The Anxiety of Influence

Some of you might be familiar with Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence from 1973.  Essentially, Bloom argues that poets begin their writing by imitating poets that have come before them, yet they are trying not to imitate, of course.  They want to create original work, so this influence creates a good deal of anxiety.  Ultimately, the poet must break away from that influence to become great.

I’ve been thinking about this idea in relation to professors and students’ writing (and thinking) lately, mainly because of a couple of students I taught this semester.  They both have a good deal of ability and are some of the best thinkers in their respective classes.  However, their writing (and thinking) is limited because of the influence of one particular professor.

In one case, the student had a professor who had a few clear rules about writing, and she imposed those rules mercilessly.  First, she told the students that, if they used a quote, they had to talk about it for at least two pages.  Not surprisingly, when I assigned this student various papers, she was hesitant to use quotes.  If she used even a handful of them, her paper would quickly approach the double digits.  I was trying to get the student to see that she needed more evidence to support her argument, but she resisted almost all of my suggestions because of this one rule.

Her professor also insisted that they avoid the intentional fallacy (this is where critics try to impose what they believe the author’s intentions are onto their reading–for example, I might argue that Kurt Vonnegut wanted readers to see how awful the Dresden bombing was).  In this case, the student essentially refused to say the author’s name, always writing that the text illustrates an idea.  While I can agree with such an approach, the student’s blind devotion to this idea kept her from seeing anything else.  When we were talking about grammar one day, and I had given them a short paragraph to edit, she couldn’t see the grammatical mistakes, as she kept wanting to comment on the intentional fallacies she saw everywhere.  As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything’s a nail.

[Quick side note:  I find it interesting that her professor (she was at another university, by the way) is an odd combination of New Criticism (intentional fallacy) and maybe Reader Response (lack of quotes).]

Another student was also clearly influenced by a professor, this time regarding ideas.  No matter what she wrote about, she essentially gave a reading of the work based on what this professor had said about it in the past.  If her professor had not discussed whatever we were talking about that day, she would still draw on that professor’s ideas or works that they had discussed in that professor’s class.  I had to push her, in fact, not to use that professor’s reading of a text as a structuring device for her paper.

In this student’s case, she can clearly think well about literature, but she can only read it through the theoretical lenses she’s been given by this professor.  In fact, I wanted to take away any theoretical approach to what we were reading and have her talk about the works completely on her own.  I think she would be able to do it just fine, given her abilities, but she always put the same lens between her and the texts.

Professors are always going to influence students, and that’s a good thing, by and large.  I had a professor who was clearly influential in my development as a writer and thinker.  However, he also pushed me to go beyond what he said and thought to develop ideas of my own.  It took me several years to get to that point, but his pushing helped me.

So, what should a professor do to help students break free from this influence?  First, they should bring in multiple voices to their classes.  There are a variety of ways to do this.  One way I do it is to have students read a variety of critical articles along with some of the longer works we read.  That way, the students aren’t limited to hearing about my particular way of reading a text.  If I give them articles that come from different backgrounds, they’ll hear a few more ways of reading that work.  Second, I do a lot of class discussion, as I want them to hear how their peers read the text, as well, and I especially want them to see where they read it differently than me or them.

Last, in the students’ work, we have to push them to go beyond our reading of a work.  If a student comes to us with a paper where they essentially read the text as we would, we have to push them past that.  It’s too easy to let ego get in the way here and see their reading the text through our eyes as evidence that they are truly learning, but it’s simply a different version of parroting.  We don’t want students to just use one critics’ view of the work, nor should we let them use our way of reading.

Most students will ultimately break free of the influence on their own, especially if they choose to go to graduate school.  We can better prepare them for life, though, if we encourage them to see a wide variety of readings before they even graduate.  They’ll have enough anxiety then, unfortunately.

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