Category Archives: inferential skills

10 Minute Mini-Lesson: Logic and Lyrics, Rhyme and Rhetoric

Here is an assignment I did with my students today that came to me based on a song I heard while I was at the gym. It was great fun and just what we needed as a brief break. I teach all boys, juniors, and this might not be appropriate for all levels (but the idea of taking something and carving it up for students to put back together would still be valid). I am always interested in logic, inferences, rhetorical skills and reasoning–and this has it all. NEVER let anyone talk you out of having FUN in class (a common temptation because then you aren’t “serious” enough).

I gave the students the following set up: What follows are the lyrics to a song. You need to make 4 lines of either 6 or seven syllables. Each line will begin, “I make a…” and then you will pick one from column A and one from column B. You’ll need to account for rhyme (where should the rhyme go?) and though there are several ways to put this together, there is really only one “best” way.

Column A                                                                          Column B

1. Rich Woman                                                               A. Blush

2. Young Girl                                                                   B. Steal

3. Old Woman                                                                 C. Squeal

4. Good Woman                                                             D. Beg


The clue that I gave them was that three from column A “violate” our expectation of them and one does what is “expected.” You could, of course tell them it is two lines of hexameter (or a 12 syllable and a 13 syllable line that rhyme). But you still have to get things in the correct order. The most common “mistake” my students made was assigning the Rich Woman to Steal. That makes sense of course but does not leave a particularly good answer for the Good Woman. If you gave the Good Woman “blush” then the Old Woman would be left with either “Beg” or “Squeal”–neither of which is as satisfactory as the best way.  Here is the way that George Thorogood (“Bad to the Bone”) frames it and I’ll say a few words about thinking through the “best” organization”

I make a Rich Woman Beg,

I make a Good Woman Steal,

I make an Old Woman Blush

I make a Young Girl Squeal.

Why is this better than, say switching lines 2 and 4 or 1 and 3. You would preserve the rhyme and cadence in either case. But look carefully, this way allows the parallel construction of the old/young to be paired and both the other ways separate them. (This also goes back to flawed way of doing it from above where if the Rich Woman Steals then the Old Woman/Young Woman pairing is not as strong.) In addition, this way builds from the first three lines of the women acting counter to their nature or experience and closing with the one that A) is not a woman but a girl and B) acts as we might expect.

I was so impressed with my students as they wrestled around through some mistakes–all got the rhyme though some began with a couplet–but that wouldn’t really make the best way to sing it, now would it. In any event, we had a great time–and perhaps the unintended benefit was that the rest of the class (Chapter 23 of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man) was awesome.



Filed under close reading, critical thinking, education, inferential skills, poetry, popular culture, teaching, writing exercise

A Teacher’s Diary: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man 17 Clifton, Ras and the Fight Under the Streetlamp

I am keeping a “teacher’s diary” of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Each video is under 5 minutes and serves as a review of the chapter as well as introducing a few of the numberless ways of thinking about this masterwork. All 25 chapters get a video as do the Prologue, the Epilogue, a couple of critical approaches, and there is a pre-reading video.

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Filed under books and learning, books that shaped America, critical thinking, education, inferential skills, pedagogy, Ralph Ellison, teaching, Uncategorized

A Teacher’s Diary: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man Chapter 16, The Arena Speech

I am keeping a “teacher’s diary” of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Each video is under 5 minutes and serves as a review of the chapter as well as introducing a few of the numberless ways of thinking about this masterwork. All 25 chapters get a video as do the Prologue, the Epilogue, a couple of critical approaches, and there is a pre-reading video.

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Filed under books and learning, books that shaped America, critical thinking, education, inferential skills, pedagogy, Ralph Ellison, teaching, Uncategorized

Magicians, Strippers, and Sherpas: A Teacher reflects on Roles of a Lifetime at Year’s end

This is a lengthy (2000 words) and uber-nerdy piece on teachers, what else?

Roles of a Lifetime: Magicians, Strippers and Sherpas

 Teachers play numerous roles for students and their families, for colleagues, and for alumni. We don’t play the same role for each student or each colleague. But there are three roles we should embrace, they are: the Magician; the Stripper; and the Sherpa. Sometimes when I do this presentation with a faculty they only want to play one of these roles–or they assume that one of these is a “better” or “more privileged” position or “more desirable.” They are all necessary–and, good Jungian that I am, they all have their shadow side. *There is a description of the “Shadow” at the end of this blog.

Take a look at the questions below, answer them, and then we’ll have some fun with the various roles (when I do this as a workshop I show movie clips of teachers).

1. I keep in touch with a teacher I had from high school or college and/or I keep in touch with a student or students I have taught after they graduated high school and college.

2. I have a couple of terrific lectures that I have developed over the years.

3. I would be comfortable saying something like the following: “I fulfill a central function in my life when I teach my subject at the highest level I can.”

4. My passion and enthusiasm are things students immediately know about me.

5. I have taken my students on cultural outings (restaurants, plays, movies) or had them over to my house.

6. Social issues and social justice issues have a way of working themselves into my classes—almost regardless of the topic.

7. I have watched Randy Pausch give his “Last Lecture.”

8. There are a couple of faculty members I go to for advice about pedagogy or content–and I feel comfortable asking for advice.

9. I’m comfortable with my students’ unease as I narrate a series of unexpected connections that eventually make sense to my students.

What is the value of thinking of teaching as being a Magician, a Stripper, or a Sherpa. Well, we all think by analogy (see my prior post on horror movie monsters and teaching styles at for another example of analogic thinking.

When Aristotle developed the formal rules of logic he gave analogy a place as a method of inference—though he noted that analogies could not be formally demonstrated.

One of the GREAT analogies in all of history is that of the “Body Politic”—used by Aesop in the fable of the belly and the members, Plato in The Republic, and St. Paul in 1st Corinthians. In each case one might emphasize the importance of cooperation, of teamwork, of valuing all of the parts. The “body politic” is deeply ingrained into our language—Head of State, long arm of the law. There is a “shadow” side to the body politic analogy–almost universally the “body politic” argument is used to reinforce a hierarchical order where some members are required to “obey” others. Is the state an organism? Interestingly, the body politic analogy diminished greatly with the rise of democracy—replaced by “social contract”—but came roaring back with Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Sociology, “A primitive society evolves into an industrial nation just as a small, simple form of life becomes a large, more complex organism.” (And it shows up in all sorts of social darwinian thinking and language even now.)

Analogic thinking is important and creative—and revealing! Educational philopopher Parker Palmer tells a story that he often asks workshop groups of faculty to complete the following: “When I am teaching at my best, I am like a ____________” He tells them to do it quickly and go with the first image that arises. He sees himself as a Border collie: all business, keeping the space safe, bringing back strays, keeping out predators, when the grazing ground is depleted he moves the herd to another space where they can be fed. There is a “shadow side” of this: students are sheep—with all the Orwellian and invidious meaning that has—the dumbest of the barnyard animals, mindless, docile, bleating “4 legs good, 2 legs bad.” Palmer knows he must stay on guard against seeing students like this–or they will forever be sheep and never be autonomous.

Try the following as ways to encourage students to think analogically:

Spanking a child to teach obedience is like…

Building low-cost housing for poor people is like…

The effect of American fast food on our health is like…

The personal gain realized by people who have committed questionable or illegal acts and then made money by selling book or movie rights is like…

Cramming for an exam is like…

Keeping wild animals in zoos is like…

Earlier this school year (more self-reference!) I talked about students and teachers as: Vacationers, Business Travelers, Tourists (or Tour guides for faculty), and Pilgrims. In that entry (, I did encourage people to think of Pilgrimage as the highest or best form of journeying. Not so here, all three roles–Magician, Stripper, Sherpa–have their place.

There are many times when a Teacher is a Performer–as both the Magician and the Stripper are. (The Sherpa is a companion.) The Magician practices a “concealing” art designed to inspire awe or wonder, to celebrate mystery, to engage in misdirection, hide the “process” until the “reveal,” and perhaps to shock. The Magician can be particularly appropriate in Introductions, beginnings of classes/units/subjects. An attention-grabbing act–something to inspire curiosity, is always a good opening. When I present at conferences, or do presentations or demonstrations, I often adopt the Persona of the Magician. Another benefit to the Magician–he or she will travel to you. The weaknesses of the Magician: the Magician, not the subject being studied or the student, becomes the object of attention, the “process” is never revealed (like not showing your work or not seeing any drafts of a paper), the performance may be dazzling but not deep, the Magician may adopt a refinement that is distant or alienating (or a combative persona such as Criss Angel or other street Magicians). In its most pathetic incarnation, this is the person who hides behind the teacher’s edition of the book (having access to all the “answers” but concealing them–not letting them out [see Shevek’s physics’ teacher, Sabul, in LeGuin’s brilliant The Dispossessed]).

What of the Stripper? The Stripper practices a “revealing” art designed to inspire desire or passion. The Stripper demands the focussed attention of the audience and often crosses boundaries or taboos. Both Magicians and Strippers feign intimacy with the audience while keeping their distance. (Think of the Magician who invites people on stage, banters with them, makes them prop in the performance, etc–all of it is fake intimacy; the Stripper–well that should be obvious). What are the advantages of the Stripper: to inspire desire, to communicate passion, to convince/seduce, to entertain, to show off, and to subvert. Like the Magician, the Stripper will travel to you. The weakness of the Stripper: the performer IS the object of attention, the Stripper creates hunger or desire but offers no real connection, genuine passion can be debased and become crude or coarse. In its most glaring abuse it often manifests as the attempt to indoctrinate to political or personal views. (Anyone else notice that these two roles–Magician and Stripper–have gender connotations. Most, not all, Magicians are men; most, not all Strippers, are women).

What of the Sherpa? The Sherpa is appropriate for graduate students, for graduated students, for long-term relationships built on genuine intellectual intimacy. The Sherpa is a fellow traveler and, unlike the Magician or Stripper, understands his or her anonymity–everyone remembers Sir Edmund Hillary who climbed Mt. Everest–virtually no one remembers the Sherpa who accompanied him–Tenzing Norgay. But Hillary never forgot Norgay and our great students never forget us and we never forget our great teacher-companions. The role of Sherpa has weaknesses, however. The Sherpa is isolated–he or she lives in the rarefied Nepalese air of biomechanics or the world of string theory or narratology and might never leave his or her own province to “recruit.” You can order a Magician or Stripper–and they will come to you–but you cannot order a Sherpa.

Back to our questions at the beginning. I’d suggest that they reveal the following–but you may have your own ideas:

1. I keep in touch with a teacher I had from high school or college and/or I keep in touch with a student or students I have taught after they graduated high school and college. The Sherpa is valued as a role or you are conscious you have had a Sherpa in your life.

2. I have a couple of terrific lectures that I have developed over the years. The Magician is ascendant here–strong performances that one can go back to (though someone might make the same argument for the Stripper).

3. I would be comfortable saying something like the following: “I fulfill a central function in my life when I teach my subject at the highest level I can.” The Magician again–more the focus on the subject than the relationship with the student–again, the Stripper strikes me as a secondary choice.

4. My passion and enthusiasm are things students immediately know about me. The Stripper. Passion (even feigned) is central to the Stripper and is revealed right away.

5. I have taken my students on cultural outings (restaurants, plays, movies) or had them over to my house. The Sherpa cultivates particular relationships (“appropriate relationships” I guess I have to say nowadays–I have utter contempt for those who abuse their POWER and teaching is ALWAYS about POWER relationships). The Sherpa loves to share expertise and is more than willing to help carry the load. My own learning has been shaped and helped by several superb Sherpas–Robert Ducharme and Verlyn Flieger in particular. I hope I have been Sherpa to a few.

6. Social issues and social justice issues have a way of working themselves into my classes—almost regardless of the topic. Very often the Stripper–the idea of peeling back the workings of things so that others can see them is prevalent.

7. I have watched Randy Pausch give his “Last Lecture.” Rarely have I seen the Stripper so powerful as he “undresses” himself to a point where his individuality has become universality–spectacular.

8. There are a couple of faculty members I go to for advice about pedagogy or content–and I feel comfortable asking for advice. I recognize that while I am Sherpa for some, others are Sherpas for me.

9. I’m comfortable with my students’ unease as I narrate a series of unexpected connections that eventually make sense to my students. The Magician–things are unexpected but eventually make sense. If I do not provide the student with the “wrap up” then I have failed.

All great teaching springs from relationships that need to be cultivated. I hope that in whatever role we are most comfortable: the Magician, the Stripper, or the Sherpa, that we will honor the role we play for our students–and honor those who played those roles for us.

Parker Palmer: “A subject is available for relationship; an object is not.”

*On the “Shadow,” here is a brief aside from a worksheet I give my students to understand Persona, Ego, and Shadow:  “The shadow is the inferior being in ourselves, the one who wants to do all the things we are not allowed to do….” Fordham, 49. The shadow is in the personal unconscious.  The collective aspect of the shadow is expressed as a devil or witch or something similar. “In choosing the word ‘shadow’ to describe these aspects of the unconscious, Jung has more in mind than merely to suggest something dark and vague in outline.  There is, as he points out, no shadow without the sun, and no shadow (in the sense of the personal unconscious) without the light of consciousness.  It is in fact the nature of these things that there should be light and dark, sun and shade.  Superstition holds that the man without a shadow (using the word in the ordinary sense) is the devil himself, [Dracula famously casts no reflection] while we ourselves are cautious with someone who seems ‘too good to be true,’ as if we recognized instinctively that human nature needs the leaven of a little wickedness.” Fordham, 50. from A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, ed. by Andrew Samuels, Bani Shorter, and Fred Plant.  London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986. “the shadow: ‘the thing a person has no wish to be’ (CW 16.470).  In this simple statement is subsumed the many-sided and repeated references to shadow as the negative side of the personality, the sum of all unpleasant qualities one wants to hide, the inferior, worthless and primitive side of man’s nature, the ‘other person’ in one, one’s own dark side.  Jung was well aware of the reality of evil in human life. Over and over again Jung emphasizes that we all have a shadow, that everything substantial casts a shadow, that the ego stands to shadow as light to shade, that it is the shadow which makes us human.” From Jung himself, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.  If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it.  Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications.  But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected, and is liable to burst forth suddenly in a moment of unawareness.  At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions” (CW 11.131). CW stands for Collected Works of Jung.


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“Critical Thinking”–The most abused phrase in education

All disciplines have their technical vocabulary. A lay person might use “speed” and “velocity” to refer to the same thing but a physicist would not; a commentator might use “myth” to refer to a falsehood but a historian of religion uses that word quite differently; an observer might use “anarchism” interchangeably with “terrorism” but a political scientist would not.

In addition to a technical vocabulary, all disciplines, too, have their own jargon and buzz words that often make those inside and outside the profession roll their eyes or throw up their hands. The further divorced from any real meaning the jargon gets, the more frustrating it becomes—Orwell calls this a “sheer cloudy vagueness.” (Orwell points out that “fascism” or “fascist” eventually came to mean “something disagreeable,” far from its original meaning.) While there are many contenders for the most egregious phrase in academic jargon I’d say that “critical thinking” stands out.

Everyone supports teaching students to “think critically,” (except the political plank of the Texas Republican Party which–I’m serious–specifically said that higher order thinking skills [known by the acronym HOTS {good grief!}] should NOT be taught by schools. The “good news” for them is that hardly anybody is doing it anyway and certainly no “system” or “school district” is doing it–only individual teachers are–and they are few and far between). I’ve met very few teachers and administrators (and even fewer people outside academia) who have a clear idea of what they want students to do when they engage in “critical thinking.” Usually the definition is tautological, such as “teach kids to reason” or help students acquire “higher order mental skills.” Some very fine educators will say “We teach them to ask questions.” But asking questions or engaging students with the “Socratic method” is not the same thing as teaching critical thinking. Neither is getting students to define concepts such as “influence” or “control” as I saw one school claim. That exercise may help students begin to reflect on their own opinions but it doesn’t train specific intellectual skills.

Washington Post reporter and columnist Jay Mathews has observed that teaching critical thinking “means my history teacher Mr. Ladendorff encourage[ed] us to write essays that criticized the textbook. He is the guy who gave me the tools to be a contrarian columnist.” I am loath to disagree with such a gifted educational reporter as Mathews but what Mr. Ladendorff gave Mathews was not critical thinking skills but a license to, and encouragement to, question traditional authority—an incredibly valuable gift—but much more of an attitude or outlook than a set of reasoning skills. I suspect that Mathews taught himself to “think critically” by beginning to consider point of view in the text, what was put in and what left out and why, what unacknowledged assumptions were being made and who benefitted from them.

I know the exact skills I’m looking to improve: inferential skills, predictive validity skills, observation and close reading skills, pattern recognition skills, and I know the texts I want to use to teach those skills. Memory and recognition (think how many tests you took that required these particular skills) while important, are too often the default skills being taught no matter the subject matter.

For pattern recognition I may teach a series of flood stories: Noah’s Ark; Deucalion and Pyrrha; Baucis and Philemon; Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Saw the Flood.” The questions I design move in three steps: 1) group everything we know about the stories by what is common to them; 2) start separating the stories by what distinguishes them; and 3) evaluate the stories by some criteria that you acknowledge (rank in order of realism, rank in order of destructiveness, rank in order of teaching a moral, and so on with all the attendant reasons why). If students do this over and over again they will teach themselves a way to think.

To teach predictive validity I might engage in a close reading of a story or poem—phrase by phrase or line by line—and ask a series of questions after each line about the things that could happen next. Is it a surprise when “Richard Cory, one calm summer night,/Went home and put a bullet through his head”? Not if you’ve read carefully to notice that the narrator knows only the externals about Cory (the narrator says “he was always quietly arrayed” and “He was a gentleman from sole to crown”—not even using the physical representations “head to foot” that we non-poets would use; he “glitters”–a surface reflection and on and on) and nothing of his inner life.

For each teacher in your child’s life you should ask, in addition to what material is being presented and what kind of homework your child will have, exactly what mental processes will they be working on, how will they work on those processes, and will they be evaluated on them? Let’s not let anyone say they’re teach “critical thinking” without finding out exactly what that entails.

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Filed under books and learning, close reading, critical thinking, definitions, definitions of intelligence, education, inferential skills, pedagogy, teaching, Uncategorized

Close Encounters of the Reading Kind

Close Reading is an invaluable skill.  So why isn’t it taught as much as it should be (and believe me, it’s NOT)? Many people have no idea of where to begin.   Websites that claim to teach you how to do a close reading are filled with exhortations to “pay attention to diction,” “look for patterns,” “highlight syntax,” and other unhelpful truisms. Another series of web-pages gives you questions to answer while you are reading–moderately helpful but one has to keep looking back at the questions. (If you don’t believe me just Google “close reading” and click on any link on the front page).

But I, Dear Reader, am actually giving you two strategies to help students not just learn ABOUT  close reading but to actually DO close reading.  (They are also easy to adapt and grade if you wish to do so–I certainly do.) They are: Quiz/Notes and 4 X 4 X 4 (read “four-by-four-by-four”). A central strength of both assignments is that they force the reader into a kind of intimacy with the text that one rarely sees.  Students become familiar with the notion of “going to the text” to prove a point and, better yet being able to find almost any plot point or quotation they need.

Quiz/Notes requires students to do 10 Quiz questions (with answers in square brackets [ ] next to them and 15 comments with page number PRECEDING the comment).  Comments can take any form from a list of characters being introduced to a change of venue to a reminder of something in another text. I do Quiz/Notes for EVERY TEXT I teach. At the beginning of Quiz/Notes I give out samples of my own Quiz/Notes. These are easy to grade (25 points!) and I often use them to give the quiz on the reading.  I like using Quiz/Notes with long prose assignments as students will essentially build their own set of Cliff Notes or Spark Notes to the text.  I append a link to the Quiz/Note document I hand out (or email to students, post on the class website) so you can see what the form looks like.  I also have clipped and pasted simple example of a Quiz/Note page.

Quiz Note Doc

Name____________________      Pages covered_____________________                                                     Text_____________________       Date_______________

Quiz                                                                      Page# Notes








4 x 4 X 4 is a great way to get students to engage a text and to get students to talk with each other.  (The number “4” is completely arbitrary here and I have done 3 x 3 x 3 and 5 x 5 x 5 when it suits me.) The description and example below are from a handout I developed when teaching Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.  When I do this well, I am able to be a relay station as I ask one student to give us one of his quotations and then ask for response from other students. Or I ask for one student to give a question or comment and then redirect to other students for response. I love the flexibility and rigor of both these ways of helping develop better readers.


Dear Scholars,

Below you will find the reading schedule for our next book, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.  We will spend five (5) days on the book and each day we will have up to 8 students provide us with a 4 X 4 X 4 each day.  Each student does one (1) 4 X 4 X 4 but you MUST bring TWO COPIES (one for me and one for you to keep).  Each 4 X 4 X 4 is worth 30 points (three quiz grades).

4 X 4 X 4 refers to a student writing 4 Questions and 4 Comments, and identifying 4 Quotations from that night’s reading.  In other words, for Wednesday, up to 8 (2 x 4) students will bring to class 2 copies of the 4 X 4 X 4.  You are NOT allowed to range outside of your assigned page numbers for the 4 X 4 X 4.  A sample 4 X 4 X 4 for pages 21-42 appears on the back of this paper.  Notice that you need not supply all of the quotation (just the first FOUR words and the last FOUR words and the page number[s]).  Quotations should be about something that interests you. Questions can be speculative (What does it mean when Frankl says that “the best of us did not return”?), or informational (Does “Dr. M” refer to Joseph Mengele?), or some combination of the two.  Comments can be about style (“I think that Frankl gives clear examples”), or substance (“The idea that the ‘best of us did not return’ suggests that Frankl himself is not among the best”).  Questions, Comments and Quotations may all refer to the same things.

Wed    Feb 1   set up 4 X 4 X 4

Thu      Feb 2   Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 21-42 4 X 4 X 4

Fri        Feb 3   Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 42-64 4 X 4 X 4

Mon     Feb 6   Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 64-84 4 X 4 X 4

Tues     Feb 7   Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 84-101 4 X 4 X 4

Wed    Feb 8   Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 101-115 4 X 4 X 4


Daniel McMahon

4 X 4 X 4 pp. 21-42


What is the “delusion of reprieve” and why is it so dangerous? (p. 28)

What does “run into the wire” mean? (p. 37)

How powerful is the temptation to become a Capo?  Would it be worth it to sell out?

Why does one prisoner tell Frankl to “shave daily” no matter what? (p. 38)


There seems to be remarkable cruelty in the comment that one prisoner makes to him that his friend is floating up to heaven. (p. 31)

It is amazing what the prisoners can adapt to.

Is the “delusion of reprieve” actually a good thing—does it help one go on? (p. 28)

It is interesting that curiosity remains even in the face of such horror. (p. 35)

Quotations: First 4 words…Last 4 words:

“The selection process was….had to be found” (pp. 22-23)

“As I have already….us did not return.” (pp. 23-24)

“If someone now asked….act of committing suicide” (pp. 36-37)

“At first the prisoner….move him any more” (p. 40)

Next week, more comments on teaching and less on strategy and technique.


Filed under books and learning, close reading, critical thinking, education, Frankl Man's Search for Meaning, inferential skills, pedagogy, theories of reading, Uncategorized

Build a better reader: take the following stories, add interesting terms…

I’m after much bigger fish than just teaching World Literature–I want to alter each of my student’s intelligence (for the good I note lest some former student point out that I made him or her dumber). Those who have hung with the blog and it’s digressions might remember that I have written about teaching “critical thinking” a couple of times. I usually spend lots of time on teaching pattern recognition and lots of time on inferential skills.

In addition to my ambition to create better thinkers, I really want to build better readers.  One central way I do this is by expanding my students’ notions of what a text is and then helping them learn to become more self-reflective, self-conscious readers.  As far as I know, NONE of the terms below can be found in any book or article.  I thought them up and I apologize in advance for the lacuna that they leave.  I’m still working on filling in other kinds of readers besides the ones listed here. (Feel free to send me suggestions–just know that I am likely to steal anything good)

The recipe this week is to take Ovid’s demanding Metamorphoses and focus on the following stories: Lycaon–who refuses to recognize Jupiter (when EVERYONE else does), tries to feed him a Molossian slave, plans to kill him in the night and, for his troubles, is changed into a wolf (hence “lycanthropy”). You’ll then need to read the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha.  When Jupiter floods the earth and destroys EVERYONE and pushes the world back to primeval chaos, Deucalion, the most upright man who ever lived, and his wife Pyrrha, the most upright woman are saved.  Completely bereft they approach the Oracle and ask what to do.  The oracle tells them, “Go from this place, loosen your garments, and throw behind you the bones of your great mother.” You will also need the story of Pyramus and Thisbe–a favorite of Bill Shakespeare who used it twice (Romeo and Juliet and in A Midsummer’s Night Dream). Bill Shakespeare not only loved this story but Ovid’s Metamorphoses must rival Holinshed’s Chronicles and Plutarch’s Lives for favorite text (despite my admiration, I’m not a Shakespearean–and I refuse to fetishize him as many of my brethren do). Pyramus and Thisbe are supposed to meet at Nisus’ tomb near a mulberry tree.  Thisbe arrives first, is scared by a lioness coming from the kill, runs away leaving her veil.  Lioness mauls veil and leaves.  Pyramus arrives, sees lioness’ footprints and bloody veil, kills self for allowing Thisbe to be killed.  Thisbe returns, sees dying Pyramus, pulls the sword from his side and kills self.  Parents repent and place ashes of thwarted lovers in the same urn.  Lastly (well–only is this assignment is it last–there are numerous other things going on by I’m giving you the Spark Notes version of several classes), you’ll read the story of Diana and Actaeon.  Seems Diana is bathing with her nymphs surrounding her when, fresh from the morning hunt, the unlucky Actaeon stumbles upon her.  Without her bow and arrow–and outraged that he has seen her naked–she throws water on him and changes him to a stag.  He runs, is pursued by his hounds (hilarious epic catalogue of hounds’ names–that Ovid, what a card) and eventually is dragged down and torn apart while his friends yell for him to join them.

Each of these stories contains “a text” and “readers” and each is a commentary on the act of reading.

i like to begin with the story of Lycaon and introduce the concept of the Eisegetic Reader (patent pending as I have invented this remarkably helpful term).  Exegesis is commonly understood to be the explication or interpretation of something.  Eisegesis is its inverse.  The Eisegetic Reader comes to a text determined to come to a conclusion REGARDLESS of the evidence.  An example I use with my students is the Flat Earth Society.  All evidence that does not fit their world view must be “fabricated” or otherwise dismissed.  The quarterback who throws into double coverage because he has already made the decision about who to throw to before he reads the defense engages in Eisegetic reading.  No one in Lycaon’s castle recognizes Jupiter but when he reveals himself as a god EVERYONE else bows down before him.  Lycaon willfully persists in forcing his reading on the “text” of Jupiter.  (There is an interesting charter myth here about hospitality and one about cannibalism, too [more on charter myths at a later date] and we cover it all but this blog is about reading.) Jupiter punishes the bad reader.  Students, though at first uncomfortable with the term Eisegetic Reader, recognize the symptoms, can generate examples themselves, and become aware of their own Eisegetic tendencies.

The story of Deucalion and Pyrrha allows us to introduce the Literal Reader and the Mature Reader.  Pyrrha interprets the Oracle’s command by saying that she will not desecrate her mother’s grave (important social convention being communicated here) but this is a perfectly literal reading.  And, as I tell my students, except in the case of Exit signs, the Literal reader is bound to fail. Deucalion ‘interprets” the Oracle’s injunction to “throw the bones of your great mother over your shoulder” to mean the stones or clods of earth on the ground–the Great Mother.  But, interestingly, he doubts whether he is right.  He is right but his skepticism and doubt allow him to be a good reader.  Perversely perhaps, but certainty is the enemy of good reading! Deucalion is right of course (and what follows is a chthonic or autochthonous creation that explains why we are “out of the earth”) and we now have the terms Literal Reader and Mature Reader to add to Eisegetic Reader.

The story of Pyramus will give us the characteristics of the Immature Reader.  The same dust that holds the lioness’ retreating footprints would certainly hold the footprints of the running Thisbe.  So a walk in an 80 foot circle would have revealed this fact.  Like ALL Immature readers, Pyramus jumps to a conclusion before he has all of the facts.  That Ovid punishes bad readers so severely is an interesting stance–Lycaon changed to a wolf, Pyramus dead, and Pyrrha saved only by her husband’s reading ability.

But what happens when no matter how skilled the reader, the text cannot be understood.  Enter the Actaeon story.  Changed into a stag, there is no way, no matter how skilled the hounds or his friends, that they could deduce it is Actaeon they are hunting and not a “regular” stag.  This allows us to introduce the concept of the “corrupt text”–a text that can’t be read no matter the reader’s skills.

Armed with these terms (and these stories) my students and I become better readers of ALL texts and as Shakespeare might have said, “all the world’s a text.” We just need to be Mature readers, and doubt ourselves to get at the truth.


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