U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Note on “Difficult” Texts: Reading with Philosophers and Historians, Again

My post today concerns the experience of breaking through and “getting” a hard-to-read text. One of my grad school mentors, who happens to be a philosopher, once described the experience like dancing. You step on a thinker’s toes a whole lot before you can dance with them reasonably well, eventually anticipating their moves. There are few things more satisfying than working on a tough text for a long time, until, after a while, you find yourself asking a question like “If A is so, then what about B?” only to discover “B” on the next page.

What kinds of books can and should we teach undergraduates? Can we teach undergraduates pretty much anything?  How do we get our students to have this kind of experience, of breaking through? I do know some of my own colleagues put too many restrictions on what students can and should read. I have moral reasons for disagreeing with them. Shall we keep holy writ from the faithful, and shall we demand an aura of mystification around certain texts or concepts, for “I know these things that you can never know”? This condescends to students, and it also means less work for the instructor. Teaching people a complex and totally unfamiliar text is very difficult but rewarding work if you mean to do it right.

Top Art!!!!???

Lest I be misunderstood, density of reference or specialization of language does not always mean complexity or difficulty. Some texts seem easy to read on the surface, but they press at the limits of understanding once you pick at them enough. Other texts mess with genre, presenting a different set of problems. I love a text when it confronts me with the thought, just what is this? Whatever the case, I don’t think it entirely fair to expect undergraduates to learn about conversations within a particular field among experts, so I tend not to assign any secondary works. This isn’t a matter of mystification, but a matter of really contributing to the debate. But this isn’t a hard and fast rule, either. I assign secondary work sometimes, when I want to emphasize history as an ongoing, living thing for students. For example, I begin my U.S. History survey after 1865 with a discussion of Reconstruction historiography.

Quandaries like these seem less a problem for philosophers than for historians. By the time one gets to certain twentieth century “primary” texts in say, U.S. intellectual history, many are so laden with references to other things or so immersed in their particular community of discourse that it would take an inordinately long time to do them justice in an undergraduate setting. They present the same problem as secondary sources. Many of us try anyway, and we should.

I’ve always wanted to try out something one of my literature colleagues does. She has students build their own glossaries of terms, figures and ideas when reading modernist novels. I’ve attempted something close to that. Because so many of my students are interested in music and have majors related to music in some way, I teach Theodor Adorno’s essay “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” (1938) whenever I teach my course on the U.S. viewed by non-Americans, but not before several class periods where we read and talk about Marx, Weber, and Freud and then the Frankfurt School more broadly. Because it’s larded with allusions and terminology just begging for explanation, we lead up to that text. But Adorno talks about so-called “classical” ideas in there too. It would be silly to learn like Adorno just to read Adorno.

I’ve often thought about arranging an entire course around one text. We’d read every other thing necessary to truly “get” all the various references and allusions in it, and the class would feature a crowning moment at the end where we finally read the thing together. We’d assemble all the tools in the conceptual toolbox before getting to work. Most of us consider something vaguely like this, but I have plans to try it in a very intentional sort of way. It could be more meaningful to students in my USIH survey after 1859 than hauling ass through the Hollinger-Capper sourcebook at breakneck speed. The risk of course, is a kind of infinite regression where to read text A you have to read texts B, C, D, and E, but to read B, you have to read texts F, G, H, I, and J, and so on. So…close reading or coverage? I just don’t know.

Philosophers share these problems in their way, even those who read ancient texts with students. The Greeks seem to have had a less cluttered or more original relation to the cosmos, but that thought is a trap. A thinker like Aristotle responds to others all of the time, some of whom are largely lost to history, others of whom are relatively obscure for most of us, so-called “Pre-Socratics” like Empedocles or Democritus. When Aristotle criticizes Democritus, presumably we could work from the fragments to learn about that point of view, but we derive much of what we think we know about atomists from Aristotle’s presentation of their arguments or from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things centuries later. So in that case, one works back and forward in time to put the pieces together (reassemble the atoms?), which is hardly any less onerous than what historians do.

Maybe this is a subject matter problem? Philosophers who work on fundamental problems in ontology or metaphysics can travel a bit better because they can more easily point to workaday examples. Talk about being-itself inevitably means talk about what being a being is. So certain texts in “newer” fields should be excluded, say, analytic stuff. This falls apart pretty quickly under scrutiny too. Intellectual historians are masters of workaday examples. It’s our job to translate technical ideas in ways larger audiences appreciate, to meet students where they are, that kind of thing. I can’t remember the last time I taught Adorno or Marx and didn’t say something about Pokemon cards or Malibu Barbie’s relationship to her commodities, especially Ken.

Maybe “difficulty” of texts really comes down to time. If given enough time, and exerting enough effort, one can work through pretty much any text with undergraduates. And this, I think, is where the major difference comes between philosophers and historians. Historians feel the pull of “coverage.” Diverse views and perspectives in a certain period of time demand a full and fair hearing. Multi-causal explanations are our bag; we want students to get a good sense of many strands and strains of influence. A philosopher can teach one book over an entire semester without any pressing concern over coverage and context. When philosophers read and teach like that, it can make an intellectual historian interested in traditional philosophical problems feel like a jack of all trades and master of none. But, wow, those philosophers miss so much.

At least one thing I do know, relatively well, is the regular frustration that comes with teaching. Most of my students really don’t read carefully. They confuse things. This is because they’re rarely made to read involved texts. They also have different backgrounds, different levels of preparation. Some are already familiar with the vocabulary they’ll encounter in some texts in my classes. Some of my best readers have had none of those advantages, but instead have taught themselves in the best sort of way despite the worst sort of circumstances. They want it, and they have a more natural relation to the text. They don’t try to sound like college professors or graduate students. Most of the students I see every day are there to tick a box on a list of requirements. They don’t really care all that much, and I suppose I understand that position too, even if it gives my teaching life a certain absurdity.

I try anyway. I work pretty hard to make students feel good about reading something tough. I talk about how we have to get it “wrong” before getting it “right,” ask them over and over again to just admit it when they don’t get something. “Let’s figure it out together then,” I say. Some days I start class by going around the room, asking for paragraphs and page numbers of passages they struggled with for that day. Then we work in order, reading together. I ask them what their reading practice is like. Do they try to read and give up? Do they try to read but only go over sections once and expect the text to reveal itself to them? Do they really bang their heads against it and keep at it, over and over again until it reveals itself? Does that work? What else do they try?

I had a student recently come into my office to ask about reading texts. She wanted to know if there was any trick or any established method for reading a tough text. It was a good question. I mentioned some pretty underwhelming tips: When sentences are long, make sure you’re careful to figure out which pronouns are referring to what things. Mark up your book, find a notation system of some kind and be consistent with it. Treat a tough section like breaking in a section of field. It should be hard, even back-breaking work. Break it in with the plow, remove the rocks and the mess, but know you’ll need to till it smooth after, if you expect anything to grow later. Less metaphorically, read that section once really slow and then once it feels like you’ve got the gist, read it again so that you can picture the whole section, like puzzle pieces falling into their proper places.

I know that most of my students will never be willing to take the tremendous amount of time it takes to really dig in and try. They don’t think it’s worth it. You have to let some texts beat you up for a while before they reveal themselves to you. To be honest, my job, when I get the chance, is to convince them to genuinely try.  I tell the occasional story about how it feels when some genuinely difficult text drops into place for the first time, how good that feels, the hairs raising on the back of the neck, a physical reaction to being in harmony with a thinker, like when a piece of music hits the ear just right, that incredible joy and sense of satisfaction, how a life strung together by moments like that can be worth living.

Then I go back to my place and try to teach intellectual history again, and again, and again.

14 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Pete, The following words in particular struck a chord with me: “I know that most of my students will never be willing to take the tremendous amount of time it takes to really dig in and try. They don’t think it’s worth it.” That is something it took me a surprisingly long period of time to intimately appreciate (roughly, after about 10 years of teaching), to acknowledge or concede, despite being forewarned by my mentor that I should be happy if I succeed in truly reaching (i.e., motivating, inspiring, moving, etc.; which I took to mean awakening a passionate interest in the desire to learn the extent of one’s ignorance and develop a corresponding thirst for knowledge), one or two students per semester (that number proved to be true, and I don’t think it was simply a self-fulfilling prophecy!). Of course one never knows who or when a student will take the requisite time, will “really dig in and try,” and that is why we must teach as if, at least potentially, all of our students are capable of this “awakening.”

    But this speaks as well to the surrounding society and culture as well (a fact well understood during the period of the European Enlightenment and by the occasional ruler in China and on the Indian subcontinent), as I recently learned when I came across the Greek word amousos (lit., ‘without the Muses’), a term which means “uncultured,” and suggests such things as being “graceless,” “boorish,” and “ignorant.” In short, one could say, with Daniel R. DeNicola, that this concept suggests that ignorance is in the first place best understood as “not being cultured,” which means “lacking certain knowledge and precious skills and the understanding and character these would bring,” implying, I think, that much of one’s education is of informal sort (family, socialization, etc.; this is especially so if one accepts the importance psychoanalytic theorists and developmental psychologists attribute to our earliest years of life), and thus to the extent that little progress is made on that front (for any number of reasons, including inequality, biases and prejudices …. ) , those tasked with teaching in formal settings will face virtually insuperable obstacles. I won’t attempt here to cite examples of the kinds of things in our society which work against, in one way or another, our being “cultured” in something like the Greek sense (and we need not rehearse debates about ‘high’ and low’ culture to see this), and I’m confident many of the readers of this blog are all too familiar with such phenomena (much of which falls under ‘bread and circuses,’ the 2.0 version). It seems, at least for this reader, that Plato’s allegory of the Cave, while well-known, may yet remain ill-understood or insufficiently appreciated by many of us.

  2. I’m curious whether you think students, after struggling with a difficult text (or any, say, canonical or classic [yes, loaded words] work) could sometimes benefit from looking at a good commentary of some sort, either one focused on the text itself or one that aims to place it in a broader context.

    A few other points I’d add, in connection with tips for reading a difficult essay, chapter, book, whatever. First, I’d suggest — and maybe this is too obvious even to mention — that the student should go to the available reading space that is the most quiet and free of distractions. Second, I’d suggest that in marking up the text a student should mostly use pencil: it allows notes in the margin and underlinings to be changed easily if one changes one’s mind about something. Highlighter, if used at all, should be used sparingly; otherwise three-quarters of a page might end up in yellow and that doesn’t accomplish a lot, IMO. Third, and perhaps again sort of obvious, go through whatever you’re reading a first time quickly, just to get a rough sense of it, before starting to come to grips with it in a close way. Fourth, if a sentence’s or passage’s meaning remains obscure, reading it aloud might sometimes help (though that’s not something I ever did, or do, a great deal of myself). Fifth, keep a good dictionary handy: even a word whose meaning is apparently clear might turn out to have more dimensions than one thinks, esp. if one doesn’t know its etymology (which, unless one’s a linguist and/or well-versed in Greek, Latin, old English, old French, etc., one often won’t).

  3. Well done.

    I don’t exactly experience this in my profession (to busy destroying humanity from the culture industry and whatnot), but I do have an intellectual conversation here and there along the way with colleagues.

    One of the things I find most challenging when trying to convey an idea (apart from not royally misrepresenting myself) is overcoming my interlocutor’s notions of self and surroundings. My idea cannot even land because s/he has given me no port to moor in.

    I wonder how much this may play into your classroom dynamics, too.

    This kinda gets us back to Wittgenstein in the end, I suppose, but who really wants to sit and waste their time reading that gobbledygook—amiright?!

  4. All texts are difficult texts, to the unprepared.

    This is a common problem in non-Western studies: how do you give primary sources to students who have no contextual foundation in the culture or era?

    One technique I use, probably the closest to the structured course suggested here, is in my Early Japan course, which involves going through the core historical material first – social, political, economic, legal history – and then going back and reading primary sources in some depth. It’s particularly important, I think, in early history where the texts have extended lives after their production and initial reception. You can see the syllabus by clicking on my name.

  5. Pete – Very nice piece, thanks.

    For me, an especially memorable undergraduate teaching experience was spending almost the entire semester of a Sociology of Religion course on a close reading Durkheim’s “Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.” The principal context was the densely allusive and thoroughly footnoted text itself, which provides nearly endless opportunities for the temporal back and forward, as well as the across and back to other scholars and disciplines. No twitterite, this guy.

    For Durkheim, make no mistake, there is an experiential basis for religion, and real sacred objects and observable ritual actions are essential to it, but the rules of our textual game tried to limit us to representations. Read and read again, more closely and deeply: something like trying to escape the circularity of a dictionary by using a bigger one.

    At the end, we simply trailed off, since there was no narrative climax, and we’d been through too much to be available for any indecent abstract summation. Now, one could pick up the book on any page, read any sentence or footnote, and experience its nearly unlimited holistic complexity. It was almost miraculous.

    Students moved on, most probably tired of the exercise, some maybe doubtful of the seeming lack of “coverage” of the field, a few oddly changed. I found myself more intrigued the more captured I became, and feared I’d never see Kansas again…. though truly I almost didn’t care.

    By the way, you might be interested in the issues of surface versus symptomatic reading as discussed in my “Reading and Intellectual History,” kindly posted by Andrew Hartman on March 12, 2013.

  6. This is such a great post, Peter. As a literary scholar who regularly teaches “difficult” poems and novels, I resonate with many of your concerns here and the sense of bafflement that ensues when students do not want to “dig in” the same way I do. But that’s the entire fun of the thing! I would love to hear more about that glossary exercise–that sounds fantastic to me.

    Single-text courses are quite common in literary studies, so there would be plenty of syllabi out there to choose from–courses on Joyce’s _Ulysses_, _Moby Dick_, _Beloved_, etc. Given your interest in American literature, I would recommend checking out Ronald Berman’s _The Great Gatsby and Modern Times_ as a kind of “model” for this mode of analysis: that book covers every imaginable context for the book (war, movie industry, acting, gender, capitalism, literary history, etc.) as a way to shed light on the mysteries of this great novel.

    One recent essay in the Chronicle describes the power of simply reading Jane Austen aloud to a room full of students, showing them how to comprehend the text in real time so as to convince them that it is worth reading the text on your own outside of class: https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Simplest-Course-I-Ever/242270

    I’m with Louis on the belief that we are lucky if 1 or 2 students leave our classes with a true passion for life-long reading; a sad but true. The cultural critic Alan Jacobs has a great essay on why we can’t predictably engineer a love of reading. It is a good reminder that the intense kind of devotion to texts that most of us believe in and practice is a very recent phenomenon, historically-speaking. Augustine of Hippo was well before his time (our time); most people, for most of human history, have not loved reading; it is not all that unusual then if our students conform to the general mean. We can’t teach them to love books anymore than we can teach them to love other people; we can only model the pleasures and excitements of doing so. Still, there are many days where I find it difficult to accept this fact. Such a direct confrontation with the limits of change makes it hard to wake up and do the daily work of teaching.


    • I’m with Louis on the belief that we are lucky if 1 or 2 students leave our classes with a true passion for…

      Small correction: that was Patrick O’Donnell’s remark, not mine. (My own teaching experience has been very limited, which was why I didn’t say anything based on it.)

  7. You are a true intellectual historian. Love your approach: Primary sources, continuity of ideas, attention to language. I do believe that no one can teach anybody anything. All learning is self-teaching; all you can be is a guide. Here is the stuff, go get it.

  8. As the spouse of a literary scholar, I also thought of how common one-text classes are in that neck of the humanities. And, like you, I think it would be interesting to adapt the format to intellectual history.

    But when you suggested a one-text course, what immediately popped to mind was another kind of course I’ve always wanted to replicate (but never have). The film historian P. Adams Sitney (iirc) used to teach courses at Princeton in which he’d start with a single film and then, over the course of the semester, trace back the many films that influenced it. Like most historians, I’m addicted to chronological order as an organizing principle in my courses. But I’ve always been drawn to the idea of teaching a course in reverse chronological order as Sitney did. And I think you could do this with a primary text in intellectual history as easily (and profitably) as you could with a film.

  9. Thank you to everyone who commented on this piece. I appreciate it. I’ll try to field some responses to some of these together in one place.

    I do wonder what number of students ultimately come to love reading. I can only second that concern and say that I try to reach them all, and if some never really want to do that, then I understand. My worry there stems from what happens to those who really don’t want to do it. I use techniques that often give them no other option than to confront the text, so at some point they have to read. Yet, I don’t want to create a climate of fear or anxiety in those students either. It’s hard to strike the right balance.

    As for the potential to talk past one another given the differences between me and students, there the idea is just to give lots of everyday examples and try to elicit examples from students. Also, if I can find humble examples in certain texts, I point them out as a way of humanizing the author/narrator. (Thomas Hobbes thinks if our bodies are hot while we’re sleeping, we have angry or passionate dreams, etc.) When this works, it’s really great, because then later on the odd joke will come up. I love it when students make a joke about something read earlier in a text because that shows that the rules of the larger language game are shaping up.

    As for commentaries after the fact, I have done that on occasion. I do want students to try and “get” a text by their own lights first before dealing with others’ readings of them. I mention this explicitly; that I want them to grapple with it first. When I teach literature for example, I often use Norton editions, and those do the job in those cases. For philosophy, Cambridge companions to this or that thinker are usually good.

    As for the one text thing, I must admit that I’m envious of my literature and philosophy colleagues for having occasion to teach those kinds of courses. I’ve flirted with the idea as a kind of pilot, special topics course from a historian’s perspective, and I really want to do it. I very nearly did it with Tocqueville’s Democracy in America one time, but I found that students didn’t have the stamina. They grew tired of the one voice. I need to talk to more people who have done it to see how to deal with the inevitable dips or low points that come with that. I suspect it starts with choosing the right text and then the right accompaniments. The idea of doing this sort of thing with a single film is more than a little intriguing. The Coen Brothers seem the obvious candidates given how densely referential their films can be.

  10. Coming late to this excellent conversation. As a scholar of the great books idea and that community of discourse, it would be criminally negligent of me to not mention Adler and Van Doren’s How to Read a Book (1972, based on Adler’s 1940 original). I summarize the “rules” for reading, in that book, in an attachment to all of my history syllabi. I still use the summary page for my adult edu courses.

    I consider a discussion of how-to-read as important as the standard “what is history?” lecture that many give in the first week of a course. Per the tips in the Adler-Van Doren volume, I tell all students that the bookstore will only buy back their textbooks at a massively reduced price, so they should take full ownership of their books—marking in them, highlighting, underlining, etc., on every page and in every chapter. I often show them how I mark up my own books.

    I have constructed several of my adult edu courses, for working professionals, around one text. I’ve found they really appreciate the slow marination and opportunity for close reading. – TL

  11. Let me just add an example to Tim Lacy’s contribution and the idea of teaching one book in a course rather than spreading out readings over a variety of primary and secondary sources. Since I was in an American and Canadian Studies department, I decided that I would design a course the next to last semester I taught around what I thought were books students should have read. BUT I didn’t want it to be a proto-grad school readings course with the emphasis falling upon spread/coverage rather than penetration and close reading. Nor was it to be advanced training for doing graduate work. I wanted to keep texts to a minimum. over a 12 week period. With just three big texts, we weren’t perpetually starting over
    What I came up with was a reading list of three books/texts–Moby Dick(the best American novel and a novel of ideas); Absalom, Absalom!(the second best American novel, the equal of Proust for its exploration of the problem of memory/history); and Gilead(a religious novel, which in the UK is an unusual thing to teach).
    Learning Outcomes(sic)–It WAS a good course. I also made some critical work available in fairly full bibliographies and the students did do some reading of critical works along with the texts themselves. (Brit students are used to reading criticism and students also did reports). The three books overlapped a good bit. especially in re race and religion. ( In addition,I realized how much of a Protestant I was, still, after all these years.) Students did welcome Gilead because of the difference of Robinson’s voice from Faulkner’s and Melville’s. It was also shorter and easier, in certain respects. It also turns out, those two men are among Robinson’s favorite writers. Each book had its champions, but there was little moaning about length or difficulty. These were final year students and they knew what they were getting into. Other issues–Why was there no African American writer? I spent a long time on this one. I asked my colleagues and a few students and it turns out most of them had already read Beloved and some of Alice Walker’s work by their final year. If I had chosen Ellison’s Invisible Man, I would have had three men. All three of the novels allow for ample grappling with race as an issue and experience. (I know, I know, it’s not the same thing). Finally, the presence of religious experience and themes proved, if anything, an advantage. It gave those students who had religious commitments–and there are more than one would think–a chance to talk from a position of strength. Second, I suspect it also helped others realize that you don’t have to hide or be ashamed about interest in religious issues. I realize it would probably be different in the US, particularly in the South and the American heartland. Still, at the end, I half wished I weren’t retiring but could come back and try it again the next academic year.

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