This Week In My Classes: Sitting Around Admiring Significant Texts

This week in my classes, which are traditional English classes rather than warm and fuzzy creative writing classes, I am burdening students with historical background, wrapping ideas in grad-school jargon, and generally obscuring the pleasures of reading and the power of literature. No, really!

NYT illustration by Pete Gamlen

NYT illustration by Pete Gamlen

OK, not really, but if you believe this recent encomium on the virtues of creative writing classes in the New York Times, that’s what I’m usually up to. Bad English professor! Bad! Don’t I understand that “students don’t like to be told to sit around and admire something simply because it is theoretically or historically significant”?

The really frustrating thing for me about pieces like this is that I agree that love is an important part of reading – and that it can and should be an important starting point for discussion. (At least, it should be a starting point some of the time. I wonder what Professor Bakopoulos recommends his students do about works they don’t love. Should they stay away from them? Or just not talk about them or learn from them? What if they don’t have a “favorite line” — how does the discussion proceed then? What if the seduction fails? What if that “instinct” you’re urging them to trust is actually a prejudice or presupposition?) What I don’t agree with is that love is always and only a visceral reaction, a thing of the heart, and not of the head. There’s a not-so-subtle anti-intellectualism in proclaiming that pleasure is “something they may have experienced with Harry Potter but lost when they wrote a five-paragraph essay about Hawthorne.” Analysis can be dry and distancing, sure, but it can also be thrilling: fiction, after all, can make us think as well as feel, and novels are built by writers who thought deeply and worked hard, and not always with the primary goal of making us shiver. Appreciating their craft, understanding their historical context, and asking theoretical questions about their work are also ways to see how it “ripples with energy.”

The thing is, I don’t think Professor Bakopoulos wants his students to rest content with subjective first impressions any more than I do. That’s why he keeps using phrases like “to begin with” or “at first.” He understands that love is not all you need to be a really good reader (much less a really good writer). Indeed, not only is it not a sufficient condition for that, but it is not even a necessary one. For he also, I hope, (though you can’t tell this from his essay) does not want his students staying safe within a bubble of fiction they find immediately lovable–or even lovable at all. Surely he wants them to test and expand and redefine and go beyond what they already know they love. He doesn’t really want the bar for pleasure set by Harry Potter, or reading responses to be effusions rather than five-paragraph essays.

I’m also morally certain that he would not know nearly as much as he presumably does about the fiction he reads with his students without the training he has had in “traditional” English classes. When he talks about putting “further pressure” on favorite lines, he’s talking about prodding his students to notice aspects of form and meaning for which he provides, I’m sure, explanations, vocabulary, context — maybe even a little theory!

Why, then, does he set up such an artificial opposition — why set up as a straw figure the tiresome stereotype of the buzz-killing English professor? Who on earth in any kind of classroom tells their students to “sit around and admire something” f0r any reason, anyway? Well, it’s a big world, and there are tens of thousands of English professors in it, so I guess I can’t rule this out as a complete impossibility. But as for the rest of us, just because we may aim a little higher than the viscera (anatomically speaking only, of course – no other judgment intended!) does not mean that we are doing it wrong: we head into the classroom every day fired up to bring our students into the critical conversation, keen to equip them as best we can to be part of it in all of its complexity. It can be a difficult process — an intimidating one, even. If the comments on my teaching evaluations are to be believed, however,  a lot of students actually love doing exactly that.

This week, we’re reading Carol Shields’s Unless and Hardy’s Tess, by the way. I haven’t so far asked anyone to identify a favorite line. I have asked a lot of other questions, though.

As a final note, I’ll add that I started posting about ‘this week in my classes’ in response to negative stereotypes of what English professors do. It’s most depressing when they come from other English professors. (You can read the whole archive if you want – maybe you’ll catch me out ruining everyone’s fun.)

6 Comments to This Week In My Classes: Sitting Around Admiring Significant Texts

  1. March 27, 2013 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    Oooohh I HATE this kind of ill-informed stereotypical and misleading opposition between ‘fun’ classes and ‘boring’ ones, boring being those that ask students to move beyond their immediate naive responses. It’s just damaging and speaks to already rampant prejudices. There’s nothing I could say to add to your excellent rebuttal but Grrrrrr! How annoying!

  2. Aven's Gravatar Aven
    March 27, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    I had a lovely discussion with some students the other day about a Homer class (not mine), and how they had experienced the same thing I had as a student: they read the Iliad, and thought it was ok, and then started working on their papers for the class–and found themselves digging into the text, seeing connections and themes and patterns and deeper meaning–and found themselves almost reluctantly realising that it was, indeed, not just an ok story, but a amazing and fascinating masterpiece. None of which is surprising to us, maybe,but it was good to see the students very consciously recognising the process of analysis as leading to a greater appreciation–and love–of a work.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      March 27, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      That’s a great example. I assign a lot of texts (including in first year) that just get better the more you think about them. I assign a lot of texts I don’t love, too — and the more I analyze them, the more I at least learn to appreciate them.

  3. Chris's Gravatar Chris
    March 27, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Oh you are so right. I fully agree with you. The call for fuzzy, warm, oversimplifying, feel-good courses, the notion that academic analysis is dry and boring, and the idea that learning and advancing can be realized without meeting a challenge here and there is VERY annoying.

    On the other hand, what do you do with a class full of students who want to study about anything but literature? I was under the impression that the original article was referring to classes predominantly taken by students from other fields (such as chemistry). Or did I misunderstand that (I am not familiar with the North American academic system)?

    Now, look at it from the reverse side. Suppose you were again an English student and you were forced to attend a chemistry or physics class. Would you appreciate the professor challenging you with the beauty of quantum chemistry and statistical thermodynamics? Maybe the easier route, relating chemistry and physics to everyday experience and going the “feel-good” way does actually take more of the reluctant kids along. And believe me, overcoming the barrier and getting through to at least to some of the kids who believe that they “will never understand chemistry” can be considered already a success.

    But again, do not get me wrong, I am also frustrated by the popular anti-academic culture that appears to be spreading.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      March 27, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      These students are apparently flocking to this class, not being forced to take it, though. Should we approach things differently for students fulfilling requirements? Interesting question. At my university, students often take first-year English as their Writing Requirement, but they don’t have to: the requirement can be filled across a range of courses. So while I work hard to engage them, I see them as also having an obligation to get in the game — which includes learning analytical approaches. It sounds as if this professor also builds on that first impression, so what I really object to is not so much starting with love (though, again, I think that might be artificially limiting) but treating ‘traditional’ English courses so reductively as foils, as the bad guys.

      As it happens, I do teach a class that is largely populated by students from other disciplines (Mystery & Detective Fiction). Again, students aren’t forced to take it, but they too get plenty of historical context and theoretical discussion, and in their writing they have to analyze, not emote. We do pretty well!

  4. Jim's Gravatar Jim
    March 27, 2013 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    Ouch! Dean Bakopoulos article was painful in so many ways. One wonders if his emphasis on positive feelings are preventing him from correctly analyzing assessing the usefulness and popularity of his classes. These were the kind of teachers that put me to sleep through three years of High School English. It was not until going to college and getting the kind of thinking about literature he so dislikes that I began to love and take reading seriously. If he thinks those kind of classes are bad, painful or difficult he must have had a very relaxing academic career. Those classes were stimulating and exciting and a welcome break from newly minted PhD’s teaching their first course in differential equations.

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Summer Reading 2014

Rohan:
1. Julie James, It Happened One Wedding
2. Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter
3. Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
4. Elizabeth George, Just One Evil Act
5. Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolo Rising
6. Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
7. Zoe Ferraris, Finding Nouf
8. Georgette Heyer, Friday's Child
9. Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones
10. Charlotte Bronte, Villette
In progress: Grafton, W is for Wasted, Tremain, Music and Silence

Maddie:
1. Judy Blume, Forever
2. Rob Thomas, Veronica Mars, an original mystery
3. John Green, Paper Towns
4. Judy Blume, Then Again Maybe I Won't
5. Dessen, Dreamland
In progress: Wilson, Diamond

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