I had hoped to do a little series on good teachers, but my memory is not helping me much. I will give 50% of the blame to a limited number of memorable (memorably good) teachers, and 50% to my brain fog.
I was thinking of this topic again today while listening to the senate confirmation hearing of Sonia Sotomayor, an activity I cannot recommend highly, but I have a hard time making it through the day without my public radio fix.
Sotomayor and Sen. Jeff Sessions were having a bizarre conversation in which Sotomayor would explain something, and then Sessions would completely misunderstand it and ask again. What it came down to was Sotomayor saying that she had been up front in talking about how a person’s background shapes the way they think. Though she backed away from this a bit during the hearing, she had argued in the past that a person really can’t escape the background in which he or she was formed — it may be judicially desirable, but not possible. Acknowledging this, Sotomayor argued, is a necessary step in trying to achieve any kind of objectivity.
Sessions kept saying, “I understand that but,” and then launching into another quotation from her which he took to mean “a person ought to judge according to his or her background.” It got to a farcical point, and I had to turn the radio off.
Their conversation reminded me of something I have talked about a few times before: this idea that there is an essential person underneath and distinct from the cultural, gendered, ethnic trappings. I don’t believe people are built that way, mentally or physically. Place, class, race, gender — they aren’t like plastic parts you stick on a potato head doll.
But that idea is hard for some people to wrap their heads around, in my experience.
Likewise, I found it difficult to get some of my students to engage with the possibility that language is not transparent. Like a person, an idea or concept isn’t constructed with discrete blocks of stable meaning neatly symbolized by a particular arrangement of letters or sounds. Even a merely formal analysis of language — putting aside reader response, author intent, choice of media — demonstrates that while you can highlight a word, phrase, or sound, it comes firmly enmeshed in the whole. This is not a great analogy but I think of the line from Marvin’s Room: “My feelings for you are like a big bowl of fishhooks. I can’t just pick up one at a time — I pick one up and they all come.”
To get around to answering Cher Mere’s question in the comments, one thing that sometimes worked to get students’ minds going in the right direction was discussing advertising. Very prosaic, I know, but for some it seemed to work. Talking about advertising opened students’ minds to the possibility that language works, language can be used strategically, language can be powerful in ways that the speaker never intended.
I did have students who clung very strongly to the idea of transparent communication: advertisements were just “information.” They had no effect on the viewer or reader beyond name recognition — they had no power to arouse desire without the viewer’s consent or knowledge. But money talks, and only the most stubborn holdouts could explain why companies would spend so much money on advertising, when they could leaflet every man, woman, and child in the US for much less money, if their purpose were merely to share information.
Recognizing that advertisements were a form of language that worked in non-transparent ways opened the door. Film worked as a means of introducing the concept too — for whatever reason many students felt more comfortable analyzing visual rather than verbal communication. I remember grading papers for a class on film noir, as a TA, and watching some students suddenly grasp the concept of analyzing a scene. True, many would go overboard, looking for earth-shattering significance in every detail, but the important thing was that their minds were now open to this way of thinking — and they liked it!
For homeschooling, I have simply filed this info away. I am not pushing analysis very hard. Considering that some very bright 16yos have to struggle with it for a time (*wink wink*), I don’t think it is fair to expect it from a 10yo. That said, I notice that some things seem to hold true: advertising is a ready (if not subtle or profound) way into discussing how language works. Kids seem to love to feel in on the secret: “A-ha! Look at that close-up, the use of slow motion, to make it look more appealing.” And visual communication can be a leveler: you (the adult) may know a lot more words and use them more effectively, but that doesn’t matter so much when looking at images.