The Challenge of a Difficult Text

Over the past few weeks, my tenth grade class has been reading Macbeth and the AP literature class has been reading Heart of Darkness. Both of these are difficult works, and so I’ve been reflecting on the why’s and the how’s of teaching difficult texts. What follows is the first blog entry in which I share some of these reflections.

Several factors go into selecting a text for class. Accessibility is one of the most important. I can choose easily accessible texts, texts that students will quickly understand, texts that are easy. Then we don’t have to use up class time just to make sense of a text. Instead we can figure out how to work with it–incorporating specific details and quotations into classroom discussion, debating interpretive questions, developing essays. These are all important skills, and it’s easier to work on them with relatively accessible texts. The easier texts empower students to enter into the conversation with authority. That’s the theory, at least.

The danger, though, is that the whole experience will feel inauthentic. Consider the following scene:

TEACHER: So you see the cat as a troublemaker. What details support this reading?

SALLY: Well, first of all he enters with a “thump.” It not only makes the kids “jump,” but it also foreshadows the trouble to come.

NICK: That’s right, and when he lets the two things out of the box, they run crazy around the house. They’re real trouble.

TEACHER: Hmm. Yes, Thing 1 and Thing 2 are significant here. I wonder, though, if there’s more to it. As you say, the cat lets them out of the box. Is it possible to see this as a liberation, a positive thing? What exactly do you think Thing 1 and Thing 2 symbolize? Could they symbolize something in the kids that is, figuratively speaking, locked up in the box? By freeing them, the cat is perhaps helping the children to think–and play–outside the box.

SALLY: Yeah, but the kids spend the whole time freaked out by Thing 1 and Thing 2, and in the end, Nick catches them in a net …

What do we make of this scene of instruction? Nick and Sally pick out good supporting details. The teacher opens up an interpretive question. Sally responds with another relevant detail. We’re moving towards a smart, sophisticated reading in which the external conflict between the cat and the kids is reinterpreted as a psychological conflict between superego and id. Cool.

It’s a little like a game–taking an easy text and finding the interpretive possibilities. Some students will find it a fun game, but others may feel like they’re trapped in first grade. This divide would be exasperated in a paper. Some students would spin out sophisticated readings, while others would bog down trying to figure out what I’m looking for. If they’re not ready to make sophisticated interpretive moves, they’ll be stuck with an overly simple text. And even for the students who enjoy the game, it’s still just a game. They may learn something about what they can do with a text, but have they learned anything from the text?

Literary works, and art in general, can help us to think about “big themes” and “important questions”: How should I deal with desires when they are immoral (as in Macbeth) or when an authority figure disapproves of them (as in The Cat in the Hat)? How did idealizations about European civilization come into conflict with the greed and brutality (Heart of Darkness)? How do (stereo)typical ideas about masculinity exert influence on the individual (Macbeth and Heart of Darkness)? When I choose to teach a difficult text, I am not talking about difficulty for the sake of difficulty, but rather difficulty that reflects an author’s complex and complicated insight into these themes and questions. Because such a text provides a wider field for exploration, a challenging text can be more empowering than the challenge of a simple text.

In the following post, I will write about Macbeth as a surprisingly simple story with a seemingly endless variety of elaborations, amplifications, and complications.

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2 thoughts on “The Challenge of a Difficult Text

  1. I love this: “And even for the students who enjoy the game, it’s still just a game. They may learn something about what they can do with a text, but have they learned anything from the text?”

    A game orders a limited number of variables into a kind of symmetry. Symmetry in literature is only useful for the way that it illuminates the wild outgrowths of the text. Kudos to you for asking your students to focus there.

  2. Does it make a difference whether you call it a text or a book? or a story? Some of us like to “do things” with “texts,” and other people read books — and say they don’t like to “read into” those books.

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