ENGL 320: Introduction to the Short Story
Section A: Lyman Baker, Instructor
Reasoning and Objectivity
For some of you it may seem strange to think of works of art (like short stories) to be something that we would reason about. After all, we sometimes hear it said that appreciation of art (as opposed, say, to understanding the sciences) is "subjective" - a matter of "feeling" (which is the prerogative of "individuals"), and of "taste" (about which there is "no disputing"). Three things need to be said to this.
One is that in this course we are not concerned with procedures for evaluating works of literature. (Of course, it will not be out of bounds for us to talk about what strikes us as worthwhile about what we are reading. But grades, in any case, will not be awarded on the basis of arguments about the value of works under discussion.) I have of course assumed that the works we study are worth studying, and you are welcome to challenge that view on whatever occasion you wish. But getting skillful at figuring out how to conduct these kinds of arguments is not what this course is designed to be helpful with). Rather we will be concerned with making sense of stories. This is something that, after all, logically comes before deciding whether a work is fascinating, informative, broadening, ennobling, degrading, subversive of the good, subversive of the bad, liberating, mind-closing, etc.
That is, before we can determine whether something is good or bad (by this measure or that) we at least need to know precisely what it is that we are proposing to judge. And our business in this course will be to increase your powers of figuring out what the work implies (madly or sanely) about the way things are in the world we have to live in. Our job, in other words, is interpretive rather than evaluative, as regards the works we will be studying.
Of course, the works themselves will almost always invite us to make value judgments about people, about institutions, about situations and social arrangements. And part of reading such works is a competence in reflecting on what is at stake in making such judgments in life. So we will be constantly engaged in trying on points of view, in seeing where they lead, in asking how we might decide whether we would want to end up there or not. But, again, what you will want to concentrate on is picking up what are the appropriate moves in thinking through the "thought experiment" the author has constructed for readers. These sorts of moves are what I will be expecting you to show me in the exams you write in the course.
Another point we need to keep in mind is that the idea that interpreting works of art is a rational enterprise is an enabling assumption of the course, and of your own decision to enroll in it. If it were not possible to improve your interpretive powers there would be no sense in making something called "Introduction to the Short Story" a university course. It would belong, rather, among the private pastimes, like selecting the wines or pale India ales that most flatter your particular palate. There are many kinds of courses at the university courses that aim to acquaint students with a more or less formalized body of knowledge, courses that seek to impart a battery of skills (for example of dance, or of analyzing medical symptoms or of carrying out laboratory experiments), courses that invite students to reflect on the assumptions that they tacitly bring to bear in behaving the way they do in making and defending their moral judgments, etc.. But all proceed on the assumption that, if the course succeeds in its aims, students will leave it in a better condition (of knowledge, of skills, of reflective awareness), than what they were in when they entered it. In other words, genuine improvement is supposedly possible. But how do we know that an improvement is genuine? Reason is the judge. Reason is something we all share, or at least have the potential to develop.
A little thought experiment will convince you how essential reason is for our particular business in this course interpreting words, and the situations words (and film enactments) are used to present for our consideration. Imagine you overhear a friend of yours, John, saying of someone else, "She short-changed me." You happen to know that the person complained of works part-time at the convenience store across from the Marlatt dorm complex, and is a classmate of the speaker in a political science course in which students work together in analyzing Supreme Court cases dealing with the "equal protection" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as it applies to gender discrimination in the workplace. Imagine that your initial reaction is to suppose your friend was complaining about discovering he had been given change for a $5 bill when he actually paid for his daily donut with a $10. You might still refrain from taking your friend to be complaining about the person's honesty: after all, he may be supposing that she was just as absent-minded as he himself was when the money was going back and forth. You thus carry away a lingering curiosity about whether Jane is dishonest, or terribly busy and distracted at work, or merely bored with her job. Suppose though that a couple of days later you hear someone else in the study-group complaining that some of its members aren't carrying their part of the load: they never come to sessions with briefs prepared on the particular cases they've been assigned to analyze, and as a result, the members of the group as a whole got caught short on the last exam. Since your friend John is a member of the group, you can't help being curious who the offenders are. "Oh," says your new informant, "there are a couple, but the worst is a woman named Jane. It's true, though, that she has to work long hours over at Dara's to make ends meet, so lots of times she's just too tired to study." A few days later you run into your friend John munching a donut at the Union. You ask him whether the donuts are better at the Union or over at Dara's. He looks at you, puzzled, and says, "I don't know. I never get over that way." You recall his remark a few days ago about being short-changed by Jane. Now you figure what he meant was that Jane wasn't getting her share done for the study group. Your curiosity shifts from whether Jane is bored or distracted or dishonest at work to whether John is aware that she's struggling under too big a load (bigger maybe than the one he himself has to shoulder) or whether he thinks she's just lazy.
Finally, we sometimes hear it said that "I just like to enjoy reading stories, like I enjoy listening to music. All this reasoning and analyzing and reflecting just gets in the way of enjoyment. I guess I prefer reading for enjoyment over reading for understanding." When we find ourselves thinking this way, we should pause for a little reflection on the implications of the position we've taken. Surely this is a classic false dilemma. We don't have to choose between enjoying and understanding. Indeed, when we are dealing with verbal arts, understanding what we are reading or watching is surely a precondition for enjoying. We feel like asking (of someone who doesn't know a smidgen of, say, Chinese), "Well, what's the novel you've most enjoyed reading in Chinese?" After all, if understanding gets in the way of enjoyment, the purest enjoyment should be had in reading stories that are completely unintelligible to us! But this is screwy.
What we may be trying so say instead is that we've gotten used to pleasures available on the basis of a certain sort (or "level"?) of understanding of certain sorts of fiction, but that we aren't practiced in arriving at a different dimension or sort of understanding that is available in the particular kind of work we're being introduced to. Certainly learning to do something competently isn't the same experience as doing that thing with achieved competence. If we want to develop that more sophisticated level of competence, we need to be patient with the frustrations that we will inevitably go through from time to time. We need to extend the faith that our stumblings will turn into sound walking (and even perhaps into a brisk and refreshing run). If we aren't interested in developing that higher level of competence, we should just go on reading what we already like to read in the way that we like to read it. For this, we shouldn't be wasting our time in a university course!