I’m using Maggie Nelson’s award-winning memoir, The Argonauts, as the central text in an essay course I’m teaching this semester. We’re reading five to ten pages a week, moving slowly through Nelson’s genre-bending reflections on gender-bending relationships. The ostensible subject of the memoir is Nelson’s evolving relationship with Harry Dodge, an artist undergoing gender reassignment, but The Argonauts is actually a 140-page meditation on language and whether “words are good enough” to capture the complexities and the impermanence of human experience.
So far, it’s safe to say that the students are baffled by Nelson’s prose and by the practice of reading I’m asking them to try. They are used to reading assignments that are much longer; they know how to find credible online summaries; they’re good enough at the gist. But reading five pages twice? Three times? Five times? Tracking down what Nelson’s referring to when she describes her ambivalent response to Prop. 8; going from her citations back to the original sources; trying to make sense of her use of italics—which sometimes signify a direct quotation from a published work, sometimes a rough gloss of what was said, sometimes a passing remark by an artist or friend: these are not ways of reading familiar to my students. Indeed, one of them has already declared—twice!—that Nelson’s not a good writer.
It’s a little early to come to that decision, I say. And besides, this isn’t a course about whether or not Nelson is a good writer; this is a course in learning how to use writing to have a big thought.
I’m starting each class with a quiz. Right out of the gate, I made a mistake. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I made the mistake teachers are prone to make when teaching a new group of students: I made unwarranted assumptions about what the students knew how to do as readers. If I told you these were honors students, what assumptions would you make?
The first quiz, composed on the assumption that the students had read and re-read the first eight-page assignment with care and that they’d stopped to look up unfamiliar terms, figures, authors, and texts, was a bust. Most hadn’t paused to find out about Wittgenstein or Barthes or to track down Dodge’s film, By Hook or By Crook, or to look up Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Cutting, or to seek out definitions of unfamiliar terms. Those who did no meaningful research had no credible way of describing what their research illuminated and so they defaulted to some variation of this empty claim: “I now understand her point better.”
“It is idle to fault a net for having holes, my encyclopedia notes.”
So says Nelson.
I’ve searched in vain for the source of this quote. There’s something about it that just seems, well, fishy to me. Nelson doesn’t tell her readers which encyclopedia she’s using. And it’s hard to imagine under what entry these words appear. Snappy aphorisms? Sayings found in fortune cookies?
This quote or “quote” appears on the first page of The Argonauts. Is Nelson telling us language is a net with holes? Is she showing us how her mind works? I’ll have to get back to you on this. For the moment, I’m stuck. I haven’t figured out the right question to ask that will take me to Nelson’s source. (I thought—The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy! But, no.)
Not one student had a tale of research that led to a dead end or research that confounded things, making Nelson harder to understand than before. Even though these, surely, are the experiences at the center of curiosity-driven research.
Because of the quiz, I’ve got a better idea, now, of what my students don’t know how to do as readers or as writers. I know because you can’t fake intellectual experiences you haven’t had. So, the quiz, though technically a failure, has helped me to see how to start over tomorrow, which is what writers do.