A Student’s Plea: ‘Give Me Something Known’

I wanted to tell you that I am scared to death of your class… Give me something known. I don’t know how to read something and figure out the unknown conflicts. I believe what someone tells me. I don’t take hints. If someone wants me to know something they need to tell me. I am not good at reading between the lines. I was never taught in school how to do that. I need help in that area. I don’t always remember everything I read. When I study for a test… I have to recite things in my head 50 times before I remember it. What I am trying to say is I am going to give this class my 100%. I will do my very best. It just might not be THE BEST compared to everyone else. I will need a lot of help. — A student in my American literature survey (A Student’s Plea: ‘Give Me Something Known’ E-Mail)

I was touched by the honesty, passion, and determination in in this student’s plea (excerpted here with permission). During the first class meeting, I tried to emphasize how a college-level literature course differs from a high school English class; I am not looking for papers that accurately summarize major plot events, or essays that spit back at me my own lecture notes.

In a literature course, I am of course trying to teach content; I’d like students to know who F. Scott Fitzgerald is, to recognize why A Streetcar Named Desire struck the right cords at the right time in American culture, to apply the social and spiritual messages in The Secret Life of Bees to their own lives, and to understand some of the major cultural and historical forces that have shaped American culture in the last century (feminism, Freudianism, Marxism, etc.).

In order to have the kind of deep, thoughtful conversations that build communities and lead us to personal revelations, we will of course have to read the darn texts about which we are supposed to be talking. And my student asks a legitimate question… how are we supposed to read literature? Lurking behind that question is a deeper one… why do these authors make their messages so darn hard to decipher? Why don’t they just condense their message down to a few sentences, so that we can read it quickly, think about it, and then move on with our lives?

“Give me something known,” my student writes.

In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot responds to a very similar statement.

Some one said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.

The question is, who knows it? And when and where was it known? For a long time, it was “known” that the Earth is flat, that women have inferior intellects, that the Bible sanctifies slavery, etc. Pythagoras and his followers were greatly troubled by their discovery that the square root of 2 is irrational, because it upset what they “knew” about the cultural function of numbers (to bring order to an otherwise chaotic world).

“I don’t know how to read something and figure out the unknown conflicts. I believe what someone tells me. If someone wants me to know something they need to tell me.”

I have written about Michael Moore in the past; he’s a brilliant filmmaker and political activist. All documentary films persuade a particular point of view, and Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” is a masterpiece. Everyone “knows” that “Bowling for Columbine” refers to the bowling class that the killers attended shortly before their spree. But did they attend bowling class? When challenged, Moore claimed that the reference to bowling in the title was a silly distraction. Perhaps more telling is this… have you heard that George Bush held up a plastic turkey for the TV cameras during his secret trip to Iraq? The Washington Post reported that it was indeed a real turkey, roasted and decorated just the way Grandma would have done it.

A contractor had roasted and primped the turkey to adorn the buffet line, while the 600 soldiers were served from cafeteria-style steam trays, the officials said. They said the bird was not placed there in anticipation of Bush’s stealthy visit, and military sources said a trophy turkey is a standard feature of holiday chow lines.

No reporter ever called the turkey plastic — it was a real cooked bird, but its purpose was decorative. Look at how Michael Moore introduced the subject.

it turns out that big, beautiful turkey of yours was never eaten by the troops! It wasn’t eaten by anyone! That’s because it wasn’t real! It was a STUNT turkey, brought in to look like a real edible turkey for all those great camera angles.

Nowhere does he call the turkey “plastic,” but later he writes that “fake stuffing in the fake bird was just the right symbol for our country” under Bush. While it’s defensible to call the turkey a stunt turkey, it was still a real turkey — not a fake one, just as a stuntman is still a real man. I don’t have any information on whether that stunt turkey was eaten or not, and my guess is that neither does Moore.

Moore could simply have written “Bush sucks,” but anyone can do that; his method of creating a scene, convincing his readers to become enraged at the scene, and then prompting them to come to a particular conclusion is far more effective than the simple expression my student longs for.

I won’t spend any more words writing sweeping romantic generalizations about what literature is, or why the books we study are supposedly great (actually, I choose some that are mediocre; there’s even a complete flop on the syllabus). Neither I nor my students has the resources to determine whether George Bush’s statement X is a lie, or whether Michael Moore’s video clip X is a misrepresentation. We don’t have access to the White House or to Moore’s cutting room floor.

But we can agree to focus on a particular text that is finite and known; F. Scott Fitzgerald isn’t going to write another chapter of “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” anytime soon. We can all read this primary text, which is the complete and total authority of all things relating to the world of “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” and then practice, in a civil and responsible manner, the skills that permit us to compare our interpretations, to probe our disagreements, and to examine the biases and cultural values that condition us to react a particular way to our shared texts.

I can give some practical tips on how to read literature… write notes in the margins; underline unfamiliar words and look them up; read once to get a basic sense of what’s happening, scan looking for patterns and ambiguous areas, and then read again with the intention of testing a thesis. For instance, a few years ago when I re-read Bernice Bobs Her Hair, I noticed a racial thread that was extremely obvious once I started looking for it. (I’ll have to leave that for later, since my class is about to begin.)