My students seem very concerned right now about two ways to misread that are intimately tied to value. I'm trying to puzzle out what's causing all this concern.
The first scenario is "not getting it"; the work is "deep" but the student cannot master it. I think the sense of mastery is key here; I think my students are uncomfortable with the idea of understanding partially. They are particularly uncomfortable with the idea that they can be responsible for material (say, a poem) that by its very nature cannot be "mastered" entirely. This is why many of them want to be given answers; they can master a reading of a poem quite easily. (This of course requires conflating the poem with the reading of the poem -- a problem.)
The second scenario is the "emperor has no clothes" scenario; they are wary of investing mental energy in something that might in fact be crap. If something at first seems not to make sense, cannot one simply dismiss it as so much garbage?
I did open this Pandora's box myself, since I've been encouraging them to examine their real opinions about poems. I've authorized them to feel that not every poem is a good poem, and to question how you know whether a poem is good. But, ever time-oriented, they raise a good question: is it ever worth reading bad poetry?
Either of these scenarios, the class seems to feel, would be terrible. Both involve the specter of investing time and not being rewarded. Of course, there is the extrinsic reward of knowing enough to pass the class, but this, I am happy to say, is not the issue.
Both of these scenarios involve a tension between, on one hand, the reader asserting her or his authority as a reader, which is in part the authority of judgment, and on the other hand, the reader giving the author due credit and suspending judgment until the author has been given a fair shot. The central question might be rephrased: how much of a shot is a fair shot? How much time do you have to invest in a poem before you can authoritatively deem it crap?
Both of these scenarios also envision a little nugget of truth that may lie in any given poem. The nugget, in these scenarios, is the important thing, rather than the searching. That is why it is so terrible to search in vain.
Bad poetry in these models is poetry that "has no point," or that "fails to get its point across." It's an information theory of poetry; the "point" is the information; everything else is noise.
This is a theory of poetry that is so foreign to me that I have a hard time not dismissing it outright, and yet since so many of my students hold it, I feel that I should examine it, at the very least in order to figure out how to offer alternatives.
Most poetry does fail under the information model, and perhaps this is why so few students seem to genuinely like poetry (I speak, of course, of non-majors). In fact, the poetry valued by academics almost by definition fails.
Whose problem is this?
Right now, I think it's my problem.