The Interpretive Problem: A Key Concept in Teaching Writing

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Carli Cutchin, Comparative Literature

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2017

Thesis statements are the bread and butter of a good college essay – or so conventional pedagogical wisdom would say.

As a Reading and Composition instructor, I would see students struggle time and again when asked to write a thesis. I was surprised by this because, by and large, they understood the concept of a thesis—it was a concept they had been learning for years. They knew that a thesis should present a clear, persuasive argument that would provide a roadmap for the essay as a whole. I was left wondering: Why do students find it so difficult to actually compose a thesis statement?

Having taught R&C for two semesters, I was still puzzling over this question when I enrolled in a summer undergraduate course in the French Department. I had to learn to craft essays the French way. I noticed that instead of emphasizing the thesis statement as strongly as we do, the French emphasize the problématique: an interpretive problem that the essay sets out to address or to solve.

When my French instructor explained the concept of the problématique, a light switched on for me. It occurred to me that teaching students how to formulate an interpretive problem was the missing step in composition pedagogy. In any essay, the interpretive problem is critical because it enables the writer to identify a tension or ambiguity in a work of literature — an aspect of the text that calls out for clarification or resolution. Let’s say, for example, a student writes the thesis statement, “The young boy in Doris Lessing’s ‘Through the Tunnel’ fails to individuate fully from his mother.” This statement seems plausible, but, as a reader, I’m left with a lot of questions. Why is individuation an important topic to address in this short story? What is at stake for the boy in individuating from his parent? What compels him toward independence, and what holds him back?

In my next R&C course, I began teaching my students to formulate interpretive problems during the first week of class. I asked the students to read Franz Kafka’s puzzling short story, “Before the Law.” I told the students, “For this essay, don’t worry too much about the thesis statement. What I really want to see is how you identify an interpretive problem. What is the essential ambiguity of the story? What aspect of the story can be read in more than one way?” A week later, students turned in two-page essays. Nearly everyone had grasped the concept of the interpretive problem beautifully. Rather than jumping straight to an assertion, students took the time to identify the perplexing aspects of the story. For example, a number of students identified—and indeed, lingered with—the irony that the protagonist is denied entry to the Law, despite the fact that he seeks to enter into it through a gate that was built for him alone.

My next challenge was to teach my students how to identify an interpretive problem in a longer work—Kafka’s novel, The Trial—and then “resolve” the problem in a thesis statement. In class, we spent time working on close reading exercises aimed at pinpointing the key tensions of the novel. In groups, students identified an interpretive problem and posed it to the rest of the class. When I received their five-page essays, I was impressed by how alert the students were to the ambiguities of the text. Their theses were strong because they flowed in an organic way from the interpretive problems. One essay, from my student Mukund, was exceptional, with a sophisticated interpretive problem involving sexuality in the novel, and it went on to win Comparative Literature’s Reading and Composition Essay prize for 2015-2016.

I find teaching the interpretive problem rewarding because it gives me the opportunity to introduce something new to R&C students. In high school, many students are not given the freedom to explore textual ambiguity. The interpretive problem gives them that freedom and, at the same time, it empowers them to think critically about the texts they encounter.