Reading about any culture foreign to one’s own tends to create a form of culture shock in the reader. In a world literature class, students frequently face texts that are completely unfamiliar to them, and the typical culture shock reactions set in. We tend not to like things that we do not understand, in part because we do not like the feeling of not knowing something. I have had students complain that they did not “like” a story before we discussed it in class, and then the same students decide after the class discussion that they now like it. Again, understanding and liking go hand in hand. Give the literature a chance; something that might not make sense at first may end up being one of your favorite stories after finding a way to approach it.
That being said, whether students like a story is not the point of reading that text in a literature class. We read literature in these classes to learn something. It is a nice addition to the experience if students like the works, but we can read and analyze texts that we do not enjoy just as effectively as the ones we do: In some cases, it is actually easier. Critical thinking comes from taking something that is unfamiliar, breaking it down into manageable chunks of information, fitting it back together, and using the experience to replicate the process in other situations in the future.
A literature class is, of course, a perfect place to learn critical thinking skills. When interpreting a text, pretend that you are a lawyer in a courtroom arguing a case. Not all cases have smoking guns; most are won or lost on circumstantial evidence alone. The interpretation needs to be based primarily on evidence from the text; therefore, there can be more than one possible approach, but some interpretations can be wrong if there is no support in the text for the generalizations that the student uses. Evidence is the key; based on what the text tells us, what do we actually know? Expert opinions (secondary sources) may help, but remember that both sides in a court case usually can call some expert who will agree with them. Authorial intention is not entirely out of bounds in such an argument, but it operates on the same principles: What can we actually argue, based on the evidence? For instance, any knowledge of Hemingway’s personal history makes it unlikely that the story “Soldier’s Home” could be interpreted as unsupportive of soldiers. Alternately, there are cases when the author’s life is of little or no help. Faulkner refused to tell an interviewer what the meaning of “A Rose for Emily” was, preferring perhaps that the reader not be limited by a simple (or simplistic) explanation of meaning.
Elizabeth Kuipers (Faculty)