How Teachers Can Make Lit Real


I want to return to a subject that I touched on in last Thursday’s blog when I was contrasting the literary education offered up by Massive Open On-line Courses (MOOCs) with that offered by literature seminars. I said that it was important for teachers to honor individual student responses to works. Knowing that some will accuse me of “subjectivism,” which is to say of reducing a work to the needs of the reader, allow me to explore the issue a bit more.

An English student in our end-of-the-year senior seminar presentations cited a Kate Zembreno passage from Heroines, a work of feminist literary scholarship, that gives me a useful place to start a discussion of such subjectivism. Many students arrive in my literature classes claiming that they were forbidden to use the first-person “I” in their high school English papers. I assume that this is because their teachers fear subjectivist responses, maybe along the lines of “Shakespeare is no good because I find him boring.” (I ask any English teachers who ban the first person to tell me about the problems you anticipate.) But whatever the reason, I encourage my students to explore their individual responses, including negative ones, because I think this is the first step to meaningful engagement. In the future I will share the following Zambreno quote with them:

I am beginning to realize that taking the self out of our essays is a form of repression. Taking the self out feels like obeying a gag order–pretending an objectivity where there is nothing objective about the experience of confronting and engaging with and swooning over literature.

I’ve actually said something similar to those of my colleagues in the social sciences, especially in Political Science, who forbid the use of the first person. The claim of third person objectivity, I tell them, just disguises your personal agenda. At least I reveal my biases.

But I don’t want to fetishize the first-person. One can write a smart and deeply committed literary interpretation in the third person and an artificial and superficial interpretation in the first. I would add that it’s possible to make meaningful contact with a MOOC lecture on The Iliad and to fail to do so following a small class seminar on the work, although the latter is less likely to happen if the teacher knows what he or she is doing. But I’ll give an example of a failure of one of my own teachers at Carleton.

In an Early British Literature course that I took my first semester, I wrote an essay on Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, which I liked but couldn’t say why. Not knowing how to write a literature essay, I turned to the debate principles I’d learned from high school forensics. That is to say, I set up a question—why doesn’t Faustus’s repent?—combed through the text for possible answers, came up with three, gave the pros and cons for each answer, and arrived at a final answer. I got an A- on the essay but don’t remember my conclusion. That’s because it meant nothing to me. It was as though I was doing finger exercises on the piano.

If my teacher, a Rhodes Scholar and a Yale PhD, had been the teacher I have tried to become, he would have asked me why the topic mattered to me. Upon prodding, I would have realized that the question I was addressing was one that I cared deeply about: why do we follow a ruinous course of action even though some part of us knows that we shouldn’t? The Apostle Paul puts the dilemma very well when he writes, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Or to cite a specific instance from my college days, why did I continue partying when I knew I should have been studying?

Answering the “so what” question would have been a start, letting me see that the play was wrestling with relevant questions and thereby helping me become fully engaged. But I need not have limited the play to helping me understand my penchant for procrastination. I could then have explored the idea that all the devils are just metaphors for Faustus’s inner wrestling and have catalogued the different forms that his rationalizations take. I could have explored a question that vexed Renaissance audiences and continues to vex us today: just how much free will do we have? Although it would have been asking a bit much of a first-year student, I could have compared the two different versions of the play, the later one retreating from some of the claims of the earlier one with regard to God’s mercy: is Faustus’s heart really too hard for him to repent (the later more orthodox view) or does he have more control so that this just a rationalization that he’s telling himself?

And there are many, many other avenues I could have pursued, as I know from the dozens of student essays I have received on the play over the years. I have seen students wrestle with their religious doubts and explore the destructive temptations of materialist culture and question classical science’s vision of the world. Some of the essays use the first person, some the third, but what they have in common is a commitment to finding answers. No finger exercises here.

Students in a MOOC who are on the teacher’s wavelength or who already have a deep interest in the subject matter may be able to move into committed exploration. And then there are always those extraordinary students who know what they are looking for in literature and why and barely need a teacher at all. But the rest benefit from being challenged on their ideas and being asked why those ideas matter.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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