METHODS FOR INTERPRETING TEXTS
1. You need to figure out a strategy for reading this specific kind of text.
What is difficult about reading this kind of text? Why is it written this way? What strategy can be used to make sense of this text?
2. You need to figure out a way to place the text in context.
Who wrote this? Why was it written? Why was it written? Who is the author talking to, what is he talking about, and what is s/he trying to accomplish? What kinds of beliefs, attitudes, behavior, or ideas is the author commenting on in this text? In this text is the author agreeing or disagreeing with the beliefs and/or practices of most of the people in that society, of a particular group, or of a particular individual? Does this piece of writing express ideas that were typical of the time in a form that was typical for the time, or is it distinctive in some way? Why does this subject matter to the author? Did it matter to the author's contemporaries? Does it matter to us? Is the subject of this discussion a significant theme in the long conversation about the American identity? What other writers have commented on this theme, and do they do it in the same or different ways?
3. You need to figure out the way this text might add to your understanding of key course themes and your project theme.
Can this text help you understand one of the central questions of the course?
· How do we define success in a country that guarantees our freedom to the "pursuit of happiness"? How can we believe in the value of equality if we also believe in the value of success? If we want to believe that each person is equally capable of pursuing happiness, what other values or beliefs must we hold?
· How do we deal with differences in a country composed of people of different nationalities, religions, and political opinions? Are there some characteristics that all Americans are expected to share? How do Americans go about the process of persuading other Americans to accept them and their views? Are there ways of disagreeing that allow us to maintain order, and what happens when our disagreements threaten order?
· What kind of national "conversation" has allowed Americans to develop answers to these questions? What role does literature play in that conversation; what other voices take part in the conversation? How is the rhetoric of literature like or unlike rhetoric in other parts of our culture?
· Does literature offer any "answers"? What issues, if any, continue to be contested in literature? Do any answers remain consistent over time and across texts? Do we really listen to the answers or use them in our lives?
Can this text help you better understand what Americans have believed, practiced, said, and written about your subject of specialization? Find passages in the text that seem to connect to your area of interest. Remember our topics are:
The Value of Work, the Meaning of the Marketplace
What is the meaning of work in a country dedicated to the "pursuit of happiness"? Does our work define us? Does work have a moral value-in other words, are we better people if we work well or work in a particular way? Does the marketplace-what we are paid, or what price is placed on us-define our value? Is the marketplace the only thing or the primary thing that defines our value? If so, what gets left out of our lives? Is the domestic sphere, home and family life, as important as the marketplace? To what extent are all Americans-or specific groups of Americans-defined primarily as commodities or products? If so, what does that say about American values? What happens when people are excluded from the marketplace; do they cease to have value? Do some kinds of work have a higher status than others? For example, does the work of the head matter more than the work of the hand? Does work in a business matter more than work in a home? What role has been played by American literature in the discussion of the meaning of work and worth?
Manners, Morality, and Christianity
In a republic, what responsibilities do we have for other people? Why do manners matter? Is polite behavior the same or different as moral behavior? What is more important to "success" in life, manners or morals--or are they, once again, the same? Are different codes of manners applied to different groups of people; if so, why? Are different codes of morals applied to different people; if so, why? Do Americans think that using different codes to apply to different groups is inconsistent with our republican notions of "equality," or is this just a way of acknowledging the natural differences between human beings? How and why have manners changed over time? As we become more "polite" do we become better people? Are manners a way for people to bridge the gaps between classes or are they away of sorting out the different strata of society? Have morals changed too? How have Americans managed to negotiate differences in manners-or morality? Has Christianity ever been promoted in a way that did not promote morality? What do Americans understand by the term "Christianity"? How has Christianity been used to promote morality, and has there ever been a tension between morality and things promoted as "Christian" precepts? How has American literature contributed to this discussion on manners, morals, and Christianity and the relationship between the three.
Reading, Education, and Self-Cultivation
Why do Americans seem to place such a high value on reading and learning? Is it so we can "get ahead" in our business or social lives? Is it so we can be better citizens? Is it so we can be better Christians? Is it so we can be more complete human beings? Have our ways of defining education or "cultivation" changed over time? Have our ways of pursuing an education changed over time. Does our education define us; does it define our value? Should all Americans have the right to an education? Do we see American literature reflecting and contributing to the discussion of the value of education?
Social Reform, American Perfectionism and Exceptionalism
How do Americans go about the business of trying to make things better? Why do some groups feel so passionate about engaging in reform; what kinds of arguments or experiences inspire people to support reform movements? What kinds of claims do reformers use to promote reform and do those claims reflect particular visions of America and American values? Do reform movements reflect a particular view of America as exceptional and perfectible? Are we still trying to become that "shining citie on a hill"? How can you engage in debates over social change without disrupting the social order (or is it a good thing to disrupt the social order)? Are organized and outspoken reformers the "good guys" or busybodies? How are reformers and reform movements portayed in American literature? How has American literature contributed to the discussion of reform and the promotion or blocking of reform movements?
Gendered "Spheres" and Racial Roles
Are we defined by our gender and our race? Do gender and race define the types of abilities, aptitudes, and feelings that we have? Do the members of different genders have different "spheres" in which they should work? Do different "spheres" or "roles" carry different privileges and responsibilities? What role has American literature participated in the debates over gender and/or race that have gone on throughout our history? What other kinds of "texts" have played roles in this discussion, and how do these texts "speak" to each other-to they take up one another's arguments or rhetorical techniques?
The Good Death
How is death viewed in American culture and does that view change over time? How is death used in American literature, and how does that portrayal of death reflect the attitudes towards death in the culture as a whole? Is the "noble death" merely a literary device, or do other "texts" use death in similar or different ways?
4. You need to figure out a way to follow up on your questions and hypotheses in order to develop an interpretation. There are many ways you can do this. Here are just a few suggestions:
A) Find those passages in the work that strike you as most significant. They may be lines that clearly communicate an important message, that make a powerful impression on the reader, or pose a puzzle. Pay particular attention to these passages. By looking closely at the words in these passages, see if you can develop a deeper understanding of the text as a whole.
B) Look closely at the opening and closing passages of the work. See if they give you any sense of the purpose and main ideas of the work as a whole.
C) Make a list of the things you understand about the text, and make a list of your main questions. See if you can answer any of the questions by looking at key passages. Share your questions with other people and see if you can collaborate to construct an answer.
D) Look for additional information by consulting reference works, reliable online sources, or databases.
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