I had a wonderful time meeting all of you in class today, during which we reviewed the course syllabus and the general direction this course is expected to take. Besides the course polices, I asked you to begin thinking about this question: “What value does literature of provide?” Basically, I want us to think about what the point of our class is and why literary studies matter. After all, “time is money,” and reading takes up a lot of time.
I noted that the primary focus of most literary scholars (and of upper level English courses) is not simply about how to write better papers. Instead, the study of literature can broadly be thought of as a study of humanity, alongside other disciplines in the humanities like anthropology, archaeology, history, religion, law, linguistics, and the visual arts. Each of these studies of humanity tends to look at different sorts of evidence or look at the same evidence but in different ways. For instance, one of you noted how for art history a particular painting might serve as evidence both of the artistic techniques prevalent when it was created and also of the culture in which the painting was produced. A key difference in literary studies is that the primary focus has traditionally been on textual evidence gleaned from artistic creations such as fiction, poetry, and drama. Today, literary studies may also include related formats that are contemporary developments, such as graphic novels or film.
To begin studying textual evidence, I wrote on the board what appeared to be unintelligible squiggles but were really the unfinished parts of letters. For instance, I left just the dot of an “i” once, but omitted the stem. I asked you to shout out what the meaning of the squiggles were as soon as you figured it out while I slowly finished each of the letters. Before I was finished, the class realized that the squiggles were the words “No vehicles.” What I hoped to highlight in this simple exercise was the key moment when your minds rushed forward to construct meaning from what would still seem to an extraterrestrial being as constituting squiggles on the board. I had not even finished completing all the letters, and your minds were able to supply the meaning. Textual markings cannot provide meaning alone without the ability of readers to use those markings to find meaning.
However, when I added to the text to make it “No vehicles in the park,” we realized that there was more disagreement among the readers of the text about what it meant than we might at first have believed. All of you agreed that a car would be prohibited from being in the park, but the class was divided on whether skateboards would be prohibited. Some of you disagreed that a skateboard counts as a “vehicle,” while others noted that skateboards operate as human transport too and should therefore qualify as a prohibited vehicle. Not only do textual markings require readers in order for meaning to be constructed, but that meaning can change depending on who is doing the reading, even for text as simple as “No vehicles in the park.”
I then asked you to consider the intent of a hypothetical author, a Kalamazoo politician who sponsored the fictional ordinance. I asked what the text meant if you found out that the politician pushed the ordinance forward after a pack of rogue skateboarders rode through the park knocking down pedestrians. In response, the politician urged for there to be “no vehicles in the park.” Consequently, some of you were more inclined to count a skateboard as a vehicle, given that history, although some of you still thought perhaps the ordinance could have been worded better. I then asked if the meaning would change if the ordinance was passed after a person on a golf cart ran over a skateboarder in the park, prompting the prohibition of “no vehicles in the park.” In that hypothetical, it seemed clearer that skateboards did not count as vehicles. Hence, the meaning of a given text might change depending on our knowledge of the intent of the author.
I then drew on the board this: Author –> Text <– Reader. Both the author and the reader can have an impact on the meaning of the text. However, it is debatable how much of an impact they should have. Some scholars have declared that “the author is dead” and that the intent or the biographical details of the author should have little impact on the text’s meaning. Others might disagree and argue that the author and the culture in which the author produced the work is more important than the reader. After all, the reader may be living centuries or even thousands of years after the work was created. If our intent is to consider what a given work suggests about the culture that produced it, we may want to minimize the bias that a modern reader brings to the text. Still others, such as certain legal scholars, disclaim both authors and readers, arguing that the text itself should govern according to its “plain meaning,” with the reader’s individual perspective being minimized to the greatest extent possible.
I then asked you to consider how the values of everyone involved might affect these interpretations. For instance, a 1920 male reviewer of Edith Wharton’s masterpiece, The Age of Innocence, might harbor conscious or unconscious sexist views about women that could negatively affect his interpretation of the work of a woman. Conversely, feminist scholars studying the work after the 1960s may reach a quite different interpretation on the quality and meaning of Wharton’s work. Throughout this dance between author, texts, and reader, I asked you to think about how explicit or implicit values might affect the interpretation of the text.
Conversely, I also asked you to consider how interpreting a text can impact the values held generally in society. As an example, I mentioned the literature that came out around the early 1900s that highlighted the plight of the working class and the deplorable working conditions prevalent in factories. These works of literature helped lead up to later legal efforts to provide financial and physical protections for workers.
How do values impact interpretation, and how does interpretation impact our values?
Returning to the central question, I would like you to continue thinking about what the value is in studying literature. We will continue discussing that question while considering the relationship that the author, the reader, and society all have to a given text. We will also be considering how texts can help construct value, and how values are served by constructing texts.
For next class, you will need to complete the readings on the course calendar. Please note that the readings will be almost 50 pages. While not as much reading as you may need to do in upper level courses, you should still set aside some time to complete the readings prior to our class next Tuesday. As part of those readings, you should also write your first reading journal entry pursuant to the assignment sheet that will posted on the course calendar shortly. Hopefully, the readings will be helpful, as they largely consist of general introductory discussions on literature in general and, separately, on fiction, poetry, and drama as distinct considerations. Please do not hesitate to contact me via email if the reading journal assignment sheet is unclear and you feel you need further guidance.
Once again, thank you for what was a very interesting first class!