Put your hands in the air like you just don’t…know

So I did that thing where you pretend you don’t know something in order to get students to show what they know.  At least I think it’s a thing — I read it on a blog once, somewhere, one day, and now that I’ve done it, too, that makes it a thing, right?

Anywho, this was in my intro to literary study class, and we’re doing the unit on poetry, and people clam up when we do poetry, even though I think poetry can be so much easier than more narrative modes (it’s shorter, you can “cover” it all, and it’s often playful and clever and invites you to generate readings). But, you know, it’s technical (or it can be), it takes liberties with language (or plays with the liberties it gives you), it’s sometimes purposely evocative without being concrete, and it’s often both elusive and allusive. That all adds up to scary or challenging or, for some students who haven’t yet realized that there’s more to literature than “story,” pretentious and precious.

But yesterday, all sorts of people started talking who hadn’t previously talked, and I’m pretty sure it’s because I pretended not to know what certain strings of imagery were trying to convey in a poem we were doing. I even misinterpreted a word (one with multiple denotations) on purpose. And students jumped into the wide gaping hole I left open for them and straightened us all out (all very politely, actually).  I started by saying something like, “I want to talk about this line, which I find really beautiful, but don’t know what to do with. What does it mean?  And I mean that in the sense of, ‘No, really, I have no idea what it means.'”  And later, as we got talking, I said, “I think this word means X, rather than Y. Let’s go with that.” And then, as discussion progressed, a student said, “Actually, I think it might make more sense as Y, because then…” and she opened up an oblique part of the poem that was related to the poem’s imagery, but not in any obvious way. And I said, “Oh, yeah, then that makes sense of [its immediate context],” and then other students chimed in and said, “And so then….” and “And also…” and away we went!

Whew!  I wasn’t sure it would work and I’m not sure I could do this all the time — one does have to establish some authority and knowledge, even in a class where you’re teaching the basic skills of the discipline — but I might try it on a regular basis in my gen ed poetry class next semester.  Of course, if I do it too much, students might catch on.  We’ll see.

So, have you ever ceded your authority in order to get students to seize theirs?

ETA:  Hey, it’s my Blogiversary!  I’ve been blogging for — gulp! — 7 years now! Wait, *how* is that possible?? (Actually, my original blogiversary is a few days earlier, but I deleted those posts here, so now the oldest post is from Sept. 5, 2005.)

9 thoughts on “Put your hands in the air like you just don’t…know

  1. Happy blogiversary!

    I think I really need to take a literature class. I’m like one of your students: any time I got beyond “story” in the one lit class I took as an undergrad, my reaction to the professor’s explanation of symbolism or some such thing was “Well, I suppose the fact that the walls were yellow, like that one flower she mentioned earlier, *could* mean that… but how on earth was I supposed to have figured that out?” It was all so frustrating that I just kind of gave up and never tried another lit class. I think I could do better now.

  2. What was in those deleted posts? Inquiring minds want to know!

    I have used this pedagogy unintentionally, because sometimes when I read a primary source with my students, they honestly come up with interpretations and explanations that make more & better sense than my own. So I guess it’s not so much a pedagogy in my case as it is my own cluelessnes!

  3. Notorious — You know, it’s funny — when I get to narrative forms, I start to turn more towards an analysis of the narrative itself (structure, order of details, etc.) or voice and character. [Though I suppose if something were very obviously repeated, that calls you back to an earlier moment, I might also seize on that.] Only in the short story do I spend much time on figurative language in a narrative. But lyric poetry kind of forces you to talk about other things (although students often try to *make up* narrative for it!).

  4. Let me just say that this post is a brilliant reminder of how the wisdom to avoid diving in with explanations and information can be the greatest teaching technique of all.

    • Ah Comradde, I’m bummed you didn’t swear in your comment!

      But yes, I guess this is Socratic method, although I don’t recall playing dumb *quite* such a part of that method. But it’s been years since I’ve seen it in action.

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