On Not “Getting” It

This is a guest post from Rebecca Hussey. Rebecca holds a PhD in English and is a professor at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. She teaches courses in composition, literature, and the arts. When she’s not reading or grading papers, she’s hanging out with her husband and son and/or riding her bike or buying books. She blogs at Of Books and Bicycles. Follow her on Twitter @ofbooksandbikes.

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I teach English at a community college, which means I have all kinds of students, at many different levels. Some of them love reading, some of them … don’t. My response to this mix of backgrounds and interests is to be as enthusiastic about my subject as possible, and to assume everyone can enjoy reading (which they can!) and that if I make my class fun, students will want to read in order to join in. But sometimes they come to class with some variation of “I didn’t understand this!” or “What happened at the end? I couldn’t figure it out!” or “I just don’t get ________.” This can happen when we are reading formally innovative stories such as Alberto Álvaro Ríos’s “The Secret Lion” or Edwidge Danticat’s “New York Day Women,” and it happens with older works like Shakespeare’s sonnets or Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues. But it can also happen with straightforward stories like Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour.” The meaning of this story seems obvious to me, but, then, I’ve read it a million times, and I’m an experienced reader. My students sometimes aren’t.

My response to this confusion has been to say, “It’s okay! You don’t have to understand everything you read. That’s part of the reading experience. You will understand more if you reread, if you talk with friends about it, if you participate in class. But if you still don’t fully get it, it’s still okay! What’s wrong with understanding 50 or 70 or 90% of something? In fact, would literature really be all that great if you could understand everything you read 100% right away? What would be the point of class then?”

I think this is a great speech. But often my students just look at me with skepticism. They want to get it. They feel like failures for not getting it. Many of them have been told by English teachers that they are failures for not getting it. Being told this makes reading much less fun, it makes English class much less fun, and it’s just not good for reading generally.

And I understand the frustration of not getting it. It’s uncomfortable. In fact, I just read a book I didn’t fully get, Ban En Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil, and it made me uncomfortable. I think it’s a brilliant book, so brilliant that I understood maybe 60% of it. If I reread it, I would get more, I’m sure, but there’s no way I would be able to explain all of it. It’s the kind of book that’s hard to classify — is it a novel? is it poetry? is the main character, Ban, a real person or a metaphor or what? — and it’s the kind that questions and undermines itself at every turn. I loved this, but I also felt uncertainties and doubts along the way. I thought what my students tell me they think: “why can’t I figure out what I’m reading here?” After I finished, I read reviews of the book and tried not to berate myself for everything I missed that the reviewers didn’t.

It was a complex experience. And I’m asking my students to be open to complex experiences as well. I’m hoping that when they read a story or poem they don’t get, that they will feel a little less dread and fear of failure and a little more hope that in time they will start to get it. I’m hoping that they will come to class with their questions and confusions, ready to discuss them and work toward some answers.

Does this happen? Sometimes. Sometimes they leave my class still saying, “I just don’t get poetry!” or “I’m just not a reader!” Of course, they don’t have to get poetry or consider themselves readers. It’s fine if they don’t. But it seems like an English course can and should be a place where it’s okay to come to class not with answers and opinions but with questions and confusion.

All that said, if people (outside my classes) don’t want to read literature that makes them work to understand it, that’s fine by me. But there’s a certain pleasure to be had in reading something and thinking, “Huh. I’m not sure what that was about, but I think I liked it!”

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