Moving Beyond Plot Summary: Doing Things with Words

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Laurence Coderre, East Asian Languages and Cultures

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2014

In my Chinese 7B course last summer, Introduction to Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, my six students were having difficulty understanding how to approach literary texts beyond the simple recapitulation of plot. Focusing on what a given reading said, they rarely considered the significance of how it was conveyed. Throughout the course, I consistently emphasized the importance of thinking of these two issues in tandem, my ultimate goal being to get students to think of our texts — and their authors — in more active terms, as doing something, not just saying something. Ming dynasty xiao pin wen, or “short personal essays,” in which authors write in great detail about frivolous or mundane things, offered me an opportunity to address this concept, and students’ difficulties in grappling with it, head on. The key to understanding these pieces lies not in the specificity of their subjects per se, but rather in the way in which the author presents himself as “unique” through the display of, often esoteric, knowledge. Xiao pin wen as a genre require an indirect hermeneutics — one does not interpret them, so much as one interprets through them — forcing students to think about language and meaning in more than strictly denotative terms.

I chose to focus on Yuan Hongdao’s “Spider-Fighting” in my initial class on xiao pin wen, emphasizing the extent to which the text was “performative,” i.e. was actively doing something — in this case, evincing the author’s singularity and erudition. We began with an analysis of the piece’s invention and explanation of jargon. Students were asked to think of situations in which technical language is used in their own lives, offering examples to the class. But Yuan Hongdao does more than use fancy words in his piece; he makes them up, using them to describe a fictive activity. Why invent technical terms for a “sport” that doesn’t really exist? I then asked students to think about the difference in tone and effect between explaining something in colloquial and technical language. Who has access to the latter? Who has the “right” to explain something, and to whom? Eventually, students put forward a notion of “expertise” and began to parse out the power dynamic implied in that notion. As a group, we then mapped out the hierarchy at play between Yuan and the reader with reference to specific passages. I argued that we could understand the text as, above all, a claim to authoritative knowledge. Each student then described what he or she thought of Yuan as a person based on his choice of topic and his characterization of it, as a proxy of himself, while I helped fill in the gaps with some cultural and historical context. Students were asked to reread all the previously assigned xiao pin wen before the next day’s two-hour section along these same lines.

In section, I gave the students an in-class creative writing assignment as a way to assess their understanding of the previous day’s discussion. Students were given forty-five minutes to write a xiao pin wen of their own, in which they claimed some form of expertise (real or imagined). I distributed my own attempt at the assignment, describing the “right” way to eat Jell-O, as a guiding example. Once the allotted time was up, each student read his or her piece to the class. The results were staggering: students described the perfect rowing stroke and the art of applauding Chinese opera with subtlety and aplomb. I learned more about my students as individuals during this assignment than I did in all our other interactions combined; in other words, they proved to be masters of the xiao pin wen. But more than that, their ability to reproduce the genre so successfully was a testament to their understanding of what our Ming dynasty readings were all about and, more generally, how we can interpret texts in relation to what they do as well as what they say. That I saw a marked improvement in my students’ literary analysis in the remaining weeks of my class after this discussion and assignment is further proof of this.