inquiry and historical research in the literature classroom?

While I was reading Ann Dalke’s very interesting review of Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan (courtesy of the Valve), I came upon some fascinating discussions of inquiry-based education on Serendip, the Bryn Mawr science/education blog. 

And while looking over this post, I was struck by the teaching philosophy developed by two Biology instructors, Grobstein and Franklin, for their elementary lab courses:

[The underpinnings of science] suggest that what is of primary importance is to encourage and help students to develop their skills and sophistication in inquiry as a ongoing process, rather than primarily to teach them either particular content or particular skills. This is particularly true in an age when content is widely accessible and particular skills quickly go out of date. The need is not to implant particular material or perspectives in students but rather to help them develop the capacities to evaluate information and to construct for themselves meaningful ways of organizing information.

The perspective on teaching laid out here seems fundamental to me for teaching in any discipline, but I admit that I don’t know many teachers, in- or outside the sciences, who really practice this kind of pedagogy, outside of those teaching at elite liberal arts schools.  No one else has the time or the inclination, except for those doing what they can in non-elite institutions, delivering it to students in bits and pieces.  And certainly, if we want to understand why Professor X from the Atlantic article (see my post from a few weeks ago) is such a catastrophically bad teacher, it’s his ignorance or denial of such principles that causes many of his difficulties in the classroom.

Nonetheless, I really like Grobstein’s and Franklin’s recommendations for research assignments based on this model:

  • Start with materials that students are interested in, and about which they have both thoughts and questions. 
  • Encourage students to recognize and share their current understandings of these sorts of materials, and to notice differences in understandings.
  • Encourage students to make new observations that are surprising to at least some of them.
  • Encourage students to figure out why they are surprised (ie what understanding they had that wouldn’t have let them to expect the observation they have made), and what new understandings (stories) would account for previous understandings as well as the new observations.  
  • Encourage students to make explicit to themselves and others their new understandings and the reasons for them, and to recognize and reflect on differences among them.
  • Enourage students to conceive new observations that have the potential to again alter their understandings/stories.
  • Repeat

  This is all very suggestive for me, but I was also curious about how a teacher of 18th century literature might follow this advice.  So how might we start with the kind of materials that students “are already interested in.”  Unless we happen to be teaching a class on viral videos or Iron Man, this seems ruled out from the start.  We can always play the game of referencing popular culture to talk about what we already know, which gets us part of the way there, but this kind of strategy also feels like a distraction from the purpose of the course, doesn’t it?  In our precious few weeks of reading, how much time do we want to devote to the presentist distortions of the past?  (Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen etc. etc.)

I suppose that the difficulty here is that we are not members of departments named “literary research skills,” but that our knowledge and our professional identities as scholars really are tied up with a specific content, one, alas, that really does “quickly go out of date,” along with the skills that we used to acquire that knowledge.  Graduate education, faculty hires, curricula, all these things are organized explicitly upon the basis of a foundational content, not the acquisition of specific research skills, no matter how necessary those skills are to the acquisition of knowledge of say, 18th-century pamphleteering.  Though we once awarded PhDs for philology, no one is going to get a  PhD in electronic keyword searches.  So teaching in this manner demands that one re-learn one’s own disciplinary knowledge and professional identity, to determine the most effective ways to teach students how to acquire such understanding.  And I’d predict that the curricular structures in our departments are going to change, if only to reflect students’ needs for more explicit instruction in the skills necessary for literary analysis.

At the same time, I’m also wondering how far this predisciplinary notion of “observation” really gets us when we think about teaching literary history, which depends on all sorts of specialist understandings of terms like genre, periodization, stylistic analysis, etc.?  Another “note” by one of the writers talks briefly about the need to distinguish between “observations” and “stories/interpretations” (e.g., “‘I saw A,B,C and think therefore D’ vs ‘I saw D’”), but I felt like there’s an entire set of steps missing from an account like this one. 

Nonetheless, I believe that any successful undergraduate student of literature should be able to move from the ability to make bare observations about a work to developing an interpretation or story about the work and recognizing it as such.    And a large part of this success comes from the student’s ability to understand the importance of the “valuable social character/interplay” that occurs when one reads with an awareness of earlier readers and their accumulated responses.  It is this unseen yet undeniable historical pressure upon our understanding that we try to communicate to the beginning student, but how do we accomplish this without killing off their engagement in the material?  The key step seems to be persuading students of the value of the “unending empirical process that loops repeatedly between observations and interpretations,” so that they may be able to evaluate the information they encounter in their research, while constructing understandings of this information for their own purposes.


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12 responses to “inquiry and historical research in the literature classroom?

  1. Thanks for the notice/engagement. I posted some thoughts in response to your more specific inquiry at our Serendip website about usefulness of these ideas in a humanities context. See The gist of those thoughts is that I, like you, think students should “be able to move from the ability to make bare observations about a work to developing an interpretation or story about the work and recognizing it as such.” And that “work” in this context may mean either a creation of humans or something not created by humans.

    I also agree that, in both humanities and science, the distinction between “observations” and “interpretations/stories” needs some elaboration. Since interpretations/stories affect both what observations are made and how they are made sense of, the distinction is less sharp than it at first appears.

    Disciplines deal with this problem by using specialized vocabularies and frameworks (the sciences have their equivalents to “genre” etc), and one can use them to try and teach students particular ways of thinking. Students themselves though regard them as dry, didactic, and arbitrary (as in some ways they are; see My preference is to try to handle material in the classroom in such a way as to let students discover for themselves the interplay between interpretations and observations and hence the usefulness of developing an agreed upon temporary set of commonly held rules (a disciplinary framework) to deal with it.

    Again, I think this can be done in the humanities as well as the sciences, but would very much enjoy hearing to what degree it does/doesn’t make sense in your experience/context.

  2. Thanks, Dave, for noticing my review of Taleb’s The Black Swan, and thanks for using it as a stepping-off-point to further exploration/
    meditation about what-it-is-and-how-it-is that we might teach. Linking together your & Paul’s agreement about the need to keep in play the “unending loop between observations and interpretations,” with the lament of Professor X, who teaches so ineffectively, so destructively, @ a “college of last resort” nudges me to “loop” back again to Taleb, who warns us so strongly to beware the dangers of the storytelling impulse.

    Taleb pushes his readers very hard to re-think the tendency of our storytelling brains to over-value presumptions about cause and effect, to misjudge our capacity to predict the future based on the past. The keynote of his book is what he calls “the narrative fallacy”: how, in this so-unpredictable world, we fool ourselves w/ stories that cater to our Platonic thirst for distinct patterns.

    I think I’m tasting that Platonicity, when I hear you describe the “unseen yet undeniable historical pressure upon our understanding” that can so easily kill off our students’ engagement, or say that “teaching literary history…depends on all sorts of specialist understandings,” or acknowledge that “graduate education, faculty hires, curricula” are all explicitly organized on “the basis of a foundational content.” In Taleb’s terms, I’d hazard the claim that that historical pressure, those specialist understandings, and those organizational structures are all “narrative fallacies,” our attempt to fix-and-make “foundational” what is emergent, contingent and random.

    Taleb’s book is also full of advice about how to do something different–not to contain, but rather to take advantage of and benefit from the unpredictable nature of the world: “focus makes you a sucker; it translates into prediction problems”; learn to “avoid ‘tunneling’” (“the neglect of sources of uncertainty outside the plan itself”); “train yourself to spot the difference between the sensational and the empirical”; and remember that “we are not natural skeptics,” that “not believing” requires an “expenditure of mental effort.” I see that you’ve got a book out on skepticism gone awry, that The Making of Modern Cynicism traces the ascetic’s evolution into misanthropy. That also seems a process analogous to the disciplining of the academy, from useful focusing into crabby gatekeeping. I’d say that the bad teaching of Professor X is overdetermined by the gatekeeping habits of the academy overall; his insistence that cops and health care workers learn to “Write about Literature” (and his insistence on failing them when they can’t fit the conventional conventions to do so) seems only a particularly egregious example of what we all do when we try to discipline our students into habits of our disciplines.

    You asked “how far this predisciplinary notion of ‘observation’ really gets us when we think about teaching literary history, which depends on all sorts of specialist understandings of terms like genre.” I tried out one answer to that question just this past semester, in a new course on “Emerging Genres” that tried to hook the kids on thinking generically by focusing a portion of the course on the emergence of the new genre of blogs, with which they had had far more experience than I; then I interwove that with contemporary emergence theory, contemporary genre theory, and some hefty examples of the nineteenth-century American novel. I tried to begin and end, in other words, with the students’ own observations about and experiences of the world, inbetween leading them into and out others with which they were less familiar….to “discipline” their pre-disciplinary encounters with the world of genre, and also help ‘em see how they are helping to revise it as they write (rather than trying to make ‘em fit into the mold.). For one particularly nice comment on the process, see
    The Practice of Blogging: A Personal and Academic Perspective @

    Back to you….

  3. Somewhat related:

    This summer I’ve been teaching a couple of new classes for me, one an elective in children’s literature, and the other a 100-level writing-intensive “Great Works of Fiction” class mostly taken by non-majors. For the latter class, I decided that my main goal was to get my students to write analytical prose about fiction, moving them away from the platitudes and “themes” they seem to have learned in high school English and more towards thinking about problems of representation, narration, and style. I knew this would be a difficult class for them, especially since it’s hard for them to do much reading or writing when they have 12 hours of class with me per week for four weeks, and probably other classes, jobs, families, and so forth.

    So I started with the one book I know is objectively interesting to everyone, whether they end up liking it or not. Les Liaisons dangereuses is a damn good read, has short, easily-digestible sections, and has a great deal of the salacious stuff one wants out of a summer reading experience. Plus, it makes everyone angry, which fuels good conversations in class.

    But even better, LLD is a great text for talking about a lot of the analytical methods that are so difficult for many undergraduates to grasp. It’s epistolary, so we can easily talk about the differences between the narrators and the implied author (unlike in a 3rd-person omniscient novel, about which they’re less willing to make that distinction), as well as the differences between the narratees and the implied reader. The plot is so much about the difference between sexual jouissance and plaisir that it’s a natural step to discuss Barthes. The characters explicitly discuss many of the shifting categories of gender, class, sexuality, and public/private life that it makes a discussion of “modernity” not quite so tough to grasp.

    One of the things I feel I struggle with is the sense that when I model an analytical reading of a text for my students, and try to reveal some of these possible readings to them, it often looks like something one would have to study for ages to grasp as a method. The connection between the methodology and the texts we read feels a bit unnatural to them at first, and in a seventeen-day semester, we don’t have the time to ease into it.

    This comment isn’t terribly substantive, except to say I’ve really been enjoying teaching LLD this summer because it has been very helpful for modeling the pedagogy outlined above. They already have an interest in it, and require only a bit of methodological training to develop a process for analysis of it, and the results have been pretty good overall, even from students who find writing about literature to be difficult. And once they’ve learned how to learn some methodology, it’s even making it easier to talk about novels for which that methodology is less obviously applicable.

    On the other hand, teaching two three-hour classes four days a week is wearing me out.

  4. Dave Mazella

    Hi Paul,

    I think we’re largely in agreement that the movement from observation to interpretation/storytelling (often? necessarily?) requires students to learn a “dry” and specialized vocabulary that nonetheless gives them access to previous scholarly discussions. What I would claim is that much of my pedagogical work revolves around teaching them how to put that vocabulary to work in interesting and evocative ways.

    If I understand you properly, however, you would have students recreate for themselves the content of earlier historical or scholarly discussions by developing independently a “disciplinary framework” through their first-hand encounters with the course materials. (Is this what you mean by “developing an agreed upon temporary set of commonly held rules”?)

    So students essentially develop for themselves a provisional set of “rules” (I’d label these strategies) for their own group, in the course of each class?

    From my point of view, the question then becomes how responsive should the student-generated strategies and observations be to the words and works they are drawn from?

    (this is where the distinction between studying man-made artifacts and works of nature becomes important)

    At least one component of literary studies is devoted to the difficulties of wrapping one’s mind around a series of more or less alien texts from the past: Aristotle, Shakespeare, Austen, etc. etc.

    I think that the key here is that a good, sophisticated literary critic should be able to articulate in a convincing way the differences between her interpretations and those of other people.

    In other words, a good critic does not simply make other interpretations seem “dry,” but suddenly (re)activates an entire line of thought (and earlier thinkers) with a story about a more or less familiar text or series of texts.

    So I think that what needs to be stressed in this model is the necessity of incorporating other people’s perspectives into one’s own readings, even if they initially seem dry or arbitrary.

    I don’t know whether science, or scientific education at any rate, really revisits its founding texts and earlier history in the same instrumental way that literary studies does. But I do know that the notion of a “classic” critic
    prevents us from dismissing altogether the positions of, say, Coleridge, or William Empson, no matter how extravagant. And we value them (or at least I value them) for their extravagance.


  5. Dave Mazella

    [x-posted on Serendip]

    Anne, I agree with you that one of the many problems Professor X has with his teaching is his tendency to create defensive, self-serving narratives about his students and their abilities. These narratives allow him to ignore the deficiencies in his efforts to communicate, or rationalize his continued failures. So yes, storytelling, like any other form of representation, carries its own dangers of distortion. Nonetheless, I am not sure how we are supposed to get on without storytelling, especially in literature classrooms.

    You argue that Professor X’s problem lies in his desire to apply inappropriate disciplinary norms to his defenseless students, but I probably have a different view of norms, institutions, disciplines, and conventions than you do.

    In my view, these formations may very well be contingent, but that does not mean that they just disappear when we recognize them as such. This, at any rate, is how I read Foucault’s “genealogy,” and I think it accounts for his attitudes toward science and normalization.

    The connection between disciplinarity and Cynicism/cynicism is something I hadn’t really considered, but I think it may be true insofar as both are inextricably tied up with linguistic convention. Again, I think that moralizing linguistic convention, like moralizing representation or storytelling, is probably less than helpful for analyzing the problems it creates, since lots of examples good and bad can be proffered on both sides of the argument, and I think that any rhetorical model of communication, let alone persuasion, would have to include some version of conventional language and shared “understandings.” And this is what we’re after in the classroom, right?


  6. Dave Mazella

    Hi Carrie,

    It had never occurred to me before, but I think one of the major benefits of teaching epistolary novels to undergrads may be to train them to recognize the difference between authors and narrators, as well as difference between narratees and implied readers. And understanding these differences gives contemporary readers new insights into the genre that would otherwise be unavailable to them.

    I also think that particular literary texts seem to attract or evoke, through some mysterious process, particular theoretical insights into more general questions. As you point out, the matching of theorist to text is not nearly as arbitrary as beginning students believe. Do we have a name for this kind of practice of accommodation?

    Finally, I was curious about when these kinds of insights get generated by you or your students: do you try to preview your generalizations at the beginning, to let them know where you and the class are heading, or do you let these kinds of insights emerge more or less freely from reading and discussion?



  7. I agree, David–
    though we all might try harder to do without the defensive, moralizing, self-serving sort of stories Professor X promulgates–that recognizing the contingency and constructness of stories doesn’t make them “go away,” that indeed we can’t do without ‘em (see the piece on the “privileged status of story” in American Educator 2004, which argues that, since people prefer structures that lead ‘em into inferences, stories are easier to comprehend than other forms of text).

    But I’d also say that there’s still an open question about your notion that all stories depend on “shared understandings.” How much do we really know about what it is we know? How dependent are our stories on a shared format that gives us an idea of what to expect? Just how much insider talk, how many shared assumptions, how much language must we have in common, in order to communicate with one another? How dependent are successful stories on causal connections and structures that make ‘em easy to remember? How dependent on a shared sense of meaning for the events described?

    I’ve found myself, for instance, over time, moving away from teaching senior-level seminars (the sort of courses that presume a shared vocabulary and shared basis of understanding), in favor of interdisciplinary first-year and mid-range courses in which students who are majoring in bio and and comp sci and english and gender studies and philosophy and psych can rub their very different disciplinary assumptions up against one another, in the hope of coming up with something new….

    Speaking of generative “rubbing-against”: have you noticed that your great questions about storytelling as a kind of shared convention have provoked some local conversation here @ Bryn Mawr about the intersections between teaching in the humanities and the sciences? One piece in particular that has prodded discussion, and which I find particularly apt for this conversation between you and me, is about metaphors for composing authors (CCC 40, 4, Dec., 1989). Briefly, it argues that it is metaphor’s lack of directness which it makes it so effective for students (=all of us), because it allows us to express attitudes we would/could not express in direct discourse:

    “metaphors work when (and because) they are incorrect, untrue, inaccurate, and subjective…precisely because they are wrong…’there is always the hope that this secret apprehension…which…I do not even know that I know…has a chance of being validated by what you said.’”

    The author of this essay suggests that metaphor is a necessary feature of discourse when we try to cope with a new concept, and only becomes optional when we achieve mastery. If–as I think–we never actually master any thing, then metaphors are never optional, always useful, because always dependent on inexact, incomplete analogy. In this view, communication becomes less about shared conventions, more about making connections across difference.

    So: what place does the edgy metaphor fill in your own notions of rhetoric and conventional language?

    [also x-posted on Serendip @ ]

  8. Dave Mazella

    Hi Anne,

    I put some of this into earlier posts to you and Paul that seem to have been eaten by the Serendip comment boxes, but here goes.

    My position on rhetoric and interdisciplinarity falls along the lines of the “rhetoric of inquiry” group that published in The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences (ed. Nelson, Megill, McCloskey) (Wisconsin, 1987). I’ve blogged about this here, at

    I’ll also say that I don’t feel that shared understandings are the precondition of storytelling or rhetoric, but the goal.

    We offer stories in the classroom or the public sphere for the same reason we practice rhetoric, to produce a shared understanding that enables collective action or at least a “productive” discussion that feels like a collective advancement of our knowledge.

    Though these shared understandings may be nothing more than shared frameworks or orientations, and though they may well be tacit, they are essential for students to feel that they are speaking to one another and advancing their own and each others’ knowledge. And being able to recognize the conventions, warrants, and vocabulary specific to a particular kind of discussion is one of the crucial ways that students learn how to participate in that discussion, and feel that they are able to add their own understanding to that collective enterprise.

    But students often need to have the tacit conventions of a particular body of knowledge (say, literary theory) explained and elaborated to them before they can recognize them as conventional and therefore available for their own independent use and elaboration.

    As for metaphor, edgy or otherwise, I’d say that education is absolutely dependent on what Schon once called “generative metaphors,” and that once again the goal is a provisional process of accommodation of knowledge to one’s audience and its existing knowledge, moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar, so that new insights can be generated. The rubbing together of disciplinary vocabularies helps in this process, but this does assume that there are important differences between the disciplines, and that these differences allow mutual criticism and refinement of each others’ insights (e.g., the feminist critique of science, Foucault on penology, etc.). Interdisciplinarity is in my view a rhetorical perspective that cannot stand apart from the disciplines to critique them, but allows one discipline to critique and refine the insights of the other.

    Finally, I spent a lot of time in my Cynic book talking about these issues in relation to Diogenes and his transformations in Western culture, but that’s for another discussion.



    x-posted on Serendip

  9. So now I’m confused.

    OTOH, “shared understandings are…the goal of storytelling or rhetoric.”
    OTOH, “the goal is… moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar, so that new insights…mutual criticism and refinement…can be generated.”

    I’m confused about how “disciplined” you want your classroom conversations to be, how much aimed @ consensus, how much room you are willing to allow for differences, how much you are looking for convergence….

    From my perspective, the point of gathering different folks together in the classroom is to keep unsettling any collective agreement, to keep our differences in play, rather than to arrive @ a shared understanding…

    So I want to understand better what you are aiming towards (and how you get there).

    I’ve just requested your cynicism book through interlibrary loan, so soon we can have that conversation, too/add that layer to this one….

    [x-posted on Serendip @ ]

  10. Dave Mazella

    Hmm, maybe if I give you some touchstones, that will help you follow some of the leaps I’ve made in the course of our discussion.

    There’s a theoretical dimension to this, which you can pursue most economically by looking at my discussions of Foucault’s “genealogy” and de Certeau’s notion of “use” in my book. De Certeau’s entire discussion of rhetorical tactics vs. philosophical strategy helped to organize my thinking about modern and ancient cynics. Seeing rhetoric as a medium for verbal action rather than verbal noodling or useless contemplation became central for my view of cynicism, as well as my view of the classroom.

    The historical dimension, for my purposes anyway, comes from the epistemic break that occurs around the time of the seventeenth-century discovery of scientific method (cf. Bacon, Hobbes, etc.), the denial of rhetoric as the master-science of persuasion, and the emergence of the disciplines out of the fragments of a once-unified domain of rhetoric. Bender and Wellbery’s essay on “rhetoricality” claims that this shift created a new, anti-rhetorical paradigm of transparent communication for Enlightenment readers and writers. This kind of understanding of the Enlightenment and its paradigms of communication has long been part of our understanding of the historical emergence of print culture. So I am very interested in the historical relations between rhetoric and disciplinarity.

    Finally, as someone who teaches in an institution with an extremely wide range of students, with very diverse backgrounds and capabilities, my biggest concern is about constructing the kinds of frameworks of understanding that will enable some kind of discussion to take place. When I teach my Swift and Literary Studies course, for example, I am not worried about creating agreement about a particular interpretation of Swift, but want to show them the various kinds of arguments, issues, and disagreements that have arisen around Swift since the time of Gulliver’s Travels’s publication. (this is a gateway course for majors) They must use the materials of the class to construct their own arguments for the final research paper on Swift, but they must also find their own materials for that essay. So there’s focus on a single text, but I try to push them to develop their own arguments using the kinds of literary theory and secondary criticism most suitable for their point.

    So a semester’s worth of discussion of “satire” would be one shared context for understanding GT (often misogynist and aggressive; concealed authorship; involves sex and poop jokes; etc.), but I’m not trying to get them to repeat my paltry insights, I’m trying to get them extend their own and others’ insights one step (maybe several steps) further.

    I think the process of mutually refining our critical vocabularies is a collective one, and its collective nature gives students the confidence to receive and give useful criticism to one another. But my students need to learn how to bridge the distance between their respective positions. They need to learn how to articulate their differences from each other, as well as from the “standard” authorities (who are always plural and in disagreement with one another) if they are going to feel that they participated in a successful class that advanced their understanding. That’s how I measure my success or failure.

    Does that make sense?


    [Perhaps we should continue this discussion on Serendip, since we're moving away from the 18c dimension of the discussion]

  11. Delighted to follow David’s suggestion that we center this continuing conversation at Serendip. Let me further suggest that the conversation is rich enough so that it deserves it own particular location. I’ve created one at The hope is that this will not only make it easier to find one another but also facilitate other interested people joining the conversation. See you there.