Schedule.
The final course grade will be determined on the basis of the total number of points on a standard percentage basis
- 90-100% (207 or above): A
- 80-89.9% (184 to 206): B
- 60-79.9% (138 to 183): C
- 50-59.9% (115 to 137): D
- below 50% (below 115): F
There is one qualification to be noted, however: students who end up with 205-206, 182-183, 136-137, or 113-115 will get the benefit of the doubt -- that is, be assigned the next higher grade -- if (but only if) their class participation is such as to have impressed me as outstanding.
Two final notes on the writing you do for this course
 This certainly does not mean that these are of no value! It is just that you will be misdirecting your efforts if you see your task in this course as picking out and collecting them. Even when they are convincing as important insights about experience, about people and society, about religious issues, they are not as such our interest here. Put another way: they are a large part of the reward of reading competently, but the goal here is to develop that competence. Naturally we will all the time be seeking insights. But - as far as the class is concerned - we will be inverting what in real life would be the proper relationship of means to ends. There, we are interested in competence in order, among other things, to derive insights. Here we will practice arriving at insights in order to develop competence. We'll be taking up this or that work as a pretext for practicing how to discover whatever insights (or other rewards) it offers. If we succeed, you will end up able to read works that "work" on similar principles. When you do, you will be looking for what playing their particular game delivers. Return.
 Perhaps I should mention here a notion that one frequently meets with but that it makes no sense to persist in such a course as ours. And that is that, at least with "subjective" matters such as one encounters in the humanities, as opposed to what one confronts in the sciences, everything is a matter of "subjective opinion" as distinct from "objective fact." Reasoning, on this view, is basically out of place, and instead one must rely on some kind of mysterious "intuition," in combination (also mysterious) with one's "feelings." This superstituion involves confusion on a number of issues, and the sooner these muddles are cleared up, the better. See Reasoning and Objectivity in Interpretation. Return.
 It will cost you an effort to remind yourself that this is not because you are a dullard or because I am incompetent as a reader or as a teacher. If you do not make this effort, you will be too intimidated to hold up your end of the stick. That is, you will believe that calling a halt to the proceedings by declaring "I don't get it" will be humiliating to yourself or insulting to me. But this is to forget the difficulties I have been describing about the process of learning novel intellectual activities and what I've been saying about how experiencing these difficulties says nothing about one's intellectual talents. You simply must make it your job to express your counter-hypothesis to what you hear me entertaining, your puzzlement as to why certain assumptions are evidently being made, your sense that things have strayed from what is to the point. Return.
 Perhaps it is necessary to point out that to say that understanding these frameworks is necessary for making sense of the works of literature that are written within or in on way or another about them is not the same thing as holding that agreeing with or endorsing them is required in order to understand those works. Return.
 One of the reasons we read is to acquaint ourselves with perspectives that are not already familiar to us. Sometimes these are what we might call "individual" perspectives - ways of looking at things characteristic of a particular author or imaginable person. But often they are perspectives shared within particular historical communities: early middle-Eastern civilization, the pre-classical Greeks, severely Augustinian Christians, the Elizabethan English, post-World-War-II existentialists, rural East African villages. Basically, these are excursions into anthropology, philosophy, and religious possibility.
Among the readings that can be most rewarding for this purpose are works of literature. Experiencing these can directly enhance our sense of the wealth of perspectives abroad in the world. But they can also stimulate us to want to know more, by expanding our readings in philosophy, theology, anthropology, history and the history of ideas, and by getting to know people who have grown up with experiences importantly different from our own. It is not our primary purpose in this course to make these excursions, but it is an adjunct purpose to engage your interests in expanding your acquaintance with these areas of the humanities and social sciences. The occasional lectures I will introduce into the course will, I hope, whet your appetite for doing this. But their primary aim is to make it possible for you to rehearse the interpretive moves called for by the works in connection with which I present them, and to help you develop a feel for how making and perceiving meaning are "culturally situated" activities. One can neither play nor make sense of, say, a game of football, without "taking on" (however provisionally) the conventions that constitute the game. Return.
Return to the previous section of "About This Course."
Go to the complete version of "About This Course."
Return to the course home page.
Questions or suggestions are welcome. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
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 Sunday, January 16, 2000.