U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Reading Too Much Into This”

(Editor’s Note: For the next few weeks, Rivka Maizlish, who blogged last week about Django Unchained, will be guest-blogging for us each Wednesday. This is her post for this week. — Ben Alpers)

Do your students also love to say “reading too much into this”?

I remember this remark as a buzz-kill that frequently deflated discussions in high school English. Just when we had begun to dig into the precious details of a novel or poem and unearth some larger idea, someone would inevitably scoff, “we’re reading too much into this.” Today, my students, indignant, ask “isn’t that reading too much into it?” about almost every attempt to find meaning in the art, literature, and cultural artifacts of the past.?    I cringe every time I hear it. The sentiment strikes me as exquisitely anti-intellectual, creating an image of the useless scholar wasting time on meaningless trivialities, like Socrates measuring how far a flea can jump in Aristophanes’s anti-intellectual comedy, The Clouds. “Reading too much into this” seems equivalent to saying “there’s too much thought going on here,” a complaint that has no place in a history class!

When I hear the dreaded five words, I ask my students to reformulate their critique in a way that raises specific problems with the offending analysis or offers a better interpretation, whereupon they almost always say something about money. When asked whether Jewish performer Al Jolson’s blackface routines represented an attempt by Jews to “become white” by engaging in a practice created to demean African Americans, or whether Jolson’s performance in blackface represented Jewish identification with blacks as a minority group with a history of slavery facing discrimination in America, a third of my students firmly declared: “neither.” Jolson, these students insisted, simply wanted to make money. Blackface sold. To ascribe any larger meaning about race in America to Jewish blackface performance was to “read too much into” this cultural phenomenon. When asked what the cover art on the album Free to be You and Me, released in 1972, suggested about American culture and values in the 1970s or the ideological commitments of the album’s producers, severals students insisted that the album primarily existed to sell copies, thus the cover art simply indicated an attempt to attract potential buyers—nothing more. To suggest any larger meaning was to “read too much into” the image. Aside from reflecting the troubling assumption that people are motivated, above all else, or even exclusively, by economics, these responses suggest an inability to distinguish intent from meaning. Indeed, my discussions about the meaning of a text or cultural artifact from the past are often limited to musings about the intent of the creator. While acknowledging the importance of the author’s experience, social context, and intent, I suggest to my students that a source may have meaning regardless of or beyond its intended purpose. Yet students are simply afraid to find meaning. Yesterday a student prefaced an incisive and valuable observation with a defensive “this may be a stretch, but….” Why are students so suspicious of meaning? Why is it comforting to them to believe that culture demonstrates nothing about a society other than economics?

This pernicious form of disenchantment reveals atrophy in the historical and intellectual imagination. Students must learn to exercise those muscles. The vitality of the humanities, which are largely in the business of “reading into,” is at stake, as is the use of past thought as a source of enchantment, something that, as an intellectual historian and teacher, I care deeply about. I tell my students that in college courses they have the unique opportunity to make wild and outlandish arguments, as long as they can support them with evidence. College is a time to try out new, bold, and perhaps uncomfortable ideas. A large part of that project involves finding and creatively producing meaning. The suspicion of meaning students reinforce with every “reading too much into this” harms intellectual inquiry and disenchants and depletes experience at a time when both should be most vibrant.

I don’t want to sound like Allan Bloom (who did, my students would be delighted to hear, write The Closing of the American Mind to make money!) carping about students and their incomplete souls. I believe most of the “reading too much into this” complaints I hear do stem from an anti-intellectual discomfort with meaning. However, when “we’re reading too much into this” is a protest for the life of a text over the cold instruments of analysis, teachers should listen. Discomfort with meaning can reflect an affirmation of life, a desire to keep a work of art or literature alive and sacred, rather than “formulated, sprawling on a pin,” analyzed to death.* If “the will to believe” inspires students, why should they care what James owed to Peirce or Nietzsche, or under what definition of Pragmatism historians place his thought? If Norma Rae’s relentless courage speaks to students, what do they care for the film as a source for understanding ideas about labor and the working class in the 1970s? Of course, we should guide our students to think critically about James and Pragmatism, Norma Rae and labor history. Students should learn to read, contextualize, and analyze sources closely and deeply. But they should learn to listen and to be moved by sources as well. And so should we.


* T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

13 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. i love the line, “Why are students so suspicious of meaning?” and i sympathize with the dilemma.

    but isn’t the response to ask *why* it’s possible to sell one thing and not another? why is it that in one decade people will buy buy buy jolson in blackface, and then in another not? surely even (especially) business majors and aspiring investment bankers need to think about this kind of thing? this gets you immediately away from intent, which indeed is a trap. it’s not exactly meaning, but it’s getting closer to historical thought.

  2. Great post. I’m wondering, however, what else we could say about this anti-intellectual aversion to meaning, particularly in terms of political content. In my day to day encounters with people of various anti-intellectual stripes, it seems the resistance to “reading too much into this” almost always dovetails with a resistance to recognizing where race, gender and class are playing real, meaningful roles in the real world. (Which is to suggest, “you’re reading too much into this” is closely related to the more personal complaint, “you’re being too sensitive.”) The fact that so many of your students refer back to the money motive seems related to this — cultural product or historical person x was not *really* racist or exploitative (and as you pointed out, its often not even that important if they were, personally or consciously, any of these things), they just wanted to make money! But as the above commenter pointed out, why, then, did they chose this strategy?

    Anyway, just a thought – anti-intellectualism serves very concrete purposes to a lot of people, from assisting in protecting a kind of colorblind innocence to helping to avoid critically examining why exactly it is we are drawn to the various types of media and culture we consume.

  3. Even if you assume, along with the students, that people are motivated above all by money and economics, it is still possible to get them to think more about reasons certain objects or events attract buyers and how that reflects the larger cultural situation. They need to understand why it is relevant for them to read into a text in a certain way. If it is possible to convince this economically focused youth of the idea that to “read into” a text, an object, or an event of the past is to figure out why it sold, the base human desires motivating the sale(or inspiring the cover art), then maybe getting them to “read into” things will no longer be like pulling teeth.

  4. ” The fact that so many of your students refer back to the money motive seems related to this — cultural product or historical person x was not *really* racist or exploitative (and as you pointed out, its often not even that important if they were, personally or consciously, any of these things), they just wanted to make money!”

    Just to clarify on this point, I meant to add: Because wanting to make money is most definitely seen and embraced as normative — being racist, on the other hand, not so much.

  5. Comments thus far have focused on Rivka’s exasperation regarding her students’ inability/unwillingness to make meaning/contextualize and overlooked her reflections in her last paragraph on the complementary importance of students and teachers being physically and mentally moved by sources.

    “However, when ‘we’re reading too much into this’ is a protest for the life of a text over the cold instruments of analysis, teachers should listen….Students should learn to read, contextualize, and analyze sources closely and deeply. But they should learn to listen and to be moved by sources as well. And so should we.”

    Rivka, can you comment a bit more about how you think students and teachers can help open a space for this to happen?

  6. Rivka, I think your last sentence points to another reason students express discomfort with analysis of certain types of -particularly literary – sources: a feeling that intellectual analysis impedes aesthetic enjoyment. While I think those of us who are historically minded gain greater appreciation of a work from contextualizing it, I don’t believe that those feelings are universal. There is something to be said for a thoughtfully written story and, for some of my students, contextualizing it “takes them out of” the experience of the story being told. For some historians – myself included – there is a tendency to steamroll story to get at context. I think the gentle reminder “You’re reading too much into this” can act as a stop sign – or at least a yield sign – to try to keep a better balance between allowing students to enjoy texts for themselves and putting stories into larger historical contexts.

  7. I don’t know why, but I have a feeling that Gloria Steinem has faced many “you’re-reading-too-much-into-it” challenges from non-feminists, and that she has come up with the perfect response to that. She has a way of enlarging the response so that the question seems small.

    But I don’t know exactly how….

  8. Great to see so many thoughtful comments!

    Eric and Ereinders,
    Yes, I have responded to the comments about money with “okay, but WHY did this sell?” and that has usually worked to get them thinking about ideas and cultural values. But I find it interesting/troubling that students initially insist that the story starts and stops with money, and I think the “why did this sell?” response, while it can open up room for more discussion, can also sometimes evade the question of meaning and lead to a dead-end far from the original question.

    Robin and Shelley,
    Great points. I have also often heard “reading too much into this” about feminist claims or about any attempt to demonstrate how culture and/or language reify oppression. It can be scary to think that a product you buy, a movie you enjoyed as a kid, or a word you use regularly has that kind of nefarious power. Perhaps this is part of why students are afraid of meaning?

    Greg and Matthew,
    I completely agree with your point, Matthew, which is why I think its so important not to dismiss the “reading too much into it” comment without listening to where it comes from. I like how you said it can be a “stop sign” for the teacher to let the student simply love whatever source they have. And Greg, thanks for asking about how we can do this. Do you have any thoughts? Something that I think is incredibly important and a good start is for teachers to model loving texts for students, to talk openly about our enthusiasm for a certain text, idea, or person in the past, and to point out where a source is funny and makes us laugh, or even where it makes us furious. Of course, we have to strike a balance so the class isn’t just “hey! this is my opinion!” But little comments that model love and enthusiastic engagement with ideas can have a tremendous effect (I’ve certainly seen that in my own education). What else do you think we can do?

    • Rivka, I thought quite a bit about how students and teachers can help open a space for listening to and being moved by sources. I then rummaged through my books and realized that I have simply not done a lot of reading on this topic. And then I remembered a chapter devoted to teaching in a book by my favorite contemporary thinker, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. While I do not support every one of Gumbrecht’s arguments or positions, he addresses, as you did above, the issue of how academics can open an area for students to be moved by sources. It’s worth quoting him at length:

      “[For our teaching and research to produce effects of individual _Bildung_, we must begin by] confronting ourselves and our students with any object of complexity that defies easy structuring, conceptualization, and interpretation—especially if such a confrontation happens _under conditions of low time pressure_. This formula, exposing oneself to high intellectual complexity without having an immediate need to reduce this complexity, is probably close to a new and highly auratic concept of ‘reading’ that humanists today [ca. 2003] increasingly use as a positive self-reference. Reading here is clearly not synonymous with deciphering (as was the case in the heyday of semiotics). Rather, the word seems to refer to a both joyful and painful oscillation between losing and regaining intellectual control or orientation. Our pedagogical task, I guess, is not so much to live such oscillation ‘together with’ our students….Rather, we should identify and prepare study objects of complexity and then, at least partly, stage our students’ encounters with them. Preparing too much of such interactions or sharing too much of the experience with our students risks undermining professionalism, because it tempts our students to follow their teachers instead of living this challenge individually….We need institutions of higher education to produce and to protect excess time against the mostly pressing temporalities of the everyday” (Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, _The Powers of Philology: Dynamics of Textual Scholarship_ University of Illinois Press, 2003, 85, 87).

      In an ideal teaching situation, I’d be able to pull off what Gumbrecht describes. I’d not only contextualize and historicize, but also purposefully challenge my students with sources of difficulty and then let them experience ecstatic and agonizing alternations between losing and regaining intellectual control. However, I’m afraid that in our post-9/11, post-stock market crash of 2008 world, these kinds of moments have become rarer and rarer, as increasing pressures—lack of funding for graduate students, the burden students’ feel to find a job, etc.—ensure the temporalities of the everyday infringe on the auratic concept of “reading” of sources. I hope that I’m wrong.

      In addition to Gumbrecht, it occurred to me that Martin Heidegger would be also helpful regarding the issue of how to let the auratic concept of “reading” occur rather than wholly give in to the modern imperative to decipher texts, to criticize and dominate objects, to figure out what something means (what you describe as “the cold instruments of analysis”). In his “Memorial Address,” Heidegger contrasts “calculative thinking” with “meditative thinking.” While calculation is the mode of thinking when the subject “computes,” makes plans, sets goal, examines objects and wants to obtain them (i.e. contextualizes/makes meaning), meditation is the way of thinking when one contemplates the significance involved in and concealed behind what we are connected to and occupied with. Through meditation, this at first hidden significance is uncovered, albeit only obliquely and only fleetingly, as the “will-less thinking” of meditation always gives way to the “willful thinking” of calculation. As with Gumbrecht, then, for Heidegger, there is an alternation between calculative thinking and meditative thinking (though Heidegger is above all interested in the latter type of thinking).

      Truthfully, I can only hope that my teaching helps open a space for students to listen to and be moved by sources. At the moment, I have no concrete plan as to what I can do to facilitate these experiences—as a graduate student in History, I focus on the story, the narrative, the causal and meaningful relationships between text and context. Nevertheless, Gumbrecht’s reflections on the importance for teachers (and researchers!) to respect the “joyful and painful oscillation between losing and regaining intellectual control” and Heidegger’s insights into the alternation between “calculative thinking” and “meditative thinking” are, I think, good places (for me) to start thinking about how and when one is moved by a source. With Gumbrechtian and Heideggerian models of “reading,” maybe, just maybe, I can help students keep those pressing temporalities of the everyday at bay and—occasionally—simply let those sources be.

      • Thanks, Greg! This is really great, and that Gumbrecht piece sounds absolutely perfect. I would add Nabokov to the Gumbrecht/Heidegger mix, too. His piece, “Good Readers and Good Writers” fits perfectly with the ideas you’ve described (i wonder: does Gumbrecht read/talk about Nabokov anywhere?). Here’s a preview:

        “In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected. If one begins with a readymade generalization, one begins at the wrong end and travels away from the book before one has started to understand it. Nothing is more boring or more unfair to the author than starting to read, say, Madame Bovary, with the preconceived notion that it is a denunciation of the bourgeoisie. We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. When this new world has been closely studied, then and only then let us examine its links with other worlds, other branches of knowledge.”

        This piece was initially a lecture Nabokov gave at the beginning of his courses. It’s only four pages, it includes a little interactive quiz/survey, and, like everything Nabokov writes, its a delight to read. I’m thinking one could assign this piece to students! Couldn’t hurt to make them conscious of how they read and how they should read, so that they– and not just the teachers– do some of the work of creating a space for enthusiastic or loving engagement with texts as well.

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