This morning I was briefly tempted to give my American Lit Survey class a reading quiz consisting of one question: "Briefly summarize the plot of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons." It's an absurd question, of course, but it would very efficiently distinguish between those who had done the reading ("Plot? What plot?") and those who had not (a whole page of b.s.).
Instead I asked for the students' impressions of Stein's work, and their universal complaint was "It doesn't make sense."
"Okay," I said. "But what else besides sense can a literary work make?"
And that was the start of an interesting discussion.
I've never taught Stein before and I'm still not sure that teaching Stein in a 50-minute class lies within the realm of possibility, but I led my students through the part of Tender Buttons excerpted in the anthology and helped them to fumble toward understanding of the tenets of modernism. A few times they asked me to explicate specific lines and I had to admit that I didn't have a clue, something that would have frightened me earlier in my teaching career.
Back then I thought that the teacher was the person who had all the answers; these days, on the other hand, I'm content to be the person who has all the questions and helps guides students toward some of the answers. Sometimes we make sense. Other times, like today, we create a mind-blowing experience.