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Forced interpretations

October 23, 2006


One of the texts that I am using this semester offers a short bio before some of the works (it is a comp reader with seemingly random works that are then to be written about). But, when my freshmen encounter these bios they are, in my opinion, co-opted into the editor’s subtle interpretation of the work.

For example, Dylan Thomas’s “Don’t Go Gentle” has the biographic blurb that ends in his death by alcohol. I have had numerous essays today describing the ironic nature of the poem in that Dylan encouraged his dad to fight a fight he wimped out of.

Now, I may or may not agree with the surface-level interpretation, but I really would like the students to explore the poem for themselves before dismissing it at a poser-spewn throwaway.

You tell me, are author bios over-determining the student’s reading?

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7 Comments
  1. Miranda permalink
    October 24, 2006 1:39 am

    I’m kind of impressed that your students read the bios.

  2. Dr. Crazy permalink
    October 24, 2006 3:06 am

    Yeah, I was going to ask whether you’re assigning the students the bios, as I never do and as far as I can tell they don’t generally read them.

    (Though there are always one or two at the beginning of the semester who do, and who try to do the biographical criticism in class discussion, which then leads me to tell them that the author is dead and to go on an author function digression, and they very quickly realize it’s not what is going to curry favor with me, so they stop bothering with the bios.)

  3. Teri permalink
    October 24, 2006 4:16 am

    Your students probably aren’t even reading the assignments – at least not all of them – much less the bios.

  4. Piss Poor Prof permalink
    October 24, 2006 12:16 pm

    I think, even if they are rare, that the students are reading the short bios (they are really short in this text) for no other reason than a good number (4 out of 10 or so) argued that the poem was only marginally successful because the author didn’t believe in the theme himself. Why else would he die of alcoholism if he were “raging against the light.”

    So, I think at least a handful (I only have around 8 now participating) read these. And, those that do seem tbe awfully determined in their subsequent interpretations.

  5. Orb permalink
    October 24, 2006 8:20 pm

    I remember reading author bios and introductions as an undergraduate because I was a little shaky on how to access the text. It seemed reasonable to me to read the intros because it opened up a conversation on the work and allowed me to think about the work from a slightly broader context.
    Most of my professors advocated against reading intros because they wanted us to bring our own ideas to the table. I think they had this naive sense of wanting to keep us in a state of innocence and any sort of literary criticism would corrupt us.
    While it is important that students retain their individuality and creativity, I think it’s also important that students learn how other people/scholars approach literature.

  6. Piss Poor Prof permalink
    October 25, 2006 6:08 pm

    Orb, very good point. I too read the bios, questions (I was sort of a geek), etc. I also know that I was, at times, unduly influenced. I go back to my example. Knowing that Dylan Thomas drank himself into an early death, the reading of “rage against the dying of the light” takes on a coloring that probably wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

    My original question stands…do the texts, by establishing (in their opinion) a context unduly bias the student reading?

  7. Orb permalink
    October 26, 2006 11:29 pm

    Yes, it does. The students are having a hard time figuring out what the poem means and are using their most easily available resource – the short bio.

    I went and read the poem and got a “you coulda been a contender” vibe from it. Wise men ….[whose] words forked NO lightning…do not go gentle into that goodnight. etc. I see the poem as saying men who had ambitions but didn’t make a mark are the ones who are raging… Dylan Thomas made his mark so maybe felt justified drinking himself to death?

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