Thinking and Knowing

Or, “You can take the teacher out of the classroom, but that doesn’t mean she’ll stop teaching!”

I tutor a lovely international student and her son on Sunday afternoons (naturally, this makes Sunday the highlight of my week). Today she and I had a really neat discussion about Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. I suggested she read it because many of the books she has read and enjoyed in English are more British, and I wanted to suggest something that is very American. We have also had discussions (began many months ago during a discussion of “The Grasshopper and the Ant”) about the Puritan Ethic, and I knew Arthur Miller’s commentary on life in Salem would provide insights into the Puritan Ethic that I was having trouble explaining. I’ve said for a long time that the Puritan Ethic is problematic for me, but it’s difficult to explain how it is problematic to someone who does not have the American version of that in his or her cultural consciousness.

During our discussion, my student asked me about the relationship between John Proctor and Abigail Williams. We went over the evidence offered in both the printed play and the film versions:

  • We know Abigail and John had some sort of relationship, and we know that John feels guilty about it (because he confessed what he did to Elizabeth).
  • We also know that this relationship was improper based on the morals of the time (because we are told that this crime carries a stiff punishment).
  • We know that this relationship has a physical component (because when John is asked where and when he “has known” Abigail, he is able to name a place in which this “knowing” took place).

Other than that, Miller leaves us completely to our imaginations – did they kiss? Did they have sex? We’re not sure, because Miller doesn’t tell us (yes, we can make inferences, but that wasn’t the point I was trying to make this time).

My student told me that it really bothered her not to know what happened between John and Abigail. She said that she couldn’t really decide whose side she was on without knowing – on the one hand, John was older and (presumably) should have been more responsible, but on the other, Abigail’s age made her more susceptible to taking an innocent comment and translating it into eternal love*, and her troubled past and unaffectionate guardian made her even more susceptible.

I don’t remember my exact words, but I said something to this effect: “I think that’s kind of the point. We don’t know what happened between John and Abigail. We can guess based on evidence in the text, but I don’t think there’s enough evidence to decide for certain. I think Arthur Miller did this on purpose, to show us that real life is much more complicated than ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’ John Proctor was a good man, but he wasn’t perfect; he did something with Abigail that he felt guilty over, but I get the sense that he would take seriously the idea in the Bible that says if you sin in your mind, it is no different than sinning in real life. That’s an impossible standard, so I think he is too hard on himself. At the same time, we know Abigail is a liar, and she is possibly the only actual witch in Salem (on account of the whole chicken-blood thing), so it’s easy to see that she might have seduced John. Even here, though, we can sympathize with her, since her parents were brutally murdered in front of her; today, we would say that she probably has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s complicated, and there are no hard-and-fast right-or-wrong answers here. But that’s how life is. Most of the time, we don’t know what the right answer is, or who is lying and who is telling the truth.”

She lit up as I explained all of this, and she said it made the play more realistic for her. (Side note: When they light up like that, with that look of understanding and enthusiasm…all I can think is that that must be what it feels like to be high. Side note to the side note: I miss teaching so much!)

As I was driving to work after our session, I started thinking about our conversation, and I realized that sometimes, I want students to make inferences and draw conclusions, but sometimes I want them to realize that inferences and conclusions are just guesses, and that we need to focus on what the story actually says. As I thought back over my teaching career, I realized that I already had a type of “shorthand” to describe what I wanted, but that I had never made it explicit to my students (for which I now feel extremely guilty). When I wanted them to make inferences or draw conclusions, I would ask, “What do you think just happened here?” When I wanted them to focus strictly on what we knew for sure, I would ask just that: “What do we know for sure happened here?”

It makes sense to explain it in the way I just did, but I realize now that since both approaches require textual evidence (albeit different sorts of textual evidence), I was probably confusing to students when I asked them to find some evidence to support their conclusions – I was looking for informed opinion, but they must have thought I was looking for facts (which would explain the answers I would get – Socratic questioning is an awesome way to teach, but if you are not explicit about what you want, you can spend a lot of time chasing your tail).

Therefore, the next time I’m in the classroom, I plan to explain this concept in a much more explicit way. I might even put together a small handout explaining the kinds of discussion questions I might ask, along with what I mean when I ask them, and what kinds of answers I am looking for. As I’m thinking about this, I realize that there are almost certainly many other examples of this “shorthand” that I use without even thinking about it. For example, I often ask students, “What just happened here?” at surprising or shocking moments of a story (for example, at the end of the short story “A Rose for Emily” – go read it if you don’t know what I’m talking about). Although I often get a literal re-telling, what I really want is for the students to “put the pieces together” and see something on a “big picture” level. Additionally, the tone of my voice often gives a clue as to what I’m looking for (to continue my example, my voice offers shock and disgust at the end of “Emily” – I won’t spoil the story for you by telling you why; read the story and figure it out for yourself).

The “moral” of this story is that students can’t give teachers what we want unless we explain what we are looking for, and all parties would probably be far less frustrated if we as teachers take a moment to think about the “verbal shorthand” we use and make sure our students know what each of those code phrases actually mean. I always explained to my students that “The bell does not dismiss you at the end of class, I do. You need to stay in your seat until you are dismissed. The ‘code words’ are, ‘Have a nice day,’ so listen for that. On Fridays, expect, ‘Have a nice day, have a good weekend, and please be safe!'” If I can think ahead to clue them into that, then I owe it to them to demystify, “What just happened?” “What do you think just happened?” and “What’s going on here?” along with any other code words I can think up.

The hardest part of this will be figuring out my code phrases. Since I always know what I mean, it’s difficult to imagine what might confuse others. So I’m going to turn it over to you fine readers – have you noticed me saying anything habitually that doesn’t make sense, or that seems to stand in for something else? Please let me know – I can’t correct what I’m not aware of.

*As a side note, I told my student a story about a young man who was very nice to me in high school – he and I shared an affection for the Chicago Cubs, and I very quickly developed a huge crush on him. I was too shy to say anything at the time, but I used to daydream about him a lot. Therefore, when he and I reconnected a few years ago via social media, I was ruefully amused to find that he and his boyfriend had recently gotten engaged (they’re married now). I’m definitely happy for both of them, and I’m glad they are happy, but it was definitely a moment in which I thought to myself, “Geez! So many guys I had crushes on, and so many of them have turned out to be gay. I wonder what that says about me?” The moral of this story is that teenage girls fall into crushes very quickly, and over actions that are probably not intended to be seen in a romantic context.

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