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.