by Kevin Currie-Knight
I am preparing for a course I teach and that means deciding between a number of books that I could assign. As always, the experience reminds me how much I prefer assigning texts whose meaning is either opaque or whose arguments are incomplete or even objectionable.
Since I teach future teachers, this is generally at odds with how students have learned to read (or at least, how to read texts assigned to them for courses). Mostly, they have taken what we call “methods” courses whose goal is to make a subject that is unfamiliar more familiar. In these kinds of courses, the goal of the assigned texts is to aid in this process; they should inform and judged by how well they inform.
Since I teach in an area we call “foundations of education” (philosophy of… , history of… etc.), texts play a different role in my classes. They can, of course, inform, but their primary job is to provoke and furnish material that inspires reflection. (Of course, texts can do both, by providing information that is provocative in itself.)
To prepare students for this different way of approaching course materials, I have found it useful to give the following explanation:
The great thing about examining a text is that it doesn’t care. It doesn’t care if you throw it against a wall in frustration or nod your head in agreement. It doesn’t care if you put it down because you find it intolerable or if you find it so good that you can’t stop reading. It doesn’t care if you can’t get out of your head or if you hardly bring yourself to think about it. It doesn’t care if you agree or disagree with parts of it or which parts are which. The author doesn’t know you and may not care to know you, which is great in what it allows you to do with what he or she has written.
That said, when you check out this text, I want you to do it with everything I’ve said in mind. I want you to put the text through the proverbial wringer in a way you’d probably never do if you were conversing with the author. Don’t treat the text as an authority to be deferred to, but as a wannabe authority that you have the freedom to challenge, agree with, disagree with, love, hate, or anything in between.”
Okay, this may be a somewhat dramatic rendition of the speech I give them. But the sentiment is there. The text doesn’t care, because it can’t. The words are on the page, and the page can’t respond to the reader. This makes a lot of difference.
If we look at how argumentative texts are constructed, it is largely as monologues. But when we experience those texts, it is as if they are in dialogue with us (and of course, they are monologues that emerge from dialogues with other texts and from which further dialogue will hopefully be produced). But, engaging with argumentative texts is an experience akin to hearing one side of a telephone call. You know there is at least one other person on the call – to whom the text is written in response – but you cannot hear them. The author may tell you what some of the other voices are saying (“A critic might respond that…”), but the author’s voice is the one with the spotlight.
That is where the phone call analogy ends, though, because if you are listening to a phone call, chances are you are in a position to chime in either with a question, a comment, etc. And, as with conversations on social media (or media followed by a comments section), the person whose take you are getting can respond to you. Not so with a written text, recorded video, or other stable text. The voice is there for you to attend to, but what you do with it is on you and will have no effect on the (pre-recorded) message.
This has some drawbacks, to be sure. If authors want to convince a wide array of readers, they have to speak to readers’ objections. In actual truth, the possible objections are many, and anticipating all of them is (a) probably impossible, (b) would significantly lengthen the text, and (c) bore readers. (I think it really is worth mentioning that classroom diversity makes it likely that the objections some will find interesting, others will find trivial, and vice versa). So, authors must anticipate both the objections that (in their judgment) are worth responding to, but also what types of responses are sufficient.
Another related drawback is that authors – like anyone wishing to argue a point – must “rest” their arguments on assumptions that are contestable. They couldn’t possibly articulate every possible assumption that a reader might challenge. They might – and hopefully will – address some, but not all. 
A related drawback is that authors must make assumptions about their audience, which may not be entirely accurate. One type of phrase that grates on me goes like this: “It is reasonable to suppose…” or “X is justified on the grounds that…” I always wonder “to whom?” “Reasonable to whom?” “Justified to whom?” To the author, of course, but these are judgments, and the authors using them are presuming how their arguments will affect their readers who may share certain biases/sentiments/standards in common with authors or who may not.
It is precisely these drawbacks, however, that create opportunities for the reader. When I tell my students to put the text through the wringer, I’m asking them to think as often as they can “Do I agree with this? If so, why, and what might I be missing that someone else could find problematic? If not, why not? Does the author fail to make a complete case, make a bad case, or something else?” And because the text is prefabricated and something we read in the author’s absence, talking about the text amounts to talking behind the author’s back, with all the benefits and drawbacks that entails. (If we were in the room with the authors we read, we could ask questions, but we might also be tempted to privilege their voices over ours, relying on them to make sense of their argument rather than sharpening our own analytical skills.)
As mentioned, I am a philosopher/historian in a college of education and my experience with students is affected by that. But in such a “practical” academic area, I find that we too often tell students what to think and often fail to let them have the experience of struggling with how to think. This is why I like books that do not meet students where they are, but leave a wide gap that forces them to walk toward the text, even when it doesn’t tell them in what direction to go.
This leaves the reader in a beautiful lurch. Do you have questions? Objections? Confusions? Indecisions? Great, you can talk about them with yourself, with the professor, or with the class, but the author is off-limits. And the text? Well, you can reread it, but if you have a question, don’t expect a response. The text doesn’t care.
 Perhaps the most illustrative example comes from Robert Nozick’s book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, where his first paragraph assumes that humans have inviolable natural rights and that one of these rights is a right to self-ownership. Some reviewers found this troubling, because (a) it seems like a tall assumption to offer without justification, and (b) readers who are not convinced of that assumption will thereby find little in the rest of the book – which builds on that assumption – interesting. In defense of Nozick, he was doing what all authors unavoidably do, and at least had the courtesy to make his starting assumptions explicit. Further, while he could have provided arguments to back his case, those arguments would have relied on other assumptions that reviewers might want justification for, ad infinitum.