Questioning the content to discover its ultimate purpose

by Mr. Sheehy

When thinking about my subject areas, it seems to me that a wonderful depth is gained when I present students with fundamental questions that could potentially undercut the very thing I aim to teach.

With poetry, I ask, “What is poetry?” or “What makes great poetry?”  If students can attempt a definition, they’ll have interacted with poetry’s tools at a level more impressive than memorized answers will. Today, under the banner of asking What is poetry?, I had students examine a poem’s form. I took Sharon Olds’s poem, “Diagnosis” and removed all the line breaks, showing it on the overhead as a prose paragraph. Students then reconverted it to poetry, making decisions about where the lines should end. In this way we engaged reasons poets break lines when they do and ultimately explored what poetry can do that prose cannot. No one broke through to enlightenment through the exercise, but a few people recognized that Olds creates suspense when she breaks lines halfway through a thought.

Somewhere I read recently about a poet whose work sent a reader into spins because it completely threw off what she had thought poetry was. The poet saw this as a wonderful compliment, and as a teacher I see it as a great moment for learning. With basic and potentially undercutting questions, we can sometimes wipe out a student’s previous ideas, and in that moment the student can potentially acknowledge the lacunae. If she can acknowledge that, she might be curious about finding something new to fill in the hole.

Another question worth asking is “What is story?” or, more specifically, “What is short story?” In a recent article at The Guardian, a few writers picked their favorite short stories and they fell into answering these questions. Their answers could be a good place to start conversations with students about what makes a short story unique as a form compared to other modes. Says Anne Enright, for example,

A story is something told . . . it is something that really needs to be said. But though we feel its force and resonance, it is often hard to say what a story means. The most we can say, perhaps, is that a short story is about a moment in life; and that, after this moment, we realise something has changed.

And then there is the question that rests under the surface of every class in high school: What is the point? Joseph Bottum touches upon it when discussing philosophy (he was reviewing a release of David Foster Wallace’s undergraduate thesis in book form):

Philosophers . . . mostly buzz around the world, looking for nectar and bringing it home to build up great honeycombs of argument in their books—grand architectural constructions, made of fragile wax.

It’s typical to sneer, a little, at the result. The ancient Greeks used to tell the story—it’s in both Aristotle and Diogenes Laertius—of a maidservant laughing as Thales, the first philosopher, stumbled into an unnoticed pit at his feet while staring at the sky above his head. We get so little from the philosophers: just some wax with which to make a candle. And who needs the poor flicker of reason when the sun of nature, the light of ordinary experience, shines so brightly?

The answer, of course, is no one. No one needs a candle. At least, not until the darkness comes. Which is rather the point that both Aristotle and Diogenes Laertius go on to make. The sun sets, the night cometh when no man can work, and suddenly human beings, so confident in the daylight, find themselves scrambling to obtain those little flames.

For teenagers so many of these things we study are meaningless–they don’t buy them iPods, and they don’t win them friends. Yet the learning has value, even if they have to wait for the sunset to realize it. In some ways I hope asking those tougher questions, the ones that seem to undercut the content and set up opportunities for them to say it is all pointless, help them to realize at some level how this material we engage will be useful someday, even if right now it is unnecessary in the glare of the sun–or, in the glow of the devices in their pockets, as the case may be.

Thanks for reading.