The Three Cs of Comprehension
As part of our human nature, the unfamiliar or the unknown frightens us. Whether real or imagined, unfamiliar stimuli provoke a chemical response in our bodies that is beyond our ability to actively control. Regardless of its causes, the reliability of this response has become unquestionable. Entire industries have been erected on the certainty that we can flood our bodies with mind-altering hormones given the right circumstances (think of the horror movie or amusement park industry, for example). While these chemicals can cause certain favorable emotional or physical responses, they often reduce our capacity for clarity of thought and rationality.
It is easy to see how this biological response occurs in big, life-threatening scenarios—we've likely all been in a situation like this in our life (even if we only imagined it was life-threatening). It is harder to see how this same response affects us in smaller, less dangerous situations. Nevertheless, affect us it does. For example, think of a time when you faced an upcoming exam. Perhaps you did not know exactly what materials you would need to succeed in the exam or how the instructor might require it from you, and this uncertainty caused you some worry or anxiety. As you approached the test, despite all of your studying, somehow you had great difficulty accessing what you knew or thinking clearly. In essence, this uncertainty provokes the same response as the more obvious life-threatening situations.
This means that as we face the unknown or unfamiliar, we have less ability and agility to sort through the information we are attempting to process rationally. This is true as we face new concepts, texts, genres, or techniques. To combat this biological response, we are aided by employing a helpful strategy to comprehend deeply the material we face. This strategy involves three Cs: Content, Context, and Concept. Let's explore each one.
The first step in deep comprehension is clearly understanding the object you are facing. In other words, you need to sort through the content first. This means that you have to understand clearly the various elements of the thing in front of you (whether a work of art, literature, a business problem, or a human being) and ignore all of the subtexts, symbolism, contexts, and interpretations you might immediately employ. You have to simply understand on the surface what is actually there. This is sometimes harder than it sounds; we often jump to conclusions too quickly.
You will need two important things to do this: time and techniques. Time is fairly straightforward; you cannot rush, abbreviate, speed-read, or use AI to wrap your head around a stimulus. It takes time. Even when time is limited, approaching new materials with a mindset of flexibility will reduce your body's natural response, allowing you to comprehend more in the short time you have available. Allow yourself the time to puzzle and ponder about the object.
The techniques, however, are much less straightforward. The proper techniques to help you deconstruct an object in order to understand it will depend on the object in front of you. You will improve your comprehension as you develop and maintain a series of object-specific toolkits. In the following chapters, we will explore the toolkits for decoding the content in the humanities. Like all tools, you will become more capable as you use them.
The second step of deep comprehension involves understanding the various contexts at play around an object. This includes the historical and aesthetic landscape in which the object was created, the various ways the object has been used or understood by various audiences throughout time, and the place the object occupies in the history of its genre. This means, that we must consider the various contexts that surround an object's creation and the multitude of contexts that surround the object's consumption (even yours!).
Unlike an object's content—which can be decipherable through careful observation—understanding context requires research and reflection. Also unlike content, a work's context is far less medium-specific. In other words, we can ask similar questions about a work of philosophy, visual art, or music to learn more about their different contexts. Ultimately we are seeking to understand how the object interacts with the world it inhabits.
Questions to Consider
When considering a work's context, think about the following questions:
- Was the work produced as a commission? Who was its first owner? How was it originally used?
- How does the work compare to other works at the same time, genre, or maker?
- How have different audiences throughout time responded to the work?
- In what ways does the work reflect or ignore the culture around it?
The last, and most enticing, part in the process of deep comprehension is articulating a work's meaning, or its concept. The position of this step in this process is no accident. It must come after a clear understanding of a work's content and context. Too often we jump to conclusions at the first hint of meaning. We quickly and confidently make claims about a work's meaning, unaware that our haste has made us blind to more subtle ways the work communicates. Instead, a conceptual analysis of a work is an extension of an analysis of content and context.
In addition, a conceptual analysis is as unique as its creator. In other words, by making a claim about a work's meaning we are not making a universal declaration as though a work were a clever math problem for which we have discovered an indisputable answer. Instead, such claims are more like well-informed points of view that expose the analytical skills of their makers. Premature claims often cannot withstand the pressure of scrutiny.
Questions to Consider
When evaluating a work's meaning or concept, consider the following questions:
- How does the work engage with subtexts or meaning beyond its content?
- In what ways does the arrangement of the work's content add meaning?
- How does the work engage with emotion?
- In what ways has the various contexts of the work altered its meaning?