"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Spoiler alert: Stop worrying about spoilers

The reports broke a few weeks ago, and personally I was not surprised at all. "Spoilers" is a misnomer, because knowing the end of a story ENHANCES enjoyment of the work rather than spoiling it, according to a study by two UC San Diego professors published by Psychological Science. As a group, English teachers go berserk at the thought of Cliff Notes and their equivalents being widely available for free online, for fear that students will vitiate the reading process by jumping to a synopsis or summary of the book being read by class.

Aside from the regressive practice of having the entire class read the same thing at the same time, the over-emphasis on revelation on story or plot points keeps students frozen at the lowest level of the reading experience. It teaches students not to enjoy reading, but to endure it in order to get to the important thing -- What happened at the end? Reading becomes a means, not an end in itself.

The threat is not the use of supplemental materials in connection with reading, but their being used as a substitute for real reading. And focusing your reading assessment on having the students know what happened not only cripples and reduces the reading experience but is an open invitation to cheat. It's like the NCLB cheating scandals -- when you place huge stakes on something which CAN be arrived at by cheating, of course people will cheat. Your assessments (and the government's assessments of schools) need to be conducted in such a way that cheating is impossible.

Ancient cultures knew this. The stories of Odysseus, Jason and Oedipus were told over and over and always ended the same. I suspect the same was true of Gilgamesh, not to mention Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. The essence of the oral culture was not surprise endings, but the art of the teller, the beauty, harmony and expressiveness of the verse, the telling details, the vividness of character. Scheherazade didn't stay alive with O. Henry plot twists, but through the artfulness of her storytelling. An Athenian wouldn't think of going to a play for which he didn't know the ending. Likewise, mostly, for an Athenian. Stories were all about the mythos, the definition of the culture that produced the story, its values and aspirations. One is not supposed to be surprised by one's own culture. It's the water you swim in all the time. It's renewing, enriching, inspiring, rejuvenating. Perhaps sometimes cautionary. But never startling, except in the way that all deep truths are startling.

And as teachers of reading, we should be teaching the appreciation of how stories are told, not the content of the stories. We should be dealing with deep thematic content, subtext, structure, style, language, syntax, diction and the relationship of the story to mythos, not What Happens Next.

Bad news. Sooner or later, this is going to require students to write at length and in detail. Which means that you're going to have to read it. And if you don't craft the task well, this could be quite tedious, especially if you have three or more sections doing the same thing at once. (I would love to be able to teach the same course in different order to different sections some time.) But if you're not prepared to read a lot of student writing, much of it substandard in a lot of ways, and make a lot of comments and endure the rewriting process with them, perhaps you're in the wrong racket. Because no matter the value of alternate assessments for different learning styles and different intelligences, the bottom line is the student's ability to decode and encode ideas and emotions from and into written language.

Stories -- they can be told with gestures, with pantomime, with pictures. Stories are not literacy. So if we use stories to advance literacy, let us focus on the literate aspects of that expression, not on the crude lineaments of narrative.

And in the spirit that spoilers make reading better, let me recommend a very fine site, The Book Spoiler. You can even be paid for submitting your own detailed synopses of books, spoilers and all.

You can take your hands off your ears and stop shouting "La la la" now.

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