I want to start this post with Josh.
Josh is the boy who has agreed to be a part of a small research project I’ve decided to do. The idea is to trial a task I’m going to be setting for my postgraduate preservice teachers in a university unit called ‘Literacy Across the Curriculum’. I described this project in an earlier post called ‘Headlights in the fog‘.
I taught Josh English last year, when he was 15 and in Year 10. He was immensely keen to do well, anxious to do all the right things, but never got the grades he would have liked. His English teacher this year has said things are pretty much the same: conscientious but there’s something missing in his work, as if despite all the time he puts into the subject, he doesn’t yet quite get it.
A fortnight or so ago I had my first chat with Josh. He told me that he wasn’t much of a book reader, preferring to learn about the world from the internet or from documentaries. And, as we were talking about Othello (which his class was just beginning to study), he said something like:
I don’t much like Shakespeare. I don’t really get it. It’s not like poetry, where you can put your own spin on things; there’s always something in a poem that makes me think about something I’ve experienced or thought, and you can kind of get into the poem that way. But Shakespeare’s not like that. I don’t get anything from it. Like I was reading the beginning of Othello last night, and it just didn’t mean anything to me. I couldn’t get what it was all about.
I went away from the chat with an image and some questions.
The image was of a walled city, Josh and his current known world on the inside and the rest of the world, represented in this case by Othello, on the outside. Josh is feeling hemmed in, wanting with a part of him to get outside the city, though in the grand scheme there are things he’d rather be doing than exploring Othello, which he assumes to be dated, lifeless and largely irrelevant to any of his deepest preoccupations.
The questions were to do with Josh’s reading of Othello. It’s clear he’s not reading it with any significant success. Is this temporary, the way we all often feel before tackling a big text? Does he have some preconceptions about Shakespeare, English and/or learning which are shutting him out? Are his reading skills too undeveloped to make sense of the play? Are there specific strategies or approaches that would help him make sense of what he is reading?
I’ve been reading together with my colleague Karen LaBonte, some of Stanley Fish’s Is there a text in this class? The authority of Interpretive Communities. Fish raises some questions which make me reflect on Josh’s experience. These include:
- Does the language of a text determine its true meaning?
- If not, if meaning is determined by something other than the formal meanings of the words that are used, what explains the meaning a reader gets from a text?
- Is the meaning determined by the norms, values and assumptions agreed upon by the community to which the reader belongs?
- How does the reader of a text progress from one meaning (determined by these ‘interpretive communities’) to a more developed or sophisticated or broader reading?
I’ve probably made it sound dry and theoretical. In fact I found it to be talking about the kinds of issues that English teachers continually come up against. How do we help develop students’ understanding? How do we respond honestly when we know two apparently contradictory things: on the one hand that a student has missed the point in a text, and on the other that there is no determined single interpretation of a text?
[I was also reminded, as I read Fish’s book, of an author I used to love reading when I was working as a psychotherapist: James Hillman. Hillman playfully suggested that books and ideas were alive, that they had an existence independently of the author or thinker. Bion (also a writer in the psychoanalytic tradition) used to talk about ‘thoughts in search of a thinker’. Fish does the same when he talks about ‘norms and values’; it’s not people who hold them, it’s the norms and values which hold the people. I always enjoy texts (fiction and non-fiction) that have a wiff of an animated world!]
But mainly I thought about Josh, locked in his walled city. How might he, or his current teacher, or I – or all three of us, in different ways – help him to get out?
How might he escape the walled city?
Josh’s understanding of Othello is constricted by what he has experienced and what he understands to be the purposes and goals of studying Shakespeare in an educational institution like our school.
Many times, and especially with students like Josh, I’ve sensed a disjunction between what I assume to be the purposes and goals of the English classroom, and what my students assume. I think (but I’m not sure) that when Josh opens Othello at Act 1 Scene 1, he is imagining something like this:
I’m about to start another Shakespeare play. Full of unfamiliar words and strange sentences. I need to understand this, I need to know what’s happening here … because that’s what English is all about, isn’t it, unlocking the meaning, finding the meaning, analysing a text so that you get what the author is saying. And I’m doing this because there’ll be questions somewhere down the track about Othello. They’ll want to know if I know what it’s all about. They’ll want to know if I understand it, if I can analyse a passage and show that I’ve got it. And why is that important? Because if I can do this I’ll get a good mark, I’ll have a sense of achievement, and it will probably make my subsequent studies easier too if I can understand this play now. So I need to understand this beginning, to get off to a good start, and those definitions and explanations down the side of my text are going to be very helpful … though I’ve tried that in the past and I still don’t really get it.
These aren’t my assumptions. If I were his teacher this year, I’d be approaching the teaching of Othello with a different perspective, which would sound something like this:
Can’t wait! Another opportunity to explore the psychology of human interactions, the way power and prejudice play out in our lives. Another opportunity to immerse ourselves in the ways in which rhythms and images in the hands of a master can draw us deeply into already-half-experienced, half-realized aspects of what it is to be human. Great storytellers remind us that the way we experience the world is not unique; that we’re not alone in that sense. English is all about learning more about the nature of the world, and in English we approach this broader task in quite different ways than the historian, the mathematician, the musician, and so on. I need to help Josh experience the language, see the images, understand the emotions and ambitions … and to make lots of different kinds of connections between what he finds in the play and what he has experienced in his life. Much of this will involve him getting out of his seat and involving himself in a piece of theatre.
Fish talks about institutional norms, goals and purposes. I rather suspect that Josh is closer to some generally accepted institutional norms than I am. [I wrote about this in my blog post Play the game!‘]
There’s another way I might explore this.
Fish tells the story of a student asking her teacher, at the beginning of the first class of the year, “Is there a text in this class?’. The teacher assumes that the student is asking “Is there a prescribed textbook that we will need for this course?” It turns out, though, that the student is actually asking, “In this course, are we assuming the existence of a stable text?”, a question which makes perfect sense given that the student had done a previous course in literary theory.
Same words, but with quite different meanings depending on the institutional norms which have hold of the hearer.
Maybe I could explore two versions of the statement: ‘In this class we’re going to study Shakespeare’s Othello.
Josh might hear this statement as meaning ‘In this class we’re going to be looking closely at Shakespeare’s words in order to understand what Shakespeare was meaning.’ This interpretation comes out of his understanding of what school and learning are essentially about; gaining good marks through analysis.
The teacher, on the other hand, might have meant ‘In this class we’re going to be exploring our different readings/responses to a play by Shakespeare in order to understand this complex world we live in a bit better.’ This meaning comes out of an assumption that school and learning are about developing and deepening present understandings about reality, rather than their being merely steps taken to clear the next educational hurdle.