By Gabrielle Elias, English
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2022
It would be accurate, I tell my students, to say William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is about grief, but it’s important to realize that that brief description overlooks all of the strange, rich detail that distinguishes Faulkner’s novel from all of the other novels about grief. I have repeated a version of this statement in all of my English R1B classes in an attempt to encourage students to recognize the difference between a summary of the text and the text itself. It is difficult to dwell on the specific language of a line or passage in general; that task is only complicated by the fast pace of an R1B class and students’ tendencies to read for key plot elements. How, then, in the face of understandable resistance and boredom, could I convince my students to see the value in the direct quote—in the small detail? When assessing my students’ writing, I realized I needed to address assumptions about how literature communicated information. In order to resolve the negative feelings they had developed around reading, it seemed necessary to stop them from envisioning the text as something that resisted their attempts to understand it. I wanted them, instead, to simply read the text as a set of choices, which they might interrogate. To help them make that switch, I asked them to take on a different role: fiction writer.
I instructed my students, in preparation for a discussion of a text centered on an outdoor concert, to describe Ryuichi Sakamoto’s performance of “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre. I began by dividing the class into two groups; the first group was tasked with listening to the piece and writing an accurate description of it, which they would communicate to the other group, who had not heard the song. After the first group had finished writing and communicating their (wildly different) descriptions to their classmates, I asked the second group to tell me what they thought the song would sound like; then, I played the piece again, and asked the second group to reflect on the accuracy of their partner’s summary. They offered their own descriptions, and together, we reflected on what our writing was missing: the way the music moved our bodies, the way our movements influenced others’ movements, the experience of hearing the song in the classroom, the way the song made us feel, and so on. It was clear from our conversation that there were multiple ways to write about the song, and furthermore, that matching the full experience was difficult work.
When we returned to the short story that inspired the exercise, Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill,” the students were eager to examine Mansfield’s own attempt to translate music into words. They were drawn to one line, in particular, due to its oddity: “Now there came a little ‘flutey’ bit— very pretty!—a little chain of bright drops.” We debated what the inexact word, “flutey,” meant (is it a flute or isn’t it?), and multiple students shared differing definitions of “bright drops,” drawing our attention to the instrument’s sound and shape. Because the “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” exercise presented them with a series of choices that replicated Mansfield’s—which parts of the score or listening experience to focus on, which parts to leave out in the interest of time, which words to use to be understood—they were more willing to read Mansfield’s language sympathetically. While the ambiguity of “flutey” and “bright drops” might have led to frustration earlier in the semester, it was now a site of possibility. She was approximating the sound—communicating the general vibe, they argued—instead of trying to match it exactly. This shift in their relationship to literature (from antagonism to something more generous) led to more productive class discussions and livelier paper arguments, and to the realization that even a text written a hundred years ago could still communicate something meaningful about their everyday experiences (in this case, the struggle to explain how a piece of music affects us). A few days after this experiment, a student emailed me a link to a song that perfectly matched Mansfield’s description, suggesting the phrase had not only retained its specificity, but started to influence how she heard music in general. I realized, in teaching a class about overlooked objects in literature, that one way to prompt students’ enthusiasm about reading is to rethink our relationship to the mundane, viewing it instead as a site of shared experience and a way into understanding literature in all its excessive detail.
Mansfield, Katherine. The Garden Party, and Other Stories. Project Gutenberg, 2019.