How Should Books Be Taught In School?

Writing on Huckleberry Finn produced one of the most interesting discussions I’ve had on my blog, and it indicated a widespread uncertainty about the way that literature is used as a discipline in education. In a particularly thoughtful comment, Cam spoke about the way her 11 year-old son had responded to the story of Huck Finn by creative and exploratory play in and through the story of Star Wars. I say, sign that child up to one of my classes in seven year’s time! What an indication of natural instinct! My students can’t get the hang of the sixteenth century author, Rabelais, whose farcical, cartoon-like texts about giants are supposed to contain a serious message about religion, until we start to compare him to South Park and The Simpsons. Then they see exactly how humour is used to neutralise all kinds of subversive remarks in a way that sugar coats them for the palate of cultural censors. Bikeprof has written about just this kind of playful, intuitive response to a literary work and he says it much better than I could. I agree wholeheartedly that reading a literary text in an educational environment is all about the creativity of the reader’s response. It’s about considering the issues of a narrative in a context that makes emotional sense to the contemporary reader, and exploring our gut human reactions to stories that move us. I think this is where teaching literature goes wrong. It’s not some great mausoleum that we can look at from a distance but not touch, it’s a fabulous theme park that we ought to plunge right into and emerge breathless and dizzy, a little nauseous sometimes, but exhilarated. I don’t think I can look at a text in some airless high-altitude zone of pure theory; it’s only ever going to make sense down at ground level, where the extraordinary is precisely that, the ordinary with a little bit extra added.

Now I’ve been rapped over the knuckles before for my evangelical stance on teaching literature, and it will happen again, I daresay. But frankly, what would you rather read: a textbook or a cracking novel? So I find it depressing and inexplicable that so many people’s experience of being taught literature is a soul-destroying one. Cam had this to say yesterday:

But, I do wonder if sometimes the student reader’s interest isn’t dampened (or extinguished altogether) by the approaches to teaching a particular work (especially at pre-university levels). Do such practices lead to a further decline in reading because the reader ceases to enjoy reading for its own sake, feeling like he doesn’t “get it”?

I have the suspicion that this notion of ‘getting it’, of somehow finding the ‘right’ thing to say about books is a big part of the problem. I have a memory from undergraduate days of sitting in a seminar with two other students while our teacher read us a screed of 19th century poetry in his sonorous French. Once he’d finished he looked up at my fellow student and asked ‘Well, what do you think?’ For some time this student shifted uncomfortably in his seat until he finally said: ‘It was quite nice.’ My own first years look like they would rather be sent to the gallows than open their mouths and say what they think of a text. And so I begin by asking them if they liked it. I’m not being polite here; it’s a fundamental first step towards working out the sprawling jumble of one’s impressions and thoughts. We then start to look at what they liked and what they didn’t like, what they found confusing or repulsive or off-putting or outrageous or upsetting. All the time they’re doing this, we are assembling the evidence that will eventually become a reading. Later, we can start to sift through it by noting patterns and themes emerging from the chaos. I think the point of a teacher is to help uncover the contours of a student’s reading when they are not quite sure how to trace them themselves, and to provide historical context, the broader picture that they might not know, and to offer alternative readings that might be incorporated or rejected, depending on the student’s instinctual response. It’s about building up successive layers of reactions and influences and meanings to a literary work, and exploring its contradictions and paradoxes without needing to ‘fix’ them in any way. To try to pin the shape-shifting genre of literature down by constraining it to a single ‘right answer’ is to reduce its rich lushness to a bag of bones. It always makes me think of the moment in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy when Arthur Dent finally gets the answer to the universe and it turns out to be 42. It’s not the students’ fault; they’ve been squeezed through an institutional learning tunnel that has persistently told them there is a right answer to every question, and so confronting a discipline of absolute democracy where there are no certainties and the passage of time repeatedly brings up new questions and new responses to literary texts is really very alarming. Victoria, part of the Eve’s Alexandria team who produce stunning book reviews, had this to say about her university experience:

There were a good number of Americans in all my lit classes at St. Andrews and they approached texts very differently. We “A” levellers went to the library even while we were reading the book to “find out what it was about”, while most of the American students prioritised their own opinions. In seminars there was a definite cultural-educational divide between Americans, who prefaced their points with “I think” or “It seems to me…”, and Brits, who more often started “I read somewhere that…”. We’re much more inclined to an authoritative rather than a responsive mode of reading I think.

I have to agree that it is a great pleasure to have American students in my seminars as they are more prepared to open up a discussion than the Brits who seem lacking in self-confidence in a group situation. The question of critics is interesting, too. I encourage my students to read secondary criticism simply so that they can find expressed there the nascent thoughts they had had in their heads about the texts but were afraid were going to be ‘wrong’. I also try to encourage them to find just the worst, most self-indulgent, ludicrous piece of secondary criticism they can. Partly it’s to break the stranglehold of authority (no these people are not God), partly it’s to try to shake this notion that there are ‘right’ ideas (after all, someone went to the trouble of publishing and printing what now looks like rubbish), and mostly to encourage them to firm up their own responses. There’s nothing like disagreeing violently with a critic to make you realise you do have your own opinion tucked away in there. Too often students are crippled by the desire to please their teacher, because too much of education has passed so far in doing just that. I don’t want my students to repeat back to me what I think; I want to know what they have to say, because everyone’s vision is unique and creative and new, and that’s the joy and the challenge of working with literature.

When I decided to become a literature teacher I never forgot that I had taken a policy decision not to attend lectures as an undergraduate because I thought lecturers too often butchered the texts I loved. I sat there thinking, why can’t they talk about the good bits? Why all this deadly dull stuff? And so I decided I would only ever talk about the good bits myself. I also remember when writing my thesis that another graduate was working on ‘irony in the lyrics of the troubadour poets’ and please, I don’t wish to offend those who have never heard of anything so exciting, but I also made a promise to myself only ever to research topics that to me seemed real: desire, love, suffering, death, identity, war, nationhood, sexuality, the conflicts of the mind. I also bore in mind my experience when living in France, of the philosophy classes I was allowed to sit in on (I was the English lectrice). Mme Pascaud was a tiny energetic woman who used no visual aids, no handouts, no fancy teaching materials. She just told us lots and lots of wonderful, entertaining, provocative stories that brought to life the theory we were learning. We all adored that woman, and you could hear a pin drop in her class. I have always tried, as best I can, to breathe some life into literary theory and philosophy, which can contribute to reading like spices can lift the flavour of cooking. A little bit enhances the dish, too much and it becomes indigestible. These, I suppose, are my golden rules for teaching.

I could probably write on this topic for several more hours, and I have the sense of not really answering Cam's questions here or expressing what I really want to say. My fundamental belief is that anyone and everyone is a natural literary critic and that emotive, instinctual, playful responses to texts ought to be encouraged in schools from the earliest age. I’ve thought long and hard about what constitutes good literature teaching, but my memories of being a student, of not knowing what on earth to do with a book, are beginning to fade. The contents of my head are no longer sufficient to answer all the questions I have. I really want to know what other people think; what their experiences of reading literature and being taught literature were like. I’d love to know how come it so often seems to go wrong.

10 thoughts on “How Should Books Be Taught In School?

  1. I just left a comment on the post before this one and I feel as though you were reading my mind. I’ll just leave it here for you and tell you that YOU are the sort of teacher who models the rich, happy life to be had when one learns to read well.

    For a long time, I’ve been uninterested in literary criticism. But something I seem to have forgotten is that I wouldn’t be the reader I am if I hadn’t been taught how to read by literary critics.

    I was an English major at Yale in the 1980s. I wasn’t a sophisticated reader. I just loved words and stories. At Yale, really committed professors showed me how to read carefully, to think about words, to look at things in context and to look at them close up. And when it came time to write, what mattered was clarity and having a point. No one read literary criticism before they wrote a paper. It wasn’t expected or necessary. Instead, you talked about what you had discovered right in front of you. Often, you were given things you might want to write about, which served as a guide for how one might approach a work.

    This training did not put me off in the least. The people who taught me had enormous passion for the poetry and novels and plays they taught. Those things were never texts, by the way. I couldn’t have read Chaucer if I hadn’t been required to memorize the prologue to the Canterbury Tales and recite it to my professor in her office the first day of the term. She seemed so pleased to be hearing it, although every person majoring in English who was doing this required bit of memorizing had been in her office already that day.

    When I went to graduate school in English — this time at UC Berkeley — I discovered that I couldn’t write about books I loved in the voice of an academic. It seemed to do a great disservice to the wonderful things I was reading to write about them in what seemed to me to be such tortured ways. That sort of writing seemed to partake almost not at all in the pleasure to be had in reading. I was not good at it, and my heart was not in it, so I went on to do other things.

    Now, if I were asked, I’d say that the writing about literature I prefer is that which most closely mimics the voices of the people who taught me so well how to read — well informed, accessible, smart, playful, and delighted to be able to share something they love so much. Why so little academic writing comes from that place is a topic for another day, of course. But it could be that blogging has become the forum for that other voice. Best, BL

  2. Reading this…wishing I could take your classes…the good bits, that’s what it’s all about. I absolutely love the idea of finding a ludicrous analysis—oooh, that would make for some good thinking and writing. I wonder…I don’t know if I could do this with high school students, but maybe if I provided the ludicrous piece and ask them to defend or oppose what is written. HMMM Your philosophy of literary study, “only ever to research topics that to me seemed real: desire, love, suffering, death, identity, war, nationhood, sexuality, the conflicts of the mind,” echoes my own thoughts…Everything in me shouts “YES!”

    Now tell me, I’m working on my 3rd Bachelor degree, and have always been afraid to go vertically (yes, I think I got that right) to the next level because those I know who go this direction seem to lose their passion for the “real” and their focus seems to become so narrow…how did you avoid the extremes that seem to go along with PHD!

  3. Bloglily – your experiences are extremely interesting. I’m so fascinated by this shift from enjoyment to complete burn out that so often occurs in grad school. Dorothy – can’t wait to hear what you have to say. Shuana – ha, well, it was simple in my case: I had a baby a month after beginning my PhD and so I never had the time to get jaded and overwhelmed. I had to work in a very focused manner and it always felt like wonderful, self-indulgent ‘me’ time to be studying and writing. However, I don’t recommend this as a general strategy! But I would say that a PhD is a long, hard struggle and the key is to find a subject for research that really inspires you. I also think its worthwhile pursuing an alternative creative project at the same time – writing fiction, or journalism or blogging, or whatever takes your fancy as a way of not becoming too narrow.

  4. If this is an “evangelical stance on teaching literature,” I have one thing to say: Halleluia, sister! Our students are too often bound up in that notion that the text is a problem to solved or a puzzle to be worked out. They think that, like The Davinci Code, there is some ultimate truth out there that they can discern if they only knew the trick to rearranging the letters or plugging in the right formula; we could probably make a fortune selling some computer program called “The Interpretator 5000” or something like that. Hmmm… Oh yeah, anyway. I’m going to steal your idea about finding the worst piece of secondary criticism out there–it’s an assignment that really will break down those barriers between the “amateur” student and the “professional” critic, the “right” way to read and the way you actually read. Finally, I just have to say, we’ve got one heck of a fantastic, smart, funny dialogue going on here. When I get rich selling my Interpretator 5000, I’m going to start a university and hire all of you.

  5. Love the post! I’ve have a mixed experience in studying literature and sometimes I think if I didn’t love it so much I wouldn’t have been able to major in the subject. I’ve had teachers who said every opinion is valid as long as you can back it up with proof from the text and I’ve had teachers who have told me that a text means a certain thing and there was no room to argue about it. I think teachers of the latter variety do a disservice to their students and to literature.

  6. This post is great. My experience is the opposite of Bloglily’s — I can write and sound sort-of-academic, but I struggle to vocalize why I love the books I do. The thoughts on American vs British students was interesting to me. I was taught the authoritative-criticism way. And I personally have the same problem that your first-years do, a fear of getting the ‘wrong’ answer. Maybe we Americans just know how to sound cocky.

    And what you wrote about ‘the good bits’ really resonates with me. Teachers can make texts so dry. I remember reading Thomas Mann for the first time and being surprised to find so much sexuality. I think authors are elevated to the point where they seem ‘above’ all of that, but that’s not how literature is at all.

  7. Another post. Shuana is right–your classes must be wonderful! Of course the next best thing is being able to read your blog–it is obvious that you are very excited about what you teach. In my experience, those are the best teachers to have.

  8. Well all I can say is, bikeprof, you’d better get that cash together!I’ve never found so many kindred spirits before and it is extremely encouraging.

  9. Just thinking about being taught literature… I quite enjoyed it all the way up to finishing my BA then I just felt like there were other things I wanted to do more.

    I think part of me going off it somewhat was to do with a fairly dominant trend at the time (late 80s at Auckland University)of feminist readings of everything. I was, and remain, a feminist but I got tired of it constantly thinking in those terms.

    I don’t recall reading much criticism in the course of my studies. I mostly stuck to the texts and wrote essays which were primarily about picking out various themes in the various works. I think I wrote one about “walls” in Troilus in Cresside(?) I started just by finding and writing down all the quotes about walls in the poem (or perhaps it was a play?) and then I just kept working them till an essay formed. I actually won a prize for it, which was gratifying, but I did feel rather as if I had been rewarded for counting angels on the head of a pin.

    In fairness though I would have to say that all of my English lecturers were far more interesting than the vast majority of the law lecturers I met in the course of my next degree.

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