Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Demanding Literature

Joseph Kugelmass has tagged me (cross-post at The Valve) to respond to a meme, explaining: Why do you teach literature?

I feel guilty about being tagged for this meme for several reasons. First, thinking of responding causes me to look back over my shoulder guiltily at Claude, whose own tag still somehow eludes me.

Second… perhaps a delicate matter… I… er… don’t teach literature – at least in the sense implied by the posts I’ve read thus far in the discussion, and by Joe’s tag itself, which mentions hoping to hear reflections about the value of teaching in the humanities… I am instead a lurker and reader of the blogs of those who teach literature and the humanities, parasitic on this community for intellectual stimulation, while I myself study and teach… sundry fields – often of the sort that would fall on the “social science” side of the line. As my lurking and, perhaps, writing habits indicate, I don’t place much stock in the social science/humanities divide, and don’t affiliate myself in a strong sense with any particular discipline. I’m nevertheless conscious that, unlike the other respondents to this meme, I have never formally taught a literature course (what happens informally… well, that’s another matter…).

Third, this meme has attracted some truly fantastic responses already, originating in the reflections posted at Reassigned Time, being born as a meme at Free Exchange on Campus, and then viralling its memetic tendrils through Citizen of Somewhere Else, A White Bear, and other sites, no doubt due to increase greatly in number in the near future. Very good discussions have broken out around these posts, and both the original posts and the comments are well worth a read. [Updated to add: Free Exchange on Campus is now maintaining a running archive of contributions.]

Fragonard The ReaderThese earlier posts, and those spiralling out from them, open onto a number of interesting questions about how we engage students with complex materials. Dr. Crazy from Reassigned Time opens the discussion with a reaction against an MLA panel whose justifications for teaching literature appeared too closely bound to the student populations and teaching loads of elite universities:

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.

And then suggests the following reasons for teaching literature to a much more diverse range of students, in conditions in which much teaching follows a “consumer model of education”:

– to inspire curiosity;
– to disrupt the consumer model of education;
– to insist on complexity and fine distinctions for understanding the world;
– 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; and
– to offer students a break from the other demands on their lives.

The Constructivist, from Citizen of Somewhere Else, discovers analogies between the teaching of literature and the coaching of golf, focussing on cultivating readers who are more attentive to themselves and to texts. The coaching metaphors allow The Constructivist to talk about the important limits of pedagogy:

I’m not trying to indoctrinate my students into what I consider to be the one best way of swinging a club, playing a hole, and thinking your way around a course. Sure, I’ll demonstrate a few shots, show them clips of how various golfers have played a given hole, and give them advice on playing a particular course. But I can’t play the game for them. What I can do is to try to give all my students the tools and the opportunities to practice making their own decisions on how, when, and why to play the game. Because I know from experience that each round of golf is different, even when played on the same course by the same person, I take for granted that every person is going to have their own experience on each reading of a literary text. That doesn’t mean they designed the course; it just means they’re following a fairly unique path around it. And it’s worth their time and effort to keep track of their path, compare it to others’, and reflect on the similarities and differences, not just to modify their techniques and strategies for the next round, but to get a better sense of the range of experiences and emotions golf offers, as well.

This limit, reflected upon, becomes a realm of possibility, a means for students to become aware of the intrinsically social character of our encounter with literature:

Reading is not just the personal and individual and private process of experiencing a text, it is also the social and collective and public process of sharing one’s experiences with others.

A White Bear comments on the need to break through her students’ orientation to texts as commodities, noting students’ tendencies to analyse texts as though reflecting on their potential mass audience commercial appeal, at the expense even of registering their own personal likes and dislikes:

To teach students to approach literature (and language and culture in general) as analysts, with a sense of history, and tools, and expertise, is to give them the power to think as individuals in the face of a large and difficult set of problems. It offers them a way out of obsessing about consensus and marketability. It leads them past the narcissism of personal taste. It makes them ask why things are the way they are and how they got that way. Who benefits? Who suffers? To read and think clearly is to see authors, characters, and even other possible readers not as an undifferentiated mass with spending power or cultural capital, but as individuals, with specific, often conflicting, desires and needs. Reading literature analytically is about making necessary distinctions and prudent, fruitful comparisons, maintaining difference where there is difference, and spotting a false note or an obfuscation for what it fails to represent.

Her post also offers the one-sentence version of this argument:

I teach literature in a desperate plea to my students not to be suckers.

Joseph Kugelmass offers some critical reflections on Dr. Crazy’s original post, pointing to a potential tension within the list above, between moments that attempt to disrupt the consumer model of education, and moments that would seem in some ways to reinforce the core assumptions of that model. Joe searches for a means to cultivate, through literature, a “social and empathic curiosity” through a pedagogical practice that aims explicitly to be impractical in both an economic and (narrowly understood) political sense, aimed squarely at any form of instrumentalisation of the teaching of literature. Joe seeks to open doors: his students must walk through them on their own. At the same time, he playfully appropriates A White Bear’s concept of “the sucker” to suggest the sort of disjoint he wants to achieve through this technique – knocking his students just slightly out of kilter with the straight plane of an instrumentally-oriented world:

A White Bear writes, very wittily, that she teaches in order to plead with her students not to be suckers. I do love the salty, healthy skepticism that aesthetic training provides. Nonetheless, I have to admit that most often books make readers look like suckers. They bore their friends with the details of character and plot. They buy tributary, explanatory books with annotations or critical essays. They name various things after books or parts of books, including cats, computers, and their personas on the Internet. Whenever a reader is acting most naturally, minus the solemnizing accessories of a leather chair and a study, she looks like a dreamer, a fool, or both. Yes, that’s what I teach. It’s not always dignified, but it’s irreplaceable.

These are wonderful reflections, and I’m unsure that I would find much to add, even if I were not a student of sundry fields, who spends much of my time teaching social science methodology and economics – with the occasional foray into planning theory as the closest approach to humanities subjects (and here under heavy duress to suppress the connections I do make to the humanities). Yet the concerns raised in the posts above do resonate for me – and not simply abstractly, but as matters of direct pedagogical urgency.

chimeraOne of the things I find myself thinking about often is a strange tension in at least the local variant of the consumer model of education. Courses should be “practical” – shouldn’t stray too far or fast from what is necessary to equip students for the professional demands of their careers. This position is justified with reference to the claim that the students are the consumers, and their demand drives toward greater and greater practicality and professional relevance for their coursework. This rationale, however, is a chimera. When students – undergraduate students – come to us, they do not know what their professions will demand of them, what it means for coursework to be “practical” in a professionally-relevant sense. They also don’t know what professions exist – or what sorts of work might be possible within the professions they have heard something about – and thus what sorts of “practices” might be relevant, somewhere, somewhen, in some professional space. They also don’t know what university is – what university “ought” to be. And they don’t know what they are – or what they might become, as possibilities are opened for them through their encounters with one another, with teachers, with texts, at university.

They learn the answers – or, perhaps more accurately, the boundaries or limits on the acceptable types of answers – largely from us. From their encounters with marketing materials, recruitment staff, orientation, the courses we require – and the courses we allow them to choose. We create our own consumers – whose constructed demands we then somehow manage to position as forces that exist outside of us, forms of domination to which we must comply. Of course, we don’t create our own consumers in a vacuum – given my own work, I can’t help but be aware of the pressures on students and universities alike to instrumentalise education in the service of employability, accountability, direct applicability in some professional sphere. When we start inflecting these complex structural pressures, however, in terms of some rhetoric of “consumer choice” – as though we are reacting to a “given” presented by the autonomous decisions of our students – we greatly diminish our appreciation for our own institutional agency in constituting, and in failing to engage critically with, certain forms of “demand”.

My classes, generally, are hard. They involve a great deal of reading and writing. The texts are not easy. The concepts are difficult. The students are often initially extremely sceptical, having been socialised (not least by their university experiences) to be distrustful of anything too “academic”. This reaction, though, isn’t fixed and frozen, as suggested by the model of “consumer driven” education. The course itself transforms the nature of student expectations and demands – not for all students, of course, but for a significant number. How much more might this be possible – and how many new and interesting “demands” might our “consumers” place upon us – if more opportunities for such exploration were built in to the curriculum? I’m not sure if this exactly answers the question posed, but these concerns certainly do shape how I teach – which is with an eye to opening possibilities that students could not otherwise encounter, outside the confrontation with difficult material, taught in a way that attempts to demystify this difficulty, and in the process show students something about themselves and their world that they could not have dreamt without at least a bit of… philosophy…

Okay. I think I’m supposed to tag people now… ;-P Not sure whom to tap. Nate, Wildly, the folks at Perverse Egalitarianism (do you count as more than one? or do you get out of this entirely, since you write so often and so well on pedagogical issues?), ZaPaper, and – can I tap someone who doesn’t have a blog? – would perhaps rob be willing to comment on this?

[Note: images from Wikipedia, with original sources linked above.]

4 responses to “Demanding Literature

  1. Pingback: What in the hell … :: … has kept me from posting recently? :: January :: 2008

  2. Pingback: » Passing Class

  3. Pingback: Teaching, ISA’s, and the Pedagogy of Alienation « Larval Subjects .

  4. Pingback: What in the hell … :: … do I teach literature for? :: February :: 2008

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