Friday, February 27, 2009

Perhaps, Most Likely

I'm not sure if I mentioned on this blog that I've started university. Anyway, I have. I'm taking a linguistics class and an English class.
In my English class, my instructer just criticized me for saying 'most likely' the author of one piece intended it to be interpreted a certain way. He said to state it as a fact, so it will be more convincing.
I'm not going to do that. I think it's wrong to pretend your opinions are facts. I can't read the author's mind, and say what he thought, and to act like I can seems to me to be a violation of that person. I am not Coleridge, Alice Munro, Ursula K LeGuin, etc. I can't know for certain what was in their minds when they wrote the pieces I've read. And I won't pretend that I do.
My professor says that everyone writing academically does this, and that if they didn't, no one would listen to anyone else and the fabric of society would be torn apart. (Yeah, right.) Well, I've read a lot of academic writing, and he's right in saying writing this way is common. So is, I think, the fallacy behind it, where your construction of reality becomes more real to you than reality itself, and you forget that you really don't know for certain that what you are saying is true - in fact, the vital difference between facts and interpretation. It's doesn't appear to be a mere convention used to make a point. People who write that way often act as if they honestly believe they know for certain what is merely conjecture. And I made a promise to myself that I would do my best to avoid being like that.
I'm willing to get slightly lowered marks for that. I don't think it's fair, it makes me very angry, but I'm not going to change anything by throwing a tantrum about it, and I'm not willing to give in either. It's not like I'm going to fail, either - I got 80% on my last essay.
I don't have any idea if I will be able to change this convention. It all depends on whether I become famous or just do my work and do it well with little recognition. But at the very least, I will stick to my principles.


Blogger Lindsay said...

That's kind of a weird objection for your professor to make.

I was similarly careful in my philosophy and literature classes to distinguish between my own interpretations of a text (which I would couch in uncertain language, like you do) and the original author's or other critics' opinions (which I would state plainly --- "Theorist X says Y in Book Z"; "Scholar A thinks B about Author C").

No professor ever marked me down for that.

(Also, a lot of my precautions were made to avoid coming anywhere near plagiarism --- other scholars' work had to be very clearly marked as Not Mine).

2:52 PM  
Blogger Tera said...

See, this is what I don't get about the study of English literature. (Although I've always liked studying English lit). My teachers tried to get me to write about "what the author means"--but on the rare occasions when I actually found a statement by the author that conflicted with what my teachers wanted to see, they told me to ignore it.

For instance: I took a Victorian lit class whose topic was "The Woman Question." One of the books we read was Thomas Hardy's "Jude the Obscure." And we spent lots of time talking about how this novel addressed The Woman Question.

At some point, I found a primary source where Thomas Hardy said something like (paraphrase): "Jude the Obscure" is not about The Woman Question at all and I have no idea why people keep saying it is. So I told my prof, and she said, basically, Don't trust what the author says about their own work.

Which reminded me of a story my high school English lit teacher told me about Hemingway. In one of his books a couple kiss and a dove flies out of the bushes. And Hemingway said, at one point (paraphrase, again): "All these critics think the dove symbolizes peace or love or something. I just wanted to put a dove there."

So it often seems to me like the focus on "what the author is saying" is really "unless what the author is saying conflicts with my pet theory about them."

Personally (and this is probably hypocritical of me), I think just focusing on what an author/creator is saying is way too narrow. I think *a work* (or collection of works) can say lots of very interesting things that its/their creators may not be conscious of.

Film scholar Carol J. Clover has coined the term final girl to label a particular kind of character that's found in a lot of horror movies. This character is female, and the lone survivor of the (male) killer's attack. While I don't know a whole lot about Clover's final girl--I've not read her book Men, Women and Chainsaws yet--I do know that final girls are found lots of different movies made (and played) by lots of different people, and they all have many things in common. Part of the reason why the final girl is so interesting is because she keeps showing up in different people's movies.

6:50 PM  
Blogger Lindsay said...

Tera, I agree that works of literature can take on meanings their authors never intended.

I think a lot of times this grows out of what's happening culturally at the time they were written --- to take your example of Jude the Obscure, Hardy may never have meant to say anything about the Woman Question, but because his Sue has certain things in common with characters in other people's novels that *DID* deal explicitly with that theme, lots of critics lump her into the category of "New Woman" heroines anyway.

Also, that class sounds like it must have been lots of fun.

2:08 PM  
Blogger thinkingdifference said...

i'd go with 'most likely' too. it's a curious comment - but not too removed from the academic discourse (if interested, i blogged on this too:

if you feel this would be an issue in terms of grading, i suggest making an argument for this in the final paper (or in the assignment), either as a footnote or as part of the intro. i'd rely on foucault's discussion of discoursive practices and feminist literature to support my decision to do so.

2:54 PM  
Blogger Anne Corwin said...

Oh wow, that reminds me of when in school a professor kept me after class and yelled at me for asking whether a particular interpretation of the text was his personal interpretation or some kind of academic consensus.

Basically he was interpreting *all kinds* of things as phallic symbols, to the point of ridiculousness. And I was wondering if I was missing something obvious, or whether he was in fact coming up with his own wild theories on the spot. And to think I thought I'd asked politely...heh. He basically said that my question was very rude and that I was "accusing him of being a pervert".

I am just....really glad I majored in engineering and not English. :P

10:24 PM  
Blogger Maya M said...

What about doing what they are asking of you? What is the point of insisting on your principles in a work that will never be read by anybody other than a teacher who disagrees with your principles?
In school, when a teacher and a student disagree, it is the student who gives in. It isn't always right, but it is how education system works.
Teacher and student are not equal, and students do what teacher says.

6:14 AM  
Blogger Ettina said...

"In school, when a teacher and a student disagree, it is the student who gives in. It isn't always right, but it is how education system works."

It's not how it should work, and going along with it only perpetuates it.

10:14 AM  

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