On Teaching Literature

Thursday, December 18th, 2008

Dennis Jerz has interesting remarks on teaching literature in higher education:

I am working on an opening lecture that introduces literary criticism not as a series of facts to memorize and names to drop, but as a way of studying the thinking process that forms our own world view. Since I teach alongside colleagues who write, study, and teach about horror, suspense, romance, science-fiction, I think it’s pretty safe to say our program doesn’t support a particularly stodgy or rarified approach to the canon. Nevertheless, I teach lit crit to advanced students who have already taken “Intro to Literary Study” and “Writing about Literature,” and most likely several other reading-heavy courses too. Those are the courses where I feel it’s most appropriate to equip students to move beyond simply “relating to” literature, and push them towards the study of the conflicts, challenges, and power struggles that led to the formation of the canon.

The impulse comes from remarks by Bruce Fleming at the Chronicle, who writes

The good news is that we’ve created a discipline: literary studies. The bad news is that we’ve made ourselves rulers of a realm that has separated itself almost completely from the rest of the world. In the process, we’ve lost many of the students — I’d say, many of them men — and even some of the professors. And yet still we teach literature as if to future versions of ourselves — not that there will be many jobs for them. The vast majority of students don’t even want to be professors: They’d like to get something from a book they can use in their lives outside the classroom. What right have we to forget them?

Students get something out of a book by reading it. Love of reading was, after all, what got most of us into this business to begin with. We are killing that experience with the discipline of literary studies, with its network of relations in which an individual work almost becomes incidental. But it’s the individual work that changes lives.

Both Bruce and Dennis are concerned about literary studies and the contexts for instruction and the forces that shape points of view, critical approaches, and the role of literature in people’s lives.

I told my world lit students the story about how I got into “literature.” I picked a copy of Dante off the shelf at an early age and read it and was hooked on “mystery” ever since. After this came Tolkien, Homer, and lots of hours staring at the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. I like to teach, and tracked into my current position because I like to sit and talk to people about interesting ideas (or at least ideas I find interesting). In my position, I have opportunity to learn more and watch students learn and change. All of this keeps me in contact with the craft and the people. In all honesty, I’d rather be writing poetry and fiction from dawn to dusk. But I also love to teach. I love to eat too.

I remember in grad school having a conversation with a faculty member about literary studies. She said, I used to love but now I hate literature. But when we moved on to Arnaud Daniel, we had a splendid time, and that’s when “literature” made sense. Then again, I had professors who loved he deep debates between the new critics and the postmodernists. I myself was never drawn into that angle of the profession. Sometime Derrida makes perfect sense. As I departed medieval studies, the old guard was on its way out (Robertson), parallactic approaches (re-constructionism) were moving in. By then I had other concerns. As I follow medieval studies weblogs, I sense that the love of thinking about real objects is still alive, and what was driving my professor was a sense that the forces were out of her control, the ground shifting under her feet.

In literary studies, I’d hazard to say, too few people can take part in meaningful interchange on subjects of concern to the “profession.” But I wonder if literary studies should move toward opening, expanding, and re-imagining the canon rather than pursuing “literary studies.”


One response to “On Teaching Literature”

  1. Josh says:

    I am always under the impression from all the lit classes that Kas has taken that the college semester just isn’t long enough to engage in meaningful discussion AND allow the students to discover the texts they are studying.

    How is a student supposed to appreciate the literature or come to rational conclusions when they have to balance reading 80 pages of Medieval language a week with all their other school obligations?

    All of my favourite pieces of literature came out of my high school days when the whole school year could be used.

    I also find it is a terribly lost opportunity when educators do not take advantage of making more history come alive (e.g April Morning, The Red Badge of Courage). All that’s ever focused on is social and political issues.