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.
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.