I heard this great story about fundamentals a while back that’s been informing my teaching of late. A guy was talking about how he got excited about martial arts and wanted to be like the movie ninjas. He goes to a dojo, gets all the gear, and looks forward to learning the big impressive moves. Instead, all they work on is punch, block, kick. Over and over. Not so exciting.
He’s not a quitter so he keeps going and working on punch, block, kick. Eventually the sensei invites the top beginners to visit a master class, and this guy thinks now he’s going to see the ninja levitation skills. Awesome. So he goes to the master class and sure enough, they spend the whole time working on punch, block, kick. Only it’s at a completely different level of facility, ease, balance, and effectiveness.
I’m working on critical reading and thinking skills with my introductory world history sections. With the martial arts as a metaphor we’ve started with the fundamentals in reading primary source documents. For punch, block, kick I’ve substituted who (wrote this), when, where, and why. These are the fundamentals that establish the authority of a historical document and a solid foundation of understanding.
Today I showed my students how to turn those fundamentals into ninja moves by pushing through them to engage with the text in a series of critical dimensions:
*Text: What it (she, he, they) says and means (fully engaging with authority by adding what to the other w questions)
*Context: the environment or field in which the doc was written – from local to global (another level of where and when)
*Subtext: deeper or alternative meanings, reading between the lines (another level of why).
My example here was going to a used car lot. A guy in a loud plaid jacket runs out and says “I’m so glad to see you. What a good looking man you are.” They had no problem seeing that the text is a greeting and compliment. Interestingly, in each section some guy jumped to a homosexual come-on as the subtext. We used the contrast between a bar and a used car lot as context to disqualify that reading and conclude that the subtext is “give me your money.”
I told them that if they could master this series of analytical moves they’d be educated people who fully earned the higher salary employers are willing to pay to college graduates. Then I showed them the levitating ninja moves, not fully mastered even by many professional academics:
*Intertext: intellectual context, the conversations and networks a text participates in (another level of context and subtext)
*Countertext: I mentioned Derrida here because who knows, that landmind may explode for a few of them later. Reading texts against themselves (‘deconstruction’) because authors are agents of contexts and intertexts (‘discourses’) and do not fully control their materials and meanings. In some sense an ordinary historical insight – how else can texts be seen as ‘representative’ of times and places? We’ll use implied perspectives as the entre’ to this move; I pointed out that we’d already done this by reading a Ming Chinese family’s formal rules, written by elder males, against itself to discover the informal power women had in a system in which all formal power was patriarchal.
I just laid this all out, then had them get together into small groups of 4-5 to work through the full range of readings of an excerpt from the Sadler Report to Parliament on child labor (1832). With absolutely no lecture, background or prompting from me, with only the document, its short editorial introduction, and a general world history text to work with, here are some things they came up with so far, pending further discussion on Thursday:
*Who: A conversation among an official parliamentary investigator, asking leading questions, and various child laborers
*Where: urban England
*When: 1832, but including recollections from up to twenty years earlier
*Why: parliamentary fact-finding; to create public awareness; and create momentum and unassailabilty for politicians in preparation for enacting legislation against entrenched elite interests
*Text: the facts and horrors of long hours and abusive treatment in industrial child labor
*Context: early phases of the Industrial Revolution, transition from subsistence agrarian order in which children worked for families to capitalist order in which families work for industrialists; industrial takeoff leveraged by breakdown of traditional relations and creation of cheap desocialized labor pool
*Subtext: reformer’s moral outrage constructing worker ‘victimhood’ through leading questions about conditions the workers had taken for granted
*Intertext: the intersubjectivity of the interview process itself; debates about conditions of just work and the responsibility of elites to regulate fairly
*Countertext: the implied perspective of the industrialists; the mismatched moralisms of reformers vs. the pragmatic lifeworld of workers.
Not bad for a bunch of mostly freshman non-majors in about half an hour. The thing I liked best was that although not all of the groups clicked and got all the way through the analysis, there was ‘push’ in the assignment so that the ones who would normally have stopped at text developed things to say about context and subtext, and the ones who would normally have felt very clever to see some things about subtext stretched out to develop observations and hypotheses about intertext and countertext.
A couple weeks ago when we were just looking at who/where/when/why several students asked bemusedly if I read like this all the time. I said yeah, but it becomes a habit you do quickly without belaboring it or even thinking hard. I think they’re getting there, so by the time we’ve done this with a dozen documents over a couple of months they’ll be pretty locked in. Plus maybe they’ll know one or two things about world history.
“Communist Manifesto” next.