Saturday, August 18, 2012

Unbridled Contempt

Over the summer I've been a part of various workshops and working groups at Drake, in which faculty from multiple departments (and colleges) get together to work on being better teachers and professors all around.

These often require endurance -- some of them are a bit like a college class that lasts all day long, with a sandwich provided and a couple of 5 minute bathroom breaks -- but they're very much worth it. Not only do they dedicate you to working on improving your teaching, but you get to meet and talk to people in other fields, get some insight into their practices and challenges, a fuller picture of what your students are experiencing across the various classrooms that make up their academic world.

But I was not prepared for the unbridled contempt some faculty members in the sciences possess for my discipline entirely.

Contempt, I say, because they seem to think we operate in a universe where there are no rules, standards, or even facts. Unbridled, I say, because they tell you so to your face or in broad public statements, and seem puzzled when you don't happily agree.

The prevailing sentiment seemed to be: you English professors have nothing to say to me, your discipline's work on student writing or critical thinking means nothing to me, because in my discipline "there are wrong answers."

The people who have asserted this view seem unaware of the offense. During one of the workshops, a faculty member asked me to help her with her syllabus. I was glad to do so, until I got to the sentence in which she singled out English majors (not the discipline, the actual students) for ridicule, with an "English majors, your flowery prose is not welcome -- here we value accuracy in language!" sort of line.

As though precision in language were not one of our concerns, as though puffery were something we encouraged, rather than work every day to stamp out.

When I told her that I didn't think it's a good idea to call out a whole group of students like that, she smiled and explained it to me, like I didn't get the joke. 

I genuinely like this person, and it was clear she was not malicious, but simply oblivious to the insult and potential ill-feelings she might evoke with these words. The bias seems to run deep, is persistent, and is resistant to amendment: this week I ran into someone I'd met earlier in the summer at another workshop. She'd made her bias against English known at that time, and I thought the group (and she) had worked past that. But no, just this week she said, directly to me, that her field "isn't English. There are wrong answers."

I feel awful even wanting to say to a colleague the line I must so frequently say to students: just because there is more than one right answer doesn't mean there aren't wrong ones. In fact, the number of wrong answers is infinite, while the number of right answers is limited.

By way of illustration, I offer you a small selection of wrong answers from the world of literature, limiting myself to just one major work:
  • "HAMLET is an exploration of social justice issues from the 14th century." 
  • "When Hamlet and Ophelia get married at the end of the play..."
  • "King Polonius tells Laertes, 'don't go into debt, bro!' "
  • "Shakespeare's focus on women's rights..."
  • "...shows what Shakespeare learned in his college classes..."
  • "The final scene, influenced by the anti-royal sentiments of the French Revolution..."
And this could go on infinitely.

"Right" answers, on the other hand, are limited by the factual reality of the author, his era, and the text-evidenced details of fictional world he created (for example, who is king, what Polonius actually does tell Laertes, and whether or not there is a marriage at the end of the play, or anyone alive to be married). Interpretations may have some latitude, but they must still make sense; they are limited by reason itself. If they are infinite, they are infinite in the way that prime numbers are infinite: not every number is a prime; most numbers, in fact, are not primes. And the higher you go, the longer it takes to find them. It is probable that most of the things you can conceivably say about HAMLET ("Ophelia impaled herself on a unicorn!") are in fact not accurate, reasonable things to say. Right answers are a limited set, tricky in the sense that they are defined by boundaries both absolute (French Revolution) and ambiguous (women's rights), and include things that are both absurd (unicorn) and things just a little bit off from right: "alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well!" is not quite what Hamlet says.

It's not all just about right and wrong, though. There are also, in addition to wrong answers, insufficient answers. This is akin to getting the right final answer on a math test, but not showing any of your work -- to randomly guessing (or just looking up) the precise number of milliliters you must titrate into the solution to get a reaction, without actually performing the experiment. In our discipline, this often takes the form of broad sweeping statements that are not particularly informed, explained, or supported -- statements like, "Hamlet has unresolved issues," or "the play reveals the inefficiencies of monarchy as a system of government" -- these propositions may or may not work out; it depends on where they came from and what you do with them.

If the proposition is the writer's original thought, and is explained with logical reasoning and supported with evidence, it is probably sufficient -- there remains the question of whether the argument holds together and is reasonable, in the end. The point is, these are arguments that can be made, but they must be made sufficiently: informed, explained, supported. The writer must "show the work." A "right" answer, a "sufficient" answer, and certainly a "good" answer in the world of literary interpretation requires a tremendous amount of understanding, creativity, rigor, and work -- many answers can and will be "wrong," "insufficient," and even "bad": this reality in no way conflicts with the coincident fact that there is myriad and diverse answers in each set.

But the statement "there are no wrong answers in English" isn't just insufficient, it's back to the unicorn, just flat out wrong. I just gave an example that had to do with interpreting ideas from a work of literature, which is probably the most "open to opinion" area in English -- but we do a lot more than that, operating in an unbroken spectrum that runs from themes to phonemes, with theories and practices that go back to the beginning of civilization and are still evolving today.

Which brings me to this: when I was an undergraduate, I majored in the hard sciences. I was especially good at organic chemistry, and pictured myself pursuing graduate work in organic or perhaps biochem. I loved difficult problems, I thrived on difficulty. Every class I took made me want to move into something harder, more sophisticated, more advanced.

And then one day I took a poetry class.

And I realized that poetry was the hardest thing I'd ever encountered.

Poems are like formulae that do not begin and end, but instead spiral inwards and outwards simultaneously into worlds of meaning. They are influenced by innumerable mysterious things, sometimes inscrutable, sometimes more clear. They live, like organisms, moving through time and place and human events, and meaning differently in each new environment. Understanding this was the trickiest puzzle I'd ever put my mind to: it was a puzzle that did not end; it was irresistible. I dove into this world and have never stopped encountering mysteries and marvels -- I will never "figure it all out," no one will. But I know that the lack of a single, unambiguous answer doesn't remotely imply that this work is meaningless: to the contrary, to the contrary.

At this point in my life, I am unwilling to dismiss any field of inquiry. A university brings together people with various fields and interests, but none of them is "better than" the others -- and none of them, I should add, is truly "separate from" the others. At bottom we're all philosophers -- lovers of wisdom -- and it is not wise to mock or dismiss things other people love. They may have a very good reason for loving it -- even if it's not a reason that you, at present, fully understand.

Note: I've revised the wording in places and expanded a few sections at the request of friends, but the spirit of the blog post remains unchanged.

1 comment:

Sandy Longhorn said...

You rock, Amy Letter! I didn't even know it, but I needed to read this after the last few days on campus. Many thanks.