- Exploring Ambiguity and Intention:Higher Learning for First-Year Readers and Writers
In How to Read a Page, I. A. Richards (1959) argues that a "systematic ambiguity" is embedded in language. The phrase "systematic ambiguity" seems paradoxical on its surface, suggesting a sort of planned chaos, but Richards explains his paradox by observing that our most useful words and concepts are often the most vague, because they cover so much territory. This aspect of language enables us to speak with the expectation of being understood, but it also provides the greatest source of misunderstanding. Rather than regarding the ambiguity of language as a liability, however, Richards (1959: 24) argues that we need to see it as a resource, as "the very hinges of all thought." Ambiguity sets the engines of interpretation going while prompting reflection on the process of interpretation itself.
Moments of ambiguity can provide the text's most "teachable" moments. This proved to be the case when students in my first-year composition classes viewed a particular scene of John Singleton's 1995 film Higher Learning. Ironically, I initially chose Higher Learning not for any wealth of subtexts or rich polysemic suggestiveness but rather for its head-on, hammer-the-point-home rhetorical clarity of purpose. Set on a fictional multicultural college campus in the 1990s, Higher Learning stresses the importance of accepting others' differences without erasing them and without allowing one's own differences to serve as an excuse for failure. The film follows three undergraduates through their first year on campus: Kristen, a white middle-class suburbanite struggling with the fact that she has to work to attend college; Malik, an urban black male on a track scholarship; and Remy, a rural white male from Idaho whose social inadequacies make [End Page 123] him vulnerable to the ideologies of white supremacy. As writer, director, and producer of Higher Learning, Singleton had a good deal more creative control over his final product than is typical for directors in the movie business. It is, therefore, possible to talk of Singleton's authorial intention with more confidence than one might be able to discuss message and intention in a typical Hollywood blockbuster, where the work of filmmaking is diffused among many participants. Singleton reinforces his message of multicultural tolerance and understanding in many ways throughout the film, from his choice of songwriters to his dialogue and editing (Schmertz and Trefzer 1999: 91–92). Perhaps his most obvious rhetorical gesture lies in his use of flags throughout the movie: the first shot contains a full-frame image of the American flag that tilts down to reveal a white male student leader. That image is subsequently deconstructed as the movie progresses and other flags take its place: the rebel flag, the swastika, and the flag of African national unity. In the final shot, the American flag reasserts itself in another full-frame image, this time with the word "unlearn" superimposed on its surface. Since Singleton's message—the "what"—seems to be directed very clearly at audiences like my own first-year students, I thought Higher Learning was an excellent choice for focusing instead on the "how"—the rhetorical tools that are at any filmmaker's disposal.
Despite what I thought of as the film's rhetorical transparency, however, there are moments of "systematic ambiguity" in Singleton's text that turn out to be great teaching resources. In the scene I discuss here, Kristen appears to be making love with two people—a man she has been dating (Wayne) and a female friend (Taryn). Through careful editing, camera placement, and staging, Singleton deliberately leaves open the question of whom Kristen is "really" sleeping with. In this essay, I describe how studying the clip's ambiguity sharpened students' film literacy. In naming what constituted ambiguity in film, students both acknowledged the degree to which directors exploit, and audiences assume, shared conventions of meaning, and began to reflect on how interpretations of film get constructed.
I had the opportunity to see how three different classes at the University of Houston–Downtown, which is a multiethnic open-admissions university, responded to the scene. We watched the film in its entirety in...