Anyone who has taken an English class at Binghamton University is familiar with those students who feel the need to share any and all of the insights they glean from whatever text is being discussed in class. While no one should ever feel ashamed or embarrassed for sharing his or her opinions or ideas in a class, the culture of lending equal validity to all student comments has gone too far. Professors and teaching assistants alike are expected to regard all student interjections as positive contributions to the discussion, even when students are sometimes wrong.
This “accept all” culture in the English department at BU is a detriment to the growth and development of students’ intellect and analytical skills. In order to improve their skills in interpreting and understanding texts, students should have their ideas challenged and questioned. While literature and theory of course provide more room for interpretation than the hard sciences, this does not mean that any and all ideas students derive from these texts should be regarded with equal weight.
What value does a degree in English hold if students are left thinking that texts can be interpreted with little effort in any way that they see fit? Students should be encouraged to dig deeper and back up their ideas with references from the text, not simply share whatever comes to mind and receive a pat on their back from their professor. Anyone planning to go further in the field of English shouldn’t graduate with the expectation that literary analysis is as easy as presenting any arbitrary opinion on a text. Students should be trained to back up their ideas with textual evidence and thoroughly reasoned arguments.
Mistakes are some of the best opportunities for growth and learning. The best English classes I’ve taken aren’t the classes where the professor or TA entertains every single idea imaginable, but the ones where instructors are not afraid to tell students they are wrong or that they should explore their ideas more carefully. This enables students to learn how to analyze a text in a more critical and nuanced way, which should be an important goal for any English department.
Professors and TAs can be kind and encouraging without telling students that they are always right. I am not advocating for an atmosphere of rejection and unreasonably high standards, but rather an environment in which instructors can challenge the ideas of their students without being branded cruel or restrictively difficult. Educators should push their students to think carefully rather than entertaining any random thought that comes to mind.
While instructors are responsible for holding students to higher standards, we as students should take responsibility as well. I encourage my fellow English majors to challenge ourselves to explore assigned texts more deeply and thoughtfully. Don’t come to class prepared to regurgitate any immediate reaction you have to whatever you are reading. Instead, think carefully and critically. You may find that you get a lot more out of your next English class with this in mind.
— Chris Ertel is a senior majoring in English.