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
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.
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.
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.
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)