Friday, November 13, 2009

Plausible misinterpretations

In a post a while back (here), I suggested that a student who misinterprets A. E. Houseman's poem, "Is My Team Plowing"--by saying that it suggests Houseman's belief in immortality--might have indulged in a "plausible misinterpretation." In that post, I pointed out how a student might have arrived at that interpretation. I'd like to generalize on that and suggest that instead of dismissing students' misinterpretations outright, it is helpful to find out ("interrogate") why and how students arrived at that misinterpretation.

(I am, of course, assuming that it is possible to misinterpret a poem or piece of literature--or any other "text," for that matter. I am not one of those who believes that "all interpretations are valid." To be honest, I'm not sure I know a whole lot (or even half a lot) of post-modernists or post-structuralists who really believe that, either. Even if one believes that all interpretations are valid, one ought to at least acknowledge that certain interpretations jive better than others with what is written.)

Let's take a misinterpretation that I was once guilty of. In a course on US Constitutional Law I took as an undergraduate, the professor challenged us to find any place in the document that stated that the President and Vice President must be of the same party. As there is no such statement anywhere in the document to that effect, the professor was speaking more or less rhetorically.

However, that didn't stop me from raising my hand. He called 0n me and I claimed the twelfth amendment made such a provision. The professor made me read the entire amendment aloud and told me to stop when I came across the provision that so required the President and Vice President to be of the same party. (FYI, the 12th amendment is one of the longer ones.) When I got to
...and they [electors] shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President...
I stopped, believing I had "proved" my point. Yet the professor told me to keep reading, and I had to read the whole darned thing aloud. Afterward, he challenged me where the provision was. Being a bit intimidated, I withdrew my contention that the 12th provided that the Pres and VP be of the same party.

I was, of course, wrong. There is nothing in the 12th, or any other amendment, that even recognizes the existence of political parties, let alone explicitly requires the President and Vice President to be members of the same party. But why did I say what I did?

It wasn't ignorance of the actual wording of the Constitution. I was a bit of a geek as an undergrad and had read the Constitution several times. I was also a history major and had at least a serviceable grasp of the history of the early republic era of the US.

In fact, it was my knowledge of US history that led me to believe the 12th "required" that the President and VP be of the same party. I knew that the amendment was passed and ratified in large part to avoid the spectacle of having a Vice President serve under a President he had run against in the election. In the prior way of doing things, the winner of the majority of electoral votes gained the presidency and the runner-up gained the vice presidency. Yet in 1796, the winner (John Adams) and runner-up (Thomas Jefferson) were bitter enemies. And Thomas Jefferson, whatever his virtues, did a lot to purposefully undermine the administration of his superior.

One result of the enactment of the 12th amendment was to make the election of partisan rivals to the Presidency and Vice Presidency much less likely. Once the "second party system" arose in the late 1820s and early 1830s, would-be presidents could run on what amounted to a ticket with a fellow member of the same party.

I was, I repeat, wrong in saying that the 12th required the President and VP to be of the same party. And my reasoning was faulty. But it was not wholly faulty. It was wrong to say that the 12th "required" that outcome. It was probably also wrong to say that that outcome was necessarily the result of the 12th (the idea of a party system and the actual formation of political parties were much more complicated and even antedated the 12th amendment). But I was not wholly wrong.

This particular situation was probably good for me. Anyone who knew me as an undergrad probably would know that I needed to be humbled. So I don't particularly begrudge this incident.

However, students often have reasons for arriving at the conclusions that they do, even when the conclusions are clearly wrong. Instead of dismissing those conclusions out of hand, it might be helpful to explore with the student and the class why the student arrived at the conclusion he or she did.

1 comment:

lindsay said...

I've been talking about this a lot with my students this quarter, calling the phenomenon "productive misreading," and distinguishing between misreadings of large, important concepts versus detail level misreadings where the ideas are there but the vocabulary is somehow deployed incorrectly....not sure if this approach is helping to build confidence or encouraging sloppy study. Time, and final projects, will tell...

We all have these stories as scholars, and it's so important to work through them and see what we can learn from them to help our students. Nice post!