Monday, February 01, 2010

Literature, In the Classroom

Ok, so I'd written a novel-length comment to the last post, and then I stupidly closed the comment box instead of posting the comment. Don't you hate when that happens? I know I do.

But so I figured I'd do a post instead, given that the comment is lost and gone forever. Here's the thing. I love the conversation in the comments in response to that post, because the trajectory of the comments is all about saying what people like and don't like, making additions and subtractions and corrections and suggestions, and just generally entering the conversation about what counts as literature.

Guess what, folks? What's happening there is exactly what I strive to make happen in the classes that I teach. I think a version of the literature classroom that is about forcing students to read Books Educated People Should Have Read is entirely wrong. I think that it's wrong to force students to "identify" with a particular character, or to "like" a particular book, canonical or not. Seriously. I really think those things.

Maybe that's how I think because nearly all of the things that I have published on are things that I first (a) loathed, (b) resisted and loathed, or (c) didn't really respect as worthy of commentary (even if I liked those things). That's right. My life's work as a professor is based on writing about things (and also teaching things) that I initially disdained. I now love some (though not all) of these things, but what makes the study of literature interesting to me - as opposed to just reading some books, it's all about having the freedom to engage deeply with literature whether we like it or not, or whether we feel ambivalent about it. In fact, ambivalence may be the most awesome response, as it means that we are having a complicated aesthetic reaction.

But that's also the reason to study literature rather than just to read it on one's own. The point of a literature class is that it allows you to see things that you wouldn't see reading it on your own - if you got it all on your own, then you should just go the public library and be done with it. The point of taking an English class is that you're going to get more than you'd get on your own, even if you don't like some of what you get. This is a speech that I need to make in every general education class that I teach, and it's one that I've felt like making a lot in regard to various comments I've heard in the wake of Salinger's death. I can entirely get why somebody would think Salinger is useless if they just picked the book up on their own. I can also get why somebody would think Shakespeare is useless if they picked up his plays on their own, except that doesn't happen with Shakespeare, ever, because we make everybody read Shakespeare in school, and we teach everybody how to read him. I get why people think James Joyce is stupid when they've tried to read Ulysses without a net (i.e, an expert at the helm), and I get why people think that Erica Jong is stupid (even though she's really not) when she's rarely taught in a college classroom.

See, this is the whole point. Classes in English, or literature if we want to be more accurate, are about giving people the tools to read critically and about giving people the tools to get things with which they don't identify or don't in terms of their own personal tastes like. To read with a purpose, and to analyze, and to get it. They are not about just making people internalize the plots of "great books," or to give them a list of "great books" that they can say they've read, but rather about giving them the tools to actually read as they go on with their lives. If they like a "great book" along the way, that's fantastic, but that's not actually the point. The point is really to show them how to get the most they can out of the latest Dean Koontz or Danielle Steele novel that comes out.

I don't care really at all whether my students "like" the books I teach. I care that they engage with them - give them a chance, and give them respect. If they like some of them along the way, that's a bonus (and it does help with the "respect" thing). But studying literature isn't about liking. Just like studying biology isn't about "liking" cells.


Anonymous said...

I think this is true about getting them to read theological texts as well. Often they don't like what they're reading. Usually the issue is whether they think the person we're reading is right or wrong about God. Wrong = I don't like this book. Right (by which we mean it says what I kind of already think) = I love this book.

The trick is getting them to think about an individual theologian's contribution to theological conversation. And it means recognizing that you can like, find useful, or even be influenced by a theologian that you think is completely wrong or that you absolutely hated reading.

I completely relate to writing about and using works I originally disdained. In fact, I've gotten to the point where if I really, really hate something, I figure it's under my skin and sooner or later I'll be using it.

Dr. Koshary said...

Another illuminating point about how to teach literature. Now that you posted this, I'm able to put my distaste for CitR into sharper focus, and the light dawns on me: our English lit classes in high school were often terrible. This seems inexcusable to me for numerous reasons, not least because I was taught 10th-grade English -- wherein I was assigned CitR -- by a teacher who got paid a lot of money to do the job because zi held a Ph.D., and at least in theory should have known a lot about how to teach literature in an engaging way. But we were left on our own for that book, and just like you observe about Joyce and Shakespeare, I don't think that CitR can be presented to students nowadays 'as is' -- it needs some introduction and context. (IMHO, anyway.)

This was the same class in which our first piece of reading was a story so laughably awful in construction, concept, and implication that even we 10th-graders recognized that it had little place in a class except as a "do not" example. And this was in a textbook reader.

But then this was also the class that gave us extensive critical background for Huck Finn and The Glass Menagerie. Curious.

Shane in SLC said...

Thanks for this. I'm teaching a class right now in which Beckett and Brecht figure largely, and I imagine many (most?) of the students dislike the plays. I may use this formulation in class...

Unknown said...

Dr. Crazy, I thought your first list was certainly legitimate as part of an English lit. curriculum, but don't you really need to open things up an awful lot if you're going to claim the broader study of literature?

Actually, I've checked your post again, and you certainly carefully situate your discussion in your own teaching and extend yourself to lit. only in the sense (here) of what you do/how you're thinking applying to what others also do who teach lit. in other departments. Kudos for that.

I always loved the small windows of my HS English courses that allowed us to read outside the English-language tradition, though. That, and a love for other languages, certainly guided me to Comp. Lit. and now to teaching in a national language.

So, a question, maybe for another interesting post: where do you see room--either in HS English or in good background work for English majors--for non-English lit.?


FrauTech said...

So true about an expert at the helm. This makes me think of the Canterbury Tales lit class I took in college just for units. My major was really small, and I had a lot of AP credits, so that I needed a bunch of upper division units just to graduate (so different from Engineering, which is the opposite, and inspires you not to take anything outside of your major unless it's a requirement).

So many of the classes I took then are classes I think of often. I can't say they've helped my career or anything practical, but I'm glad I got to take them. I almost wish there was some beyond-college way to integrate this into our culture. Like, more book clubs or maybe lit classes offered online or through community colleges. Obviously it would be less of a class and more of a guided reading thing but would certainly be great for people who never were exposed to certain classics (Ulysses) or those wanting to take on even more ambitious projects.

But then, our culture seems to be getting more decidedly anti-education. I too, argue on these forums against "useless" BAs because I'm not sure AS MANY people should be getting humanities degrees. But at the same time, how do you get people to have broad educations? Sometimes I think we should do like Germany and add a year to high school to cram all this in.

CattyinQueens said...

I think your point about liking vs. studying is a great one, and it's why I still continue to encourage some students to go to graduate school despite all the reasons not to. If you want to study literature, as opposed to loving it, there's really no other way to do it. A book club or even disciplined reading on one's own can't replace grad school IF you're somebody who wants to continue the best kind of critical reading that goes on in college classrooms.

Also: I hate it when students tell me they like Hamlet best because they can "identify with it." Seriously? WTF? WHO can REALLY identify with Hamlet? It's so clear that that's just what they think they're supposed to say. I like being able to give them better ways to talk about the play--ones that are more precise and actually more specific to the text than some pre-fabricated cultural or pop-cultural narrative of the play's importance.

PhysioProf said...

I don't care really at all whether my students "like" the books I teach. I care that they engage with them - give them a chance, and give them respect. If they like some of them along the way, that's a bonus (and it does help with the "respect" thing). But studying literature isn't about liking. Just like studying biology isn't about "liking" cells.

This is sort of true, but you do have to at least find books/cells interesting if you are going to sustain the effort necessary to make headway in studying them.

For example, I have a friend who is a scotch whiskey maven. She has hundreds of bottles of single-cask scotches in her collection, and enjoys mixing her own blends. She somehow got her hands on aq sample a single-cask scotch that had aged in the cask for 36 fucking years before bottling.

We tasted it, and there is no way you could say that we "liked" it; it wasn't spoiled, but it was too sweet, brandy-like, and astringent. However, it was *fascinating* to explore exactly what happened to a really good scotch that spent too long in a sherry cask.

Some books are like this.