Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Why Teach Literature?

One of the panels that I attended at this year's MLA had the above title, and I should admit at the outset that I attended as a resisting audience-member. From whence came my resistance? Well, this is a complicated question that has to do with much more than the panel itself. It has to do with the hierarchies within English as a discipline on which the MLA convention shines a bright and unflattering light. See, here's the thing: when we talk about why we do what we do as professors of literature, when we talk about the direction of the profession or the discipline, often only a small range of elite voices make pronouncements on these matters. Those who make claims about why we teach literature often teach very little and teach to a very specific sort of student population; those who talk about trends in the discipline often have very little connection to the vast majority of practitioners within the discipline.

The reality is that the vast majority of students study literature with professors who teach a minimum of 3 courses each semester. They study literature with contingent faculty (adjuncts, lecturers, instructors) or graduate students; they study literature with faculty on the tenure-track not at research universities or elite SLACs but at community colleges, regional comprehensive universities, or non-elite SLACs. And so it sticks in my craw just a tiny bit when professors who teach perhaps one to two classes in a semester (when they're not on sabbatical) to a student population that is almost entirely engaged, motivated, and very bright try to tell *me* why "we" teach literature. My reasons are not, ultimately, the reasons that the panelists offered.

To give a brief and inadequate overview, the panelists primarily focused on the "big picture" reasons for teaching literature - the conversations and questions that come out of reading literature that inspire discovery of new ways of thinking, the ethical and political ramifications of reading literature carefully (politically reading can empower us and give us agency; ethically reading can be a vehicle to greater responsibility and it trains us "in accessing the other"), and the way that teaching literature to students can give them greater capacity to handle complexity without rushing to judgment. I don't dispute that these all can be the results of teaching literature, and they all constitute pretty good reasons for doing so. But.

Because there's always a "but" when I do this sort of post. Someone asked in the Q & A why no one mentioned "pleasure" in the discussion of why to teach literature. The panelists looked confused and ultimately concluded that they thought it went without saying that students would find it pleasurable to study literature. This was the moment in which my suspicion about this panel was confirmed. Because guess what, folks? Depending upon the student population that one teaches, "pleasure" is not a given. Nor is an interest in engaging with literary texts. Nor is finding out about "other worlds" beyond their own. This is not to dismiss those students of mine who do come into class from these perspectives (for some do) but I teach a much broader range of students than do those at Columbia, Yale, and even the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. While there might be one or two of those sorts of students in any class I might teach, the other 20-30 do not fall into that category.

So I thought I might give a list of why *I* think it's important to teach literature to the kinds of students that I teach - a list that is much less ambitious than thinking about the sorts of issues that these panelists discussed. So, why teach literature?

  • To inspire curiosity. Many of my students do not enroll in college with any innate sense of curiosity about the material that I teach. They see their degree as a vehicle to better career opportunities. They do not read for pleasure; they do not see education as something that is potentially transformative, and, in fact, they fear any transformation that education might enact.
  • To disrupt the consumer model of education that my first point hints at. There is no practical reason for students to read literature or for me to teach it to them. Literature is not ultimately linked to job training. And yet, I do believe it's important in terms of giving students new ways of seeing the world and to challenge the idea so pervasive in our culture that the reason for education is entirely linked to success - that it's something one buys in exchange for a better job. Fuck that. Education is about much, much more than that.
  • To insist on complexity and fine distinctions for understanding the world. To insist that students take care with their approaches, words and responses. My aims here are neither explicitly political or ethical. Rather, they just have to do with wanting students to be more engaged in the world around them and to go deeper in the ways that they consider their position within that world. Perhaps this will have positive political or ethical consequences, but those are not necessarily my agenda. I just want students to be more interested and more interesting.
  • To give students a vocabulary for discussing things that are complex, which is ultimately about socializing them to talk, think, and feel in ways that allow them to be upwardly mobile. Most of my students do not come from families that discuss books over dinner - or art, or advances in science, etc. If they don't learn how to have conversations about these things, they face a disadvantage when they leave college and enter the broader world. (I should say, I think this may be one of the most compelling arguments for the humanities in the context of higher education at my kind of institution, as it doesn't matter what degree one has if one can't hobnob with people from higher class backgrounds when one is done.)
  • To offer students a break from the other demands on their lives. It's true: I see my courses as offering students a kind of pleasure that they wouldn't otherwise experience when they've got full-time jobs, families, etc. that make extraordinary demands on their time. They wouldn't be reading if I didn't assign them the reading. And yes, I think it's important that they *must* schedule this kind of pleasure into their lives, which they probably wouldn't otherwise do.
So those are Dr. Crazy's reasons for teaching literature. And while some of them do have things in common with what the panel discussed, well, I think they're a lot more basic and concrete. I wonder whether, had the panel included a more diverse range of voices, whether some of those reasons might have been put on the table. As it is, however, those reasons surely inform most people who teach literature, but in the context of this discipline, those reasons only rarely get discussed, and even more rarely are those reasons discussed at the major meeting of our discipline.


Bardiac said...

What a great post!

I really like your way of talking about giving students a vocabulary to talk about complex stuff. I think I'd add that reading literature with students helps them learn to think critically and rhetorically, to think about how people are always trying to affect their behavior. And that they can also use language and rhetoric to affect behavior.

Anastasia said...

I liked that, too.

the standard answer to "why teach religion" usually has something to do with people not killing each other. but when it comes to my material, which is purely historical, one has to make a better case for it. I think much of what you say is applicable, actually, esp in terms of resisting a consumer model of education and giving them vocabulary and teaching them to make fine distinctions.

EcoGeoFemme said...

Interesting post. I haven't thought about this at all, as I am in a science discipline. I think that understanding references in pop culture is one of the lasting attributes of studying literature for me, though it has been a long while since I studied literature. I guess that kind of goes along with your point about being able to hobnob.

Can you contribute to such a panel to make these points in the future?

Lesboprof said...

I agree. I think your contributions are excellent. Couldn't you do a panel on "why teach literature to working-class students"? I want to print this out and hang it up, it is that good. It perfectly nails my reasons for challenging my students to engage with ideas, rather than just facts.

JBJ said...

I liked this bit:
Depending upon the student population that one teaches, "pleasure" is not a given. Nor is an interest in engaging with literary texts.

At my school, not even English majors can be counted on to have that interest.

I just got back evaluations for an upper-level English class on the modernist novel (populated entirely by majors) in which one student replied, in full: "I hate to read, and this class had a lot of books, so I hated it."

Maude Lebowski said...

dr. crazy, i just want to say that your post really makes me miss teaching. and i agree with lesboprof, you should put together a panel on teaching lit to working-class students or consumer-education minded students. my former students at GCU were not largely working class (i did have a few), but they were very much "i'm just here so i can get a good job later" types. and all the reasons you give are things i try to "give" to my students so they see that education is more than just to get a job. it should be experienced.

dr zombieswan said...

These are questions I always find myself asking of elite populations. I come from not only a working class but a really, really poor background (spending about 6 months as homeless, in fact). Something like 1% of people from my background even make it through a four year college, let alone PhD level. This is not about bragging, but about saying that I have rarely found professors who even knew how to inhabit *in their imagination* the worlds that I came from.

The reading for pleasure was for me also escape from a world that in the simplest terms, sucked. And the library was free. The pleasure was also in knowing that with an education, I could go somewhere else. And I think in that way I related much more to students than teachers. But it pulled me waaaay up in the class climbing bracket, where now I live in a fancy house in a nice neighborhood and I'm sure few people could guess where I come from.

And since I'm still an adjunct type, (fingers crossed that will change soon) at a school that is about 30 years behind the "revolutions" that were the culture wars, I see this reflected *every time* I turn around.

We must teach the "core" of canonical Literature. It's crucial that they (always they) know these Important Texts. Why, they have to read Milton (or any other dead white male) because it's Classic, and Universal! Don't worry about the "other" stuff, they'll get that in grad school. It's hard to believe, but very, very much a part of the world of most people in many colleges.

This is why I call it "Literature" with a big L. (And pronounce it all fancy pants.) Students get more pleasure out of reading things they connect with-- but that CAN be literature, too. We just have to remember that very, very few of them will be English majors, and that even the English majors might just be doing it because they figure it's easier than math. (Good luck to those majors getting the well-paying jobs though).

I love this post. Yes, I would love to participate on a Working Class Stiffs sort of panel at MLA. Maybe if you don't do it, I'll create a proposal for a panel for next year. I'm dying to go to San Francisco anyway.

dr zombieswan said...

Oh, and since now on reading it, it isn't obvious, that whole paragraph on teaching "the core" is sarcastic....

Dr. Crazy said...

If somebody (or somebodies) want to put together such a panel for MLA next year, I happily hand over the idea, as I am certainly not going next year (it's my year off before I'm obligated to go for the next three because of a position I hold in an allied organization). I'm going to do another post later about panels and MLA, particularly the make-up of special sessions that are selected vs. allied org. sessions vs. division sessions, but for now, if people wanted to try to get a panel like that accepted, I hand the idea over to you.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Awesome post. History doesn't run into the same kind of questions - enough people seem to believe that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, blah blah blah, that it's sort of a given that we should teach history (the debate comes more over whether it should serve a kind of civics purpose as well. But that's a whole other thing). That said, I totally agree with what you write here.

This is a random question, but I'm wondering, too, do students always understand the distinction between literature and composition? Because I'm thinking the people on the panel are also people unlikely to teach much composition, whereas in a lot of the other contexts you describe, English faculty teach both. I have no idea if that has anything to do with anything, but I was just thinking of how that probably also creates a rarefied world for such panelists (and yes, the panel was about teaching literature, but I just wondered. I know when I was a student I never thought about taking comp classes or taking lit classes - they were just English classes).

Dr. Crazy said...

To NK:
I think students do know there's a difference between literature and composition courses because in one they read a lot more and in one they write a lot more. BUT I think they perceive both as "English" classes, and I don't think that they privilege one over the other in precisely the way that academics tend to (in whatever direction). I do think that your sense of the disconnect of professors who don't tend to teach composition from the issues that I noted probably does come from the fact that they're not really meeting those uninterested, unengaged students for whom reading is not a pleasure in quite the numbers that those of us at my kind of institution are. Hmmm.

Dr. Z. I see your frustration about the canon thing. I'd have to say, I'm all for teaching the dead white men, but I think there needs to be a more compelling reason than "because it's the core" or "those are the Important Texts" - without more compelling reasons, those texts are *meaningless* to students from backgrounds in which few people value education in general as anything other than a ticket to a better job. I think the challenge with teaching the canon is in showing students how it does connect to them. That's not to dismiss less canonical or more marginally canonical texts and the necessity of introducing students to those, but I tend to like to find a way to sit the dead white men down at the same table with those folks.

sky said...

Great post, great comments. I agree that a text has to have meaning for the student. And every text is fair game; even an old text can have meaning if presented within a cultural framework. Comparing the issues at hand to contemporary society - very often considered a no no by ‘old fashioned’ or ‘strict’ medievalists – can make an old text more interesting than a contemporary one. And the ‘working class’ will come up every time if you read a medieval or early modern text, since the existing texts do not represent the ‘working class’ but the society of the ruling nobility. So you need to reconstruct what is missing from the given. Compare this to the here and now, and see the students connect and suddenly discussing all kinds of contemporary issues they thought they were not even interested in. Teaching a text without meaning for the students is meaningless teaching. Without meaning, no understanding of the self and the other, without understanding no pleasure.

Love the metaphor - sitting down the dead white men down at the same table with those folks! I vote for a panel at the MLA.

Dr. Virago said...

Crazy, this is an *awesome* post. I'm with Lesboprof -- I'm printing it out and hanging it on my office door. I may make copies and spread it around. Heck, I may send it to our U's prez, who seems to think literature is *only* something for pleasure and not for study, and precisely because he can afford -- in all senses of the world -- the leisure time for that pleasure. But also because he, too, sees education as instrumentalist and apparently did not have enough teachers helping him to see that education is so much more.

I think you're absolutely right that your penultimate bullet point is one of the most compelling arguments for the humanities. I often rather flippantly say that a good education helps you 'get' more jokes, but what I'm really getting at is what you said about being able to hobnob with the people from higher class backgrounds. It's all about learning a cultural language for being upwardly mobile.

You rock.

Shaun Huston said...

I posted a lengthy response on my own blog. BTW, I've reset and renamed my blog. If you could replace "refracting kropotkin" in your blogroll with, I would be grateful. Thanks.

Andrea said...

I always say, only half flippantly, this will be important information at cocktail parties. And you do not know how important it is to sound good at cocktail parties. I have had more than one student email me and say, "Guess what, I was at a cocktail party and they were talking about X and I could totally talk about it and I thought of you. You were so right about the cocktail party thing."

Drucilla said...

dr. crazy, i appreciate your post and i was 100% with you until i got to bullet point no. 3 - the cocktail party justification. isn't that just a little inconsistent with your point no. 2 (disrupting the consumer model)? or maybe i missed it and this was meant tongue-in-cheek?

i just have to say that most upper-middle-class, supposedly "cultured" folks outside of academe i've known tend to get all their info from NYT and NPR, and love to name-drop, but they're not actually spending their leisure time reading these folks. i'm also not so sure about the assumption that working-class families aren't talking about literature etc. at the dinner table, unless again you're using a very narrow (dead white male) definition of literature. i would hope students would have a chance to develop their own tastes as a means of challenging these kinds of artificial class distinctions.

Dr. Crazy said...

First of all, thanks to everyone for your comments. Now some specific responses:

First of all, Shaun: I really enjoyed your response! Everybody should head on over and read it. I've got to get around to updating my blogroll, but your new address is duly noted.

Second, on the cocktail party thing. First of all, I feel compelled to note that I didn't actually utter the phrase "cocktail party" in my point, not that this isn't one venue in which what we do in english studies (or more broadly the humanities) might be displayed to advantage. But, to address the dissonance that you perceived Drucilla, for me there's no dissonance between attempting to disrupt the consumer model while at the same time equipping my students to enter into all kinds of conversations. The fact of the matter is that while people who read the NYT and listen to NPR might be posing, they, and people who grow up in contexts where others did that even if they themselves didn't - who had that exposure - have access to the "cultural language" (as Virago nicely put it) to fake it. The difficulty for people from working class backgrounds oftentimes is that they *don't* have access to that cultural language, and if one doesn't know how to speak the language, it's very difficult to be taken seriously in our culture (and that is compounded by gender/race, I'd say).

If somebody comes out of even their required general education literature course or courses (say, intro to lit or a survey) unable to "talk the talk" so to speak - to get certain references on the Simpsons or to recognize that jeopardy question - even if that student is a business major or an athletic training major or something, I'd say that the literature course hasn't done its job. For me, my students should leave my courses able to have new kinds of conversations - not just conversations about their families or their jobs or money or the next project on the house or that the car needs to be repaired or even about which relative is in jail, which are the kinds of conversations that dominated my upbringing and which (it seems) dominate many of my students lives with their families and friends. (Obviously I'm generalizing here, and there are exceptions to this, I know.)

I brought up the point because at the panel I attended, the fact that students would be able to talk the talk was a *given* - they entered the classroom able to do that - and that's entirely not the case with the student population that I teach or the student that I was upon entering college. It was primarily my literature classes that taught me how to speak that language, and that was, ultimately, why I changed from what my administration would call an "applied" major (journalism) to the English major.

Most of my students have never *heard* of NPR, let alone listened to it. (I first became aware of it when I was in my PhD program. My mom only discovered it existed about 5 years ago because I'd borrowed her car and left the radio tuned there.) When I mentioned something we discussed in class as being good chit-chat for a cocktail party or dinner party, my students *laughed* - not because of the topic under discussion but because they'd never heard of real people actually attending cocktail parties or dinner parties. It seems to me that there's nothing wrong with preparing them for a potential future in which they might need the cultural language to survive - and even thrive in - those situations.

While it's true that every part of education should not be able to be quantified, and that education should not be reduced to paying for a piece of paper, I also think that it's important that students (and administrators, and legislators - as the state just slashed the funding of all universities in my system I learned this week) see value in all parts of what a university education offers. I don't think that we have the luxury of ignoring that we need a practical justification, even if the practical justification is not the whole story (and you'll note, the post included a bunch of bullet points and not just the one). For me, the "cocktail party justification" is one reason among many to teach literature, and it is, for me, a compelling one.

As for your final point (and I know I'm going on and on and hogging my own comments, and I apologize, but I appear to be on a roll) about the narrow definition of literature. I wasn't actually thinking about the dead white male canon. I think I was just thinking "books" (any kind of books) and maybe I'd also include the sort of movies that are oscar-nominated and such as well, which is, I admit, a more narrow definition than some might allow. My point isn't that students shouldn't be able to develop their own tastes at all - says the girl who's anxiously awaiting the new season of Rock of Love - but rather that they should have the ability to see that things exist beyond their immediate frame of reference and to have conversations about those things that are beyond that immediate frame of reference. And, maybe even more critically, to situate those things that they consume that are not deemed of "good quality" in a *broader* frame of reference, so that if they choose to adore something like Rock of Love then they will be able to justify that adoration to snobs that they encounter who might question that adoration. =)

Again, I'm sorry for going on so long, but you asked a good question, Drucilla, and I really wanted to answer it.

Doctor Pion said...

Be sure to read the Critic at Large on "Twilight of the Books" in the end-of-year Winter Fiction issue of The New Yorker.

Quite relevant to your topic, not to mention other aspects of your job. It again made me think about my thoughts that weaknesses in critical reading are the biggest problem some of my pre-engineering students face.

k8 said...

I love all of this! One of the things that really sticks with me from my MLS work is focusing on what people actually do read rather than what is read in English departments. Now, historically libraries and librarians did censor while promoting the canon (sometimes) and non-fiction (more often). The way our values change about reading and the quality of types of books absolutely fascinates me, as do the reasons why we teach/profess certain literatures (and literature in general).

I have to admit, I'm still processing JBJ's comment about the English major who doesn't like to read. I've had a few of these - as well as a few supposed history major wannabes who don't like to read or write. I wonder why they choose English as a major. It could be b/c it is perceived as a good pre-law major, but really...what do they expect?

Bluechip said...

Richard Keller Simon's book Trash Culture: Popular Culture and the Great Tradition adresses similar issues with his solution by having his students reading popular "texts" like Cosmopolitan, Playboy, The National Enquirer, and even advertising copy and then referring back to Swift, Austen, Aquinas, Homer, Cervantes,Flaubert, etc. to make the connections between the issues then and the issues now.

Rent Party said...

*Great* post.

Doctor Pion said...

Sherman Dorn got me back here, so I will take the time to elaborate on my too-short remark a few days ago.

"Literature is not ultimately linked to job training." Yet it is. Engineers are required to take humanities and social science classes even if they go to a pure engineering school rather than a megaversity. The profession recognizes the need to communicate with more normal people, but also the basic intellectual skills that come from critical reading and writing. Any time a student learns to isolate the most important items in anything (data or a story), they learn a key skill.

I have a niece with a history degree who works with actuaries in an insurance company. It sounds bizarre, but when you hear her explain the kinds of analysis that has to be done after the numbers get crunched, it makes perfect sense.

Karl Steel said...

So glad I read this. It's all very relevant to me, since I'm from a working class background (although nowhere near as desperate as Zombieswan), and because I teach at pretty working class school (Brooklyn College). The difference between the desire/time to read for the students I had at Barnard as compared to those I have at Brooklyn C. could not be more stark.

'm also not so sure about the assumption that working-class families aren't talking about literature etc. at the dinner table, unless again you're using a very narrow (dead white male) definition of literature.
Well, anecdotally, my family--both immediate and extended--never talked about literature at the dinner table, either in a dwm sense or otherwise, unless one can count the Bible.

At some point someone's going to have to invoke Bourdieu's Distinction, as its points have been implicit in much of what's been said above, especially in DV's comment on hobnobbing.

Rebel Girl said...

Thanks (and mil gracias to prof cero who tipped me). I teach at a community college and am - for the first time in ten years - teaching our Chicano lit class this semester. I generally teach comp and creative writing...and often feel (as an MFA with poor self-esteem and a complicated background) that I am not "equipped" to teach lit.

More later perhaps --

*great* post!

The Constructivist said...

Finally got around to responding to Craig's meme based on your post!

ciborium said...

Since I have no idea where you teach, this probably doesn't help much, but since most of the commenters assume that you teach working-class students, I'll say that the student population at UW-Milwaukee, where I taught and went to grad school, is largely composed of working-class students who are the first in their families to go to college.

So probably not best to lump it in with Columbia.

Dr. Crazy said...

Ciborium, Point taken, and let me explain. That was why I said "even" UW-Milwaukee, actually. No, it doesn't have the same student population as Columbia or Yale, but it *is* a research university in one of the better systems in the country. It has respected graduate programs. This isn't the same thing *at all* as teaching at a regional university, underfunded since its inception, a population of underprepared students (it's not just about class, in spite of how the debate has gone - or rather, the original post was about hierarchies in the profession, and who's high class enough in *it* to get on a panel about teaching). And also, whatever UW-Milwaukee is, Jane Gallop is a superstar, she's not teaching a 4/4 load, and she gets regular sabbaticals. I suspect if she teaches undergraduates at all, she's not teaching basic comp or general studies requirements, i.e., she's not teaching non-majors. Her take on teaching wouldn't be the same as the take of somebody in my position. And yet, it's pretty common to assume that somebody like her *could* and *does* speak for somebody in my position.

Karen Munro, E-Learning Librarian said...

What a great post. I got tapped to join the meme and did so, but only just came back to read the originating material--wow. This is one of the best, most un-stultifying, sensible, humane, and generally awesome explications of literature in higher education I've ever seen. Thank you so much for this.

Bill Crider said...

After 39 years of teaching (the last 19 at a community collete), I'm now five years out of the game, but I still miss those literature classes. I taught both World Lit and American Lit. One thing I had in mind most of the time was that many of the students in my classes weren't readers, and I wanted to show them how much pleasure there was to be had in reading. I love it; I wanted them to love it. I wanted them to read even after they left my class. But if they didn't, I wanted them to know at least a little about the way people outside our little town saw the world. I wanted them to know a little about where we came from and how we got where we are. Maybe I succeeded with some of them. Maybe not. I think it was worth the try, though.

The Artful Dodger said...

Dr. Crazy,
I am so glad I came across this post. Your argument for teaching of literature rings true in every aspect, and I esecially appreciated how you underlined the fact that lietrature empowers one to use language not just to better understand the world we live in but also to negotiate with people of other disciplines.

I finished my Masters in Literature a few years back and I am sick of meeting new people who say things like, "Bu why did you waste your time studying literature?", "What's so great about studying literature"? I mean, anybody can read."

It's so maddening the way people (especially those from science and business management disciplines) reduce my five years of intensive study and thought to just garbage.
Yes, I realize that anybody can read but that doesn't mean that they choose to. It's not just about English. All languages are suffering this kind of neglect.
If I talk about my mother tongue, Hindi, hardly anybody speaks a complete sentence in Hindi without peppering it up with words from other languages (English and vernacular).
It's disturbing. I related with so many of the points you've raised. Thank you for this post.