Thoughts on Teaching Literature

There are two ways to look at a literature class: as a content-based class or as a process-based class.

In the content-based class, the idea is to expose students to the most important works of literature in the hopes of passing on a shared sense of culture so that educated citizens could stand around quoting Emily Dickinson to each other at opportune moments and referencing “Young Goodman Brown” to help explain some idea or to add color to a humorous or sad story, and we would all know what they were talking about.

There are several problems with this approach to literature. For one thing, important works of literature are being written all the time, and instructors tend to stick with what they know best, so the culture moves forward, leaving the classroom behind. Eventually, the literature classroom becomes a dusty museum of things that used to be vital and thrilling but are no longer of the moment. It is in danger of becoming a history of literature course, one that gets bogged down with supplemental readings to help the student reconstruct the original context so that they can get a dim view of what made the literature vital in the first place, or, like many history courses, condenses the last 50 years of history into the last week of class because it runs out of time. Helping us to reconstruct the lived reality of the past is, indeed, one of the great benefits of literature, but this is not the course most students expect when they sign up for Intro to Lit, and it is a course I would teach much differently.

The other problem with the content approach to literature is that the culture it is attempting to pass on is a culture developed exclusively for middle and upper class white men, so it would be more like anthropology for many students today – they would be studying a culture they do not share and perhaps don’t even care to belong to. Sure, if everyone in America had read and loved Huckleberry Finn, there would be more unity and mutual understanding across this sprawling and diverse nation, but great novels like Huckleberry Finn, which has a history of being dropped from the rotation or banned outright for various reasons, tends to cause division as much as it fosters communication, so we are more likely to bond over bland, harmless entertainments like Gilligan’s Island, Cheers, Titanic, Friends, Survivors, and American Idol. These are worth studying as cultural artifacts but not as great literature, and, again, this would be a very different class.

So, rather than attempting to get students to absorb “culture” by saturating them with an ever-expanding canon of the best and brightest in the world of literature, I hope to introduce students to some tools and concepts they can use to understand and appreciate the literature they may already love on a higher level of complexity. I have done this by choosing examples of contemporary literature that have moved me, and which are also superior examples of the various forms of literature moving the culture today: plays, poems, short stories, novels, graphic novels and film. Also, I have found that using a theme for the class keeps me from getting overwhelmed by choice and creates moments of serendipitous communication between the texts as we discuss them in class. My theme this quarter is Through the Woods: The Transformative Nature of Facing the Unknown. While it is not important that you know this to enjoy the literature, and we may never reference this idea directly in class, I hope that we find connections between our primary texts this quarter that will increase their meaning in surprising ways and perhaps deepen our understanding of this idea.

You may also note that most of our major texts this quarter were written by people who are not only still breathing, but who are very active and vital writers from various cultural backgrounds. It is important to me to get a variety of voices in my syllabus, especially in an introductory course, because literature has the ability to help us experience perspectives and realities vastly different from our own. This virtue of literature, this ability to connect with another mind, a strange character, or a foreign belief system, and perhaps even get us to look at ourselves in a new way, is one of the primary benefits that I really want to impress upon beginning students of literature. At the same time, it is important to be aware of techniques writers use (like irony, metaphor and symbolism) to help convey this experience so that we don’t miss it.

The short stories and poems will not be quite as diverse simply because, in an attempt to keep costs down, I did not want to assign an anthology, so I am sticking with texts that are easily accessible on the web, which I hope in most cases means that they are in the public domain. Also, these shorter pieces may not always have been chosen with our theme in mind, since they will sometimes be used to help illuminate a particular literary technique. Poetry and short story writing are still very vital and exciting forms of literature, and I encourage students to seek out some contemporary examples, but the stories and poems I have chosen from our past are also rich and masterfully crafted, so they will be ideal for introducing sophisticated narrative and figurative techniques in a concentrated package.

When I taught my first literature class, I was stymied by the essays I received in response to my assignments until a colleague reminded me that there was no writing prerequisite for our literature classes. Since it would be unfair to expect you to know how to write a literary essay without teaching you how, and unfair to me to expect me to grade the results, and since I don’t want to waste anyone’s time by teaching writing in a literature class, I have opted not to require any essays in this course. I have also made our reading load relatively light. However, rather than assuming that this will be an easy course or that I see the study of literature as a light matter, I hope that students will put twice the effort into the few assignments and readings that I assign. Indeed, I hold the understanding of narrative and literary devices to be one of the most important skills students can arm themselves with in an age when the easy availability of information and stories has come at the cost of their reliability and artistic merit.

Narrative is one of the most powerful persuasive tools we have available to us, and many people don’t see any problem using stories to manipulate others. Great writers and good stories can help us precisely because they use stories to raise questions rather than provide us with temporary answers. By studying them, we can learn the techniques used by the less altruistic storytellers and thus defend ourselves against their seductive lies. Also, if we pay attention to the questions and problems raised in powerful literature, we will learn how to study ourselves and the world. Therefore, I hope that my students take the room I have given them to read each text more than once, be as thoughtful about a discussion board entry as they would be about a paragraph in a graded essay, and think hard (meditate) about the ideas and questions these texts are desperately trying to get us to think about – that they believe are vital for our survival in this world.