Rational & connected

When I instruct freshman college classes in essay-writing, it’s clear to me that few students (usually around 18 years old) have any understanding of what it means to be “rational.” They often believe they are rational thinkers because they are good at math or interested in a scientific discipline or eager to study law, medicine, or economics–all factual and rational pursuits, in their minds, though they tend to think based on gut instinct and social upbringing. I have spent considerable time pondering this reality, which affects my pedagogical approach. In the presidential election cycle years the situation seems especially obvious…and problematic.

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I wonder how much of the gut/emotion-responses’ validation, retroactively, by “rational thinking” evolves from psychology or human nature, and how much from culture. Culture is due to connectedness influences: we want to be identified as part of, or differentiated from, the community of human beings around us. Psychology overlaps with culture; I may be a bit out-of-date, but it seems that the study of psychology tends a little more toward the individual’s nature, even accounting for the “nurture” aspect of individuality, which is culture-based. And people who are US citizens have by and large been raised in a capitalist culture, a form of capitalism spurred to dazzling speed and pushed into far-reaching areas of culture/nurture by our for-profit media system.

The resulting culture flowered into persuasion-based, desire-based “needs.” My students and I are acculturated into seeing and judging, seeing and desiring, and confusing want with need. That approach works for businesses that need to make a profit; they have to make their audiences yearn for products. Gut-based persuasion works better than rational persuasion; ask any marketing campaign designer. Connecting one person’s “need” with the community’s perceived “need” also works.

These urges are not rational approaches to purchasing, budgeting, prioritizing, or voting. If, however, one’s job is to analyze buying trends, examination of the efficacy of such approaches is rational indeed. Thus analysis, any form of analysis, should be scientific and rational and based upon a genuine understanding of human beings–our natures, our connections, our influences. Call it interdisciplinary, or synergistic.

How can analysts learn about the gut instincts and unreliability and cultural natures of their fellow humans? An excellent way is through studying the arts.

Of course, I would end up here.

Sciences, if we consider them rational pursuits not entirely independent of one another–granted, that is another conversation–likewise should not be independent of the arts and humanities. The visual and kinetic arts produce sensations that feel emotional yet which can be critically analyzed, rationally pursued and discussed. Novels inform readers of the vagaries and irrational motivations of the human heart; they tell us about character and culture and urgency. Poems tell us, in ways that science never has been able to elucidate, what feels most true. (See Fiona Sampson’s article in The New Humanist, though I admit she provides a biased view, as she is editor of that journal).

This semester, my students and I will be examining what it means to be rational in an academic argument. Perhaps we will go further than that, but I do not expect to change their hearts.

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Leading the witness

Please forgive me if my recent posts are devoted more to teaching than to poetry, gardening, and speculative philosophical thinking–the semester end approaches, and I am endeavoring to ascertain whether my students have acquired any new knowledge about poetry and literary analysis. There are these supposedly-evaluative items known as “grades” which I must register for the college administration.

Spring and AllSo, exactly what, if anything, have they learned thus far? Considering that for the first few weeks of class I practically had to apply forceps to their vocal chords to get them to speak in class at all, let alone express a thought concerning poetry, most of them have progressed. Only a few students volunteer to answer a question I pose or offer an opinion in response, but when I look one of them in the eye and ask “What do you say?” I now get an answer instead of an embarrassed shrug.

This is headway indeed. Granted, the method I have used to initiate response might more accurately be called “leading the witness,” as opposed to Socratic inquiry. Most college sophomores I’ve met are so stymied by the whole genre of poetry that the classic method of advancing knowledge through inquiry results in nothing but puzzled silence and guessing, most of the time. I soften the approach by suggestions that, I hope, will lead to inference on the student’s side but that do not give away exactly what I am looking for. Because I do not always know, myself, what I am seeking. Because I want, once in awhile, to be surprised and delighted by a student’s inference–usually a point of view I have not previously considered (because I am not 19 and not a literature novice).

One of the things I love most about good poetry is the opportunity to be surprised, and perspective shifts offer the unexpected. I can lead the witness, perhaps, but I cannot lead all 30 witnesses (or whatever number of them happen to be paying enough attention to be led). The student I call on will respond directly and then inspire other, slightly variant, responses from classmates.

A discussion may actually ensue! Oh, joy!

I try to take note of which students seem to be engaging most actively so I can somehow calculate that into the evaluation, but I have not really developed an effective way to indicate the hoped-for “a-ha!” moment into a grade.

Theoretically, grades are objectively based upon a carefully-constructed rubric that reflects what the student knows about the discipline or subject area. I have therefore invented criteria, percentages, and the like for assessment as required by academic best practices–or at least by academic protocol. Having been always a student at seminar-style, narrative-evaluation-based higher education institutions, I admit that I find the typical grading methods disheartening and arbitrary.

Meanwhile, I continue leading the witnesses until the end of the semester.

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By the way: It is April, and once again National Poetry Month. Please, go out and purchase a book of poetry. Or borrow one from the local library. Shout your barbaric yawps into the springtime air!

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Irritation, explanation, interpretation

I had another testy conversation about poetry analysis recently. Hence, this brief explanation, rationale, and license to interpret.

Feeling a mild irritation...

Feeling a mild irritation…

I truly sympathize with people who prefer to avoid any sort of literary analysis; so many times, it is such a badly-taught subject. Nevertheless, it is never a good idea to refuse to learn about something thanks to one or two negative experiences. If that were the case, no one would ever learn to walk (we fell down, we cried, we refused ever to rise up and take another step).

First, let go of the idea that the purpose of literary analysis is to understand exactly what the writer meant. Second, let go of the idea that poetry contains a symbolic hidden meaning.

Instead, recognize the following fairly obvious observations:

1] the poet wrote what he or she meant; the reader can interpret on the reader’s terms.

2] the meaning is in the poem itself.

Poetry is a form of communication, and it is not a detective story. The poet said what he or she said because the poet determined that was the best way to communicate the experience.

Problem: You, the reader, fail to understand the poem. All that means is that you and the poet may be speaking in different terms and that, to you, the poet’s determination of the best way to say what he or she meant does not convey much. Welcome to the world of human interactions.

The reader has choices: turn the page, for example, and ignore the poem. Or read the poem and find its sound or rhythm entertaining. Or read the poem for its summary–the top-line story, if there is one. Or relish the poem’s mood or use of language. Or its images.

Or throw the poem across the room in frustration or anger. Poetry is powerful enough to evoke such responses.

You could also try to examine the poem, look at how the poet uses rhythm or sound or language or image or metaphor or rhyme…you might learn something about how a writer puts a poem together; and even if you do not manage to shoo the “real meaning” out from under a chair, you may be able to come to terms with the poem in your own way.

You are permitted to interpret what the poem means for you.*

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*CAVEAT: This approach may not get you an A on your analysis paper (though it might), but it will serve to enhance your lifelong appreciation of the poetic art.