I’ve started a “teaching reading” course–the last one in my Masters program. The first night, we tried to answer the questions: what is interpretation? and what is it we are doing when we interpret? A number of people, in discussing their own experiences, brought up the importance of relevance. But I don’t see relevance as interpretation or theory. Sure, it’s good to get students thinking about how the story echoes their own experiences, but this is another form of context or background for the work. It’s good as far as motivation goes, but doesn’t take students much further into the text. Instead, I see relevance as a doorway that takes you into and out of a text, but the question still remains: after you pass through the door, what do you do once you’re there?

Well, in my experience, once I have students interested (through the door of relevance and, I hope, motivation), I find I’m always trying to balance between three objectives: context, approaches, and freedom. I don’t want to force an interpretation or “right reading” on my students, and yet there are “wrong readings” and–unless we buy New Criticism completely—there is a need for background information that many students just don’t have and can’t bring to the text. For example, if you know nothing about Ibo culture and attempt to understand Things Fall Apart, it’s likely you will make make some “wrong steps” in interpretation. So I do supply context (either through direct instruction or supplemental materials). But I don’t want context to dictate meaning or to imply that any valid interpretation is one based on or tied to the context of the work.

On a related note, many teachers have a problem with “summary.” They complain that students too often merely summarize the information in the text without engaging it. I would argue, though, that summary in itself is not bad and is an essential first step in engaging and interpreting a text. After all, if you don’t have an accurate understanding of what is being said in the first place, you can’t hope to work out an effective interpretation. So I encourage my students to summarize (or perhaps should say allow it because it really is a knee-jerk response). We then check our summaries to make sure we agree on the important “facts” of the text. Once we feel comfortable here, then we move on to interpretation. This practice also builds reading comprehension skills, which the state boards will be happy to know. (You might object: isn’t summary a kind of interpretation? OK, yes. By the act of choosing the “important facts” of a text, I am doing some interpreting already. But you can address this when teaching students to search for and argue from evidence in the text, revising your hypothesis as you go. Summary is a kind of hypothesis from which you work.)

Once we’ve got a basic grasp of the text and start moving into interpretation, I supply specific possible approaches to the text. From what I understand of what we know about the brain and how it learns, meaning comes through connections, and we tend to build upon connections already in place. In other words, we think the way we’re used to thinking. So being presented with and forced to confront unfamiliar ways of reading a text is helpful, and necessary, if we ever hope to escape previous patterns and reinforce the value of constantly seeking multiple perspectives (a key value in a multi-cultural, multi-perspective world).

The objection over intentionality usually comes up as we start working with possible interpretations: did the author really mean that? This is a question that readers wouldn’t ask if they were also writers. You “mean” certain things as an author, of course. What you actually produce in the text may or may not express that original intention–which you, the author, may view as a failure or as a success. In addition, the text will likely express intentions about which you were not aware (at least, not consciously). Robert Bausch said that writing fiction is like “dreaming with your eyes open”–that when an author is doing that thing called writing, she is tapping into the same source as dreams. I don’t want to get too deep into Jungian psychology here, or try to explicate Joseph Campbell’s writing about mythology and dreams, but that’s the idea . Anyway, the short of it is: yes and no. Intention is present, but not all intention is realized. (”The road to hell …”)

At this point, the problem with literal versus symbolic interpretation also pops up. We don’t want to view everything as literal so that the text sits heavy on the ground like a rock, but we don’t want to view everything as symbolic so that the text floats on the wind like a mist. This is where students need to start learning about sfumato and ambiguity: not “either/or” but “both/and.” It’s also where continuity becomes important: there needs to be a link, a continuum, between the literal and the symbolic. And again, if the evidence can support your claims to symbolism without corrupting the literal reading (i.e., breaking the continuum), then why not? After all, things are both literal and symbolic. I give a rose to my girlfriend and it is a literal thing: something she can hold and see and smell, but it is also symbolic of my appreciation of her. We deal with this “both/and” everyday.

Of course, I also want to encourage students to think for themselves, and therefore I try to give them enough freedom to do so. The problem, as I said earlier, is that there are “wrong readings.” So how to allow freedom without encouraging interpretive lunacy? Well, you train them to be scholarly about the text (which, in turn, trains them to be scholarly readers of their world as a whole). In other words, teach them to supply “a preponderance of evidence” to support their interpretation. Which means teaching what “evidence” is and what constitutes a “preponderance,” and then helping them recognize and find ways to incorporate evidence to the contrary. Which often also leads to sfumato, ambiguity, and a reinforcement of why we need and should value multiple perspectives.

All of this work should, I think, end where it began–with relevance. This time, you exit through that door. Text is a kind of dialogue (whether between reader and text, reader and author, both, or whatever). Like any dialogue, you must first strive to understand what the other is saying as clearly as possible, but you are then obligated to respond to that. Otherwise, you’re nothing but a wall. So once we move through interpretation to an understanding, we must then do something with that understanding: support it, argue against it, refine it, apply it to our lives.

That last point is particularly important for me: why read and understand if you don’t apply, don’t act? It’s like cooking a meal and not eating it.

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