Teaching analysis & meaning

My students want to jump to conclusions.

Give them a text, a work of art to view and consider, a billboard, a musical selection…they will make one observation and immediately either evaluate or interpret. I am pleased that young people want to find meaning in so many things–or at least understand that they might be able to find meanings–but I want to tell them to slow down.

It’s tempting to suggest that “kids today” want instant gratification, are spoiled by having instant Google searches on their iPhones, or have no work ethic. I do not think that is true. Perhaps we have not taught our young people how to look, describe, analyze what it is they are noticing. It’s not that they are incapable of these steps; they just do not know that they know them. I think some of my students don’t even realize that they do notice things.

Really, who has not made snap judgments, or interpreted something–a work of art, a remark in passing–without thoughtful analysis? Guilty as charged, in my own case. But I am still learning, and my patience with my own learning process should carry over to my students; at least, I strive for that.

I notice the urge to leap to interpretation most when I am teaching the survey of poetry classes. Students know that poems are supposed to mean, not be (MacLeish got through); but they lack the confidence to explore meaning on their own, in their own ways. They get frustrated and want to find experts to tell them what the poet meant. Delving into their own uncertainties is frightening to them. They’re just out of high school, where they learned that it’s wrong to be “wrong.”

So many good texts out there try to convince students (or other interested, frustrated readers) that there are other ways to be with a poem, to explore, discuss, notice, and find meaning. I read such books to find inspiration for my teaching, for my students, and for myself. When I have time to get back to this post, I’ll begin a list in the comments box below. Meanwhile, if you have suggestions, add them below. I’m always looking for more ideas, more good books, more reasons not to jump to conclusions.

4 comments on “Teaching analysis & meaning

  1. Sigrun says:

    I’m reading a very interesting text by the artist Agnes Martin these days. Its absolutely not an instructive “how-to…” text, but even so (or because of this) I think it would be great for students to read it. The text is almost like a report from the artists mind: its personal, subjective, individual.

    Getting to know more about the work-process might make us become better readers and viewers. I’ll try to present parts of this text for my art students.


  2. Herewith, some books that have been helpful to me in thinking about poems or art from the point of view of close reading or analysis; and when I mention analysis, I mean the sort of analysis that actually helps me to love the work more or to explain why it works for me (see the de Bolla musings of earlier posts) rather than cut the art or poem to ribbons. IE, I do not enjoy “tying the poem to a chair and beating it…” as Billy Collins puts it in his famous poem.

    Donald Hall, To Read a Poem; Edward Hirsch, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry; Carper & Attridge, Meter and Meaning; Robert Bly, Leaping Poetry; Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates; Marianne Borich, In the Blue Pharmacy; William Stafford, Writing the Australian Crawl; Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town; Tess Gallagher, A Concert of Tenses; Tom Disch, The Castle of Indolence; Adrienne Rich, Arts of the Possible; Gregory Orr, Poetry as Survival; Stephen Dobyns, Best Words, Best Order; Donald Hall, Poetry and Ambition; Robert Haas, Twentieth Century Pleasures; Carmela Ciuraru (ed), First Loves; Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry; as well as essays by Hazlitt, Baudelaire, Dave Hickey, Libby Lumpkin, Louis Menand and many others.


  3. I have seen the same with my students, but in the context of a science lesson or experiment. Too often they want me to give them all the information, instead of discovering it on their own. The discovery process, with minimal guidance, causes many to feel uncomfortable; yet, it helps to strengthen one’s trust in his own observations and ability to process and analyze the information.


Comments are closed.