Expect to Be Disappointed? Moby-Dick and ENGL1102 (Part I)

MD CoverThe title for this post (the first of two) comes from a response I received to a brief writing exercise I assigned to a group of University of Rochester students in a previous semester’s writing class. I was considering the possibility of teaching Moby-Dick in a freshman writing class, and I wanted to get a sense of what they knew, what they thought they knew, and what they had heard about the novel, and how this would shape their expectations for reading it. I received a lot of answers that you might expect from freshmen college students:

  • “It’s really long.”
  • “It’s really boring.”
  • “It’s really hard to understand.”
  • “Isn’t it full of symbols?”

But my favorite response came from a student who, after recounting horror stories she had heard from her friends about what a chore it is to read the novel, wrote, “honestly, I expect to be disappointed.” This one struck me as a bit odd: how can you expect to be disappointed, when the very idea of disappointment implies the violation of one’s expectations?

Still, as I said, this was rather the type of sentiment I expected from students. What surprised me, however, was the tepid reaction I also got when I floated the idea by several of my colleagues:

  • “It’s not a lit class
  • (and they won’t read it).”
  • “It’ll take too long
  • (which will be wasted time because they won’t read it).”
  • “They won’t get it if they do read it
  • (but don’t worry because they won’t read it).”
  • “It’s too long for a freshman to write a paper on
  • (also, they won’t read it).”

Now obviously some of these are more constructive than others as curricular critique. Teaching a lengthy novel like Moby-Dick in a writing and communication class certainly involves some consideration of how such a time-consuming endeavor can be justified from a pedagogical standpoint.[1] I mean, you can’t just teach it because it’s cool. But what I found the more I thought about it was that there was a certain consistency between some of the students’ responses and some of the colleagues’ responses. The students’ “isn’t it full of symbols?” became the colleagues’ “they won’t get it.” And the students’ “it’s really long” became the colleagues’ “it’s too long for a freshman to write a paper on.” The issues of the novel’s length and its relation to both the time it would take to get through it and the difficulty of having students write single interpretive essays on it all pointed to a kind of unstated certainty about the novel as an “it”: a single totality to be read, understood (or not) and written about. As Melville scholar—and editor of the fluid-text online edition of Typee—John Bryant has put it, “despite the transformations of deconstruction, twentieth-century literary criticism (still in practice in the new millennium) has rested uneasily on a New Critical foundation myth of textual coherency that requires scholars and critics to expect a fixed text as their agreed-on base for critical interpretation.”[2] Now, I’m not accusing all of my skeptical colleagues of uncritical new criticality—merely pointing out that there was an understanding about how to teach a text and how to teach writing that seemed to exclude a long and at times seemingly incoherent novel like Moby-Dick from a freshman writing class for many of my colleagues. I have to say, this was not exactly the response I was expecting.

I won’t lie: I was disappointed.

Which brought me back to that paradoxical statement my student had written: “expect to be disappointed.” The more I thought about it, the more I thought that the student who wrote that statement knew more than she realized. Because the more I thought about it, the more perfectly I thought that paradoxical logic captured the difficult situation of Moby-Dick—and the more Moby-Dick seemed to invite an approach that would perhaps rethink the “textual coherency” that Bryant describes. After all, as the standard joke about Moby-Dick goes, “it’s the greatest novel no one has ever read.” It’s supposed unapproachability is part and parcel to its reputation for greatness—a reputation that comes as much from the text’s cultural afterlife as a kind of archetypal myth of the Great American Novel as it comes from the novel itself. Students who know of the novel’s lofty reputation just as often “know” that the experience of reading it is not supposed to live up to it (which, in fact, is also part of that reputation).

So my solution to the problem of how to teach Moby-Dick in a writing class became to teach that afterlife, and—with my intrepid freshmen—to locate the tensions and contradictions that characterize that afterlife in the text itself. Thus, when I learned that I would be coming to Georgia Tech to become a Brittain fellow and that my first course would be the fiction-based ENGL1102, Moby-Dick became the centerpiece for a class I decided to call “The Adaptable American Classic.” As I envisioned it, this would be a class in which we would address questions of how novels become “classics,” and interrogate the notion of the “classic” as a unified masterpiece, instead focusing on the text as a continuous and fluid product and site of negotiation by readers. Moby-Dick, like adaptation, is in many ways about both the recognition of the impossibility of stable, coherent meaning and the necessity of commitment in spite of this recognition. In Moby-Dick, both characters and readers are repeatedly confronted with impossible but unavoidable interpretive and ethical choices produced by competing systems of epistemological, religious, and legal interpretation. Similarly, the adaptation of any text both demonstrates the impossibility of textual stability and asserts the inescapability of a concept of textual identity. Indeed, any adaptation of Moby-Dick forces readers or viewers to confront the question of just what we mean when we talk about “Moby-Dick.” The very fact of adaptation forces us to consider the slipperiness of the referent even as we try to identify what is “essential” to it.

As I developed the class, then, Moby-Dick began to seem right at home in a writing and communication course. These types of questions, which as Bryant has pointed out are important for understanding questions of textual identity when studying literature and adaptation, are also important for the teaching of college-level writing and critical thinking. As we are constantly trying to convince students, good critical thinking and good argumentative writing is characterized by the ability to see important issues as debatable rather than simply defined by some core “truth.” But it also acknowledges and confronts the necessity of choosing and justifying the best possible answer or course of action in spite of that fact.

In my next post, I will address the specifics of how I taught the class, and how students responded to these questions in their own ways, in multiple projects employing various modes.

[1] For more on the challenges and values of teaching a lengthy novel in a freshman writing class, see Julie Hawk’s post on teaching David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in her ENGL1102 class.
[2] Bryant, John. “Rewriting Moby-Dick: Politics, Textual Identity, and the Revision Narrative.” PMLA 125.4 (2010), 1043-60. 1043-4.

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