English 320: The Short Story

Lyman Baker, Instructor

About this course

"Why this course?" For some of you, the first thing that will come to mind may be something like, "Well, it fulfills a humanities requirement in the degree program I'm enrolled in." For others, perhaps it's "I like reading fiction, and I thought it might be fun to get acquainted with some stuff I've never heard of." These answers aren't mutually exclusive, of course. For some of you, both will apply. In any case, they're both answers to the same question - How did I end up in here? And that's one of the things - "What motives brought you here?" - we might mean by the formula "Why this course?"

But there's another thing we might be asking under that same form of words: "What is the purpose of this course?" What it is designed to do? And how does it set about getting that done? Why is it that the course is the way it is?

It's these questions - one of them about ends, the other about means - that I want to say something about, here at the outset. When I'm done, you'll be in a better position to ask yourself whether this course really suits your reasons for enrolling (or staying enrolled) in it.

Goals of the course

Let's take up the question of ends first.

Here we need to make a distinction between central purposes and peripheral ones. Some disclaimers are in order. Reading sophisticated fiction competently is a deep pleasure. Learning to read such fiction competently can be fun, too. But it can also be frustrating at times. And in the context of an academic course in which grades are at stake, it can be charged with a good deal of anxiety that isn't fun at all. Our central goal in this course is not to afford you pleasurable experiences in reading; it is rather to increase your competence in reading a fairly wide range of types of sophisticated works of literature. That is, the course aims to put you on a better footing for deriving appropriate pleasure from reading literary works. But it does not aim directly at affording you a good time (and certainly not an easy one) either in class or in your reading in preparation for class. Of course it is possible and desirable for these assignments and discussions in class to turn out to be enjoyable (I promise to do what I can to help this to happen), and when they do, that's great. But that is peripheral, not central to the purposes of this course.

The same needs to be said for what is another justification for reading literature in the first place: a broader experience with human possibilities, a wider and deeper capacity for understanding other people and other ways of life, and an acquaintance with the remarkable minds that were driven to produce the visions conveyed in great works. I would be very surprised if, at the end of the course, you were not able to say you enjoyed something of these important benefits! But I want to stress that these rewards are incidental to the central aim of the course.

What then is at stake, given the fact that the central goal of the course is to increase your competence in reading a wide variety of types of sophisticated works of literature? By "competence" here I mean "a repertoire of appropriate moves for making sense of" the particular work one is confronted with. By "a fairly wide variety of types" of literary works I mean a range of "realistic" and "non-realistic" works. As we'll see, such works can turn up in prose, poetry or drama. And although we will be studying works in all three of these genres, the differences among them as such will not be of primary concern to us. Rather, we will be interested in getting a feel for differences among works that aim at "circumstantial realism" and those that aim to achieve one or another "psychological realism." We'll be looking to see how these works require different behaviors on the part of the reader, and how these in turn differ in some ways from the agendas of curiosity presupposed by "visionary" and "surrealistic" works, including fables, parables and other allegorical ventures.

Here, to whet your curiosity, are a couple of terse examples. The first is an instance of (one kind of) "realistic" work.

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

As the cat
climbed over
the top of
the jamcloset
first the right
then the hind
stepped down
into the pit
of the empty
And now for something completely different. Here's a piece that strikes us pretty quickly as weird. We might characterize it as "surrealistic."
Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

They were given the choice between becoming kings or the couriers of kings. In the manner of children, they all wanted to be couriers. As a result, there are only couriers. They rush through the world shouting to each other messages that, since there are no kings, have become meaningless. Gladly would they put an end to their miserable existence, but they dare not, because of their oaths of service.

In important ways, these two works cannot be profitably "gone at" in the same ways. They won't, we sense, open up to the same set of keys. They invite different sets of moves on the part of the reader. They puzzle us in different ways, and expect us to pursue these different "curiosities" - intellectual and imaginative and emotional - along different paths. And the result, we suspect, is that they will afford us different sorts of gratification.

It's as if the authors of these works were up to different "games" that they were offering to play with the reader - just as we might meet someone out at the rec-complex who was looking for someone to play a 2-on-2 game of basketball and someone else hoping to pick up a partner in a wallyball or racquetball match. To the degree we knew how to play all of these games, we'd feel comfortable taking up whichever offer we pleased. And knowing how to play any one of them is nothing more, in the end, than having at our disposal the corresponding "repertoire of moves" - the ability to know what situation one is in (within the "universe" of the game at any given moment), and the disposition to respond in some one of the called-for ways. If yesterday you were playing center forward in field hockey and today you're playing right fullback in soccer, it's still the same "you," of course, but you've taken on different roles.

This analogy - between being able to play a variety of athletic games and being able to read well a wide range of radically different kinds of materials (within, among others, the domain of literature) - turns out to be illuminating in lots of respects. And as it happens, the analogy breaks down at certain points that turn out to be illuminating, too. This is a good place to spell out some of the more important of these similarities and differences.

For one thing, it turns out to be as misleading to speak of "what the competent reader is" as it is to try to talk of "what the defining behaviors of the athlete as such are." Of course there are highly general things that can be said to be required of all reasonably good athletes: they should be alert, in condition, co-operative with teammates (in non-solo sports), etc. And one can say of good readers that they are attentive, imaginative, disposed to check their hypotheses against the actual details of the work, etc. But these observations are not very useful, to say the least, in helping us improve our actual athletic or reading skills. For that we need to get acquainted with the demands of particular sports and kinds of works. And this is because playing a game (or, in many games, playing a particular role in a game) is a matter of undertaking the appropriate particular move in a particular sort of situation. The same goes for coming to terms with a given work of literature. The job is to become the particular sort of reader demanded by the work at hand.

Here's another important point of similarity: since performing in sports and reading different kinds of writing are activities (processes), they are by their very nature learnable by people with ordinary human capacities. To be sure, not everybody can be Michael Jordan or Pele or Richard Gilman or Harold Bloom.[1] But those of us who aren't physically handicapped (and many who are), or sufferers from Downs Syndrome, can learn to hold up our end of the stick quite decently in pickup games in any number of sports. And we can all develop the skills it takes to make reasonable sense of philosophical essays, historical analyses, technical reports and all sorts of highly sophisticated works of literature.

It's worth pausing a moment to note that what I've just said contradicts what many students believe. In 30 years of teaching I have run across thousands of folks who are firmly convinced that academic intelligence is highly specific in its particular varieties, and that it is distributed among individuals in quite idiosyncratic ways. People somehow believe they "weren't there when math brain was handed out," or that, while they are quite good a solving calculus problems, they are inherently inept when it comes to getting the point in poetry. In fact, though, anyone who can catch on to chemistry can catch on to Shakespeare or Donne (and hence construct a respectable picture of late pre-modern European culture) - just as anyone who can play a decent game of basketball can learn to play a decent came of tennis. The skills, in "intellectual" work,[2] are definitely activity-specific. But the intelligence necessary to acquire and use those skills is quite general, and native to the species. The same goes for the abstract capacity to acquire the moves called upon by any particular physical sport or instrumental manipulation (musical or practical): it is built into the human frame.

To repeat: (1) Nobody is born with the moves. (2) The moves have to be learned. (3) With certain overwhelmingly rare exceptions, the moves can be learned by anyone.

How does one learn moves? Pure trial and error has a place, but it's far smaller than one might think. Largely, and most efficiently, we learn moves by imitation: we pick up the moves by watching competent performances. This obviously makes sense with activities that are culturally mediated - for example, games and other social practices that are already going on when any particular individual arrives on the scene. It makes no more sense for someone today to undertake to discover calculus for himself than to re-invent the wheel.[3] And even more efficient than just watching others perform tasks they have learned to do well is to go get some coaching. A coach is someone who can demonstrate moves on demand, who will repeat them, point them out explicitly, break them down into their constituent moves, demonstrate how they co-ordinate with other moves to constitute more comprehensive moves, explain their point, set useful tasks for getting you to rehearse certain moves, give you pointers on your performance, etc.

Most learning, in fact, takes place under coaching, though most coaching is also informal. You probably learned to drive a car this way. Your repertoire of card games probably didn't come from a book, still less from a classroom, and certainly you didn't invent it. And this is how, in our culture, one learns to make sense of (as distinct from playing) athletic contests. You go along with friends or relatives and listen to the conversations they have during the course of the game and afterwards. Occasionally you break in with a question and get an answer. If you express an interest, someone will give you pointers by way of a running commentary. If nothing else you can bring along a radio and listen to an on-going mixture of reportage and interpretation. If you had grown up in Italy, that's how you would have learned to appreciate soccer and opera.

One learns by doing, yes, but first one sees what is to be done, and what the point of doing it is.

But here is a point at which our analogy breaks down in a way that is illuminating for correctly interpreting the frustrations you will undoubtedly experience in this course. What is it to "see what is to be done?" How does one do that? And how does that relate to what else one has to do in order to develop a competence? The answer is not the same for mental activities as it is for other sorts.

Let's imagine a series of activities: playing the piano, playing tight end in a game of American football, watching a football contest, swimming the crawl stroke, driving a car, solving a pair of linear equations sharing two unknowns, and making sense of Kafka's "Couriers."

Of these, by far the most complicated is watching the football contest, at least if we mean by "watching" it appreciating it.[4] Yet this is a competence that millions of people have picked up in their spare time, almost without thinking about it. At the same time, we can be sure that anyone who's playing tight end has had plenty of experience in watching football games: otherwise he would have no idea of what the point of his role as tight end is.[5](Nor would he be able to figure out the point of the position if he were to focus all of his attention as a spectator on examining the physical movements of tight ends.) We also know that just watching a lot of football games will not turn one into a good tight end. There is a lot of painful (though rewarding) effort of a quite different sort involved: wind-sprints, weight training, getting one's head rung by experienced defensive tackles and one's kidney's bruised by linebackers and safeties. And of a different order still is the frustration of failing to execute one's part in all sorts of plays, in practice and in games, or of executing well and seeing the play fail for lack of a teammate's good execution, or of the team's executing well but just being whupped by a superior team.

These points are obvious, but they have some not-so-obvious implications.

1. Discerning the moves

Learning to swim the crawl stroke, to drive a car, or to play the piano share something with learning to play tight end that sets all of these off from learning to watch a football contest or to make sense of a piece like Kafka's little parable or to solve algebra problems. Remember the question we began with: how does someone who wants to pick up the moves that make up competence in these activities find out what the moves are? In athletics, playing musical instruments, and operating machinery, the mentor's moves[6] are there directly to behold. That's because the moves are accomplished in the medium of the body. The coach can thus easily point to whatever moves he wishes to draw the student's attention to, and the student will have no difficulty in seeing exactly what it is that's being pointed to.

The case is quite otherwise with making sense of a story (or sales report) or with solving algebraic problems (or deciding whether to get married). The patterns of moves that make up such intellectual tasks are carried on independently of overt bodily movements. We can watch a person read or solve an algebra problem or reach certain decisions without ever witnessing the processes we would need to be privy to if we are to learn from our watching. To "get" a move from a competent practitioner, we have to infer it - construct it for ourselves in our imagination  - on the basis of some overt clues . These will typically be in the form of discourse: some remark the person makes on the basis of what he has thought  - some inference on the basis of his reading or the announcement of what he thinks is the solution to the problem.
Now it sometime happens that a person acts as a coach from his own performance, and describes a sequence of moves he made, but usually this happens when we have asked the person why he made some remark he did. But even when it does, we usually still have to infer a great deal about the assumptions from which he was working and about additional inferences he made beyond the ones he happens to make explicit to us.

Yet it's crucial to realize that, in the ordinary case, even coaches of these invisible activities don't describe the moves they have made. At most they re-enact them, or justify them, or point out some consequence of them. But usually they just talk about the matter under discussion - the poem, or the problem or issue at hand - in a presumably competent way. That is, they don't talk about the moves they have made. They just do the moves "in" or "behind" or "prior to" what they say. It is up to us to infer on that basis what moves are they must have made in order to be talking about the matter at hand in that way.[7]

In other words, we have imaginatively to construct the invisible playing field on which our performer is playing and the moves he is enacting upon it. All this we must do before we can rip off any of our mentor's moves and try them on for ourselves!

Let's look briefly at how this works. Here, for example Michael Meyer (the editor of one excellent and widely-used introduction to literature text), has to say (An Introduction to Literature, 3rd Edition, pp. 645-6) about Williams's little poem:

Images give us the physical world to experience in our imaginations. Some poems, like [Williams's], are written to do just that: they make no comment about what they describe. . . . This poem defies paraphrase because it is all an image of agile movement. No statement is made about the movement; the title, "Poem" - really no title - signals Williams's refusal to comment on the movements. To impose a meaning on the poem, we'd probably have to knock over the flowerpot.

We experience the image in Williams's "Poem" more clearly because of how the sentence is organized into lines and groups of lines, or stanzas. Consider how differently the sentence is read if it is arranged as prose.

As the cat climbed over the top of the jamcloset, first the right forefoot carefully then the hind stepped down into the pit of the empty flowerpot.

The poem's line and stanza division transforms what is essentially an awkward prose sentence into a rhythmic verbal picture. Especially when the poem is read aloud, this line and stanza division allows us to feel the image we see. Even the lack of a period at the end suggests that the cat is only pausing.

There is a whole host of moves we can infer behind these observations. Here are some of them.

(1) Meyer has noticed a number of features of the poem that might pass a less experienced reader of poetry by. A number of these are pointed to by what we recognize as a special vocabulary evidently developed, in the course of history, for referring to aspects that, depending on how they vary in a particular case, can, together with others, work to produce certain effects.[8] Some of these - "image," "comment," "paraphrase" - we probably recognize from general discourse, although we sense that among them may be some (for example, the first and possibly even the second) are being used with different commitments (content, implications) than when we use them in ordinary talk. Others - "line and stanza division" - we figure we won't meet with outside of quite particular sorts of discussions.

(2) Some of these, taken together, have led him to suspend one kind of standing presumption that he, as a reader, brings to a work: that it is designed to convey, implicitly if not explicitly, some larger observation or insight.. He concludes that, in this case, is otherwise quite appropriate expectation is out of place, and that we have to set it aside if we are to tune in to what this particular work is undertaking to make available to us.

In this case, this seems to be to invite us to "see" something in a particularly vivid way - a way that goes beyond the visual to the physically "rhythmic" qualities of the cat's motion with respect to the objects in the scene. His comments invite us to reread the poem, focusing our attention on (and perhaps even imagining ourselves into, "identifying with") the particular muscular stretchings and placements, the combination of the deliberate and the apparently spontaneous, a kind of molasses-like flowing over of the body from one level and position into another, the simultaneous sense of flowing motion and inner collectedness of this cat.

(3) To explore what is at stake in something's being the way it is in some particular respect - why the spark plug gap is just the way it is, why the knob on grandmother's radio is set in the position it happens to be, what ripples of relationships are set loose by a particular choice of word at a particular moment in a poem - we meddle, and see what happens. Meyer does this here when he calls attention to the particular qualities of Williams's deliberate but deftly unobtrusive care in handling the line and stanza divisions in "Poem," by imagining an alternative way of "saying the same thing," and checking to see how the effects of the two ways are different. This brings into focus for our further inspection striking (but formerly perhaps "invisible" or at least "fuzzy") effects built into the poem as in fact it is. These have to do with the way the forward-pushing sense of the sentence, draped over the line and stanza divisions Williams has settled on, has, at precisely chosen junctures, to "spill over" the line and stanza units the divisions define - paralleling the way in which the cat's limbs extend and descend and set themselves in the course of the action that constitutes the sense of that sentence. We are subtly drawn into empathetically performing, in ourselves, a series of flowings and pauses corresponding to those of the cat.

But - and here is the crux - we cannot expect to find the move itself in the content of the remarks of the person to whose discourse we are attending. Moves are conveyed in the relationships between what is said, clause to clause, sentence to sentence, sentence-cluster to sentence-cluster, and so on until the discourse (conversational remarks or printed essay) ceases.[9] Meyer is not telling us what to do in order to appreciate "Poem." He is showing us (part of) what doing that is by doing it. Our job is to execute a kind of double vision: we have to keep our eye on what he is saying (about the poem) and simultaneously catch on to what he is doing in saying that and what he must have done as a condition of being able to do that.

In other words, your job in this course is not to collect observations about particular works of literature. It will be a waste of your time to record what you read and what gets said in class with a view to recalling it for regurgitation on exams. Rather the job is to pick up and be able to go through different sets of moves that are appropriate when one is confronted with works of literature of various types. It will indeed make sense to highlight certain things you read in our main text or in the handouts distributed in class, and to take notes on what gets said in class. But the point of doing this is not to record points for memorization. It is to retain a trace of some series of moves made on this or that occasion in which someone (Meyer, myself, another student, some critic, yourself) is engaged in the activity of constructing the sense of some work we are exploiting as a specimen.
What would be a sign that a student has caught on to this task? Well, having noticed the move I described in (3), above, it might occur to an experienced student to try out the same generic strategy with some other features of the poem. She might then pose the following couple of questions: (a) What would happen (or not happen) if, instead of "flowerpot" in the last line of "Poem," we had something like "garden pot" or "cardboard box"? (b) What's the difference between what Williams has given us (on the left) and something like what we could contrive (on the right):
As the cat climbed The cat
climbed over climbed
the top of over the top
the jamcloset of the jamcloset.
first the right It put first the right
forefoot forefoot
carefully carefully
then the hind, then the hind,
stepped down as it stepped down
into the pit of into the pit of
the empty the empty
flowerpot flowerpot

That is, what is the effect Williams gets by assigning agents to actions as he does in "Poem"? A student who asks such questions on the basis of Meyer's remarks is not only on to something about the poem. She's up to something that's on-target with the goals of the course: she's trying to make Meyer's move her own by adapting it to novel circumstances.[10]

Of course, when we have a live coach at hand rather than just a model, we have the opportunity to ask questions. And if we don't ask specific questions about how the coach was led to say this-or-that about the matter at hand, then we are not really interested in learning how to make the moves. We forgo the opportunity to turn a monologue into a conversation, and to get the actor to clarify the acts behind his pronouncements. We pass up the chance to get the coach to spell out and explain the justification (grounds and point) of the inferences he has made, and to judge and challenge the adequacy of those moves. (If we do this in the context of a formal course in an academic institution, we need to ask ourselves why we are paying good money to enroll in the course.)

2. Grasping the task as a whole, and its payoffs.

But if it's harder to see what the moves are to take on with purely mental tasks than with those that require physical enactment, it's even more difficult, in advance, to appreciate their point and purpose.

Think again about playing tight end, swimming, driving a car, playing the piano. People who undertake to learn these skills usually have a pretty good idea in advance of both of what the overall activity "looks like," and of what being able to do it for oneself would open up for one. You don't have to explain to an American teenager how his life would be enhanced by being able to drive: he knows that quite well before he ever undertakes to learn how to drive. And while he is learning to drive, he already has a decent conception of how the various sub-moves that driving embraces (braking, operating the clutch and gearshift lever, flipping the turn indicator, steering, accelerating) come together, co-operate, co-ordinate to accomplish some more comprehensive sub-move (turning a corner). The point is that these smaller sub-moves are all understood - even by the learner - as situated in an overall context that makes them intelligible even before one can do them individually or co-ordinate them in one's own activity.

Recall what we said before about how playing tight end presupposes competence in analyzing football contests as a whole, i.e., competence as a spectator of the sport - how a player would not even understand the roles of his particular position within the game if he did not have a comprehensive understanding of the game overall. This prior "bird's eye view" of the activity to be learned there for the learning musician and swimmer, too. That's why the Red Cross can break up the task of coaching a new swimmer into discrete units for separate and serial rehearsal, without running the risk that learners will find the piecemeal drills senseless while they do them. First we practice getting our face wet. Then we learn to float prone. Next we take up the arm stroke, on land, then standing in the water. Then we add it to the prone float. After that the flutter kick - on land, in the water holding the hand rail, then hanging on to a piece of Styrofoam, and finally with the prone float. Then we add the arm stroke. After that come the breathing techniques, etc.

All the time the learner is practicing these separate modules of sub-moves that go up to make up the stroke as a whole, she is conscious of their role within the overall activity of swimming the crawl as a whole. But imagine what must be the case for the rare swimming pupil who happens to be blind. When he is asked, for example, to practice getting his face wet, he has no conception in advance of where the whole process of rehearsal is leading. After learning to float, what is the sense of getting out of the water and moving one's arms in the overhand pattern? What is the configuration of the overall complex of activity within which each of the sub-moves he is asked to master is supposed, eventually, to fit?

After all, in swimming the crawl, we do a whole bunch of things simultaneously. We stroke with our arms as we lie prone on the water's surface and kick, all the while moving our head sideways and down, taking a breath of air and then expelling it under water. We don't, as in learning, do these things in series, one after the other. There is, in other words, a particular structure that unites all of these constituent moves in a definite way. Until we "get it together" in this overall pattern, we don't have it. And, for the blind person, this means that he doesn't have a conception the activity he's set out to learn how to do until he's actually done it himself .

Clearly this is a huge disadvantage. Unlike the learner with sight, the blind would-be swimmer has to take it on faith that the individual sub-tasks he is rehearsing will eventually come together in something worthwhile. After all, none of the sub-moves is worth anything in itself. In isolation from all the others, outside of proper articulation with each other within the overall pattern, each is pointless and impotent - witless and boring. The temptation is much greater to discouragement. Each element of the whole, encountered in abstraction from a prior conception of the whole, invites the exasperated challenge: "So what?"

But this is not unlike what it feels like as we try to pick up on mental activities. Since these activities don't express themselves directly in overt bodily enactments, we don't come to the learning of them with an already formed notion of what they consist in as a whole. So even when we've picked up on some move, we often haven't picked up on the one's that go along with it to accomplish some intelligible overall performance. And not having a grasp of this larger whole, we can be left wondering whether what we spotted going on was in fact a move after all.

Worse yet, we are likely to have only the vaguest notion - or no notion at all - of what the carrying out of such activities result in: of what they do for us, what their point and purpose is. No one has to explain to us how our life would be enhanced if we were to learn how to play the piano, or fly an airplane, or skate on ice. We can witness people having fun doing these things and easily imagine a good deal of what being able to do them would open up for us.

But what about formulating and solving algebra problems, or making sense of objects like Kafka's "Couriers"? What can these do for us? The answer can only be had when we know how to do these things, not before. Hence deciding to learn how to do such things involves a rather large act of faith. It's not just that we have to believe that we can succeed (as discussed in Appendix II). It's that we cannot know in advance why we should take up these tasks in the first place.[11]

Now in the case of literature, we are not in altogether so bad a predicament as we might be. All of us enjoy movies - something that would be impossible if they were nothing but baffling to us. And we've been dealing with stories from way before we learned how to read. So in fact we already know a good deal, in a general way, of what engaging with literature is like and what it issues in, even if we haven't reflected on these matters in any persistent way.

Still, many of the works with which we will be practicing in this course will initially be baffling. This may be true even for some works that we could place within one or another "realist" tradition (supposedly concerned with "familiar experience"). Williams's "Poem" is a case in point. Moreover, even those that yield up much to the repertoires of engagement we're already practiced in will repay our trying to interrogate them in novel ways. And whenever we venture into new territory, we will be investing our energies (and suffering our frustrations) without any clear idea in advance of what the worth of learning how to do this might be.

3. Mastering the task.

There's one other crucial difference between exclusively mental tasks and those activities enacted through movement of our limbs. This one, though, should cause us to take heart.

We alluded earlier to the immense investment in physical effort and even pain that anyone who wants to learn a sport must be willing to make. This gives rise to its own stock of frustration, which is further compounded when it's the job of your opponent to make life more difficult for you, and more yet when the sport is a contact sport. Pianists, flautists, guitarists: all have to spend hours doing repetitive exercises, which can be terribly boring in themselves. And everyone who learned to operate a stick shift has been through the clutziness of stalling the car in the middle of an intersection.

The chief problem in mastering bodily activities is that knowing what the moves are is not enough. We have to get our bodies actually to make the moves. And not only are our limbs not in the habit. Often they are simply not up to it. We have to do here with the problem of physical recalcitrance  - the positive resistance our bodies offer to our wish to make them behave in novel ways.

Hence the training regimens of windsprints and weights, finger drills, practicing parallel parking over and over. Someone once asked the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker how he learned to do his wonderful stuff. "Well," he said, "first you learn to do all the scales. They you learn to play all the tunes. Then you learn to play all the tunes in all the scales. Then, "he said, "you forget about all that." But, of course, many who set out to learn to play a musical instrument - even without the dream of becoming a Charlie Parker - quit before long, out of the boredom and frustration that must be gone through before they can play well enough to have any fun.

In mastering mental tasks, we get to skip all of this drudgery just to get in shape to do what we discover must be done. Since basic competence requires no physical dexterity or limberness, no strength and endurance, we get to dispense with painful stretching, exhausting sessions with the weights, and dry heaves at the end of the track. Indeed, implicit in what we've already said about picking up moves by "watching" others carry them out, is the fact that, with mental moves (but not with physical moves), seeing the move cannot be accomplished apart from doing it. If we can see what the move is, we have already, by way of some sort of intellectual empathy, performed it in our own right, along with the mentor.[12]

So here's how things stand. With physical tasks (no matter how complex), it's easy to see the moves, and how they fit together into a meaningful whole, and what the ulterior rewards are of the task itself. What's hard is to internalize the moves, to make them a part of one's second nature: to master the task is to collaborate in getting it to master one's own body. But with novel mental tasks (sometimes even fairly simple ones), it's often at first hard to see what the moves are, how they fit together with others to constitute an overall strategy to some purpose, and what the rewards of accomplishing that purpose can be. On the other hand, once the move is seen, it's already been accomplished by the learner, and is ready to be experimented with on new occasions. And in doing this the learner will never confront resistances comparable to those presented by a body that has not yet been brought into appropriate physical condition.

This means the sources of frustration and defeat in the learning of bodily and mental tasks are differently located. Particularly in the case of mental tasks, its easy for the learner to take on an extra and unnecessary load of exasperation - at himself, for his bafflement at what he's being asked to do, or at the teacher for not explaining it clearly enough. Why can't I see what's going on, as I can with basketball? Because it's strictly speaking invisible: it's not going on in the talk that constitutes class discussion, but as is were "behind" or "through" it. Why isn't the instructor telling me what I should be doing, by spelling out it out clearly? Because it's best conveyed not by describing it but by demonstrating it, that is, by just doing it. Why can other people see what's going on? It's not because they were born with some special faculty that I lack - a "third eye," as it were, that picks up on "meanings." We've all got the same equipment, and they've just caught on to how to put it in gear in the task at hand. With mental activities, catching on can be a struggle, and when it is - even when others seem to have gotten over the hump - it's no reflection on one's intellectual talents. We should just keep a lookin', because once we finally have seen the move, making it our own can be a breeze. That's why in learning how to do "intellectual" work, progress tends to go in spurts: we seem to get nowhere for the longest time, and then suddenly we take off in a big jump.

What we'll be doing in the course

So much for the ends of the course, and the problems we have to be prepared to confront because of them. With them in mind we should be able to understand the reason for being of certain features of this course.


(1) In selecting our readings, I have sought to provide a representative range of works that expect different agendas of curiosity on the part of the reader - different sorts of "realist" and "surrealist" works.

(2) In arranging them, I have tried to exploit as much as possible the advantages of contrast rather than sustained continuity. Hence, rather than building a systematic and comprehensive picture of "realisms" and then marching through a strict classification of "surrealisms," I have designed a sequence in which we can skip back and forth between works (or pairs of works) of these two general kinds. You should always be looking for the rationale that governs the sequence by which we move from work to work. Sometimes there will be a thematic connection behind stylistic or formal divergence; sometimes it will turn out that important parts of your building repertoire of moves will pay off in addressing works of radically different spirit. Sometimes we will take the opportunity to explore the grotesque results that would turn out if we were to push through with one work ways of interpretation that are on target with another, and vice versa.

(3) In general, the works we will take up, whether extended or brief, are fairly sophisticated. Even when they work within conventions with which you are likely already to be familiar, they presuppose a reader who is more actively engaged and open to challenge than marketers of popular fiction imaging their target audience is willing to be. If we rely exclusively on the readerly moves we are already practiced in, then (depending on how sophisticated and various they already are) we will end up rehearsing habits of superficiality.

(4) If our aim were to familiarize you with as many different great works and authors as we could cover within the confines of a semester, our list of readings would have to be far longer than what it is. But this would be to run counter to the central purpose of this course, because it would pressure students to rehearse the habits that condemn them to reading sophisticated works superficially. Given our ends, it is important that we read intensively rather than extensively. I have therefore designed the course to enable us to go deeply into a limited number of works.

But if this feature of the course is really to pay off, it is essential that students be willing to read the assignments several times, and that in their subsequent readings, they seek to press novel questions beyond the first possible answer that happens to occur to them.

In the classroom

Learning to read intensively also means that, in class discussions, and in studying interpretive commentary by critics we read along the way, students must extend an important kind of patience. This will be easier to if you keep in mind certain crucial distinctions among four closely related but importantly distinct things: (a) reading a sophisticated work with appropriate competence; (b) talking in an adequate way about what one has provisionally turned up in one's (more or less competent) reading; (c) coaching others in reading sophisticated stuff; (d) learning how to read such works competently, by trying out unfamiliar moves (hence doing a lot of re-reading) and by trying to make sense of what one hears of other people's talk about works and of coaching.

The second is much more time-consuming and laborious than the first. The third is necessarily yet more convoluted and drawn-out than the second. It requires moving back and forth between demonstrating moves and stepping back to describe, explain and justify them, then re-performing them in other ways, and asking questions to discover if people are tuning into them or puzzled about them. For that reason - even apart from the fact that trying out moves that aren't already firmly in one's repertoire is always halting and awkward - the experience of the fourth is not merely more frustrating but far more time consuming than the experience of the first.

(1) In class we will often engage in free-wheeling discussions of things we have read. Of necessity, such conversations have to be able to "go with the flow," and follow wherever multiple curiosities lead. In any case, building up an imaginative world on the basis of the cues that make up a text, and drawing out the significance of that world is not a linear process. Many issues arise, and there is often no particular order in which we have to address them. And when we are exploring some given train of thought, we often cannot carry it through to conclusion at a single go. We may have to leave it on a back burner for returning to when we have turned up some other idea in the course of working with some other train of thought. Reading texts that go beyond the most familiar stereotypes and formulas is an immensely complicated buzzing back and forth, full of leaps and bounds, backing and filling, guessing and revising.

If we insist on finding a cut-and-dried presentation of what some story means, or even of how to go about interpreting it, we will not learn how to read better. We will end up with a collection of inert ideas, facts that may be true but that are useless for the purpose of the course. Even when we read a logically organized discussion of some aspect of what is worth attending to in a literary work - as we will when we look at what some critic or author has to say on the subject - our primary job here must be to notice what we can profitably take away of the interpretive moves indirectly on display in the writer's talk about the work. We will not be aiming at storing away, for their own sake,[13] the knowledge about the work that the commentator develops in the course of his analysis. Still less would it be to the point to look for the point of class exchanges in the insights it may happen to develop about works. If the point were to convey insights, they could far more efficiently be conveyed in some other - for example, a lecture - format.

(2) Frequently I will be confronting with a very particular kind of monologue. It is absolutely crucial that you do not confuse this sort of talk with a LECTURE. This it is definitely not. If a lecture were to be structured as these talks will be structured, it would deserve to be judged to be completely disorganized. On the other hand, if a lecture were resorted to for the purposes I will be up to when I engage in the kind of talking I'm referring to, it would be completely beside the point. Worse, it would explicitly direct you to look for its significance in something that is altogether different from what it is the business of the course to afford.

Remember that despite the title of the course - "Introduction to Literature" - this is not a "subject matter" course. It is actually instead a "techniques" course. Thus it has more in common with physics lab and recitation than with the central lecture component of a physics course. A main part of the business of a lab instructor is demonstration of the procedures the students are then turned loose to go through on their own. Typically she accompanies her enactment of the procedures with a commentary that consists of description and explanation (the hows and whys) of what is being carried out.

That's the nature of the sort of thing I'll be doing here. I'll be illustrating (via a somewhat simplified, edited version) what I would be thinking if I were to work my way through (some part of) the work. In other words, what I'll be presenting, instead of a lecture, is something that might better be described as a DEMONSTRATION. If you get misled by the superficial resemblance to what you know as a lecture - the mere fact that the instructor is monopolizing the talk for an extended period of time - you are going to be frustrated to no purpose. Eventually you will get angry - at the talk going on, for not giving you what you're after (tidy insights about the subject under discussion), and at me, for "being disorganized."

Some frustration, as we've repeatedly said above, is unavoidable, and simply has to be anticipated, tolerated, suffered through. But the frustration you will experience if you look to these demonstrations for what it would make sense to expect of a lecture is something altogether different. It will be overwhelming. And, unless you start approaching the whole thing from a quite different perspective, it will not end.

You will also be chagrined if you mistake what I am doing as a "rap." I will be trying to "think aloud" in an appropriate way about the work under discussion. But the thoughts are not just "any thoughts." They are not just "what happens to come to mind" at the moment. You will be mistaken if you approach them as just so much "subjective opinion" that the rapper is seeking to impress upon his audience.

Of course, the ideas will be "subjective" in two important senses. They are, unavoidably, coming to you from a particular mind, and not from either "universal human rationality" (whatever that might be) or God (by way, it would have to be, of inspiration). Another experienced reader - or, for that matter, I myself, if I were to start from a different point of departure - would come up with something quite distinct. At the same time, if you are bothering to put yourself "under my instruction," it is hardly to the point for you to be assuming that I am "just any" particular mind. You ought (at least as a rebuttable presumption) to suppose that I am able to show you some moves that you would want to appropriate for your own tool kit.[14]

Secondly, the ideas I will be 'putting forward' along the way are by no means infallible. In fact, one of the things my working through them is meant to demonstrate is that the business of constructing what the text prompts us to imagine, and of tracing out the implications of that situation, has to always be provisional. I will be trying to dramatize an agenda of curiosity that, as a fairly sophisticated reader, I take to be called for by some particular features of the text. In exploiting me as an "authority," you are not expected to agree with what I happen to say about the work in any one moment. (Indeed, you can expect to find me talking myself out of hypotheses I've been trying out.) Your job, as apprentice, is to try to see how the "building" is being put together and revised, and why - and to ask questions when you want to confirm whether you're following how things are shaping us and why, or when you think you're no longer following the path that's being explored or its rationale.[15] Perhaps the most important thing to notice about the behavior I will try to put on display before you is the different conditions in which I find myself compelled (again, provisionally!) to change my mind.

In sum: if you take the demonstrations I enact as lectures or raps, you will be barking up a wrong tree. On the other hand, if you approach what you hear in these demonstrations with the curiosities they are designed to gratify, the experience will very shortly start to pay off handsomely. They may even turn out to be fun.

At the same time, for reasons we've mentioned above, you will probably at least initially find it more difficult to deal with than demonstrations in a science lab section. There, one has a clear separation between the moves being demonstrated (which are carried out bodily, with observable physical objects) and the description and explanation that accompanies it (which is carried out in the medium of language). Here, both the moves and the commentary upon the moves are carried out in language. The moves themselves, being enacted, are not the topic of the talk through which they are exhibited. Rather they are at work in and behind the way the topic is being dealt with. And there is a continual shift between this kind of talk, and the talk which does take for its topics the moves that have been or are going to be undertaken. In following this sort of discourse, we have to "rise to" the moves, which are not directly present as the subject of what is being said. And we have to notice when the talk shifts from enactment to commentary not on the work, but on what has been or will be enacted.

Furthermore, the activities that constitute the business of science lab courses - experiments - are processes that, just as much as the equipment employed in the course of them, are themselves already engineered "things." They are designed to be carried out in some definite - indeed standard - order. When we break them down, we find that we have to do with a well-defined hierarchy of modules (the sub-processes). This is why one of the best ways to get a grip on what is going on is to translate it into a flowchart expressing the algorithm it embodies.

But the process of reading a work of literature - even a simplified version of what is entailed in making sense of some particular aspect of a concrete actual work - is nowhere near so linear and straightforward. In some ways, it's much more like the process of designing an experiment or a piece of machinery in the first place. Such invention cannot be routinized. It is an art. It is full of hypothesizing, of tracing the implications of one's guesses, of checking to see to what extent what one further comes across confirms or disconfirms one's hunches, and of reconsidering and revising accordingly. And all the while, several inquiries are going on "at once" - some in momentary abeyance, to be gotten back to eventually, one always in the foreground, being pursued until it hits a snag or turns up something that bears on the solution of one of the postponed puzzlements.

(3) Having warned you not to confuse my demonstrations with lectures, I need to say that from time to time I will have recourse to traditional lecture. I will do so on those occasions when I need to spell out the assumptions that constitute some belief system an author presupposes his readership is aware of. As we will see, this connects with that aspect of fiction we call "setting" - in this case, the cultural postulates at work in the world presented for our contemplation or presupposed as the framework for making sense of them. If we are not familiar with issues a work takes for granted we can recognize in the imaginary world it invites us to construct and address, then clearly we are in for major misunderstanding, if not unresolvable confusion.

Certain works we will practice with take it for granted that we know how the world looks from the standpoint of traditional Christianity, or modern Darwinism, or "primitive" magic.[16] Since I know from experience that important elements of these will be unfamiliar to many people in the class, I will undertake to spell them out in capsule form.[17]

This kind of discourse on my part will be the exception rather than the rule. When I engage in lecture, rather than in demonstration, I will explicitly tell you in advance. When this happens, you will need to shift to the kind of attention that is called for in making use of logical exposition. You will be looking to take away a structured picture of a system of ideas. But your ulterior curiosity should lie in bringing them to bear on the work that gives rise to the discussion.

(4) Especially as the course progresses, I will be trying to get going a kind of combination between demonstration on my part [item (2) above] and a classroom discussion [item (1) above]. From my end, this will involve shifting back and forth between "thinking out loud" about some features of the work at hand and addressing to you the questions I find myself generating ("asking myself") in the process. From your end (if we can get this going), it will consist in trying to come up with some provisional answer to the questions I find myself posing, in asking questions about where my questions came from, in picking up from other students' answers and questions.

This kind of business is -if we can get it going, and sustain it - probably the most productive and exciting sort of thing we can aim at. But it requires a huge commitment of attention and energy on your part. And it will work only if you can find your way to a quite paradoxical-sounding but nevertheless attainable state of mind. You have to be willing care whether what we (and you) come up with is ultimately adequate to the "facts" (the actual details of the work). And, on another level, you have to be unconcerned about whether you - or anyone else - are going to "make a mistake." The best advice I can give you about how to pull this off is based on my own experience. It liberates us from our anxiety of making a mistake if we make our overriding concern "the truth." Then instead of competing against each other (student v. student, student v. instructor, instructor v. student), we can collaborate in wrestling with the objective problem we confront in common: what best to make of the object we are discussing. The more experience we have with trying to do this, the more we appreciate that no progress can be made without discovery, no discovery can be made without change of mind, no change of mind would be called for if there were no error, and error is unavoidable.


The basis for the graded assignments in the course, and for the weight put on them in determining the final course grade, is explained in a separate memo, which you can read by clicking here.


[1]  There is a difference between genius and thoroughly respectable competence. I am willing to concede that genius presupposes extraordinary talent, just as I concede that people born without legs or who suffer amputation of one will never be sprinters. But I do insist that we set aside such rarities as irrelevant to the situation with which the vast majority of us as confronted.

Besides, for the point at hand it is worth pointing out that outstanding athletes do in fact tend to be versatile, even when, if professional, they rarely participate professionally in more than one sport. And the same seems to be true for the folks whom we feel inclined to call geniuses: they may or may not make a professional mark in more than one specialty, but they do seem to exhibit broad intellectual appetites.

Finally we should note that ordinary respectable professional expertise (as distinct from decent amateur performance) in a given specialty requires something far short of genius. It is certainly worthy of admiration -- but as an achievement, not as the sign of extraordinary gifts.

For more on the damaging but all-too-prevalent confusions attaching to the term "ability," see Critical Concepts -- Ability (ambiguity of the term).


[2]  I have put the term "intellectual" in quotation marks here in order disassociate myself from the implication that athletics, music and practical activities are not also themselves forms of intellectual work. I would have said "non-physical mental work," except that the phrase is too awkward to keep resorting to.  Return.

[3]  Calculus wasn't invented until the 17th century, and then only by two individuals (Newton and Leibnitz) who had inherited, by study, the achievements of mathematical tradition up to their time. When Newton said that he was "standing on the shoulders of giants," he was not merely paying homage to his predecessors. He was confessing that no individual is capable of inventing single-handedly the full complement of preconditions for any complex step forward. Put another way: Newton was declaring that, had he undertaken to invent calculus from scratch, he would have needed as many years as it took to produce the human species up to his moment in history.  Return.

[4]  Of course I am supposing the learners in question are already able to walk and run, to speak the language of the texts in question, to read them, to do basic operations (addition, subtraction, etc.) with number. These competencies in fact are far more complicated in fact than any of the ones we are considering at the moment. And yet children almost invariably manage to master them, given the opportunity.  Return.

[5]  Again, readiness to learn simpler activities may presuppose competence in more complicated ones. At the same time, learning to do some complicated things can sometimes be easier than learning to do some simpler ones.  Return.

[6]  It's essential to keep in mind that "mentor" here is not restricted to "class instructor." It is anyone who talks about something from whom we can learn how (or how not!) to think successfully about something. (Nor is "mentor" here synonymous with "coach": coaches are mentors, but mentors -- people we pick up moves from by watching them closely -- don't have to act as coaches: they can just be "doing their thing.")  Return.

[7]  I'm not saying that one must be able to form some "explicit reflective picture" of the mentor's move. Still less is it necessary, for "tuning into" someone else's sequence of mental moves, to be able to state some explicit articulate account of what they are. In the following paragraph I'll spell out the paradox as I see it, but be advised that you can skip it if you want. If it leaves you confused, you can forget it.

To be sure, we would have to imagine what the moves of our mentor must have been before we could undertake to imitate them in a reflectively conscious way. But to imagine what these moves are is to reconstruct them in our imagination. Yet in order to construct them for beholding, we must already in some sense have participated in them. But that means we have already "done them along with" our model, (And yet this can only be retrospectively,) So in a sense we have already imitated them (or what we tacitly took them to be). But this means we have already accomplished, as it were, our "first rehearsal" -- even before we have reflectively grasped (to say nothing of articulately described for ourselves) what the move was. And if this is so, we must admit that it is possible to ingest a mentor's mental moves in dealing with an intellectual matter by attending to his talk, not about the moves themselves (though he may well favor us with some talk of these), but of the matter itself. And this in turn means that we need not, in fact, reflectively imagine to ourselves the nature of someone's mental moves in order to "tune into them" when he simply does them in and through words (as distinct from in and through gross body movements).  Return.

[8]  Mastering a new technical vocabulary is something far different from memorizing definitions -- in itself a witless activity. Memorizing can be a useful first step, because it enables us to reproduce for contemplation the complex of elements that constitutes the definition (supposing it is well-formed) -- so that we can proceed to the real business of forming and appreciating the point of a concept that we have never before entertained. To do this we have to think through each element of the definition (each constituent concept out of which the definition offers to fashion it) and each relationship the definition puts these building blocks into with others. This means we have to carry out a whole series of thought experiments, imagining how the concept we are seeking would be altered if any of these elements were dropped or substituted for by some close cousin, or if any of the relationships were made into something else. And we have to do this all the while trying to figure out what difference such differences in turn would make. Why does the community of people who employ the concept choose to use this tool for the job instead of some concept different in just this or that respect. What, indeed, is the job they are getting done with it? And what's the role of this task, in turn, in some larger activity they are up to?

In other words, learning a new technical vocabulary is simultaneously (1) training in perception and (2) training in a for-us new theoretical perspective. We are being inducted into a new way of seeing things -- learning to notice matters we have never taken into account before. And we are being invited into a way of seeing relations among these things, and familiar ones, that makes sense of them in some fashion we have never imagined before.

To take a simple example: if you truly master the botanist's language for describing leaves, you have to notice things about foliage that, before, you passed over in a more or less indeterminate greenish blur. And you are primed with curiosity about function (how and why these things as they are) that never before entered your mind. Your eyes are opened to a new world. (This does not happen, of course, if you bore yourself to death memorizing gibberish for a multiple-choice exam.)            Return to text at note 8.      Return to text at note 12.

[9]  Sometime a coach will step back from acting as a mentor and comment directly on what he just did as a mentor. These special remarks do feature, as their content, the move to be noticed and appropriated. It may help for the learner to describe the move in his own words. Or this may be dispensed with. His task in any case is not to describe moves but to acquire them -- and this in the form of the ability to do them elsewhere, when called for.  Return.

[10]  See if you can complete these moves by coming up with answers to these two questions.  [Or, if you've already done this, return to the main text at note 10.]

[11]  It is precisely because it understands that both these acts of faith are required for students to decide on their own to enroll in a course in philosophy, and because it appreciates that students are unlikely to have the experience that would give them a rational basis for extending these acts of faith, that the Arts and Sciences Faculty has made it a positive requirement rather than an elective for students in all of its degree programs to take a course in philosophy. And it is because designers of high school curriculums are aware that the idea of learning to drive presents neither of these obstacles, that they invariably specify a course in driving as a fully free elective.  Return.

[12]  You may want to review what is said in note 8, above.  Return.

[13]  This certainly does not mean that these are of no value! It is just that you will be misdirecting your efforts if you see your task in this course as picking out and collecting them. Even when they are convincing as important insights about experience, about people and society, about religious issues, they are not as such our interest here. Put another way: they are a large part of the reward of reading competently, but the goal here is to develop that competence. Naturally we will all the time be seeking insights. But - as far as the class is concerned - we will be inverting what in real life would be the proper relationship of means to ends. There, we are interested in competence in order, among other things, to derive insights. Here we will practice arriving at insights in order to develop competence. We'll be taking up this or that work as a pretext for practicing how to discover whatever insights (or other rewards) it offers. If we succeed, you will end up able to read works that "work" on similar principles. When you do, you will be looking for what playing their particular game delivers.  Return.

[14]  I should mention here a notion that one frequently meets with but that it makes no sense to persist in such a course as ours. And that is that, at least with "subjective" matters such as one encounters in the humanities, as opposed to what one confronts in the sciences, everything is a matter of "subjective opinion" as distinct from "objective fact." Reasoning, on this view, is basically out of place, and instead one must rely on some kind of mysterious "intuition," in combination (also mysterious) with one's "feelings."  This superstition involves confusion on a number of issues, and the sooner these muddles are cleared up, the better.  See Critical Concepts: Objectivity and Reason in Interpretation.


[15]  It will cost you an effort to remind yourself that this is not because you are a dullard or because I am incompetent as a reader or as a teacher. If you do not make this effort, you will be too intimidated to hold up your end of the stick. That is, you will believe that calling a halt to the proceedings by declaring "I don't get it" will be humiliating to yourself or insulting to me. But this is to forget the difficulties I have been describing about the process of learning novel intellectual activities and what I've been saying about how experiencing these difficulties says nothing about one's intellectual talents. You simply must make it your job to express your counter-hypothesis to what you hear me entertaining, your puzzlement as to why certain assumptions are evidently being made, your sense that things have strayed from what is to the point.   Return.

[16]  Perhaps it is necessary to point out that to say that understanding these frameworks is necessary for making sense of the works of literature that are written within or in on way or another about them is not the same thing as holding that agreeing with or endorsing them is required in order to understand those works.  Return.

[17]  One of the reasons we read is to acquaint ourselves with perspectives that are not already familiar to us. Sometimes these are what we might call "individual" perspectives - ways of looking at things characteristic of a particular author or imaginable person. But often they are perspectives shared within particular historical communities: early middle-Eastern civilization, the pre-classical Greeks, severely Augustinian Christians, the Elizabethan English, post-World-War-II existentialists, rural East African villages. Basically, these are excursions into anthropology, philosophy, and religious possibility.

Among the readings that can be most rewarding for this purpose are works of literature. Experiencing these can directly enhance our sense of the wealth of perspectives abroad in the world. But they can also stimulate us to want to know more, by expanding our readings in philosophy, theology, anthropology, history and the history of ideas, and by getting to know people who have grown up with experiences importantly different from our own. It is not our primary purpose in this course to make these excursions, but it is an adjunct purpose to engage your interests in expanding your acquaintance with these areas of the humanities and social sciences. The occasional lectures I will introduce into the course will, I hope, whet your appetite for doing this. But their primary aim is to make it possible for you to rehearse the interpretive moves called for by the works in connection with which I present them, and to help you develop a feel for how making and perceiving meaning are "culturally situated" activities. One can neither play nor make sense of, say, a game of football, without "taking on" (however provisionally) the conventions that constitute the game.  Return.

  Suggestions are welcome.  Please send your comments to lyman@ksu.edu .

   Contents copyright 2001 by Lyman A. Baker

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

  This page last updated 20 August 2001 .