Words You Need to Know, #1: Dialogue

This wouldn't be too productive in class.To get to this position in the rankings, Dialogue had to win a very close battle with Inquiry. Here’s why dialogue won: Almost everything you will read in literature is party to a dialogue, if it is not itself written in the form of dialogue. What do I mean by this?

Take the first premise, that the text is party to a dialogue. At any point in time, certain social/emotional/religious/relationship/philosophical (I can extend this slashed list, but I think you see the point) conditions exist, and writers write to challenge those conditions or to figure out what effect those conditions have on people. In this way, the work of literature is in dialogue with the context within which the writer lives.

In the latter situation, the literature is itself a dialogue, setting up a premise through the words or actions of one character, only to have that premise challenged by the words or actions of other characters in a text. Examples that might be familiar to you: Gatsby as a text that speaks to the conditions of the 1920s; Huck Finn as a text that goes back and forth within itself about whether or not acting against the prevailing thought is a one-way ticket to Hell.

All year long, you’ll see this dialogue in action, especially in the stories we’ll read during the first week of school, little excerpts from Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Melville’s Moby Dick and Doestoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. (I’ll give you paper copies in class, no need to go hunting for links.)

My goal in selecting excerpts for these stories for you is to encourage you to engage in a dialogue with the texts that you read. To me, dialoguing with text is a different approach than what might be in your default mode. Typically, students read texts, and like good and obedient young people, know what they have said (and can, with no help at all from Sparknotes, interpret the symbolism in an essay); or, they hear what a text has to say and then agree with it or disagree with it.

In rare cases, high school students dialogue with a text. They listen to what it says on the surface, and ask it a question, or connect the theme or action of a text to a theme or action that exists in their own lives, and then ask what they should make of that connection. Through dialogue, you deepen your understanding of the text and yourself, all the while knowing that you will find no magic bullet of an answer when you reach the end of the conversation.

Instead you learn that the silence you hear when the conversation ends is a period of dormancy, when your thinking about the text and the text itself await a new text and a new experience to start the conversation up again, at a time when Borges says we have a resurrection of the word. Yes, you’ll read about that, too.

Pretty heavy stuff, philosophically, but when you put dialoguing with texts into practice you’ll find that both your reading and your writing become a little more interesting, and quite possibly (gasp!) fun.

So remember, Word One of this year is Dialogue.


  1. Whoa. This is challenging everything I’ve ever thought about English class. I’m even tempted to call this class AP Question Everything You’ve Ever Known. English class in the past, as you say, has taught us all to look at something and analyze it, make judgements, and write about them neatly in five paragraphs. The dialoguing as you describe it seems much less forced and true to life and how people connect to literature naturally. But my question is, do you think there’s room for it in a “conventional” English class? I 100% agree that life and studying literature is a conversation between yourself and the world, but can you really put that nicely into five paragraphs, at the end of which you won’t find any finality, and call it an essay? Maybe.

    • There is absolutely room in a conventional class for this approach, for a lot of reasons, most of them having to do with the high value of the thoughts of smart students and the way they learn of that value. How do I know? For years, I have been collecting A papers from freshman English students at places like Duke, Middlebury, Northwestern, NYU and Yale, and the writers of those papers give me feedback on the relation between what they’re asked to do in college and what we’ve done in class in high school.

  2. Pingback: Words You Need to Know: CONTEXT : Mr. McAteer's English Classes

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