Both in the classroom and in my own work, I am drawn to the odd, the distracting, and the outright strange. I have often thought of inaugurating a new field: Weird Studies, in which we look for the strangest parts of strange texts and discuss how very, very weird they are. We’d have fantastic conferences, at least.
This passion for the strange has been a foundational aspect of my pedagogical technique, as I encourage students to follow their own strange obsessions toward new and unexpected insights. While it is entirely valid to read Othello with an eye toward animal imagery as an expression of cultural anxiety about race, how much more exciting is it to read the play looking for Othello’s favorite vowel—O—and its emotional effects on the rhetorical mode of the main character?
Encouraging a student in her natural inclination to question those aspects that announce themselves as anomalies is often the first step toward opening the textual ambiguities and nuances to further critical analysis. I often struggle to move students, who have been trained to read for plot and character, further into the text. Presenting the strange for evaluation is an effective method of pushing beyond the surface of the text, excavating the deeper implications of a student’s critical approach.
A more concrete (and era-appropriate) metaphor for my approach to textual engagement is the early modern cabinet of wonders, or wunderkammer, in which objects are collected in a heterogeneous mass. The cabinet, when considered as a singular object, seems impressive but indecipherable, a vessel for clearly important but unavailable meaning. Unpacking a text exposes deeper meaning in the same way as unlocking the cabinet does. Considering each element on its own terms first, before understanding the element in the larger representational context, makes both the part and the whole intelligible. The exterior appearance may be grand and daunting, but understanding the individual elements brings a depth of understanding that exceeds the initial response.
In the same way, taking apart a text as culturally familiar as King Lear or Romeo and Juliet and considering the constitutive parts undermines the “Great Works” aura that can intimidate students. In my classroom, I encourage students to get their hands dirty in the text, unlocking the impressive but shallow exterior, excavating the strange quirks of the words, the images, the rhetorical techniques. We do this through extensive close reading as a communal process. I write passages on the board and then, at the students’ prompting, circle, underline, connect, and annotate the language in ways that illuminate and complicate themes and issues we’ve been discussing in the larger context. This serves as both a model of reading (by showing them what their own personal copy should look like when they engage in this kind of active reading) and a model of writing (by showing how to use textual evidence to support an argumentative claim.
I am constantly provoked by the texts I work on, and, in turn, I let the texts provoke my students. Keeping them focused on the text itself, through both this provocation and through close-reading techniques, allows them an authority over material that might otherwise seem too grand or important for critical intervention. Attending to the specifics of the texts is the primary method of analysis in my class, and we spend much time subjecting lines to intensive examination. Why this word here? Why this structure of thought? What can be found in the construction of a text that reveals important facets of the larger issues it is engaged with?
One of my favorite and most successful assignments introduces students to the techniques of close reading by forcing them to focus on a single word in a text. I ask them to track a word through the text, noting where its meaning shifts or is altered, in order to make an argument about the importance of the word to the larger issues of the text. Students make use of the Oxford English Dictionary to investigate the etymology and usage history of their word, seeing how it was used before, during, and after the period of the text itself. What students find is that a single word, whenever it is deployed in a text, carries with it the residue of all its other moments of usage, creating an accretion of meaning that imbues both the word itself and the text it inhabits.
Another assignment that emphasizes the necessity of close attention in critical analysis involves linking different aesthetic representations of stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I ask students to consider a section of Ovid’s text (in translation) alongside a visual representation of the same passage. In exploring disparate representational strategies, students learn that any crafted object is available for analysis and can be “read” as a text. This approach opens the established canon of Great Works and allows in the cultural ephemera that is just as intriguing and valuable as an object of analysis.
My insistence on the availability of objects for analysis is also a key component in my use of theory in the classroom. I firmly believe that theory must always be linked to practice, must always be a tool for dismantling our assumptions about a text rather than a way to talk around the primary material. I present theoretical approaches as a means for opening the text to stranger and more ambiguous readings. Many students come to theory thinking it determines meaning rather than opens it, and applying the theory directly to text is the most direct way of proving that assumption false and limiting.
Weird, then, is not just the instigating term for my pedagogical and scholarly technique, but, as in the assignment above, a word that accrues meaning as it appears again and again. The Old Norse root of “weird” is the verb “to become”; in attending to the weird, the text becomes more than itself, becomes available, becomes new, becomes weird.