What is a text?

Last Wednesday, I was introducing my students to primary texts. Of course, they have dealt with primary texts before, but probably have never thought about all the possibilities for what a text can be. I wanted to break down the traditional idea that a text is a two-dimensional object with words on it. Books are texts, sure, but what else is a text? I stole Stanley Fish’s famous question and asked the class: “Is there a text in this class?” None of them had read Fish before, so I felt clever for a moment (or so). The first response I received was from a girl who held up a text book. I shook my head and asked again,”Is there a text in this classroom?” Silence followed. So I asked, “what is a text?”

Student 1: an object you can read.

Me: what can you read?

Student 1: a book, a poem, a story…

Student 2:an object that communicates something?

Me: Yes! An object that communicates something! An object that communicates a story. (Dramatic pause). If I told you that I believe I am a text, what would you say? That when I walked into this classroom the first day, each of you created a story about who I was? That the clothes I wear, the way I walk, my gestures communicated a story to you. When you walk into a room, into a museum, into a library, into a nightclub, do you not instinctively create a story in your mind about what the place is, who the people are, what the objects represent?

They started to get it.

When teaching literature, I like to set the tone for my personal approach to literature (and texts in general). (1) Every object holds potential to be a text–clothes, artifacts, documents, possessions of all sorts; and that (2) An object is only a text if it has an interpretative community; that is, a text is manifest only when interpreted through a particular perspective.

The second point may seem to contradict the first. You may be asking yourself: if every object is a text, then why does it need an interpretative community? I will give you this example: if a tree falls in forest, and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? I know this is a philosophical question, but my general approach would be “no”. In order for sound to be conceptualized, there needs to be a functional ear. In the same vein, a text can only be if there is an audience that engages with it.

Why is this an important tone for my class? I want to teach my students that objectivity is an illusion. Everything is filtered through a perspective and perspectives are influenced by individual experiences. I also want indirectly show that people are often objects of interpretation. And that there is a danger to “signifying” upon other bodies–

After class, an African American student came up to me and told me he wanted to discuss the topic for his paper. He told me that he wanted to research on how Muslim bodies–like African bodies–have been objects of signification. You can imagine my being floored at hearing this! He really got it! These are freshman, by the way. Most of them have not been exposed to theory of this sort and here he is drawing on Henry Louis Gates, Jr., on DuBois, on Toni Morrison! Moreover, he was making connections between his own experience as an African American and the experiences of Muslims (I actually do not know whether he is Muslim, but either way, it was amazing to see someone using literature to draw bridges between himself and other human brings) Subhan’Allah!

I have been blessed with the opportunity to teach. May I always be able to open eyes, and may others always be able to open mine.


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