Language, Truth and Power in the Classroom



“So even if I have a different opinion than you, you won’t mark it wrong?”

This had been an easy and gratifying question for me to answer during my first year teaching English; I was the young, open-minded teacher a’la “Dead Poet’s Society” who would encourage my students to think for themselves and to trust their own ideas.

“Of course not,” I said, smiling as I added, “so long as you support what you have to say with evidence.”

My students’ dubious glances gradually turned into confident nods as the first few months passed and they realized I not only valued their ideas, I was eager to hear them. Moreover, I had done my best to demystify this process of supporting claims with evidence. Like many secondary English teachers, I had prided myself on requiring all of my students to incorporate “evidence” not only in their writing, but also in their oral responses to questions in class. My students had become much more proficient in practicing this skill, and now we were working on how to incorporate evidence in more sophisticated ways. Instead of haphazardly attaching a quote to various claims, I was trying to help my students take quotes apart and use only the pieces they needed to incorporate them elegantly and seamlessly into their arguments, whether verbal or written.

“So, as long as I support what I have to say with evidence, I’ll get it right?”

The first time I heard Mallory’s* revised version of the initial question, I had replied, “Of course.” But something bothered me about its implications that I could not quite put my finger on. What did she mean by “right”? For that matter, what did I mean by “right”? To what extent had our formal assessments become a kind of business transaction based upon our previously agreed upon deal—you give me the evidence, I’ll give you the grade? And why did this ostensibly fair economic approach seem untruthful?

As I began to hear Mallory’s request of assurance echoed frequently by other students—usually before tests, essays, and other formal assessments—I found myself hesitating before coming up with an inarticulate affirmative: “Yes, you’ll get it ‘right,’ but of course you have to demonstrate strong evidence”—“Probably, so long as you incorporate specific details”—“Well, don’t forget to explain who is arguing what here. Is this what you think or is this what Walt Whitman thinks?”—“Before I say yes, what do you think ‘getting it “right” really means, David?’”

I began to see that the age-old expectation of all reasonably competent English teachers—that their students learn to support their claims with evidence—actually raises not only academic, but moral questions. What counts as ‘right’ or ‘true’ in the English classroom—and how is this connected to grades and success? Indeed, the almost daily exchange between teachers and students about what counts as “enough” evidence and what qualifies as a correct answer exposes the difficulty of language’s potential for truthfulness, power—and abuse.

I decided that I needed to find a way to help my students see these complexities. I needed to give them more than just a way to cultivate an analytical skill; I needed to give them some context about the responsibility involved in exercising that skill. But I did not know how to do this.

Fortunately, my juniors and I were in the midst of an American poetry unit in which Emily Dickinson’s ambiguous expressions of truth provided a good place to start exploring Mallory’s question in depth. I had my students analyze an Emily Dickinson poem of their choice for tone and mood. Abbey, one of my shyest students, offered her interpretation bravely to the class, admirably including multiple examples of textual evidence.

Inspiration dawned on me (my students would chide me for using such an obvious cliché). But it certainly did feel like enlightenment: I decided in that moment to take a risk that, as a more experienced teacher, I would be much more cautious in taking now.

“Abbey, I’m sorry, but you are absolutely incorrect. Dickinson’s tone here is neither somber nor sad—actually, she is delighted, and she wants her reader to be, too.”

Abbey’s surprise was expressed by her more vocal peers. “What do you mean, Ms. Shea?” They were used to me finding some kind of good in every response, even if I usually pressed them for more.

“Well, I’ll explain it to you,” I said calmly.

I proceeded to re-explicate the poem on the spot, carefully refuting every single point Abbey had made with devastating speed and ease. I made sure to back up every single statement I made with unmistakable evidence from the poem. I made sure to speak quickly, confidently and seriously. The result was rather alarming.

This display of power—for that’s really what it was—stunned my students. They looked at one another, and then they looked at me—with reproach in their eyes. But they did not feel they could refute what I had said. I had used my authority and position as a teacher in a way they had never seen me use it before.

After a moment, I asked them, “What do you think of my interpretation?”

There were shrugs and exchanged glances. They were more upset with me than I had thought they would be.

So I said, “Was that fair to Abbey?”

I encountered a resounding “no” and many other indignant responses as well. I was a little overwhelmed by their anger. “Why did you do that?” “I thought Abbey did a good job.” “She’s not an English teacher like you.” “That was really mean, Ms. Shea.”

“Yes it was,” I said. “Will you let me explain what I was trying to do?”

After I had apologized to Abbey, my students were more willing to listen to what I had to say. I explained that Abbey’s interpretation was actually very strong, and that she has supported her ideas with evidence well—but that I had decided before even hearing her explanation that I would respond with an opposing argument, no matter how ridiculous or untrue I thought my position was—and that I would back up whatever I claimed to be true with lots of evidence from the poem. I wanted to show them that evidence could be manipulated in all sorts of ways—that in English, you could prove almost anything, whether or not you believed it to be true.

“Do you think, if I answered that way on a test, that I would get full credit for my answer?”

My students nodded slowly—and unhappily.

“You backed it up with evidence,” they said, echoing the mantra I had instilled in them over the past five months.

“But you weren’t being real,” one of them added.

As I have indicated, the heart of the matter exists somewhere in the tenuous relationships among truthfulness, freedom, and power. As English teachers, we want to empower our students by giving them the tools to understand, use and even create language. That is, we are responsible for helping our students feel the power of language and negotiate its demands.

But the question about evidence and correctness—what constitutes the “truth” in an English classroom—affects both strong and struggling students alike. The ability to manipulate language and evidence is a skill struggling students often feel they were simply born without—and it is a skill strong students sometimes abuse because they do not understand it. They are often too worried about the ‘right’ answer to bother finding the truthful one.

More to come on this.

*All names have been changed.



Filed under Literature, Teaching

4 responses to “Language, Truth and Power in the Classroom

  1. Pingback: Language, Truth and Power in the Classroom – Part II | Mysteries and Manners

  2. Douglas

    Excellent essay. Have you seen Camile Paglia’s Break, Blow, Burn? The book includes a well-written essay on John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14. If a student of yours had written that essay it would be difficult not to give him an A, and yet Paglia completely misses what the poem is about. She misses it because she doesn’t love Christ, and no one can understand the poem and Donne’s struggle without that love. To teach the poem we have to teach others to love what we love, I guess.

  3. Pingback: 7 Quick Takes Friday (2/7/14) | Mysteries and Manners

  4. Pingback: On Teaching Writing in High School – Or, Why Anthony Esolen is Wrong | Mysteries and Manners

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