Thursday, September 10, 2009

69) reflections on teaching "The Bet" by Anton Chekhov

the literary life 9/10/09

Today we discussed the short story, "The Bet", in my sophomore pre-AP English classes. The story is dark and controversial and stirred good debate and argument in all my classes. It even inspired some frustration because I challenged some interpretations raised in discussion. Yet as one of my mentors in college (Dr. Blau at UCSB) once said in a workshop, "Confusion is an advanced state of understanding." I like to see students temporarily confused and challenged because it indicates they're thinking. "The Bet" is really one of my favorite stories, both as a writer and as a teacher, because it's so complex. The Russians: their classic writers knew how to write a provocative dark story, which illuminates human flaws.

I was excited to teach "The Bet" because I love this story so much. I wanted students to get it, to figure out why the author wrote the piece. At times, I even felt like I got carried away trying to explain the story to them. That's my thing: I can't help getting involved in literature. Yet I wonder if they got got it. I mean REALLY got it. They're extremely bright. They get me to think about points of view I hadn't considered. And many are opinionated, like me. We like to hold on to our opinions. It's hard to give them up.

That's the thing with teaching literature, you don't always know. Sure you give quizzes and essay questions and lead animated discussions. Still you don't always know what kind of impact you've really made. I used to think teaching literature was about Mr. Keating standing on his desk in The Dead Poets Society. And a part of me still believes this is the higher purpose of teaching: to remind students to embrace different points of view, to challenge them to think. But at the same time, I can't help wondering what the students end up taking with them when they leave my class. I guess it's about develop a certain kind of trust.

I also used to think teaching literature meant to encourage all opinions on a story. I now believe teaching means to encourage all students, but not necessarily all interpretations of a story. This means I'm challenging students more, and this has made teaching more challenging for me. I thought teaching got easier with time (like I thought writing poetry would get easier with time), but ironically both have gotten harder. Teaching used to feel easier because I was so accommodating (and maybe writing poetry used to feel easier because I hadn't developed the internal standards yet for what constitutes a good poem). I'm still accommodating as a teacher, but I'm interested in drawing some intellectual boundaries, distinguishing between plausible and less plausible interpretations of literature. Interpretation is a fine art, and it needs to be backed by evidence. It's a skill to hone, and it's more complicated than we think. With talking about stories, I used to think, anything goes. Now my motto is: as long as the opinion is backed by concrete evidence, anything goes.

Anyway, whether you are a teacher or writer or student or story-lover, "The Bet" is a must read. And I bet you'll gain something from reading it. Here's a link to the story online:

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