3. Overview

Part Two contents ◆ evolving theory ◆ course content as problem-solution formula

— Terms —

  • Introduced:
    • no new terms
  • Mentioned and should now be familiar (review if necessary):
    • cultural contexts, East Asian, love

— Chapter Abstract —

This chapter prefaces Part Two, which will outline the assumptions, premises, and theoretical positions of the course. The idea of this course began to take shape in 2007 and has been refreshed many times since then. However, two basic assumptions have not: how we understand both narratives about love and the experience of a loving relationship is embedded in cultural contexts, and, pedagogically speaking, the most effective way to explore those cultural terrains is through dialogue among a culturally diverse group. I state that the course is meant to enhance one’s ability to keenly understand (“interpret”) cultural situations with which one might not be familiar. In its drive to make meaning of incoming information, the cognitive brain selects, organizes, and interprets that information, but imperfectly. Although studying and living in a culture is extremely helpful towards understanding a culture, the course focuses on the perception process that is at the foundation of benefiting from exposure to knowledge and real-life living situations, more specifically, the problems arising from complete cultural blindness, missed opportunities for acquiring cultural knowledge arising from hasty interpretation, and hobbled acquisition of radically new information. Taking narratives related to *love as our forum for learning, we focus on *East Asian *traditional *worldviews and *values that are relevant to their understanding. Put in terms of a problem-solution formula, the course takes imperfect interpretation as the problem and offers a specific interpretive method as the solution, one that takes disciplined, self-aware thinking and dialogue as its two key elements.

— Chapter Outline —

  • 3.1. What Part Two introduces
  • 3.2. The conceptual start-points of the course and its expanding theoretical range
  • 3.3. The course’s contents, framed as a problem-solution formula

3.1. The contents of Part Two

The assumptions, premises, and theoretical positions supporting the design and content of this course are presented in this part.

3.2. The conceptual start-points of the course and its expanding theoretical range

This eBook, from beginning to end but perhaps more in this part than anywhere else, represents the current state of my thinking on a number of topics. Some early positions have remained more or less the same, but much has evolved, or has been disassembled and rebuilt, or has been entirely removed.

The initial framework of the course has not changed significantly since its inception early in 2007, namely, that we can create a forum to explore *East Asian thought and culture by interpreting *narratives that include *love stories because such stories, as all stories are, are embedded in specific *cultural contexts, but perhaps more than some other *narratives engage *worldviews and *values that we may or may not share but has strong opinions about. *Love stories give us a good opportunity to take a measure of a culture’s *worldviews and *values, and challenge us to look beyond our own “natural” ways of thinking. I will argue that how *East Asian cultures give shape to *love, often include, to a greater or lesser extent, the ideals, *fragments, or *derivatives of Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. This initial pedagogical assumption has also remained the same: peer-to-peer discussions among a diverse pool of enrolled students about how to understand (interpret) specific *narrative events is key to developing a sophisticated understanding of the course material. Finally, while it is not specifically the agenda of the course, it has always seemed to me that exposure to the spectrum of assumptions and core beliefs about *love leads us into a better understanding of our own love relationships as well as our relationships to what we might consider to be our “home” cultures.

Even with these fundamental constants, since the course was first taught in 2008, it has been refreshed at least a half-dozen times and taught nearly a dozen times. While from its inception it has always engaged theories of perception, interpretation, and cross-cultural literary critical method, I did not foresee the number of fronts on which I would need to take theoretical positions. I have tried to characterize this growing and changing terrain in the following chapters.

3.3. The course’s content, framed as a problem-solution formula

I begin with this teaching premise: Whoever enrolls wants to learn something new about *East Asian cultures but, on top of this, consciously or instinctively, probably also hopes that what is learned might enhance her or his understanding of, and effectiveness when working within, *East Asian cultures.

Taking this as the start point, I posit that better understanding and more effective action derive from one’s ability to “read” well unfamiliar cultural situations. While I hope students take leadership in some way and act towards bettering society or advancing its knowledge, this course is specifically not about strategic action but rather my wish is to enhance the keen understanding the environments in which actions are embedded. In this course, we call this keen understanding “interpretation.” Thus, the project of the course is to improve one’s ability to interpret scenarios that can properly be identified as influenced or shaped by *East Asian cultures. In casual language, we might simply say “I know Chinese culture well” or “I have some familiarity with Korean culture.” Such statements represent that we are able to operate effectively in Chinese or Korean contexts, to some degree. In other words, we believe we can correctly interpret situations. This course is about sharpening that interpretive ability, especially when one is in less familiar territory, and, also, I hope to enhance the ability to notice when misinterpretations are occurring.

Our brains, consciously and unconsciously, afford meaning to incoming information by finding or creating patterns in that information that can reasonably match to known patterns. This is the essence of interpretation. When incoming information is incomplete (and this is the norm and only more so in unfamiliar cultural situations), the brain completes the information and generates meaning. When we are in an alien cultural situation, we are of course in situations with incomplete information.

We can ameliorate the limitations by gathering more information through living in the culture and formal study, including acquiring language skills. These are key to developing cultural proficiency. This course takes seriously the importance of expanding one’s knowledge about a culture, and so a portion of our time is set aside to study Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism from the perspective of what these might still be contributing to contemporary *East Asian culture that, when kept in mind, help us understand situations and people. Additionally, class activities are designed to facilitate the sharing knowledge of contemporary *East Asian cultural notions and practices.

While it is clearly true that knowing a culture better through experience and learning is invaluable towards the goal of cultural proficiency, this is not the main learning objective of this course. Instead, this course takes on a set of challenging problems that sit at the process foundation of acquiring cultural knowledge. These are problems that usually occur in the early moments of cognitive perception (selection, organization, interpretation) in highly ambiguous situations typical of new cultural environments (narrative or real). All reduce or entirely block developing the cultural proficiency that should result from experience or study. We concern ourselves with three such areas:

  • complete cultural blindness resulting in errors of interpreting a situation resulting from those times when we do not even know we when do not know something (unnoticed misinterpretations);
  • missed opportunities for acquiring cultural knowledge that arise from the hasty deployment of patterns when confronted with incomplete or ambiguous information (“jumping to conclusions,” pre-conceived ideas, prejudices); and,
  • hobbled acquisition of radically new information because that very newness makes it difficult to match to known patterns, so it is either ignored, replaced, or even entirely unnoticed (lack of imagination, interpretive blind spots).

This course posits that learning a culture requires attention to interpretive method, not simply gathering ever more information. We can live in a culture (encountering many things, accumulating experience) yet not acquire the ability to understand it. Why? I suggest that it because we are strongly inclined towards “nativizing” incoming information (altering it to an already known entity or discarding it when it does not match well with anything we already know), hindering the process of acquiring new cultural knowledge. In the view of this course, “correct” interpretation is the mental exercise of attempting to interpret events in the way that members of the culture would, so that your own understanding and actions based on that understanding are effectively harmonized with the cultural situation within which you are living, loving, or working.

For this reason, while our project is to interpret *East Asian love narratives, we do so not by the usual accounting of cultural history, literary history, or film history, or similar fields of knowledge. This course presumes that such knowledge is being elsewhere pursued—although, again, some information is offered through lecture, assigned readings, and peer-to-peer discussions. Instead, we use a method that is meant to increase the chance of us encountering different ways of viewing things in order for us to use those opportunities to practice our interpretive skills. The interpretive method that you will be taught is hard-edged because I believe that our mind is very good at tricking us into old habits. I have chosen this approach because I am hopeful that what can be learned from the self-aware process of a disciplined, culturally-attentive interpretation of narratives in literature or film can be modified to use in real world situations, speeding the process of acquiring cultural proficiency.

As the analytic topic for this practice, I chose “*love” because in this area, in particular, we seem to be overly sure that our way of viewing something is the same as that of others. In other words, I have selected *love narratives as a forum because this area is particularly entangled in our personal *worldviews and *values. The *interpretive method requires precise statements on specific cultural points, under the assumption that articulating our positions helps us know what we do know, do not know, and thought we knew but have less clarity than believed. It also brings to our attention the unambiguous statements of others, enhancing differences that can be the basis for discussion. We focus on *worldviews and *values because:

  • they are important components of any culture;
  • when unknown, they frequently lead to misinterpretation and interpretation failure; and,
  • they often operate at unnoticed levels or are otherwise deployed uncritically (with lack of self-awareness that they are not universal).

Put in the simplest of terms, the problem-solution formula of the course is that when confronted with the problem of poorly interpreting unfamiliar cultural situations, we solve (or become better at solving) the problem not just with acquiring information but leveraging that information towards a more speedy and accurate ongoing acquisition of that information by practicing a method of disciplined, self-aware thinking and dialogue (both open-ended and regulated—called *bounded dialogue in this course)—both designed to help us notice our interpretive errors and hone our skills at applying knowledge, on the one hand, and increase our ability to acquire new information, on the other.

It is true that there is a short-term, more practical path to operating successfully in a culture: becoming someone that is highly skilled in strategic effectiveness who can therefore manage a situation based on manipulating it rather than fully understanding it. I would also agree that often this a good choice and sometimes the only choice. It is also true that one can learn to convincingly mimic a culture without fully understanding why there is such behavior in that culture in the first place. However, I would offer that if your emphasis is in understanding cross-culturally in a full and nuanced way, or if your desire is to grow in knowledge and power over the years, long-term learning habits based in part on the interpretive issues we take on are essential for expanding that knowledge, and are, in addition, highly effective for increasing the enjoyment and enrichment value of literature or film, and are good as well for developing satisfying, long-term relationships, cross-cultural or not. In my view, each person without exception is complicated and therefore can be difficult to understand and understanding is always a good thing.


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Interpreting Love Narratives in East Asian Literature and Film Copyright © 2019 by John R Wallace is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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