Friday, November 10, 2006

Open Ended

Today is the last day for Virginia Woolf's Orlando in the Brit II class, and I am feeling very positive about how it has all gone. We have discussed:
  • The novel's critique of biography as a mode of writing lives,
  • Tt's position as a feminist novel, and how the narrative seems to be trying unlink naturalized categories of sex, gender and sexuality,
  • The focus on the difficulty language has in conveying and narrating the desire and love, and the ramifications of the novel's suggestion that sometimes silence (even in a 320-page novel) can be "filled to repletion" with meaning, perhaps more so than language.
  • The narrative's very complex imagining of time, memory and history.
These are very sophisticated concerns for the 200-level, and yet these students have really ripped into this stuff over the past two weeks. And yet in some ways, we have only scratched the surface of this text and the richness of its ruminations. In today's class, after we wrap up discussion of the issue of divergent models of time (recorded time, experiential time, narrative time), I want to end on what may seem like an odd note: I asked them all to bring in discussion questions that we might use to continue our work on this text. I hope, in the last ten minutes of class, to do a whip-around where each student reads his or her question, and then not try to answer any of them.

Why? Because I have been hammering home all semester (as I do all the time), that the study of literature is not about getting "the right answer," but about asking the right questions. I have often thought of novels, plays, poems, as sounds corny, I know, but I have often thought of a text as a rose, one that opens petal by petal as we read more closely. Questions, not answers, open each petal to a fuller bloom, and we can only observe what our questions reveal.

Some years ago, Gerald Graff proposed "teaching the conflicts," where we introduce our students to the debates going on around any number of texts, and they engage with the text through the mdeium of debate. I see that this works, but really, I hate the debate model of literary study. Students often ask for debate in class--they see it as a way to get involved--and while I have had some successful classes built around this model (Is Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice anti-semitic, critiquing anti-semitism, or simply laying out the terms of the discussion? Go.), I find it reductive, working on the assumption that if we debate it well enough, we'll find the answer. Blech. Isn't literature best when it indulges heteroglossia? when it accomodates many voices? many readings? Instead of thinking of a text as a conflict that can be resolved, I prefer to think of it as a resource, a wellspring of ideas, of questions to ask about the world, and ways that we could think through those questions. Even rhetorically charged, political literature works best when it asks hard questions rather than merely pounding out loud answers.

So today, I'll underscore this whole philosophy by ending our time with the text by having them all ask their own questions...Not by closing the book with finality, but with opening up petal after petal after petal, leaf after leaf, page after page, idea after idea after idea.



Nels P. Highberg said...

I'm thinking of including this in gay/lesbian lit next year. I see it as more of a queer novel than a feminist one, and actually am thinking of teaching it to make that distinction. With the right group, the discussions can be fantastic.

Horace said...

I start by calling it a feminist text, actually, but I use that to begin the idea of denaturalizing sex, gender, and sexuality (which is obviously a queer theory concern). That idea picks up much more clearly in Winterson's Written on the Body which I situate more clearly as a queer text, and an extension of what Woolf is doing here... If you're thinking of teaching one, I'd highly recommend teaching both.

Nels P. Highberg said...

Winterson was the first thing on my list. It's one of my all time favorites. I'm a little worried of overloading them with white women, so I'm not sure about both, but maybe it's worth considering more.