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.

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