The Text and the Creation of Meaning

Cover of the book One of the most exciting books I read last year was Aviya Kushner’s The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible (2015). I am not a particularly religious person, and it has been years since I seriously read the bible, so why am I so interested in this book? It comes to me at a particularly interesting time in my career as an educator. In this book, Kushner describes her experiences and relationship to the bible growing up in an orthodox Jewish household. The “bible” for Kushner, is not just the text but includes the commentaries, notes, and annotations that go back at least a millennia. On top of that is the layer of discussion with family, friends, and teachers, combined with her own life experience as one who has Hebrew as her primary language. Kushner is a writer and a poet and brings all of this to The Grammar of God. In other words, this is not just a document: it is a living text that generates meaning and illumination as it is discussed. Kushner went to the Iowa Writers Workshop for grad school and was shocked by what she was hearing in her Bible as Literature class: it was her first time hearing the text out of her cultural context. There was also the problem of translation. The Hebrew text is free of punctuation and vowels which make some translations very difficult. The purpose of a translation, the experience and background of the translator, its cultural context all come into play in translation. Kushner could have written a straight analysis of texts and culture, but she didn’t. It is also memoir: she writes about personal connections, family, friends, teachers, and religious people in her life who have informed her reading and experience of a text.

Okay, so what does all of this have to do with education or technology?

If your focus in elearning is on content and tools (text and “platforms” usually), then maybe nothing. If you are interested in how we generate meaning from information, how we create knowledge from information, then this is pretty much everything. This book does a lot: it is about memoir, translation and culture, but it is also about the lenses with which we see a text.

  • What are we reading?
  • How do other people see this text?
  • How does what I am reading connect with my experience of the world?
  • How do others understand this text in light of their experience?
  • What are the differences between our readings?

You will only find those things out by connecting with others and one of the roles of the teacher in the classroom is to facilitate those connections. The teacher can facilitate those connections between the students, between other texts, other classrooms, the author of the text, as well as other writers and thinkers.

I don’t particularly believe in a static text. A text is something to be engaged. When we read a book, we bring our past experiences of life and of reading to that text. This is why reflection (through annotation, notes, journaling, etc.) are such an important part of reading. There is such a thing as passive reading – there are certain kinds of recreational reading that are meant to be passive (e.g. Romance novels and Science Fiction of the “Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids” variety). But one of the goals of active critical reading is to discover those connections through engagement.

I have recently been exploring annotation methods on digital texts through tools like Hypothes.is. This is basically a social annotation tool. I have used this with the Annotating Engelbart project and it was an incredible experience. I not only discovered new things about the text we were reading and my fellow annotators, but I learned that there was more to my own readings. It is a hard form of learning to describe. Text, discussion, debate,  and experience (reflection) together create or uncover new meanings.

A page of the Talmud.

The first page of Tractate Pesahim from the Babylonian Talmud by Thomas Shoemaker

 

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