Saturday 12 January 2019

Should English profs ban the "You're reading too far into things" argument from their classroom?

Many English professors have no doubt encountered students in their classroom who, arms folded, derail an otherwise productive textual analysis by insisting that their professor or classmates are “reading too much into things.” The implicit argument here, is that a) there is no such thing as figurative meaning, or b) that the figurative meaning being argued for oversteps the boundaries of reasonable credulity, with the recalcitrant student in question serving as the arbiter of what’s reasonable.

Yet despite the familiarity of this experience , many of the English professors I know still struggle with it. They don’t want to use their authority to overrule the student, nor do they want to appear as though they’re silencing dissent. Usually, they tend to acknowledge the student’s comments as one perspective among others, and then move on with the exercise, sometimes a little shaken by the experience. 

I feel less accommodating toward any version of the “I don’t buy it” or “You’re seeing things that aren’t there” argument, if in fact the argument goes no further than these statements. Rather, I would recommend that English professors include a note in their course syllabi explaining to the class why the “I don’t buy it” argument, in the absence of further qualification, has no place in an English classroom.  Here’s why:

a)    The study of English is, among other things, the study of figurative meaning. If a student doesn’t like talking about meaning beyond what is common sense or literal, they shouldn’t be in an English class. We’ve known about the existence of figurative meaning and the ways it can be mobilized through rhetorical devices for some time now.

b)   The “You’re reading too far into things” argument is not an evidence-based claim, because you cannot prove a negative. 

c)    Due to the absence of evidence in b), the student must offer an alternative reading of the same text, based on evidence, in order for the argument to be considered valid. 

This isn’t to say that a student should be told to keep quiet about their reservations toward a certain reading until they have a fully formed counterargument. Expressing reservations with a reading should be encouraged. What I’m talking about here is the more truculent “This is dumb; you’re seeing meaning that isn’t there” argument that, for the reasons outlined above, should be discarded as invalid before an English course has even begun, preferably through a statement in the course syllabus. 


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