English: Recognizing and Valuing Ambiguity in Literature

Title: Reading for Complexity: Recognizing and Valuing Ambiguity in Literature
Discipline(s) or Field(s): English
Authors: Nancy Chick (University of Wisconsin-Barron County), Holly Hassel (University of Wisconsin-Marathon County), Aeron Haynie (University of Wisconsin Green-Bay), Terry Beck & Bryan Kopp (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)
Submission Date: February 28, 2007

Executive Summary

Goals: The goals of the lesson were to teach students to recognize and value ambiguity and to resist simplifying a literary text by reducing it to one flat meaning. We chose a poem (“My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke) that, in our experience, students often interpret in one of two ways: either as representing a loving father-son relationship or as illustrating abuse. Our goal was for students to recognize that multiple patterns of meaning co-exist within this poem, hopefully showing them the richness of literature and enabling them to produce more sophisticated, nuanced readings of literary (and non-literary) texts.

Design: Prior to the class, students were asked to read the poem for homework and bring to class their written interpretations about the “patterns” they see in the poem, as well as “elements that don’t fit the patterns.” Working in small groups, students annotated each of the group’s patterns on separate overhead transparencies, underlined elements of the pattern, and crossed out with Xs elements that don’t fit. The groups then shared their patterns with the whole class by showing their transparencies, followed by the instructor overlaying all transparencies at once as a visual representation of the poem’s complexity. After a whole class discussion of the exercise, students reflected in writing on how their initial interpretations of Roethke’s poem had changed and what this activity suggests about the process of reading literature.

Findings: The data from this lesson study reveals evidence of some success in students reading for complexity. Students’ initial, pre-class writings illustrated a tendency toward flattening out the poem and attempting to reduce it to a single, defensible interpretation. Most of these initial readings offered no textual evidence. The majority of these interpretations focused on the “abuse” theme, rather than the loving relationship.

In the second step–the small group annotating exercise–students’ interpretations became more evenly balanced, perhaps due to the effect of listening to their classmates and the lesson’s prompt that they identify patterns and elements that don’t fit. Thus students who began with one reductive interpretation had to acknowledge others and find textual details that resist their own initial interpretations.

Students’ post-class writings indicated that the lesson developed some reading for complexity: a majority stated that they saw the interpretations as connected. In their reflections about the process of reading literature, the majority of students focused on the reader as the site of meaning, which shows an awareness of multiple meanings, but also a disappointing relativism. The second most common response, however, located meaning within the text, indicating that the lesson forced students to use textual evidence in their interpretations.

In summary, an unsophisticated look at the student work may conclude that their relationships with the text haven’t changed; however, a close reading of the group annotations and post-lesson writings suggest that they recognize ambiguities and multiple meanings but lack the language to articulate their emerging and more sophisticated relationships to the text and to making meaning. For instance, in the written responses to “After today’s activities, how has your interpretation of the poem changed?” about half of the students reported that the in-class activity expanded their initial interpretation of the poem (some explicitly recognizing co-existing or multiple meanings), while a majority reported that they still held to their initial interpretations. However, many of these students then expanded on their initial interpretations, inadvertently revealing that the lesson had indeed opened up–without contradicting–their readings. Indeed, the students who participated in our lesson are primed for additional practice and lessons in reading for complexity, particularly in how to articulate textual ambiguity and complexity.

This literary lesson is adaptable to any passage illustrating the ambiguity or complexity that students frequently oversimplify, resist, or even ignore. In fact, inasmuch as texts in philosophy, political science, art, biology, or music reward careful and analytical reading practices, our study invites further inquiry into activities that may cultivate reading for complexity in other disciplines. We also encourage other scholarly teachers in literature to build on our lesson. Ours is just one method for introducing students to the notion of reading in complex, sophisticated ways. What would other introductory lessons look like? What follow-up activities would reinforce and build upon what students just begin in our lesson? What about lessons for late in the semester? Perhaps, if our lesson is built upon and reinforced throughout their education, students will abandon their expectations for a solvable puzzle with discrete pieces of knowledge and instead situate their learning through a more complex, ambiguous, multi-layered metaphor.

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