One of my favorite books growing up was Tricks and Pranks to Fool Your Friends, a compendium of card tricks, physical limitations, and mathematical wizardry that rewarded multiple rereads. (I recently honored its memory in a book chapter, for which I needed some random awesomeness to quote.)
I’m thinking about the book as part of my thinking on hidden meanings, which I’m starting to realize supply something like 90% of my daily pleasure. For instance:
- I love saying something that one person in the room really understands, while everyone else misunderstands it.
- I love watching Lost over and over, learning new things that the music is telling us and conceiving new theories (my most recent is the final comment on this post)–both of which give the added experience of a new layer of hidden meaning that not everyone gets to see.
- I love finding exciting verbal coincidences that are right under our noses, like surprisingly apt palindromes and abbreviations.
So what? Because in a sense, the section of expository writing I’m teaching this semester is an experiment in the purposeful layering of meaning. I’m basing the class on the template of a professor‘s class: basically, students choose an area in which they want to blog, and they actively read and write in that area, publicly, for 10 straight weeks, attenuating themselves to the conventions and skills in their chosen discourse community. It’s a lot of reading and a lot of writing, and I’m wildly impressed at their skill this far in.
But I’m especially excited by the secret, hidden meanings that no one gets to know about but us. Each week (again, this wasn’t originally my idea), they use a template from the week’s chapter in They Say, I Say, a book that very explicitly instructs writers how to refer to and respond to others in their writing community, and they also use a rhetorical term of the week, which I give them. So far we’ve been focusing on stylistic devices that can be put into a sentence or two (anaphora, asyndeton, aporia), but eventually we’ll get more complex, posting posts that very purposefully demonstrate a well-tuned understanding of kairos or develop a strong ethos, and so on.
They mark the “terms of the week” using Diigo, a social bookmarking and web highlighting/annotating tool, saving their annotations just to our private class group. So with the Diigo toolbar installed, whenever I read a page that someone in our group has annotated or marked with a Diigo “sticky note” drawing attention to the term of the week, I see metadata that no one else on the web knows about–even the other participants in their chosen blogging community who (hopefully!) will also read their posts. It’s like we’re super spies, infiltrating bunkers of knowledge with hidden cameras in our lapels, speaking in our own hidden code that is technologically impervious to detection. (Or, er, the students are spies, and I’m the
criminal mastermind friendly boss back at base.)
The effect, as a reader, is similar to hearing an inside joke at a party. I read sentences that feel especially resonant and speech-like and think, “Wow, that’s really moving!” and then I realize, “Oh! That’s the anaphora I assigned! Sweet!” It gives me a feeling of being in an in-club, even when I’m grading. I wonder if they feel any of this, or if it’s just classwork. (Most likely: a mix.) And I wonder if outsiders to the class but insiders to these blogging communities would get any kick at all out of knowing this stuff–say, if we invited them to join our Diigo group and install the toolbar. Maybe they’d feel like insiders too, or maybe they’d feel like we had just set up some tricks and pranks to fool them.