Monthly Archives: March 2019

Act Four

The plot thickens. Hamlet has killed Polonius and the fourth act opens as Gertrude informs Claudius. Hamlet hides the body, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dispatched to find him, Hamlet is sent to England, Fortinbras’s forces draw near, Ophelia loses her mind, Laertes returns and leads a revolt against the king; on his way to England, Hamlet discovers the true purpose of the trip, is captured by pirates, and brought back to Denmark; Claudius turns Laertes’s anger towards Hamlet. Ophelia drowns. That’s a lot to take in during the seventh and eigth weeks of our imagined course on Hamlet. What simple writing task can we imagine assigning to the students? What might they write at least five paragraphs and at most 1000 words about?

My suggestion is to let them choose their topic themselves, albeit confined to Act Four of the play. That is, don’t give them a question to answer. Just tell them they have to write an essay “about” the fourth act of Hamlet. By now they know what an essay looks like and they have some sense of how their reader, a peer, responds to what they write. They can now write about their own experience as a student of Shakespeare. Or they can write a review of Kenneth Branagh’s movie that focuses on this act. They can pick a single soliloquy to write about (e.g., “How all occasions do inform against me!” as they have already tried with “To be or not to be”) or they can summarize the action, either that of the whole act, or that of one or two scenes (as they practiced doing with Act One.) They can also try to explain why a character did or didn’t do something (as they tried in Act Two.) Or they can approach the act in some completely different way. Leave it entirely up to them.

The trick here is to remind them that they are writing for each other, their fellow students — not for you, their teacher. All them have been “forced” to read the play and all of them have, presumably, attended class. It should be more difficult to do this assignment well if you haven’t read the play or haven’t attended class. In part, you’ll lack knowledge of what you’re talking about, but, perhaps more importantly, you won’t know who you’re talking to. Some of the most important information the students will get from the class discussions will be about the mind of their reader: what will they find hard to believe, understand or agree with? Emphasize that you will be grading them in view of the conversation that you’ve had with them for the past eight weeks. Their essays should, of course, be articulate; but what’s really important is that the author appear “conversant” on the subject of Hamlet. They should demonstrate an eye for the good question, an ear for humor, and the courage of their convictions. It can be useful to tell them that you will have read everyone else’s essays. So you know exactly what the readers have on their minds.

As always, don’t let them reject the task as boring or irrelevant. In its content, it’s basically as relevant and important as the most famous play that has ever been written. In its form, it is as valuable as the ability to write down what you know in such a way that other knowledgeable people can help you consider the matter more carefully. The exercise will train their ability to understand complex actions and motivations and to recognize a broad range of human emotions. Finally, it will give them an occasion to improve their writing, i.e., their ability to compose coherent prose paragraphs in well-defined moments. These are ideas and skills that the students want to master. You’re training them in the use of the “equipment for living”.

Act Three

The third act of Hamlet contains the most famous speech in, arguably, all of literature. In the context of a course devoted exclusively to the play, and, more precisely, in the context established by a week or two of discussion about the act that also contains “The Mousetrap” and the closet scene, no student should be in doubt about what is meant when the teacher asks, “What is the question?” There is a short answer: “to be or not to be?” But there are also countless longer ones, which can be presented in essays of no less than five-paragraphs and no more than 1000 words. Students can demonstrate their competence by reacting intelligently and knowledgeably to that simple four-word prompt.

With Act One, I suggested getting the students simply to say what happened. With Act Two, it got a bit harder; the student was to explain why something happened (or rather, why it didn’t). I’m now suggesting something that looks more like philosophy. The student must, of course, first recognize that we’re talking about a very particular question, raised by a particular character, under particular circumstances. If the student demonstrates no awareness of these things, then we’re not going to be very impressed. Second, the student must be aware of some of the familiar options: is it a question of committing suicide (is Hamlet asking whether he should, here and now, be or not be) or is it a question of taking action or leaving things as they are? But there are deep philosophical questions at play and it is important that the student recognizes the “existential” importance of what Hamlet is thinking through. When we ask, “What is the question?” we have to recognize that it is Hamlet’s question only at first pass. At the end of the day, it’s our question too.

My own interpretation depends crucially on how we parse Hamlet’s first restatement of the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.

As I read this, Hamlet is contrasting the option of “taking arms” against the option of “suffering in the mind”. Others (and I think actually most scholars) read it differently: the choices are “suffer” and “take arms” and the question is which is “nobler in the mind”. (On my view, it’s just which is nobler.) If I were to write this essay, I would do well to note both of these interpretations and even cite some famous supporters of each. I normally point out, for example, that Edward Dowden, in his 1899 edition of the play, says, that “‘in the mind’ is to be connected with ‘suffer’ not ‘nobler’.” So there’s that. My interpretation is not original, but I can demonstrate a little learning by providing a source.

Even the independent-minded student who wants to challenge the “obvious” or “boring” solution to the problem of writing the essay must acknowledge that easy solution first. “‘To be or not to be’ isn’t really a question, nor is it ‘the’ question that Hamlet truly faces,” is a perfectly good thesis statement for the essay if the student is ready to back it up with some sound arguments. Even if they will most often be wrong in some absolute sense, they can demonstrate their knowledge of the play and their ability to write intelligently while pursuing a dead end. Quality is relative to conditions they are given.

Suppose you’ve assigned these 1000-word essays every two weeks. You’re now six weeks into a course on Hamlet and every student has submitted at least fifteen paragraphs answering the questions, “What happened in Act One?” “Why didn’t Hamlet kill Claudius in Act Two?” and “What is the question in Act Three?” I’ll offer two no less obvious questions for the fourth and fifth acts soon. There are of course many other questions that would be just as good, and many other stories that could easily replace Hamlet in whatever field you happen to be working in. My aim is to defend this simple approach to teaching and learning, one that makes essential use of writing as part of a larger conversation in the discipline. My claim is that if students are doing this work then the discussions in the classroom can proceed at a higher level. I’m happy to hear why you think I’m wrong about this.

Act Two

There’s an old joke about philosophers: They ask such interesting questions! Why do they come up with such boring answers? Undergraduates might invert it in the case of their professors. They ask such boring questions! How can they expect interesting answers? One way to respond is to appeal to what I’ve called “the fourth difficulty” of academic writing: a knowledgeable person can see the interesting detail in a familiar generality. A student who has been paying attention during the lectures and has read the required readings will understand the underlying interest of an apparently boring question. The question may seem very simple, but it is prompting the student to demonstrate mastery of a complex reality.

In this spirit, I want to continue my reflections from my last post. Recall that I’m imagining a one-semester course on Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. After reading the first act, I suggested asking the students to retell the story of its five scenes in five well-formed paragraphs. This would be a very simple “exegetical” task; it would merely answer the question “What happened?” Now consider a somewhat more difficult and “analytical” question: why didn’t Hamlet kill Claudius in Act 2? Obviously, it will not do to say that he had no reason to do it. By the end of Act 2, we know that Hamlet does not lack a motive but he does seem to lack some sort of resolve. Why? How does it make sense that Hamlet has not done as the ghost of his father has demanded? Is he, as he himself suspects, simply a coward? Or is it possible, already at this point, to defend his hesitation as serving some “nobler” cause? Give the students another five paragraphs to work it out.

Notice that the task requires that the students recognize why the question is interesting. Even at this early stage in the play, cowardice isn’t a simple thing; Hamlet himself has a great deal to say on the issue; he “unpacks his heart” about it. Alternatively, if it isn’t cowardice, then what is it? And is that explanation better than Hamlet’s own? The student here isn’t just supposed to make something up; the idea is to test the student’s awareness of the well-known, but very interesting, issues that have already come up.

Notice also that this same question may be quite differently answered later in the course. Confining the students to the first two acts raises the question in one way, whereas asking them to decide the same question on the basis of the entire play is another matter. We know more about Hamlet’s “problem” by the end of the play than we did at the end of the second act. One way to explain the difference is to take the perspective of the audience. Even if we specify the question as being about why Claudius is still alive at the end of Act 2, the audience’s sense of the answer at the time will not be the same as its answer at the end of the play, let alone the scholar’s answer upon reflection. The student is being asked to demonstrate an ability to establish these different perspectives and use them to understand the play.

The word limit is as important here as the time limit. Let’s say we give them the question a few weeks into the course and give them a week to do the assignment at home. We tell them to write no more than 1000 words and we strongly suggest they compose their answer into five paragraphs. (They can take some liberties here, but they should use their freedom wisely.) At one level, this is like giving them a week to plan a five-minute presentation about what is generally considered the central problem in the interpretation of Hamlet (indeed, it’s sometimes just called “the Hamlet problem”). The fact that you’ve given them a week to plan it, and the fact that they only have five minutes to speak, frames our evaluation of the performance. If we had given them no preparation and twenty minutes we would allow a somewhat “looser” use of the time. But under these conditions we can demand a little focus, a little rigor.

As always, I want to emphasize that doing this well requires not just knowledge of a play but mastery of a craft. While it is a decidedly “academic” performance, there is nothing “mere” about it. People who can do this well, under the conditions I’ve proposed, can do many other things well too. Give them a week with any other text (or even some more “empirical” material) and a relevant why-question and they’ll know what to do. Higher education should make them better at precisely that skill. At university it is of course an entirely commonplace activity, but it is neither boring nor trivial in the larger scheme of things.

Act One

I suppose I should have been an English teacher. While what I’m about to suggest would work with any story, it always seems most natural to me to use Hamlet as my example. The important thing is that the story be well documented and widely discussed in your discipline; it should be the subject of your expertise and there should be a good body of evidence associated with it. The story should contain a lot of knowable facts, some of which can be (and have been) contested. There should be a range of “standard” interpretations and some “fringe” ones too and your students should be able to tell the difference. Like I say, I will use the text of Shakespeare’s famous play as my example, but you’re free to imagine the Mann Gulch Disaster or the Apollo Moon Landings or the Glaxo/SmithKline Merger as you like.

Imagine that you have devoted a full semester to studying the play and that your class meets for three hours per week over twelve weeks. During that time you’ll of course read the text of the play but also a great deal of commentary and you’ll no doubt watch some performances, live or on film. One thing you can ask your students to do is to summarize the play. It should immediately strike you that the play has five acts and the first act in fact also has five scenes. At the end of the first week, it would be reasonable to ask your students to submit a five-paragraph prose account of what happens in Act I. You can either tell them outright to structure their essay into five paragraphs, one for each scene, or you can simply give a one-thousand-word limit and let them figure it out for themselves. Make it clear that you are asking them to tell the story, not to analyze it in any way. You want a series of significant facts and events, but not yet an explication of their significance. To do this the students only need to read and understand the first act of the play.

I know people who will call this assignment trivial, or boring, or even easy. But I would counter that in a class of 25 students we would expect, not only that each student found a unique way of doing it, but that the quality of their work would be gradable. That is, we would be able to identify the top 5 essays, the next 7, the next 8 and the bottom 5. We’d be able to assign As, Bs, Cs, and Ds and Fs accordingly. The As would tell the story accurately but also compellingly. (Remember that it’s a ghost story and includes both a murdered father and a seduced widow.) In addition to getting them right, the students would have to decide what facts to include and what order to present them in. Would they start with the backstory or with the soldiers holding the watch? Would they begin with recent events or with the sledded Poles? This distribution of quality and variety of approaches speaks to the existence of a craft and an opportunity to develop a style.

That is, telling the story of what happens in Act I of Hamlet requires both knowledge of the play and an ability to write effectively. Even in the first week of a course, these skills and this knowledge can be demonstrated, and there are all sorts of good reasons to demand such a demonstration. Not only does it give the students an occasion to make up their own minds and experience the problem of writing down what they think, it gives the teacher an insight into the level that the students are working at. How well have they understood the play so far? How easily do they write about it? How conscious do they seem to be of the discourse? What is the relationship to the reader?

The assignment can be set up in any number of ways but, however you approach it, you should impose serious time constraints. You can give them 72, 24 or even 3 hours to do it. You can let them do it at home or have them write it in class. You can decide whether or not to let them use the text of the play or make it a closed book exam. You can even have them submit one paragraph per day. Different conditions constitute essentially different tests, since you can expect different results and treat different features as signs of competence. Whatever you do, don’t give in to the temptation to see this assignment as absurd, or meaningless. Don’t let the students see it as “merely” providing an exegesis. Emphasize to them that they are to tell a compelling story in no more than a thousand words. Emphasize also that they are telling arguably the most important story in the canon. Don’t let them approach it as somehow boring, or stuffy, or academic, or ancient. Like I say, it’s a ghost story. A king has been killed and a queen has been seduced by the murderer. The murderer is the king’s own brother. The old king’s ghost has come to demand that his son avenge him. There are rumors of war. It is bitter cold and the guards are sick at heart. What more do you want?

Writing assignments are not given only by English teachers. At a business school, you might be teaching the financial crisis, or high-reliability organizations, or trade in the European Union, or container shipping, or public administration, or influencer marketing, or Lean innovation. Elsewhere you may be teaching the anthropology of the Nuer or the sociology of homelessness. Or you may be teaching intellectual property law or the criminology of the Internet or NATO’s anti-terrorism efforts. You may even be teaching structural engineering or biomedicine. No matter what knowledge you are trying to impart, there are stories to be told and you can ask your students to tell them — indeed, you can demand that they be able to tell them. It is not a pointless exercise. It is the first act in the performance of a comprehensive craft skill.

“Knowledge Production” vs. the Conservation and Growth of Knowledge*

It seems to me that the purpose of university research has been lost, or at least greatly obscured, over the past fifty or sixty years. It is commonplace today to talk about “knowledge production” and the university as a site of innovation. But the institution was never designed to “produce” something nor even to be especially innovative. Its function was to conserve what we know. It just happens to be in the nature of knowledge that it cannot be conserved if it does not grow. Scientists — “knowers” — need to continuously satisfy their curiosity if what they know is to remain valid and retain its vitality.

But the university itself is not here primarily to make new discoveries or, as is increasingly assumed today, to invent new technologies. This should be left to independent inventors, free spirits working outside the formal institutions of knowledge. (The sort of inventions universities can foster are not, finally, very interesting.) The universities were there to pass what we already know on to those who are capable of knowing it but do not yet know it. Then, after they graduate, let them invent — whether new technologies or new literatures or new social movements or even whole new religions. And then, those who have shown an aptitude for retaining what they have learned and absorbing the novelties produced outside the universities into their thinking in durable ways, let them take their positions as teachers and scholars.

It is the curious mind that learns. And that’s why teachers need to be given conditions under which they satisfy their own curiosity. What seems to have happened this last half century is that innovation has been valorized at the expense of curiosity. In fact, an argument can be made that curiosity has been demonized. It’s so damned “subversive”, after all! Sometimes there’s nothing more annoying than someone who wants to know what we already know about a thing. A healthy society, however, must continually run the risk of having some of its institutions subverted by inquiring minds, by people whose only goal is to discover why we do things the way we do. Like subversion, innovation should not be seen as goal of scholarship but as a byproduct of letting a mind develop to its full potential.

To make that development possible, however, we need the university to present itself, on the whole and in the long run, as a conservatory of the collective experience of the culture. It must demand that students learn what we already know. But it must empathize with the curiosity that is the most teachable part of a student’s mind. I fear that our teachers are losing that empathy. I worry that curiosity is being thought of as, well, somewhat quaint, something to be replaced with the sterner, more profitable stuff of “innovation”. Innovators sometimes forget how much their work depends on what remains the same. The gardener’s main task is to conserve the garden‘s capacity for growth.


*This is a lightly edited version of 2012 post from my old blog.