Rhetorical Complexity: A Comment on Michael Holquist

I hope Michael Holquist’s post on narrative complexity will open a lively discussion of the kind of brief document the MLA might create to make a statement about what we consider a “complex reading practice.” I believe that teachers of literature could contribute more to the Common Core debates at the “implementation” stage if we had such a document. To this end, I want to propose that we consider the teaching of complex reading not only under the rubric of narrative that Holquist has eloquently described above but also under a rubric of rhetoric that would encompass both prose and poetry and would allow us to push back against the dichotomy between fictional and informational texts that is written into the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts.

A brief and statistically insignificant survey of colleagues who teach introductory courses in English literature suggests that many of us start with discussions of the concept of the “word” and the “sentence” (or “independent clause”) to begin to give students a richer metalanguage for discussing how syntax creates meaning (and requires interpretation) than many of them have received in their high school courses. Students who found grammar drills boring in 7th grade (if the curriculum dealt with grammar at all) are in my experience ready and in many cases eager—especially if English is not their native tongue—to discuss parts of speech and the philosophical complexities of defining “words” and sentence types. (I go back to Aristotle’s very interesting distinction between a “period”—which is a sentence that doubles back on itself—and a “running sentence,” which is what later schema defined as “paratactic.”) Many of us also return to the issue of figurative language that our students have encountered in high school—but usually in a way that doesn’t shake their faith that there is a “literal” way of speaking and writing beneath or behind figurative language (which is conceptualized as an ornament or as a “detour” from the straight road of communication; both of these metaphors occur in ancient treatises on syntax and rhetoric and they remain powerful today). J. Hillis Miller’s recent book Reading for Our Time: Adam Bede and Middlemarch Revisited makes a bracing case for the view that “The only alternative to one metaphor is another metaphor. . . [T]here is no thinking or doing without them.” Barbara Johnson’s essay on “Metaphor, Metonymy and Voice in [Zora Neale Hurston’s] Their Eyes Were Watching God” (first published in 1984 in Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., Black Literature and Literary Theory and republished in Johnson’s 1987 collection, A World of Difference) is enduringly funny and written in a way that my freshmen can follow and indeed question as they rethink phrases like “The White House,” “Watergate,” and many other tropes that can be recognized—and discussed—once our students have some names and (often interestingly divergent) definitions on the table. Some of my California students who despised Milton’s poetry and his flaunting of his classical education were nonetheless intrigued when they began learning the names of rhetorical tropes that they could see Milton using in prose and poetry. “Hyperbaton” proved to be one of the most conceptually fruitful of the tropes my students discussed because they could find it defined by Wikipedia as occurring when “words within a sentence change place from their natural order” (as in “Him the Almighty hurled headlong flaming,” which describes how Satan was moved from his “natural order” in heaven); but the students could also see from reading a few paragraphs from Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria (also readily available in translation online, via the invaluable Tufts University Perseus site for Greek and Roman materials), that the issue of “natural” word order is complex for anyone in a multilingual culture or anyone interested in the differences between speech and writing; Quintilian ends up subverting the very idea that the figure deviates from a preexisting “natural” word order by explaining hyperbaton as a “construction” in which words—like “unhewn stones”—are “moved from one place to another so as to join [them] where they fit best” (9.4.27).

It’s hardly original to suggest that college and high school teachers could collaborate on a document on “Complex Reading” that would include new strategies for teaching syntax and tropes (including syntactic tropes such as chiasmus and hyperbaton which are now often neglected in both college and high school literature classes); but syntax and tropes, if they are taught not as sets of rules or terms to be memorized but rather as sites of ongoing debate to which students and teachers today can contribute, are arguably valuable topics for the MLA document I’m imagining. Do others have other ideas for what might go into such a document? I envision it stressing the value of “slow” reading that fosters surprising encounters with textual temporalities and with words, clauses, and plot patterns that point the mind “outside the now,” as Michael arrestingly puts it.

I hope that anyone who’s reading this thread will take a look at what the Common Core Standards actually say about how to measure textual “complexity” in qualitative and quantitative terms. There is so far no room for defining complexity in terms of point(s) of view, non-linear narrative, or (among many other things we care about) irony. The writers of the Standards acknowledge that there is need for further elaboration of the concept of complexity (the relevant portion from Appendix A, on “Reading,” grants that there are aspects of text complexity and difficulty that only “a human reader applying trained judgment to the task” can grasp when decisions are being made about text selection for the purposes of instruction, although the discussion communicates quite clearly a view that such dependence on subjective human judgments represents a regrettable weakness that further research must seek to overcome). In Appendix B there are sample texts for all grades, but the Standards writers make no statement about how the chosen texts actually illustrate “complexity.”

Length of sentences and difficulty of diction are among the criteria mentioned for quantitative measurement; surely we can contribute something to this discussion at the “implementation” stage. The Common Core State Standards Initiative maintains a Web site where the Standards documents can be accessed; I urge you to read all three Appendices. Appendix C gives examples of student writing, none so far as I can see illustrating a critical analysis of a literary text by an 11th or 12th grade student on the way to “career” or “college.” The two goals are treated as if they were the same.

I’m sure many readers know more than I do about the debates behind the standards document; when I read it, I could only dearly wish that MLA teachers could have had more of a say in how these standards were conceptualized.  But we still have a chance to weigh in; our views might be especially useful if we could suggest some complex literary texts with discussions of why they are “complex” and how one could teach such texts to public school students (I suggest that we focus on the lists of exemplary texts for grades 10 and above).  We might discuss  “complexity” of syntax, trope,  plot, and allusions (or paratexts), to start with.  There is only one mention of intertexuality in the current document’s definition of complexity.

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