English 1A, aka Reading Too Much Into Things

English 1A Header

Alternate title: I think I would have made a good Arts student. Maybe not a great one, but at least a good one.

As part of the final semester of my long winded Computing degree, I’m doing an English unit.

It all started when I realised that there weren’t enough Computing units this year for me to do that I hadn’t already done, or didn’t have the prerequisites for, or just plain wasn’t eligible for, in order for me to graduate this semester. A quick email to my degree coordinator revealed that I was allowed to do units outside the School of Computing and Information Systems, and that was that: I started looking for something a little different, something that I would actually enjoy.

And truth be told, I’m interested in a lot of things, but wouldn’t necessarily want to do a course at Uni on them. Take statistics, for example: I like knowing how statistics are derived and an intrigued by the whole numbers side of things, but from what I’ve heard, statistics at Uni is more of a mathematical nightmare than it is “fun stuff to do with numbers”. With that in mind, it was basically a toss up between some photography-based unit, and some writing-based one.

Photography would have been cool. I’ve been wanting to get into the whole darkroom development side of photography, and I’d like some kind of formal training rather than just reading PetaPixel posts on how to be a better photographer. Then I read something in the unit outline which said that you needed to do a certain number of hours of photography per week, and that kind of turned me off. Reason being, most, if not all, of my photography is done for my own enjoyment, not so I can impress someone else with my compositional technique. Forcing myself to get out there and shoot might have turned me off photography altogether, and I’m a little scared by the prospect of someone else critiquing my work, as much as I might want them to.

With photography out of the picture (so to speak), I looked towards a writing-based subject. Of those, it was a choice between some journalism based unit or a writing-one — not having the prerequisites for a more advanced unit, I chose English 1A for two reasons. One, I thought I’d be able to get feedback on my writing process, and two, it would be something a little different. Plus, I thought I’d be able to get decent enough grades without really having to try. Sue me for being lazy.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect going in, but honestly, it all turned out pretty great. I always looked forward to the tutorials, even if they were at the end of a long Monday of other classes, and even though I couldn’t go to lectures due it a clash with another subject, I was there in spirit whenever I listened to the recorded lectures at home. But that wasn’t the same as the real thing, as I soon discovered…

About two-thirds through the semester, I realised that it was probably time to start blowing off the other class (which wasn’t really worth going to anyway, seeing as all the material was given to us online), and start going to English lectures. Starting around week 9 of the 13 weeks in a semester, I went to my first ever English lecture, and just like the tutorials, they were an entirely different experience than the Computing lectures I was used to.

I mean, they still had someone who delivered the lectures, obviously, and they still used PowerPoint presentations, but the kind of lecture delivered was so much different. There was interaction! The lecturer asked people questions to do with their opinion on certain ideas, certain aspects of whichever text we were studying at the time — something that is pretty much unheard of in Computing lectures. The atmosphere of an English lecture was just so different — people seemed more engaged, attendance always seemed great (although this was a first-year Arts unit, so not entirely unexpected), and yeah, there were heaps of cute girls. Again, not entirely unexpected — although welcome — for a first year Arts unit.


Part of our assessment work in English 1A were these short exercises we had to do. These were exercises we could hand in every week at our designated tutorials, and they were usually short writing tasks — a couple hundred words on the significance of the title of the current text, the difference between studying film and literary texts, that sort of thing. They were designed to see how well we could prepare for the coming week’s lecture material, to get us in the right frame of mind for thinking about whatever we would be talking about in the lectures that week. As it turned out, however, I always wrote my short exercises during the two hours before the tutorial, after the lecture earlier that day.

I don’t know whether it was because I didn’t really put all that much thought into them, or that I just quickly whipped them together by bashing out some words on a keyboard before the actual tutorial, but I never received the best marks for those short exercises. I always thought I wrote a decent piece on whatever we were supposed to be writing about, but I never received the marks I thought I should have. I’d hand in that week’s short exercises pretty proud of myself, thinking that they were pretty OK pieces of work, and then I’d be disappointed the next week when we got the marked exercises back. Three out of five isn’t a bad mark by any means, just not what I was expecting. That said, my first exercise garnered a measly two-and-a-half marks out of five, and by the end of the semester (some four or five exercises later) I managed to push that mark up to three-and-a-half out of five, just enough for a distinction.

The longer assessments were similarly disappointing, marks wise. The mark I received for my poem explication was fine seeing as poetry isn’t exactly my forte, but the analytical essay was a pretty big let down. Once again, I handed in a piece of work which presented a compelling argument, which I thought was worth of a distinction at the very least, only to get back something that was only deemed worthy of a credit. The assessor’s comments suggest I missed the mark even though I didn’t think I did, but hey, I guess that’s what feedback is for, right? I thought I could get better marks than I did, but I didn’t. File this one under “lessons in humility”, Jim.

Reading Too Much Into Things

So what’s the lesson here? What’s English 1A really about?

It was one of the first lectures (one that I didn’t go to) that introduced the idea of close reading. I didn’t really get it at the time, but after looking at poetry, short stories, novels, and films over the course of the semester, I’ve come to realise that close reading is just reading into things. I won’t go so far as to say it’s just reading something and making stuff up, but it gets pretty close. It’s this idea that you can get meaning from something that isn’t explicitly given in the words on the page — the implied meaning behind the language used, or behind the visuals seen. Or even the implied meaning from the overarching story, the theme and the elements that go together to make a story what it is.

One of the reasons I struggled with poetry so much is because annotating a text to include my own thoughts was hard. I could never really interpret the text to the degree other students could, and in tutorials it genuinely seemed as though people were making stuff up that could almost — if shoehorned correctly, and even then, only if you squinted — fit the text. I mean, is Robert Frost’s poem “Acquainted with the Night” really a poem that describes someone’s experience with depression, or is that reading too much into things?

I’m reasonably good at pointing out the technical aspects of poems and films, and I can tell you about what happens in a story as well as the next guy, but when it comes to interpreting words on the page, seeing meaning that isn’t explicitly there is just not my forte. When writing the assessment tasks, I found myself using the phrase “the more thoughtful observation” or “a deeper analysis of the text”, which would then provide a lead-on to whatever idea I was about to explain. For someone who is used to taking things at face value, for their literal meanings rather than their implied ones, it felt unnatural and foreign.

One of the earlier lectures had an exercise that found out what kind of a reader you were. You answered a set of questions, and based on those questions, you were put into a four categories. I never went to that lecture and never did the exercise properly, but if I have a feeling if I did, I’d probably end up in the quadrant that described those who have a tendency to read texts for what they are, not draw my own conclusions that weren’t explicitly stated on the page.

And at the core of it, I think that’s the main differentiator between Arts and Computing. It’s not just that the lectures are different, that the male-female split in lectures is closer to 50/50, or that tutorials are genuinely fun, but that Arts units teach you to think differently. Computing is very defined: it’s either yes or no, with little grey area in between. But Arts, at least in my mind, is about not just seeing meaning that isn’t explicitly pointed out to you by the author of the work, but interpreting that, putting your own spin on it, and drawing conclusions from what you see or what you read. The question is no longer merely just: “what is this?”, like it is so many times in Computing, but also: “what does this mean?”

At the end of the day, all I know is that I should have gone to the peer assisted study sessions, if only because the student tutors (that is, tutors that were also students, not just tutors of students) were kind of cute. And I’m still kind of annoyed I never remembered what that girl’s favourite book was (7th paragraph in my earlier piece on English 1A, if you’re interested).

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