Sunday, December 21, 2008

Truth in “error”

Rohan Maitzen laughs at her students. Whatever gets her through the hard slog of reading exams, I suppose. She quotes a few bloopers, misspellings, and historical scramblings, but then exposits, with straight-faced irony, her students’ literary theory: “Night is a non-fiction novel, realism is when you decide to write realistically about reality, and unreliable narration is when you don't believe what you are saying.”

I dunno. All three of those propositions sound pretty good to me. Night is no more an autobiography than is The Education of Henry Adams; both are what Perry Miller called “artificial constructions.” The infinite regressiveness of the definition of realism unerringly identifies the central problem with trying to define it at all. And who is the very best unreliable narrator ever? Huck Finn, right? Does he believe what he is saying when he describes Jim as “white inside”?

Update: Been thinking about this. Upon reflection, it stikes me that the real error lies not with their propositions above, but rather with students’ inability to write the next sentence. Undergraduates rarely have the training or inclination to use the word because. They don’t even try to argue for their views. To mock the obvious incorrectness of the answers is to miss the point that they are “wrong” only in light of a contrary view (i.e., the teacher’s), the correctness of which is assumed and no more defended than is the students’.

There are, it seems to me, two cures for this ill. Either drill the students in the correct answers, perhaps with the use of classroom chants accompanied by calisthenics, or place the correct answers—the propositions that the teacher wants the students to recall—firmly within the context of an argument (or narrative); and make that argument (or narrative) coherent, persuasive, and memorable. The goal is not to get students to parrot your opinions, but to grasp where literary and historical facts fit into a larger whole, which will give them whatever meaning and value they have.