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This Week In My Classes: Sitting Around Admiring Significant Texts

By (March 26, 2013) No Comment

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.)