interpreting the text they give us

Today’s bright and early class was missing a key element: students.

Of the assumedly 18 undergraduates I should have seen looking back me, I had 8.  While I don’t know if this is my total number or simply the group that decided to show up today, I do know that my young adult literature class has been hemorrhaging students for the last two weeks.  Of the 18 who were there for the first class, only 9 returned for the second class, although 9 more showed up, so I broke even.  At the end of the week, however, I started getting very polite emails informing me that this student had decided to take another class and that student had a scheduling conflict, leaving me  – total – with the magical number of 18 students.  Today, however: 8 – and one of them was new.

Who knows: Perhaps an 8am class on a Monday isn’t exactly how they want to start their week. Perhaps they think another class would be more beneficial; as a practical course, they may have determined that “text interpretation” isn’t the skill they need to work on this semester.  Perhaps they think there’s too much reading, although the assigned 5 novels and several chapters likely amount to a lighter load than other classes. Perhaps they think it’s too much work, although three short papers, a discussion activity and an in-class summative assignment is probably on par with other expectations. Perhaps they hadn’t read the book due for today’s class.  Perhaps they aren’t taken with my style of teaching.  Perhaps they aren’t interested in the material.

Of all those possible reasons, I fear it’s a combination of the last two.

I get the sense that most of the students like me, if for not other reason than that they find me rather entertaining.  Perhaps they don’t take me as seriously, since I am apparently a bit more irreverent than they’re used to, but they don’t necessarily dislike me.  However, I suspect I do confuse them, with my strange ways.  I expect them to offer answers to my questions in class, regardless of whether those answers are right.  I have them write in every class, usually in response to the day’s readings.  I ask them to work in groups to talk through questions before we cover them as a whole class.  I answer their questions with questions and rarely give them “the” answer to anything they ask. When you’re used to your teachers telling you what to think – and that seems to be the norm – my constructivist attitude is confusing.

I’m a bit more clear on the fact that they don’t see adolescent literature as a viable topic for study.  Some of them are brave enough to tell me (usually in their writing); others have very transparent faces. This literature isn’t scholarly or academic; it’s something they read for fun in their spare time; it’s easy; it’s for children: how is this class going to help them with their degree if we’re not studying “real” literature.

Case in point: The first day, I have students respond to several questions as an exit ticket, one of which is what I need to know about them to teach them.  One student, who has since dropped the class, wrote the following:

Well, I am not very fond of young adult literature.  I have always preferred classical, universal literature.  But I am not saying that I won’t give it a chance.  And I am a bit afraid of our different perspectives regarding “interpretation” – I mean, I could be misunderstood regarding my views or ideas about the book or that I can’t understand your ideas or your expectations from us.

Second case in point: Today, in discussing our first novel Under the Mesquite, one of the students said that the mesquite could be a symbol and then stopped himself: “Can there be symbols in this type of literature?” to which I responded, “Why wouldn’t there be?” to which he nodded and replied, “That is a good response to my question.”  He thought for a few seconds and then mused, “But when we look up the meaning of different symbols [indicating a reference text for symbols], will those definitions apply to this literature?”

Needless to say, we stopped for a few minutes.  I reaffirmed that they, as readers, got to determine what things meant in a text in this class, while they looked at me very suspiciously.  I reminded them that they had the right, as readers, to make meaning from what they read. I stressed that I didn’t have to agree with what they said, I had to be convinced by what they said, which required them to support whatever answers they offered.  I explained that my job wasn’t to give them the right answer but to poke holes in their answers because, in defending their ideas, they became better readers and interpreters of texts. Then, we chopped that mesquite tree into five different symbols, with me pulling from things they’d already said and them making a case for why their view was the right one.

Did they believe me? Maybe. In the moment, I’d like to think so, but once they leave the classroom, I fear not.  They’ve been taught that there is one right answer and someone more important must give it to them.  They have minds of their own, certainly, and they have insights and ideas and questions – but they’ve been schooled to dismiss what comes from their own minds.

It kills me, it really does.  These are well-educated, thoughtful, intelligent young people with such interesting perspectives. Their response to being pushed out of their comfort zone, however – as one of my colleagues mused recently – is to take the path of least resistance.  They aren’t lazy, by any means, but they aren’t driven to challenge themselves.  They don’t need to: someone else will give them the right answer.

After all this, as we continued our discussion of that prickly, symbolic mesquite tree, one of my female students quietly offered her interpretation [all my female students are quiet, by the way: I’m always asking them to repeat themselves or speak up].  She’d barely finished when a male student jumped in to contradict her conclusion and reaffirm his earlier interpretation.  “Yay!” I thought, “They get it: they can offer more than one idea!” followed closely by, “And from the look she just gave him, she’s pretty sure her idea is the better one. Have at it, kid.”

There’s hope.

2 thoughts on “interpreting the text they give us

  1. This is an interesting post, Melanie, that maybe only those of us who have taught in Romania will really understand (!). I think you are wise and charitable to gently place the blame on the larger structure and not the students, who, I agree with you, are generally bright and engaging. I was wondering, too, do your students at Purdue have similar misgivings about interpreting young adult literature? Thanks for the post.

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    • Eric, I just realised I never responded to your question! I’d say the student response to YA lit back at Purdue is 50/50 but edging toward 75/25. 🙂

      Some of them actually had the opportunity to study adolescent literature in HS, so that helps immensely in broadening their perspective on literary curriculum. Some are cautiously optimistic; they enjoy reading it and wouldn’t it be great if they got to teach it, too. Many respond, though, like my UBB students: rather skeptical if not politely dismissive.

      The difference, in addition to academic expectations, is that I have time to work with my Purdue students, and I just don’t have that here, given the academic scheduling and student attendance. That’s not a complaint – I’m here to experience a difference academic system – but it has certainly challenged me. 🙂

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