Fallibilism in the Family: Interpreting Literature Through Discourse by Emily Foster
In The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers (2003), Sheridan Blau proposes a new way for English teachers to lead discussions and facilitate critical thinking among their students. This method takes the form of what Blau calls a literature workshop, a group discussion led by an instructor in which students examine a given text and analyze their own reactions to it. Central to Blau’s literature workshop is the idea of intellectual fallibilism. Blau defines intellectual fallibilism as the “willingness to change one’s mind, to appreciate alternative visions, and to engage in methodological believing as well as doubting” (214). Blau believes that intellectual fallibilism is the mark of a strong and thoughtful reader. Intellectually fallible students, declares Blau, are “capable of changing their minds, capable of learning from their encounters with other readings to look in a new way and therefore to adopt a perspective that is more comprehensive than their own former vision” (214). According to Blau, by encouraging intellectual fallibilism in the classroom, English instructors can open their students’ minds to new and exciting interpretations of literary texts.
In addition to its emphasis on intellectual fallibilism, Blau’s workshop differs from traditional classroom discourse in its focus on metacognitive awareness, or “thinking about one’s thinking,” in order to monitor and question one’s own interpretive procedure (57). “The focus of the literature workshop,” Blau states in his introduction, “is at least as much on the process of reading and producing discourse about literature as it is on the substance of the discourse produced” (13). In other words, a teacher’s goal in leading a literature workshop is to help students interpret literature by encouraging them to analyze the process by which they form their own interpretations.
One way for instructors to do this is by asking readers questions not about the text, but about their reactions to it. This way, according to Blau, “the students become valued experts because only they can know and report on their own experiences as readers” (13). Instructors can encourage this kind of self-analysis by presenting their students with “problems that represent promising opportunities for acquiring particular kinds of knowledge” and guiding their students towards reflective thought and discussion about these issues (13). By doing this, English instructors can not only guide their students toward thoughtful responses to the text at hand, but also prepare them to tackle challenges posed by future texts. Blau believes that “readers who are used to monitoring their reading are less likely to feel defeated by difficult texts” and are better positioned to independently interpret other works of literature in the future (214).
The Literature Workshop: A Multi-Modal Take
As part of a literature pedagogy class in Fall Semester 2018, I endeavored to conduct my own literature workshop using Blau’s strategies and techniques. I chose to focus in particular on Blau’s conception of intellectual fallibilism and its uses in the English classroom. Essentially, I wanted to see if, having read and formed a first impression of a text, my participants would demonstrate openness to alternative readings. My workshop differed from those modelled in Blau’s book in two notable ways: first, the text we discussed was multimodal. In other words, while Blau’s workshops focused solely on written texts, my participants engaged with a text in different mediums. Second, my “students” were not college undergraduates, but members of my family. I will discuss each of these factors in turn.
For my literature workshop, I selected the poem “Is My Team Ploughing” by A. E. Housman. Published in 1896, this poem has been set to music by numerous composers, George Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams among them. Their distinctive arrangements suggest that the composers had vastly different interpretations of the text. I chose this poem because it offered my participants the unique opportunity to engage with the text in two different mediums: written on a page and sung as part of a piece of music. Since written text allows readers so much interpretive freedom, I was eager to see how my participants’ takes on the poem would match up with the composers’ treatments of it—and whether they would be open to different readings after listening to the songs.
“Is My Team Ploughing” was originally published in 1896 as part of a larger collection of poetry entitled A Shropshire Lad. Interestingly, Housman himself was neither a Shropshire lad, having grown up in Worcestershire, England, nor a career poet. A renowned classical scholar and professor of Latin at Cambridge University, Housman devoted most of his life to textual criticism, ranking among the most formidable English critics of the twentieth century. “Is My Team Ploughing,” one of the most popular poems in the collection, has been described by literary scholar Robert Brainard Pearsall as a “ballad-like” poem notable for its “tight compression of the great human themes” and “structural elegance” (42). According to Pearsall, it was these characteristics that captured the attention of readers, resulting in “Is My Team Ploughing” being “much pirated and anthologized, and frequently set to music” following its publication (42). The poem, in its entirety, reads as follows:
“Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?”
Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.
“Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?”
Ay the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.
“Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?”
Ay, she lies down lightly,
She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
Be still, my lad, and sleep.
“Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?”
Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.
Like many of Housman’s poems, “Is My Team Ploughing” has been praised for the “simplicity and melody” of its lines and for its natural lyricism (White 208). Unsurprisingly, the song-like qualities of Housman’s poetry also captured the imaginations of numerous composers, resulting in over a hundred musical adaptions of Housman’s works (208). “Is My Team Ploughing” is among the most commonly arranged of Housman’s poems, having been set to music by no fewer than five composers. The two best-known arrangements of the poem were penned by English composers Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth not long after A Shropshire Lad’s publication. Published in 1909, Vaughan Williams’ song cycle features six of Housman’s poems, all arranged for tenor, piano, and string quartet. Butterworth’s song collection, published only two years later, also includes six poems from A Shropshire Lad—Butterworth’s arrangement, however, is written only for piano and tenor.
Butterworth’s treatment of “Is My Team Ploughing” infuses the poem with gentleness and simplicity. The dead man’s voice sounds faint, as if coming from a great distance, while the living man’s voice lilts above strong chords in the piano. Throughout the piece, the exchange between the two voices is civil, with the living man singing the closing lines softly and wistfully. Vaughan Williams takes a far more dramatic approach to the text. In his arrangement, both voices grow increasingly agitated until, in the final stanzas, the two speakers are practically shouting at one another, supported by an equally tumultuous accompaniment from the piano and string quartet. When creating my literature workshop, I was curious to see which of these vastly different arrangements would align most closely with my participants’ interpretations of Housman’s text. Would they, like Butterworth, view the conversation as a civil exchange? Or would they interpret the poem as an emotionally-charged confrontation, as Vaughan Williams had done?
My workshop was a family affair. My participants were my mother, my father, my uncle, my fifteen-year-old sister, and my ten-year-old brother. None of my participants are poetry enthusiasts, so I was interested to see how they would react when faced with the task of analyzing a poem. My mother, being a lawyer, reads and interprets legal documents every day, but seldom reads literature. My sister Elizabeth is borderline scornful of poetry (“So Emily, be honest, is this poem going to be boring?”) but loves analyzing scripts and acting at our local theatre. My father, who works for a bank, deals with numbers all day and has little experience with literature. Finally, my uncle probably reads the most literature of the three adults, but prefers short fiction to poetry. I conducted my workshop over FaceTime, with my participants together in one room and me appearing remotely from Cincinnati. My brother John assisted with certain logistical issues (recording the conversation, printing copies of the poem, playing the YouTube recordings, etc.).
“That’s… different”: Discussion and Interpretation
In my workshop, my participants first read the poem, made note of aspects that confused them, and speculated on what they thought the text might sound like if spoken (or, in this case, sung) aloud. We then listened to the two musical settings of the poem, comparing and contrasting the composers’ choices with my participants’ expectations.
Early in our discussion, we spent significant time gauging the personas of the two speakers, as well as the dynamic between them. Each of my participants took the dead man’s use of the word “friend” in the second to last stanza (“Is my friend hearty, / Now I am thin and pine, / And has he found to sleep in / A better bed than mine?”) to suggest that the two speakers had been close prior to the dead man’s passing. However, I was curious about the emotions and tones of voice that they would assign to each character in this particular conversation.
I therefore began by asking my discussants to imagine themselves as a composer or performer endeavoring to assign emotions to the two voices. Our discussion progressed as follows:
Me: In a minute, we’re going to listen to two musical settings of this poem. If you were setting this poem to music, or if you were an actor portraying one of these characters onstage, what emotion would you give to him at different points in the poem?
Elizabeth: In acting classes, teachers tell you to give your character verbs—it helps to figure out what your character is doing in a scene. I think the friend’s verb would be “to console.” He’s answering the dead guy’s questions and trying to tell him that everything is alright.
Me: Great. Interesting, though, that everything isn’t really alright. For a while, he conveniently leaves out that he’s stolen the dead guy’s “girl.”
Dad: Yeah, the answerer guy is being pretty short with his answers. Almost like he’s trying to cover something up. He just answers the dead man’s questions quickly without going into anything deeper. The dead guy seems like he’s trying to get to the deep stuff, but he starts out with less important questions—first he asks about the horses, then the people playing football, then he finally asks about the girl. It seems like he’s starting out slowly before he gets to the real questions that he wanted to ask.
Mom: I almost think it sounds like the dead man is searching around for signs that people feel his absence. His questions have an undertone of “Do you miss me? Is life still going on without me? Or… maybe people aren’t able to keep going without me there?”
John: Also, he says, “Is my girl happy, that I thought hard to leave? And has she tired of weeping…?” He’s asking if she remembers him and if she is still misses him.
Me: What about the very last stanza? How do you think that these lines could be read? What do you think the friend is feeling as he says those words?
Elizabeth: If I were acting it, I wouldn’t make eye contact with the dead guy. I’d look at the ground, then maybe look up at the very last line.
Me: Interesting! Why don’t you think the friend would look the dead man in the eye?
Dad: He’s ashamed.
Elizabeth: Yeah, he’s ashamed, he’s afraid. I mean, this is a ghost he’s dealing with – he probably just doesn’t want to get haunted forever.
Uncle: Although it does seem like he’s being a jerk there. You don’t just let something like that slip out if you don’t secretly want to talk about it.
(General sounds of agreement)
Mom: Yes, could he be saying it with a twinkle in his eye? It’s almost funny.
Elizabeth: Like he’s saying, “I mean, I can’t tell you more, but trust me, she’s really hot. You’d like her. Wink wink.”
As this dialogue indicates, the Butterworth version mostly aligned with my participants’ initial ideas about the two speakers. After hearing the Butterworth recording, they commented on the contrast between the dead man’s voice, which was soft and weak-sounding, and the living man’s, which sounded strong and very much alive. My sister expressed surprise that this song portrayed the living man as the more powerful of the two; in her initial reading of the poem, she pictured the dead man as being in control of the conversation. “He’s the one asking the questions,” she argued. That point aside, there was little in this version that surprised my participants.
However, when they heard the Vaughan Williams song, which took a more dramatic approach to the ending, their reactions bordered on dismay:
John: That’s…. different.
Mom: That is definitely not what my mind pictured when I was reading this conversation!
Me: So what was different about this version?
John: The music was more involved. When the friend was singing loudly, the music also got louder and more dissonant.
Elizabeth: I think the music represented their inner feelings in this version more than it did in the Butterworth one. When the friend was getting defensive and scared, the music swelled to go along with him. In the Butterworth version, the instruments were just there as filler.
Dad: Okay, this song really made it seem like the dead man is fishing. He casually asks all these questions about the horses and the football, but when he gets to the end and asks about the girl and the friend, he’s angry. I think those questions were the ones he wanted to get to all along.
Elizabeth: I have a question. Did he know that this thing was going on between his friend and his girl before the conversation starts? While he was still alive, even?
Uncle: I was actually just wondering that. This song was the first time I had considered it. I was just thinking that, in the 1800s, you wouldn’t want your widow (if they were married) to be without a husband to support her. So why did he get so angry?
Mom: I had that sense, too, although I wouldn’t have said it until I heard these two contrasting songs. In my mind, when I first read it, I felt like the friend was saying, “Yes, your girl is fine. I’m taking care of her now that you no longer can. Don’t worry.” I thought that it was more positive and reassuring. In this version, it was very clear that neither of them viewed this as a positive thing.
Interestingly, for the first two-thirds of the conversation, none of my participants raised any questions about the premise of a ghost conversing with a living man. For the first forty minutes or so of discussion, all seemed willing to take the poem at face value, suspending disbelief about the impossibility of the situation. This was probably partly due to my questions, which tended to separate the voices into two distinct characters.
At last, it was my father who suggested that the conversation might not be between the two individuals, after all, but in the living man’s head:
Dad: And I don’t think this necessarily goes against anything we’ve talked about, but—I mean, clearly, the premise is a dead guy talking to an alive guy. That can’t really happen. So this conversation is still happening, but it’s more the living guy having this conversation with himself.
Elizabeth: Like he’s feeling guilty!
Dad: Yes! In the Williams version, it sounds like he’s guilty and also really defensive. Like he’s imagining what his dead friend would say to him and he’s trying to defend himself.
Uncle: It’s almost like his conscience.
Mom: And maybe he’s projecting those feelings of anger onto the dead man, imagining how his friend would feel if he knew what he’d done.
Dad: Yeah! And in the Williams version, it sounded like the living guy is feeling a lot more guilty, because he lashes out at his conscience and sings loudly. In the Butterworth version, he sounds more secure in what he did, and like he doesn’t feel the need to justify anything.
Uncle: But the conscience is still there, so he must still feel a little guilty.
Me: So at what point did that idea about this conversation being in the living man’s head come to you? Was it when you first read the poem, or later?
Dad: I had that thought when I first read the poem. But I think it was kind of reinforced when I listened to the songs. Especially since both characters were sung by the same guy.
Elizabeth: Really? There was only one singer in each version?
Me: Yes, I was going to mention that—they’re usually performed by one vocalist.
Elizabeth and Mom: Whoa!
Mom: Interesting that when I initially read it, I was definitely willing to suspend disbelief and believe that it was a ghost talking to a living person.
John: I thought that it was a real ghost because I don’t think a conscience would ask about the horses, or the fields. A conscience wouldn’t be like, “So, how’s the farm?” before asking about people.
Elizabeth: That’s true. I do feel like a conscience would skip straight to the girl.
All five of my participants appeared willing to consider that the dialogue between the dead man and his friend is not a “real” conversation, but a dialogue happening inside the living man’s head. None of my participants—perhaps excluding my father—clung to this as the only acceptable interpretation of the poem, however. My mother and uncle, in particular, surprised me with their “tolerance for ambiguity” (Blau 213). Both admitted that they could read the poem either way, and neither demanded that we arrive at a “final answer.” My father was less willing to suspend closure, stating that the premise of a dead man speaking to a living man “didn’t make sense,” and insisting that, in the conversation detailed above, we had arrived at the “right” reading of the poem.
As I think of my mother and uncle as generally opinionated people, I was surprised at their readiness to accept uncertainty. Upon further reflection, I wondered if my mother’s lawyerly experiences left her more willing to accept ambiguity than, say, my banker father. Law allows for many different interpretations—the U.S. Constitution itself is probably one of the vaguest documents ever written—so perhaps she has come to expect a certain amount of interpretive uncertainty in the things she reads. My father, on the other hand, works with numbers all day, which may explain why uncertainty was more difficult for him to accept.
Reflections On Poetry and Pedagogy
Through some trial and error in conducting this workshop, I discovered that less was more when it came to my contributions. Blau emphasizes the importance of allowing readers to arrive at their interpretations independently, encouraging teachers to assume more of a background role and allow their students to “take responsibility for such tasks as making sense of texts and figuring out textual and conceptual problems” (2). However, despite Blau’s insistence on keeping the instructor’s role in the literature workshop to a minimum, I was afraid that not giving my participants any suggestions would result in them sitting and staring blankly at one another for an hour. Again, my participants were not exactly poetry fans, and I was afraid that their lack of experience would stand in their way. Surprisingly, however, I found that the times when I sat back and let the conversation ebb and flow on its own led to some of the most inciteful comments of the workshop. My father’s idea about the conversation happening inside the living man’s head, for example, came after a rather long pause. If I were to conduct another workshop in the future, I would try to allow for more of these pauses and to resist the urge to fill them with my own suggestions.
In conducting my literature workshop, I not only acquired new pedagogical knowledge, but also gained new insights into Housman’s poem. When I first read “Is My Team Ploughing” a few years ago, I, like my mother, was entirely willing to suspend disbelief and believe that a dead man was talking to a living man. I believed that Housman was using the idea of a ghost talking to a real person to raise questions about the relationship between the dead and the living. However, I find my father’s idea of the conversation as happening in the answerer’s head to be more and more compelling each time I revisit the poem. Since conducting my workshop, I have also reflected more on my brother’s point about the oddness of the living man imagining that the dead man would ask about his horses before his “girl.” Could this be an example of an author disregarding realism for the sake of the audience? Is Housman creating a slow build-up to lure his readers in and thus increase the effectiveness of the punchline, even if it means deviating from how the living man’s inner dialogue would “actually” go?
Prior to beginning this project, I had not fully appreciated the freedom that written text gives its readers, especially compared to songs. When we read words on a page, we have the ability to infuse those words with a certain tone. In the case of “Is My Team Ploughing,” when we imagine that a speaker is talking loudly, or meekly, or comfortingly, it alters our take on a text. For example, when my sister assigned the verb “to console” to the answerer voice, she was projecting a tone of voice onto the text based off of the fact that the character was giving affirmative answers. Therefore, when the Vaughan Williams version portrayed the answerer as more aggressive, it surprised her and forced her to reexamine her interpretation.
Interpreting Real Life
As demonstrated in my workshop, one need not be a literature expert to engage in critical discussions of a text. In fact, while Blau’s book focuses primarily on applying his interpretive methods in the literature workshop, he emphasizes that intellectual fallibilism and metacognitive awareness are not limited to the English classroom. The critical thinking encouraged by close examination of a literary text can be transferred to everyday life. Blau recalls an incident in which his fourteen-year-old daughter told him about an offense committed against her by a boy in her class. In response, Blau recalls asking her “why she thought the boy had acted in such an uncharacteristic and brutish manner” (205). Reflecting upon this incident, Blau realized that what he had really been doing was encouraging his daughter to interpret the boy’s actions, much like he might ask his students to analyze those of a book character. “That’s what we do with our children,” Blau reflects. “We regularly ask them questions about how they interpret the facts that upset them” (205).
The methods employed in the Blau’s literature workshop, then, are not only valuable in literary discussions, but in our everyday interactions. Intellectual fallibilism and metacognitive awareness can help us examine our own initial judgments of others and be willing to change our interpretations when presented with new evidence.
Blau writes that it is the “willingness to surrender the security of their knowledge and to launch themselves into the abyss of uncertainty… that allows learners to advance in their learning” (46). This is partly why I chose to use the two musical settings of this poem in my workshop: listening to the songs served as a painless way for my participants to “reread” the text and thus launch themselves into the “abyss of uncertainty” referred to by Blau. I had hoped that the differences between the songs would encourage intellectual fallibilism in my participants and decrease the chances of their getting stuck on a single reading. Generally speaking, I was pleased with my family’s openness to different interpretations of the text, and I believe that this openness was promoted by the inclusion of the musical settings in my workshop. Still, in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that when I followed up with my sister over text a few days after conducting the workshop, asking if either of the songs altered her interpretation of the poem at all, she texted back succinctly: “No. My first impression still seems better to me.” Perhaps it will take me a few more workshops to get her intellectual fallibilism up to snuff.
Blau, Sheridan. The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers. Heinemann, 2003.
Brainard Pearsall, Robert. “Housman Versus Vaughan Williams: ‘Is My Team Plowing?’” Victorian Poetry, vol. 4, 1966, pp. 42-44.
“George Butterworth – Is My Team Ploughing.” YouTube, uploaded by Art Song Collector, 31 Dec 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnFzztSfppA.
Housman, A.E. “Is My Team Ploughing.” The Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51782/is-my-team-ploughing.
“Is My Team Ploughing? From On Wenlock’s Edge – Vaughan Williams (with score).” YouTube, uploaded by fromsuntosun, 30 October 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQSMaXH62MM.
White, William. “A.E. Housman and Music.” Music & Letters, vol. 24, issue 4, 1943, pp. 208-218.
Emily Foster is a second-year student at the University of Cincinnati, where she is pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in piano performance at the College-Conservatory of Music and a minor in English. Emily enjoys taking on projects that combine her love of music with her love of literature. In the future, she hopes to continue to explore the intersection of the two disciplines and discover more about how we interpret both the literature we read and the music we listen to.