- Thresholds of Interpretation:Identifying, Producing, and Supporting with The Turn of the Screw
How do we want our students to change after reading a single text? What new knowledge can be gained; what new strategies of textual, historical, and critical analysis can developed; and, most crucially, how can our students begin to think differently about literature and its correlations with a lived experience after reading a single text? If one accepts the sequential logic of a typical four-year curriculum, one must also accept that a single semester’s learning objectives are not met in a holistic flash but in the incremental accumulation of new ideas and ways of thinking. Although these small developments are a crucial element of the learning and teaching process, they are often ignored when we design and evaluate our teaching practices. As John Schilb suggests, literature instructors “often define their courses by the texts on their syllabi . . . not acts that students will be expected to perform” (512). And, indeed, given the vast body of pedagogy scholarship surrounding English’s cognate areas of Rhetoric/Composition and ESL, it is surprising that such little work has considered what “acts” our students should be expected to perform and how we might design our teaching to help develop these competencies further.
This article considers how first-year students might change after reading Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), a common point of entry into literature for many university students and a text almost perfectly designed to facilitate the transformative recognition of the wider critical conversation into which a text and its readers simultaneously enter. The Turn of the Screw turns on the expulsion from school of a small boy and the uneasy movement of a young woman into the role of teacher for pupils seemingly more industrious and capable than she. But beyond that, James’s novella offers few clear answers. The ghosts of Miss Jessel and Quint might be real, or they might not be. The governess might be insane, or she might be a target of a spectral attack. The reader is even famously warned at the beginning that “this story won’t tell,” suggesting very early that this story must surely be different from other stories that do tell us something (3). The novella thus demands that students contend with a narrative whose express purpose might be to have no definite “meaning” at all. Faced with this uncertainty, many students will quickly choose their sides on the well-known Wilsonian and anti-Wilsonian debate regarding the nature of the ghosts. Other students, however, see the matter in much [End Page 196] more practical terms: if you’re not going to tell me if the ghosts are real, then how are you going to grade my essay? In point of fact, this question—or at least the implications that underlie this question—is the key to the advanced study of English literature and to the modes of thinking that the study of English aims to develop. It is the sort of question that students must raise and contend with before moving on to more sophisticated ways of thinking.
In order to lead students toward an understanding that The Turn of the Screw— and, indeed, all texts, literary or otherwise—can sustain multiple, simultaneous interpretations, I teach an analytical model I call Identify-Produce-Support. This model was initially suggested to me by an early mentor, who guided me through The Faery Queene and the Arcadia when I was 19 and, in doing so, led me toward the crucial realization that every text is situated in a network of interpretations that interact, conflict, and absolutely contradict. I have since developed that method further and used Identify-Produce-Support while teaching in England, America, and Hong Kong. I have used it to empower first-year students to clarify and evaluate their understandings of primary texts, returned to it with MA students as a way to ground sophisticated theoretical perspectives, and encouraged my PhD students to use it to cultivate and refine their increasingly nuanced encounters with literature. In its most basic form, Identify-Produce-Support asks students to: (1) identify one central topic among...