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Goals of the Class Discussion


I. Meeting Other Minds

So often when we interpret writing, or even what another person says to us face-to-face, we do it too quickly. Instead of grasping what they say, we hear what we expect them to say. I know you have had the experience of thinking that someone agreed with you completely on a certain issue, and then discovering that this person has a radically different point of view; you are surprised that you hadn't noticed until now how much you really disagree. This kind of thing doesn't happen necessarily because "they changed" or you were "blind" to who the person really was. Rather, it happens because knowing another person is actually very difficult; it takes a lot of work. Most of that work consists in overcoming your own preconceptions and prejudices so that you can really "hear" what another person is trying to say.

The same is true of reading texts: reading well is much more difficult than running your eyes over the page. It takes a great deal of work to determine whether you are really understanding another person's different perspective, or instead just imagining that the text reaffirms your own conceptions. The only way to determine what another person or text is really about is to have recourse to "the facts": in the case of knowing others, "the facts" are words.

What does all of this have to do with our class? In discussions of whatever kind, be it on email or face-to-face, you will be held responsible for what you say; you will have to back up what you say with "facts" (in our literature class, the facts are the words on the page). Class discussion constitutes a collective effort to determine what the facts mean. What this means in our literature class: when I suggest a possible interpretation (or "reading") of a text, you will want to know precisely which words in the text support my interpretation. Then we will discuss what other possible interpretations might arise from that passage. All interpretations offered in class, whether by you or me, will be open to discussion. It is only in that way that we can each individually overcome our own preconceptions and prejudices. The first goal of this class is to acquire a skill for better understanding texts (and people).

II. Precision

This class has another goal, however, in addition to meeting other minds (both in the classroom and Online): reading with precision. Sometimes the process of contesting another's interpretation can be animated, aggressive, dynamic—it can be wonderful, and it can be stressful. I believe that there are several keys to success as a thinker. One is being able to relinquish your own point of view, remembering that what you think is not an essential part of you but something that you can choose to adopt or not. Another is being able to tolerate ambiguity, to realize that from one perspective, interpretation A makes the most sense, while from another, interpretation B is better. The second goal of the class is not agreement about the meaning of any text. The second goal is rather precision in reading and interpreting texts: the more precise and detailed your analysis of the "facts," the words on the page, the better you will be able to persuade your classmates of your interpretation.

In discussing anything, then, try to make your discussion precise and forget trying to establish your answer as "the right answer." Anything that is well argued will get a high grade, whether I personally agree with it or not. And, most important, remember that every person's carefully thought-out point of view deserves the utmost respect.

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