When I was in graduate school, my adviser and favorite professor, Kimberley Patton, taught me more than I could regurgitate in one blog post. I took four classes with her, one on animals in religion, on on weeping in the religious tradition, one on angels, and one on twins and twinship. (Awesome, I know, right?) And in each class we either had to present a short paper, or write a response for each meeting. These papers always had one key rule: First, write what you learned from the reading.
The tendency for graduate students is to read or consume something and immediately criticize it. Each and every thing in this world is flawed in some way, and we've been trained to find those flaws and attack them. I'm not sure why that is our first priority, why the need to invalidate something trumps all other responses, but I don't think I am alone in having been brought up this way. Maybe my intellectual aggression comes from years of debate team in high school and college, where the object was to mortally wound the opponent's argument and then dance all over their rhetorical despair. In fact, at my very first collegiate tournament I made that poor team from Vassar cry at the podium. I don't even remember the topic, but I remember her salty, salty tears.
But Professor Patton pushed back on this approach, and allowed us to write in the following order:
1) First, what did you learn?
2) You may then offer an analytical response
3) You may then offer a personal response
So we had to get through all of the complex, useful writing before we had a chance to rant and rage about the text's inaccuracies or its privilege or its misogyny or its narrowness or its overwhelming breadth or our hatred of its employment of adverbs. And more often than not, I filled my two pages with productive thoughts and ran out of steam before I got to my teeth gnashing.
And I have to say, my teeth are a lot better off for it.
When forced to push my criticism to the back burner, I found myself getting a whole lot more out of the texts, and I found that most of my judgments were superficial and comparatively unimportant. It's almost as if I gave in to my knee jerk reactions to avoid having to actually grapple with what might be a difficult topic. When I reflected on what I learned, first and foremost, I learned more. Always.
This approach helped me tremendously in the ivory tower, and I'm finding it helps just as much on my couch with a good book. I'm going to use this blog to apply Prof. Patton's rules to my reading, mostly of YA and romantic fiction. Because while it's true that everything in this world is flawed, everything has something to teach, too.