Teaching and Metacognition

I recently attended a Teagle Foundation conference on “Re-Imagining Liberal Education,” and some of the talks were on “metacognition.”  Using metacognition sounded promising to me, so I tried to build a lesson around something I had been working on all semester: what kind of responses actually count as criticism?  My goal here is to move them from various kinds of non-critical or semi-critical responses to the critical ones.  We went through this worksheet on The Country Wife and have been working with these terms.  I am hoping to use something like this again in the gateway to the major course, I so would love to hear suggestions for refinements or similar kinds of things that others have come up with.  These stages are based on the types of responses student often write in their blog posts and papers.  Thus this is more my analysis of what I usually see students do rather than what I recommend that they do,  and especially how I can harness #2 and #3 to get them to move to #4 and #5.  The point is not that they need to through all five stages, but that they can match up their response to a stage and challenge themselves to move to another.

Stages of Criticism

Stage 1

Literal Reading: What is actually going on at the most literal level in the opening of The Country Wife?  What problem is being set up?  Your answer here can be right or wrong and depends on careful reading of the text, including parsing the sentence structure, understanding the vocabulary and certain elements of cultural context.

Wrong reading: Horner has come back from France impotent.

Correct reading: Horner is getting Quack to help spread an incorrect rumor that he has come back from France impotent.

Stage 2

Your gut reaction.  There is no correct or incorrect response here.

Example 1:  I can’t believe that Horner is planning to trick all those people like that.  What a pig.

Example 2: Horner has an awesome plan. I can’t wait to see if it works.

Notice:  Both of these responses essentially rely on treating Horner like a real person.

Stage 3

Ethical analysis based on your own moral world that takes other characters into consideration.  This requires more reflection.  There is no entirely correct or incorrect response; however, an extended reflection here depends on following the character through the entire text and correctly understanding each turn of events.

Example 1:  Horner is amusing because he takes advantage of a hypocritical society in which people can’t tell the truth about what they are doing.   With this framework, he finds a way to sleep with lots of women without getting caught.  He makes some lonely women happier than they would be otherwise.

Example 2:  Horner exploits a lot of women, including Margery, who falls in love with him.  She is heartbroken at the end of the play and the men play along but are secretly humiliated. He causes a lot of damage in his drive to fulfill his selfish desires.

Fallacy at Stage 3:  Making sweeping generalizations as a result of a specific situation.

Example 1: The plot of this play shows that men are really only interested in sex and will always exploit women when they can.

Example 2: This play shows that you should really just be honest with your spouse and everything will work out.

Stage 4

Analysis based on what you think the author is doing rather than how you feel about the ethical issues raised by the play.

Example 1: Wycherley sets up Horner’s plot to expose the hypocrisy of his society.

Example 2:  Wycherley is showing how limited women’s lives could be and is creating a situation that allows them to defy their husbands and societal expectations in general.

Fallacy #1 at Stage 4: Sweeping Generalization:

Example: Society is basically hypocritical, which is something that Wycherley shows.

Fallacy #2 at Stage 4: Psychologizing the author or imagining that you know what he or she thinks

Example:  Wycherley was a rake and really admired men who could get around the rules of society, so from this we know that he is on Horner’s side.

Fallacy #3 at Stage 4: False historicizing

Example:  Back then, women had no rights at all and the plays shows how they were taken advantage of.*

*Hint: Don’t ever start a sentence with “back then.”  Nothing good will follow.

Stage 5: An argument about the representational strategies of the play and their effects that does not necessarily rely on what you think the author thinks.  This argument describes what the work does, even if it does something that the author did not necessarily envision.

Example 1: This play features a central character who thinks he has plumbed the depths of cynicism, but is shocked to find how many other characters have gotten there before him. (Rosenthal)

Example 2: The play exposes the hypocrisy of individual characters, but in the end suggests that a certain amount of deception is necessary for society to function smoothly. (Rosenthal)

Example 3:  Horner is a figure just outside the most elite echelons of society, and his scheme represents an attempt to break through the final barrier by sleeping with the most elite women.  The elite men, however, close ranks in the end and leave him humiliated and alone. (J. Douglas Canfield)

Example 4: The sexual dynamics of this play are fundamentally homoerotic.  Horner only wishes to sleep with married women in order to cuckold their husband, which shows more desire and interest in other men than in the women themselves.  (Eve Sedgwick)

16 responses to “Teaching and Metacognition

  1. This handout is wonderful, and in anticipation of your permission to do so, I’m already thinking about how to adapt it to some of my “go-to” texts. What a wonderful way to show students what we want them to do in their critical writing!

    I’d love to know more about how you use it and what kinds of classroom exercises you build around it.

  2. Thanks, Laura, for passing this along. I think the most useful thing about it is how it gives students a way to recognize where they are in the “stages” of interpretation, with examples of characteristic errors for each stage of understanding. It seems that by the time they reach #5, they are attempting to emulate the formulations of secondary criticism. How are you introducing them to that level of discourse?

    The other aspect of this worth noting is that there is a developmental logic suggested here worth thinking about: are the earlier stages somehow necessary to later ones, or do they really constitute errors that need to be abandoned wholesale? I suspect that these earlier stages represent a form of “prior knowledge” that, however mistaken, needs to be explicitly addressed, recognized, and dismantled in order for students to move past them. Both Ken Bain and James Lang have interesting discussions of how teachers work with the developmental stages of college students to bring them to new levels of understanding.

  3. Laura Rosenthal

    Hi Kristin,
    Yes, do go ahead and work with it. Let us know how you have adapted it for other texts.

  4. Laura Rosenthal

    I don’t really think they have to go through all those stages ; also, the stages themselves as I have them are not fully consistent. For example, they need to get #1 down, but they may entirely bypass #2, #3, or #4. I have noticed, however, that most students tend to get stuck in #3, and are often baffled when told their reponse isn’t fully adequate. So I was trying to figure out a way of moving them out of that level that at the same time acknowledges and encourages and reward their existing engagement. The way I put it to them (to answer your earlier question), is that #2 and #3 are productive responses, but they aren’t yet literary criticism. Thus #2 and #3 are appropriate for the class blog posts, for example, but not for the papers.

    Somehow having it in writing seemed to make a difference. That way they could test their own responses against the worksheet.

  5. Thanks for this! And I love it when the example is actually something I’m going to teach. It sounds to me similar to some techniques I’ve used, for which I am indebted to the work of Alfie Guy (Yale). Briefly (got a lot of grading ahead of me), these are two of them:

    Laddered questions:
    As a way to generate questions about a text (something students seem to have lots of trouble with), and to tie generals to particulars (a problem for us all), I have students write out, in this order:
    1) Literal or “right there” questions about the text, that could be dispatched with re-reading or very light research. Usually What/where/who/when questions.
    2) Interpretive or “look deep” questions–questions of meaning (how/why). Also, a place for questions of form (why does the author lapse into a poetic register here, etc.)
    3) Larger “I wonder” questions. Questions that may go beyond the specificity of the text. This is often where students want to go immediately; it gains depth of they’ve done the other steps first.

    I have them look for patterns among the three “rungs” and try to begin to answer the questions they raise.

    “Clustered” questions (I use this mostly for fiction):
    1) What story/stories are in this texts/ on its “surface.” (This is the place to work out plot details, or to untangle stories within stories)
    2) What story/stories does this text sit “inside” of? What stories “contain” this text? What stories are present but unspoken–could be larger stories about history, cultural assumptions and attitudes, author biography, etc.
    3) What stories lie “underneath” this text? Really old stories? (A good moment for those students who want to trumpet their knowledge of the ancients).

    I vary these endlessly, and have more details. But back to grading!

    • Laura Rosenthal

      Thanks for this. I especially like the part of having them go back and look for patterns in those three levels. Happy grading!

      • You’re welcome! I hope I have some time later to talk about these approaches more fully, and how they link to ideas about metacognition.

  6. Jennifer Forsyth

    Oh, I can definitely see how this would be useful for instructors and students! I’ve always thought this kind of work is important (as with Peter J. Rabinowitz’s Before Reading, available as free PDFs at Ohio State Press), and these kinds of questions have been on my mind a lot again lately. We’ve been doing a lot of work at the curricular level in my department, for one thing; plus, I’m preparing to teach our Intro to the Major course for the first time, so I’ve been trying to identify fundamental principles to cover. Still, I’m continually surprised how these questions recur at different levels, not just at the intro level.

    I would also include under student fallacies the idea that if the text does not specifically disprove a theory, it’s perfectly valid (or perhaps the fallacy is that the more creative the theory is, the better): Ophelia was kind of crazy and talking a lot about flowers, and Queen Gertrude describes watching Ophelia’s drowning, but this doesn’t mean that Gertrude drugged Ophelia in the hopes that it would lead to a fatal accident. This feels kind of like a Stage 3 reponse to me, but it’s not ethically oriented. It’s plot-related, like Stage 1, but students who’ve come up with this or similar theories do understand what is literally happening with the plot; this is simply their attempt to resolve a crux in the text. I think this suggests that they perceive the interpretations that critics come up with as equally improbable, which makes the kind of work you’re doing here to help explain our interpretive principles all the more important.


    P.S. On a different tangent, I taught The Country Wife for the first time this semester, and I was surprised that the students found it more difficult than Shakespeare. Is this common?

    • Laura Rosenthal

      The Ophelia example that you raise is not one I have accounted for in the sheet, but I know what you mean. I had a student insist to me that we really don’t know whether or not Macheath was hanged in *Polly* because we never see this happen and only hear about it second hand. I think, then, maybe there needs to be another category? It seems like the student with the Ophelia theory are not only treating the characters as real people but the whole play as a real situation. I think you’re right, though, that they are trying to resolve something troubling without fully grasping the parameters of criticism. Like us, they are filling in ideas and/or information not immediately apparent in the text.

      On the issue of difficulty: my students also find *The Country Wife* very challenging. Restoration drama is much less familiar than Shakespeare and its ethic coordinates (or lack thereof) often baffle students.

  7. When I used to teach the sophomore survey in lit, I used to have lots of issues like this, when students used to invent extravagant meanings for poems, especially, that seemed extra-poetic to them: that’s when I used explication or summary exercises, to see whether they literally understood the words on the page. For some reason, non-literature students have a hard time understanding that literature does not mean “anything goes.” Having them use dictionaries, or gloss particular words, is one antidote to this kind of response.

    I do think that there is a holistic dimension to lit criticism that students find hard to understand until they are put in contact with good criticism and try to engage with its arguments and evidence. I tell them that this history of arguments and evidence marshalled on one side or the other of critical debates is what makes lit crit different than anything goes. The corollary, I suppose, is that I think it is impossible to teach “close reading” to students without also showing them models and examples that give them some idea of what it’s used for.

  8. Laura,
    As you know, I think there’s much food for thought here and it’s well worth our time to try to parse where we locate A and B, and the steps we hope to get students to take in the course of moving from one to the other. I’d like, however, to add a slight twist to the conversation here from my own pedagogy.
    In many ways the process both you and Dave Mazella have described is developmental. Not every student needs to go through each stage, but there’s likely to be movement along this spectrum by all students. I often think about this process less in terms of student development (very bad of me, I know) and more in terms of getting them to think about what counts as evidence. The text, as you point out, is a specific kind of evidence that may be related to, readers’ perceptions, authorial intention, reality etc., but ought not to be confused with any of those other modalities. In many ways, getting students to think “backwards” from that assumption, helps them get a different handle on the kinds of arguments that evidence might be used in the service of. I’m not sure this is a “non-developmental” paradigm, but I puts a slightly different spin on A and B. Not all evidence serves all arguments.

  9. Laura Rosenthal

    The reason I like to use the ‘developmental’ model (although I’ll admit that its really a faux-developmental model–there is no natural progression between the stages) is that it helps me use what students usually do in I think a positive way that pushes them to a better argument. Mostly this involves moving beyond #3, which I find many students get stuck in and can’t figure out how to get out of because they don’t see what’s wrong with it. So what I try to suggest with the “stages” model is that there is in fact nothing wrong with #3; it’s just not literary criticism YET. For example, I was recently talking to a student who wanted to argue for her final paper that in the eighteenth century, writers finally realized that it was better to marry for love than for money. This to me was a clear example of #3: she is thinking beyond the literal and enaging with the material, but not in a way that I would recognize as criticism. Here the problem is not the wrong evidence, but of not understanding what counts as criticism at the college level. (I add this phrase, “at the college level,” because in my observation many high school assignments ask them to make arguments in the mode of #3.) So you’re right that a lot of students don’t understand what counts as evidence, but I think at a more fundamental level they don’t understand what counts as criticism–ie, what the goal is. One the other hand, interestingly, this might be institution-specific. I don’t get much of the issue that Jennifer identified above, although I have seen it. I do, however, get a lot of #3 and am trying to figure out how to harness it to get more sophisticated work.

  10. Hi Laura and Melissa,

    Thanks for sticking with this topic, which I’ve wrestled with myself.

    @Melissa, I think there’s always a push/pull between “developmental” models of education that assume certain “naturalized” models of the student’s innate growth and development, and the notion of the “sequence,” in which the teacher provides a deliberate sequence for students to follow. (cf. Richard Hassell’s Gaining Ground)

    @Laura, I’ve been thinking that your scheme could be redescribed using William Perry’s influential model of undergraduate cognitive-stages (cf. James Lang, On Course, 163-77, for a summary). In Perry’s terms, students go through a dualist stage (students believe in absolute truths, which professors are supposed to provide); a relativist stage (students believe that there are no absolute truths, so professors should just tell them what they want); and finally an emotionally committed stage (students have made a commitment to a specific set of values, but understand the contingency of those values and are able to revise them upon reflection. Your 1 and 2 describe the dualist and relativist stages, but 3 and 4 represent stages where students are still having difficulty recognizing the contingency of their own positions (many of the responses you record seem like they’re reading those texts didactically), or recognizing the mistaken assumptions/information grounding their own positions. Nonetheless, at what point do you introduce them to the kinds of integrated literary critical argument that you would have them aspire to?

  11. Thanks for your commentary Dave and Laura and for the references. I think what I like about both your perspectives is that they’re attentive to the level of committment that students have to their education. And Laura, I absolutely agree, that often what students struggle with is not just the “gathering evidence” part but really a clear sense of the kinds of arguments one ought to be able generate from the types of evidence they gather. So, to borrow your example, you don’t get much of an argument from the evidence/observation that “Horner is a jerk.” Likewise, it proves really difficult in practice to generate a good argument about the play from the generalization that the “Eighteenth-century English culture was patriarchal.” It’s always interesting to me and instructive to students how hard it can be to generate a bona fide thesis about the text in question from observations like these. But grasping that relationship really seems to be the distinction between students who are moving towards a more mature “criticism” to borrow your phrase and those who are a bit adrift.

  12. Laura Rosenthal

    Hi Melissa,
    Yes, exactly–if they start with “Horner is a jerk” or “The eighteenth century was patriarchal” they will usually not be able to get to something that we would think of as a good argument. So the question is, how do you get them from “Horner is a jerk” to a good argument, especially without squashing the engagement that impassionated statements about Horner, either for or again, evidence? So the ‘metacognition’ part is to ask them to think about what they are doing and fit it into one of these ‘stages’ so they can recognize what they still need to do.

    Dave, thanks for those references. There may indeed be something developmental going on, but another possibility is that high school assignments actually encourage #3. (Read *Black Boy.* Write a paper about prejudice. How do you feel about prejudice?). But maybe they encourage #3 because they are working from developmental theories that I don’t know about.

    Re your last question: I pretty much always incorporate some kind of criticism into my classes, but usually the discussion of their own critical goals comes through drafting and revising their papers. We discussed this worksheet after I had returned comments on their first draft and before they had to turn in the final version. Perhaps there would be a case for getting to this earlier.

  13. I think you’re right in your suspicion that the “personal response format” of #3 reflects their prior teaching: that’s what they know how to do, from what I’ve seen of my daughter’s assignments. I’m a big believer in having them bring forward those earlier assumptions, then try to model the transition to a more disciplinary understanding of reading, research, and writing. Very small background research assignments help with this: “how would you know, or how could you find out, what marriages or “society” were like at this time?” Having them read or keyword search in sources like social history or primary documents like newspapers help with this kind of thing. These strategies might assist with the insufficient contextualization problem.

    The other aspect of what you’re describing at #3 seems to be an inadequate sense of the relation of the literary parts to the whole. This is a huge aspect of what we consider to be “literary” reading, but I think it involves somehow coordinating one’s sense of the meaning of the quote at hand, the formal structures of the text, the demands of the genre, time, and place, and the author’s own agenda, simultaneously. I wonder, though, whether we learn how to do this by modeling our own coordinating work on that of earlier critics. If that were the case, better to introduce the critical readings earlier rather than later.