“Teacher vs. Author” & Studying Literature

Every now and then while I browse the internet, I come across a certain type of meme. I’ve seen it in various forms, but the central idea is about studying literature and “What the author meant versus what your English teacher says the author meant.” You can see a basic example of the meme here.

As I’ve mentioned before I studied English in university. While I do not believe that anybody should consider their English teacher’s interpretation of literature infallible, I take great issue with the message that this meme puts forth. As you can see in the example above, it does not encourage the implied student to put more stake in their personal interpretation of the text, but to reduce the author’s intent to simple whimsy.

The teacher in the above example does appear to be injecting more meaning into the curtains being blue than there should be. However, I have seen another that suggested that a raven was used in the Edgar Allan Poe poem “The Raven” simply because it was Poe’s favourite type of bird, rather than representative of anything in the text. Perhaps it was, but the implication that in-depth interpretation of literature should be mocked and instead we assume that authors make all their decisions superficially is offensive to me as someone with a passion for storytelling.

I have had professors make mountains out of molehills — latching on to one small aspect of a text and injecting it with more meaning than appears evident to me. If an instance like in the link above literally occurred, where a teacher injected the simple detail that “the curtains were blue” with that much meaning, I would question it as well.

The irony of this meme, however, is that it is making the same mistake that the teacher is making. The person dismissing interpretation, claiming that the details in the text are arbitrarily written is making the same error as the teacher claiming what they are teaching is what the author meant. Unless somebody has a primary source from the author stating that this was their reason behind their writing decision, nobody can claim that they know for sure what the author meant.

Studying literature is not about finding the ultimate right answer. There is no one right answer. It is about interpreting the text, analyzing it, and reinforcing your analysis with evidence from the text and other sources. No matter how different from typical analysis your interpretation may be, if you can back it up with a sound argument using evidence, then your interpretation is just as valid as any other. Students of English, for instance, do not — or should not — have their essays graded based on getting the right answer, but how effectively they can argue the validity of their interpretation. What their interpretation is forms the foundation for the thesis of their essay.

This issue I have is also linked to a common situation I ran into with my peers at university. After a big essay had been handed in and everybody asked “How was the essay?” there was always a number of people who said “Oh yeah, I totally bullshitted my way through that essay.” It was often done with a tone that suggested some level of pride in their ability to do so.

I was far from a model student myself: I never took physical notes as I read and I almost always wrote my essays last minute. One thing I never did, however, was write something I thought was bullshit. I always went into an essay with a sincere interpretation of the text I was writing about. My procrastination would lead to essays not being as fine-tuned as they could be, I admit, but with a few exceptions my grades were always good or even great. My peers who claimed to have written bullshit, on the other hand, appeared to struggle with their grades. I have never understood this approach to studying literature. It shows a lack of respect or care for your own interpretation. If you don’t care about any of this process, why are you studying it in the first place?

Slight tangent aside, I hope people do not take memes such as this too seriously. Not only do they disrespect literary study, but readers, viewers, and the stories themselves. Some people may inject meaning, or stretch interpretation to ridiculous levels, but that should never discourage anyone from thinking about the stories that they read and why certain details are the way they are. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to write an essay about it; there really is no harm in simply wondering “Why are those curtains blue?”


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