What Should Students Do with Text?: From Interpretation to Interrogation

Over the first week or so of my first-year writing seminars, I carefully explain to students that the course is not an English class, but a composition class.

Most students have experienced writing assignments primarily in English classes and often anchored to literary analysis (interpreting fiction and poetry grounded in New Criticism or “close reading” assumptions about analysis).

In our composition class, we explore many texts, but are mostly examining non-fiction and the essay form. A guiding structure I used with high school students (including those preparing to take Advanced Placement exams in literature) and continue to use in first-year writing is to ask the following questions when engaging with text:

  • What is the author saying or arguing?
  • How is the author making that case?
  • Why does it matter to the reader?

The transition I am addressing for composition courses is away from literary analysis, interpreting text, and toward reading like a writer, interrogating text (something my students encounter in John Warner’s The Writer’s Practice).

However that same transition should also occur in literary analysis since traditional interpretation tends to focus on a static and misguided view of meaning—such as the “close reading” argument that meaning exists only in the four corners of that text.

Texts in a composition course that focuses on students as essay writers tend to serve as models for the writer’s craft as well as how to create and maintain the writer’s authority (specially in scholarly writing). I often tell students to mine those models of the essay for the “how” in the the three questions above—rhetorical strategies, literary techniques, organizational structure, etc.

Too often, I have noticed that traditional interpretation of fiction and poetry does not serve students well who are likely to navigate college in ways that never ask them to interpret fiction and poetry but that do require them to construct original essays that investigate and interrogate complex ideas, disciplinary knowledge across many disciplines, and non-fiction texts.

As just one example of the high school/college disconnect I have highlighted often, students tend to leave high school believing they should have MLA citation memorized only to discover a vast array of citation styles and the expectation that they know how to use the style guide assigned (and not memorize formatting).

One way to bridge the disconnect between high school English and first-year writing as well as writing expectations in college is implementing interrogation instead of interpretation at all level.

Reading like a writer in a composition course (see here and here) matches well experiences interrogating literature (fiction and poetry) since the larger concept is not identifying a fixed meaning, but considering and contesting many aspects of the text—such as writer intent, writer craft, and the role of the reader in creating meaning.

For example, consider Lavina Jadhwani’s approach to Shakespeare: Dismantling Anti-Black Linguistic Racism in Shakespeare.

In an interview, Jadhwani explains:

I spent a long time thinking Shakespeare’s plays were inaccessible to me: Either I didn’t have the “right” training or I wasn’t in the “right” circle. I wasn’t getting invited to direct them. I spent a long time feeling like I wasn’t worthy, and I think a lot of people feel that way.

This experience, I think, comes from how Shakespeare is taught, the focus on so-called objective interpretation of text that ignores the role of the reader as well as the many historical contexts of any text.

More specifically, Jadhwani explains how to approach Shakespeare through an anti-blackness lens (interrogating):

The document I created started with the word that starts with an “n” and means miserly. I don’t use that word, and I don’t see a reason for it. If you are a Black artist who has a different relationship to that word and feel like you want to reclaim it or use it in a certain way, I say, “Go for it.” As a non-Black artist, I only know the harm that word does, and “miserly” is just as good. It’s clearer. It scans. There’s no reason not to use it.

If there’s an instance where the word “slave” does harm and the word “knave” doesn’t, I think you can change it. I don’t know if that word did harm to Shakespeare’s audiences, but it can to ours. In an instance like that, I believe that making a substitution is actually closer to honoring Shakespeare’s original intention.

Further, this approach moves away from seeing any text as the ends, the goal, of instruction, and moves the text to a means to a much richer range of goals.

For example, Jadhwani’s anti-blackness guide invites students to consider and reconsider “cancel culture,” the historical context of Shakespeare’s language and Elizabethan culture, and their contemporary association with language, race, and racism.

To interrogate Shakespeare is to ask far more of teachers and students than the traditional interpretation process that restricts students to the text and evaluates the student against a singular and authoritarian meaning.

Even as high school English remains primarily courses in literature (with an emphasis on fiction and poetry), students need a much better foundation for writing in college or in the workplace. I am not rejecting the value of fiction and poetry or writing literacy analysis.

Literature and composition goals are different, and both valid. But we should find ways that those goals are symbiotic and not in conflict.

To achieve that, students should be invited to interrogate and not simply interpret text with their own reading and writing goals in mind.