Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Generous Reading in the Classroom and Elsewhere

So I've got this course this semester, one I teach all the time and that happily I'm teaching in my preferred time slot for it (a time slot that gets really great mix of majors/minors/non-majors), and I just finished teaching a book for which students generally feel very little, if any, love. Now, I teach this book every time I teach this particular course (every semester for the past... oh... 3 or 4 years), in spite of the fact that students never love it. And it occurs to me that I teach a lot of things that students rarely love. (I also teach a lot that they do love, but I'm less interested in that for the purposes of this post.) So in this post I'm going to ramble on in a far more scholarly way than I typically do in this space about why I think this is a useful exercise, although that rambling will be an oblique answer to that question. And I'll close with something that brings it back to the blogosphere, so there will be a payoff that is relevant even to those people who don't teach literature.

But anyway, in class we were discussing a particular part of the book that a number of students found unsatisfactory, and I asked, "well, why do you think that the author included this if it's so irritating?" or something like that, and they all looked at me blankly. And then, without premeditation, I said something along the lines of the following: "Look, I'm not saying that I want you to talk yourself into believing this is a successful move on the part of the author. It may not be. But I doubt the author included it thoughtlessly. I think that when we encounter something in a text that frustrates us that we should attempt to engage with it generously, to figure out why that choice might have been made and to examine what significance the choice might have. We still might think that it doesn't quite work, but I think being generous when we're frustrated usually gets us farther than nit-picking about the various things that frustrate us, or than dismissing them. The nit-picking and dismissal is easy. The generosity is the hard work, and actually, being generous in that situation is the path to solid critical reading." And then we moved back to the unsatisfactory thing in question, and I modeled generous reading for my students.

The reason that this stood out for me is that I don't recall ever putting what I try to get students to do quite that way or so clearly before, either to them or to myself, and also because I was surprised that I called "generosity" a prerequisite for strong critical reading. I think it's much more common to characterize what we do as literary critics as suspicion as opposed to generosity (and I'm thinking of a recent talk given by Rita Felski that I attended, and her current project is to analyze the hermeneutics of suspicion, and I feel like I should point in her direction because she's doing some really interesting stuff interrogating this tendency toward "suspicious reading").

But so anyway. Suspicion vs. Generosity. Here's the thing. I think that "suspicious reading" is typically considered "critical reading," whereas "generous reading" is typically considered stupid or obsequious or in some way dishonest reading, at least in the way that we commonly would think of it. Think about it. If you say, "Well, that's a pretty generous reading of So-and-So's argument," you don't think much of the reading. Either you think it's stupid or obsequious or both. Or if you say, "If I'm being generous, So-and-So succeeds in doing X," you're not really being generous at all - you're actually indicating your general distaste for everything that surrounds X. I know that I internalized that dichotomy as a student, even though I haphazardly embarked on my most generous reading to date in two of my dissertation chapters, and I embarrassed myself in my defense in describing my reading practice for those chapters. (Apparently it took me all of my years as an assistant professor to figure out what I meant when I said that to read Author X you had to go to the "Author X Place," a place that my dissertation director then responded that he "would never want to go.")

What occurred to me when I used the word "generous" in my class, years after it would have been useful in my dissertation defense, is that I do not at all think that generous reading fails as critical reading, at least not how I mean it. I think that generous reading means taking a book on its terms and... how do I put this?... trying to get inside of the book to see how it works. It's easy to dismiss a book. My students dismiss the books that I assign them all of the time. I dismiss a good portion of what I read as garbage. Dismissal isn't actually a critical response. Nor, really, is suspecting that the texts that one encounters all harbor some secret, sinister, or deep meanings. I think that maybe too often we mistake dismissal or suspicion for criticism, with the counterpoint to those things being passive acceptance.

For me, generous reading does not equal passive acceptance, and in fact, a generous reading takes us as often as not to a negative evaluation of a text, either in its entirety or just in part. But reading generously means that you're not searching for what's wrong in the thing that you immediately despise on first reading, to uphold your conviction that this is a thing to be despised. Reading generously requires that you actively engage with the text itself and on its terms, not your own. You can't just begin with your argument and look for examples that support it (the typical undergraduate approach to writing papers in literature courses or to contributing in class, an approach that we professors, to our detriment, are responsible for teaching our students). Generous reading means starting with questions, not with arguments, positions, or theories.

Now, what I'm describing above might sound a whole lot like a reactionary return to New Criticism. I don't mean it that way. I don't believe that we can absent ourselves from our readings, ignore our personal inclinations and preferences, ignore cultural and historical context, ignore the author*, and then aim for One True Objective Reading of the Inviolate Great Work of Literature. I think that we can assume that an author who has written a text and brought it to publication probably made choices for various reasons, and I think that we are going to react to those choices. But what interests me about reading is not really the choices in isolation, nor my reactions to them. What interests me is figuring out how the choices work to produce a variety of responses. What interests me is trying to understand the text and all of the parts of it, whether I like them or not. I'm still there in the reading, and so are all of the other factors, but when I'm reading generously - whether I enjoy the text or not, though this is especially useful with texts I don't enjoy - I do my best to put those considerations aside until after I deal with what's in front of me on the page and map out how it operates. (In other words, "liking" a book passively does not constitute generous reading either. "Liking" is just liking - it's a beginning of criticism, just as "hating" is, but that doesn't mean it's generous.)

But so here's the thing. I have all these grand ideas about the reading of Lit'ratoor generously. But I struggle with this shit in my day-to-day reading life. See, I read this today, and I couldn't approach it generously: "Part of respecting diversity is allowing people the time and space to lead different lives. Some people go home to their partners and children. Some go home just to partners. Some go home to heaven knows what. And that's okay." I also had a hard time with approaching this generously: " is there is a huge difference between the cultural history and literary studies?"

I don't read blog posts or comments generously. I react. I think, in the moment, that people are fuckwits. What I've been experimenting with is pretending that I don't think that people are fuckwits, that I don't react in the moment, but rather that I read generously. The result of this mostly is that I don't respond directly to the items that enrage me. But that's not really generous reading, either. Because in my brain I disparage the writers of these statements as fuckwits. Generous reading would really be engaging with and accounting for the things that enrage me, which I don't do. What I do in my off-hours reading time is to think that people are fuckwits and then to ignore them willfully. That's not generous reading. That's being an asshole, really. And the fact that I publicly acknowledge that makes that no more acceptable than if I pretended it weren't true, let's just note. See, really, I'm not a generous reader. I only encourage it for my students.

*I'll admit, I'm not terribly interested in authorial intention, basically because I believe that writers of literature LIE, and in fact they're very good at it or they wouldn't be able to make up stories and poems and such, so how can we ever know what they intended. I am interested in an author's preoccupations, cultural and historical context, and stylistic tendencies, but we can actually trace those things without becoming the Psychic Friend of the author.


Lesboprof said...

Well, that post went in places I didn't expect! I like your idea of reading generously both when it comes to texts and to the internets. I do think that blogging tends to make us want to be reactionary and not so thoughtful, which is problematic.

I myself have little tolerance for snark, honestly, especially if the topic or focus of the snarkiness is something I take seriously. Snarkiness is dismissive, and it ends the discussion--and pisses me off.

All of that said, we do teach our students the ideal ways to be, not the ways we always are. I can't be my best self all the time--who can? That is why we have friends... so sometimes we can spout off and not be held accountable for all of it. :-)

gwinne said...

Crazy, I love this post. I also love what Felski's up to in that project, and want to spend more time thinking about suspicion vs. generosity. I'm swamped work wise but hope to come back here and leave a more thoughtful comment...

Anonymous said...

I learned this as a way of engaging scholarship, although the person who introduced me to the idea called it charitable instead of generous. The idea was to be charitable in a way that would foster discussion if the author were present and provide the author an opportunity to hear criticism and potentially grow. This also gives you the opportunity to learn from the author. We talked about this in relationship to texts but she really meant for it to spill over into scholarly conversation in person.

I don't know how good I am at this but I'm getting better, I think. And I love this post.

Prof. Koshary said...

Good points, and they apply pretty well in non-literary theory reading, too. The courses I took for the first year of grad school, which were filled mostly with first-years like myself, were riddled with people whose only MO seemed to be finding some flaw, big or small, in each work of social theory that we read, and then declaring like they'd figured out something big: "X is wrong about this, therefore this theory isn't useful, therefore it's all GARBAGE!" Then they sat back smugly and thought they were doing well in grad school. Assholes.

One of my professors that year knew the drill, and zi tried hir best to steer us away from that. Zi is Mexican-American and explained that the trick is to think as a crítico (critic) but not as a criticón (hyper-critical douchebag). (Those translations are, uh, mine and mine alone.)

Shane in Utah said...

Your footnote anticipated my comment: that all this talk of "choices" (though I use it in my teaching too) relies very heavily on faith in authorial intention. Whereas I just read an excerpt from Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize speech about the author's relationship to his characters: "The characters resist him, they are not easy to live with, they are impossible to define. You certainly can't dictate to them."

What I'm interested in, then, is looking for what a passage or a scene might tell us about something the author might not even be aware of. It's not a particularly "generous" reading strategy, but one just as likely to result in productive discussion about moments in a text that students may find alienating.

Anonymous said...

one of the most profitable lessons I learned in one grad class (religious studies, fwiw) was the "moment(s) of celebration" - after discussion (inevitably, it seemed) steered toward the harsh or dismissive, the professor *made* us, for some extended period of time, talk about what the book in question did well. what we might model in our own research. what choices the author made and why. It was enlightening, and something I have taken with me as I've begin teaching and advising my own students.

heu mihi said...

Well these ideas will be very helpful to me in an hour, when I go off to teach the last few chapters of Stendhal's *Red and the Black*--which I fully expect at least two students to find ENRAGING. (They've already dismissed Mathilde as certifiably insane; I've got my work cut out for me.)

So thanks!

Anonymous said...

Too busy to comment, except to say thanks for the thoughtful posting (and yes, tonight's lit class is the concluding discussion of a book many aren't liking: alas, poor Hemingway).

Janice said...

It's easy to snark. It's hard to unpack problems and misfires in such a way as to understand how they relate to the bigger picture.

Everyone loves to look smart so snarking is the order of the day even when the deeper thought is only revealed by a little less self-esteem and a little bit more humility. It happens in history as much as in literature, I know all too well!

Amy said...

Interesting... if there's anything I learned from college, it was what you call "generous" reading. We were reading Smith, Freud, Marx... and of course it's easy to say that they are not right about everything and thus not worth paying attention to.

I'm grateful to my professors who helped us realize that we would have to go further into understanding how their arguments were built in order to critique them satisfactorily.

life_of_a_fool said...

Ahh, yes, this is what I am trying to get my (social science) students to do as well. I also love the distinction Prof. Koshary makes (and will make me chuckle the next time my students act like criticons).

A related problem I have is to not come across as defensive when I think my students are being overly critical and dismissive. It's not defensiveness, exactly, but I am kind of taken aback every time they outright dismiss something because it's not perfect (nothing is) or not what they would have written, focused on, or analyzed in that way. It's so tiresome to discuss things in that way (though I certainly hear it among colleagues sometimes, so it's not like it's just a "student" problem), and it is a very superficial, limited, and disengaged way of reading.