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Pedagogy 1.3 (2001) 527-531

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On Teaching Critical Arguments:
A Matrix of Understanding

James Phelan

Today's undergraduate literature courses are noticeably different from those of even ten years ago in their frequent use of essays of literary criticism and theory. Including these critical arguments often enriches discussion and student understanding by providing students with new terms and concepts for analyzing texts and by showing them how knowledge gets constructed in literary studies. But including this material also has a downside: students often find it difficult to comprehend and, thus, more alienating than engaging. Many teachers sensibly work against this risk by furnishing various guides to understanding, including straightforward summary and explication. Here I describe a different approach, one that explicitly challenges students to confront the difficulties of the material by working through a "matrix of understanding," either as a written exercise or as part of an initial discussion of the argument. The matrix provides a way to emphasize that any one argument is part of a larger analytic approach. Once the students complete the matrix, we move to "overstanding," Wayne C. Booth's (1979) term for the act of assessing a position's powers and limits. In this essay I illustrate the approach by analyzing Stanley Fish's "Interpreting the Variorum."

First published in Critical Inquiry in 1976 and then included as a chapter in Is There a Text in This Class? in 1980, the essay announces Fish's pivotal shift from locating meaning in the reader's processing of a text (what he had called "affective stylistics") to locating meaning in the strategies of different interpretive communities. Fish develops the consequences of this shift in the later chapters of Is There a Text in This Class? and his case for interpretive communities has had a significant effect on scholarly conversations about textual interpretation, about percepts and concepts, about social [End Page 527] construction, and about pedagogy. I choose Fish's essay as my example not only because it is well known but also because its unusual organization makes it especially challenging to analyze.

My main premise is that the thesis of any argument emerges in response to questions and dialogues, by means of methods of reasoning, through the application of certain assumptions and principles, and for certain purposes. A matrix of understanding, then, has the following parts:

1. Question/problem. Here the goal is to identify the central issue driving the inquiry. Sometimes the issue is identified explicitly in the first few paragraphs, but not always. Students' knowledge of how to test interpretations of literary texts can be helpful in their testing of different formulations of the question. Just as one asks how well a given interpretation applies to the whole text, one should ask, about any proposed formulation of the question, how much of the essay is actually a response to this question. One can also define the scope of the question by identifying what knowledge or conclusions the essay takes for granted or disputes.

In "Interpreting the Variorum" Fish takes for granted that the main business of literary criticism is interpretation, and, strikingly, he does not make the central issue of his inquiry clear until the second half of his four-part essay. In the first two parts Fish appears to ask, "How and why is the commentary in the Milton Variorum inadequate?" However, when he turns in the third and fourth parts to emphasize the similar logics underlying formalism and affective stylistics, he is clearly shifting the inquiry to a broader concern: "How do my disagreements with the Variorum commentators reveal the underlying structure of literary interpretation?"

2. Answer. Here the goal is to articulate the thesis, which may or may not be explicit. I ask students to summarize the answer in a sentence or two and to express it using the terms of the question in order to reinforce the point that the answer is part of a larger framework.

In "Interpreting the Variorum" the process of reaching the answer is crucial to understanding the answer itself, which can be formulated as follows: "My disagreements with...


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