Reading for evidence

by Carl Dyke

After going through it yet again yesterday as a mini-lecture with two sections of introductory World History, I finally got around to boiling down the ninja reading rubric to a pithy one-page handout. It is depicted below and you should feel free to use it as creative commons (click the image for the doc file). I’d also welcome gentle critical improvement.

Even with this to put in the syllabus as a resource going forward, I think I’ll still do the lecture, because I can illustrate with examples to give wet flesh to the dry bones of the handout. For instance, I tell a story about walking past a used car lot and being accosted by a guy in a bad toupee and loud plaid jacket who says “Hey buddy, how ya doin’? Can I offer you a cup of coffee?” I suggest that the ‘text’ of this utterance is unlikely to be the whole story, then assert an ‘obvious’ homosexual subtext. At this point the students generally discover the interpretive joys of context all on their own.

To get at countertext this time I used the trivial example of the strange intertextual prevalence of the term ‘denigrate’ in the Critical Race Theory genre. Without being racists, these good progressives have somehow stumbled upon unironic use of the one term among many possible synonyms for degradation that contains within it the same linguistic root as the notorious ‘n-word’. Having thus used controversy already to focus the students’ minds I went all in and further offered the example of early Black football quarterbacks being commonly referred to as ‘instinctual’ rather than ‘intelligent’, and how every current mention of a Black quarterback’s intelligence, however favorable, inevitably takes part in this history; participating in a discursive history of racism without necessarily saying much about the racist intentions or not of particular speakers.


8 Responses to “Reading for evidence”

  1. If I may add my two bits; from my experience, students seem to get lost in the dark with the countertextual relationship, so you might want to elaborate on this point more heavily through examples.

  2. Yes, you’re right, thanks. And not just students. And in my experience just a few examples won’t do it…. But to be honest I think deconstruction really doesn’t come into play until you get to grad-level work, if then, so I offer it in a stripped-down version (undigested materials, unexamined assumptions and implied perspectives) to pique interest, create a challenge and show the whole range. For the most part if I can graduate people who routinely ask the source assessment questions and have a working understanding of how to read for subtext and context I’ll be pretty happy.

  3. I’ve mentioned in the past how much I love this set of heuristics. I shamelessly reworked it myself, incorporating some bits from Wineburg and his followers, and I now use it in every class. One of the ways that the “countertext” move might be taught would be to lecture on the categories, as you do, set up a debate of some kind (which I think you do already), and then see if discussion veers towards a feature of the text that can’t readily explained by intention: “hey, X is contradicting himself here. Do you think that’s on purpose?” or “do you think that Y is revealing more of her true position and values here than she realizes? How might we talk about that?” Perhaps these discussions come up more frequently in Lit Crit classes. But as a matter of principle I want my lit students to know how to assess sources, and I would think that even undergrad history majors would need a sense that any speaker’s utterance will have an agenda that goes beyond the immediate knowledge and circumstances of the speaker.

  4. I think that learning to look for deception/ulterior motives through the lens of “countertext” is crucial tool in toolbox of any university student. It’s a life skill (as are the rest of these heuristics) that you can apply regardless of what you end up doing/studying.

  5. I have taken the liberty of posting the URL for this piece on Facebook and Google+. The response on Facebook has been highly positive.


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