Allowing for Questions in Student Responses

I’ve been working as an adjunct professor for almost a year now, and though I do feel much more competent in my ability to plan lessons and teach them effectively than I was at this time last year, I still find myself surprised by student response papers.

For some background information, I teach Art & Craft of Writing (a basic, required freshman composition course) and Introduction to Creative Writing in turns. This semester I’m only teaching Creative Writing, which is a new experience for me. No matter what the subject, I’m very big on scaffolding assignments, meaning I try to assign smaller projects and response papers that build into larger projects or extended essays. More often than not, my students, especially those with less writing experience, find comfort in breaking larger assignments into smaller tasks.

That being said, I’ve been grading their extended discussion posts, a response to a longer piece of fiction I had them working on during the two-class hiatus of AWP (more on that in my previous blog post–link). This assignment is meant to prepare them for the kind of close reading, which I model and encourage during in-class discussions continuously, and that I am expecting of them by the time we reach final portfolios.

I’m intrigued by the gap between the students for whom it simply “clicks” and those who are frozen by intimidation. One of my students,  wrote about one page in clear close-reading style, and then another page with one paragraph that stated, “I couldn’t understand the story and it seemed moot. I tried reading it once entirely and skimmed through it over and over again.”

No! I couldn’t contain my disappointment. He was doing so well and then he just… gave up? I was devastated. Why do so many students feel that they are not the authority on a subject? Do they see us as the expert, and feel intimidated or inadequate? I tell my students every day that it’s perfectly all right to think that a piece I choose for us to read is crap. They can say they hated it, or that it made them uncomfortable, as long as they follow up with why. What craft elements were insufficient? What did you feel was missing? Why did this make you uncomfortable? Was that the author’s intention?

In my response, I pointed first to the solid beginning of the piece, and reminded him that it’s perfectly acceptable to find a story confusing or strange. However, I asked that the next time he feel this way, he pose questions. Tell me how the story makes you feel, and why, and what craft the author is using that creates that reaction. Was the subject matter controversial? Okay, then why is the author writing about this subject in this form or way? Ask the questions, write something like “I didn’t really understand this particular passage. I could see that the author was highlighting an image of a bird, but it seemed disconnected from the rest of the piece because…”

In a world where all the information we need is at our fingertips, we need to know how to ask the right questions. I think it’s important to remind my students that it’s okay not to know or understand something, as long as you question it. Ask why, and try to answer it. If you don’t know a word, look it up. If it’s still unclear, question the word choice. Tell me the denotation and connotation, and ponder why the writer chose this word in context of the story as a whole.

Ask, ask, ask! Ask me. Ask your peers. Ask the internet. Research the writer and the themes they discuss. Research the history. Return to the text, and search for answers. I promise, they are there for you somewhere, and you have the authority to question and demand these answers from the texts you read. Writers are readers, questioners, researchers, compilers, observers. Go for it! I promise you won’t be disappointed.

On Re-experiencing Old Times by Harold

Before I began studying Creative Writing at the graduate level, I believed that it was my calling to be a playwright. I mean, hey, I love musicals, and to me there’s nothing better than that moment just before a play begins. You’re in your seat, the lights dim, the orchestra plays its first confident notes. Your stomach makes a sudden leap upward into your chest, your spine pushing forward to give your eyes a slightly closer view. Nothing else compares to that kind of excitement.

I saw Old Times at the American Airlines Theatre on November 7, 2015. It was a Roundabout Theatre Company production, starring Clive Owen as Deeley, Eve Best as Anna, and Kelly Reilly as Kate. These were tickets I bought as a surprise gift for my then boyfriend, who was a huge fan of Harold Pinter. I, on the other hand, had no previous experience with or exposure to Pinter’s work. This led to me sitting in my seat uncomfortably, sensing my ex’s excitement and mental involvement in the production, while I watched as the play flew right over my head. I could almost hear it whizzing as it passed me by. It probably didn’t help that I had had a few drinks at dinner just before the show. Pro tip: not the best idea.

I could appreciate Christine Jones’ dark and isolating set design, Japhy Weidermab’s skillful purplish and forbidding lighting, and Clive Goodwin’s strikingly interruptive bass sounds (a favorite addition of mine!). I observed the cool and easy way the actors played their parts, as the plot jumped and spiraled and deviated from reality. However, I was confused, putt-off, and disappointed in my ability to figure the play out. I felt inadequate, as if I were the only person in the theatre stupid enough to walk out completely dumbstruck. Though I felt affected in some way, I couldn’t understand it. I was conflicted.

I had since mostly forgotten about that night, particularly sitting across from my ex at Soho Cigar Bar pretending to have intelligent and profound things to say about the most confusing performance I had ever seen. I was embarrassed, and hated feeling as though I wasn’t a “real intellectual” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) for my lack of understanding. What did the damn thing mean? I thought I would never know.

Next month, I’ll have the opportunity to see a few of Harold Pinter’s plays when I visit Ireland on a study-abroad faculty-led experience. Though we aren’t reading any of his work as part of the course, I decided to pick up a few of his plays and brush up on my Pinter, if only to avoid feeling like a fraudulent intellectual again. So, I plunged into Old Times with a purpose. I need to understand it, I told myself, even if it’s tough, I will parse it out. Pull yourself together, Jordan! You teach complex pieces to your students! And something unexpected happened.

Plays are meant to be performed, and audience members are meant to be completely immersed in the story, experiencing events in real time as they follow a character on his or her journey. Pinter’s plays are meant to be performed, certainly that is his intention in being a playwright. And yet, there’s something to be said for that man’s ability to convey scene and character on the page.

I armed myself with information on the internet and Adelphi University online library system. Pinter is quoted in multiple sources as having remarked, about his own work: “What goes on in my plays is realistic, but what I’m doing is not realism.” As I read, I pictured Kelly Reilly on the stage, sauntering around as if a dream-like apparition and Clive Owen’s subtle masculine power, his skillful holding back.

Something unlocked in my brain. I realized it was okay to not understand something completely. Pinter’s intention in his work seems to be to call viewers/readers to exploration. He wants us to think, and think hard, about what’s happening on the stage. Some read Old Times as completely taking place in Deeley’s subconscious, others prefer to see Anna as Kate’s alter ego or split personality, other’s imagine Kate as Deeley and Anna’s murderer, left to muse on her crimes in a deranged fictional world.

This play is non-linear, most interpreters can agree on that. Pinter moves between Kate’s time with Anna, Kate’s time with Deeley, Deeley’s time with Anna. What if it’s all real? Everything in this play is real, but not in the way we expect or want it to be. What if we’re all correct? What if it’s okay not to fully understand it, as long as you understand the various interpretations and are willing to explore them each time you read or see it?

I think Pinter would prefer an open interpretation; a viewer who allows the play to consume them for an hour, and leaves the theatre irrevocably altered, never quite understanding how or why. At least now I know I’ll never know.