I was very focused on literature in high school and college and intended to study literature in graduate school, so I’m excited to be able to reactivate all that in my teaching this semester. At the same time, I’m conscious that I’ve done relatively minimal teaching of literature thus far — while the Bible obviously includes significant narrative and poetry, and while I’ve taught Paradise Lost and sections of the Inferno in my devil seminar, I’ve never done a straight-up literature class. So I thought I’d give my thoughts going into it and ask if any of our more literary readers had suggestions.
Observing the fine arts course (Humanities 1) that I sat in on, it was clear to me that it was difficult to get the students talking about what we might call the “expressive content” of the artworks as such. With music, the problem was either that they’d get hung up on the technical language (whether that means expressing their lack of it or randomly spouting it) or else on how the music “made them feel” subjectively. Sometimes they would also want to try to impose some kind of story on the music — and when we discussed Porgy and Bess, they were absolutely committed to discussing the plot only, as though there was no musical content at all. With art, things were a little easier, though there was still an overemphasis on trying to discern exactly what was being represented rather than on how it was being represented.
So I take my challenge in the literature class to be bridging that gap — getting them to think about whatever it is about the literary work that is neither merely technical, nor merely representative, nor merely subjective. Obviously the difficulty here is that the technical, the representative, and the subjective are all very relevant, and it’s impossible to understand the artwork fully without engaging with all those elements. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the only way to get a really productive conversation going is to practice a certain asceticism when it comes to those elements.
Thus it seems like something akin to a “New Critical” approach is the best starting point in terms of keeping the focus on the text — i.e., avoiding the biographical and intentional fallacies, focusing on the close reading of texts, etc. My goal isn’t to endorse the New Criticism, but more to use its approach as a set of “guardrails” to keep the conversation centered on the text as much as possible, which is a crucial skill in itself but even moreso in a Great Books curriculum.
Further, I hope to displace the conversation as much as possible from the plot, simply because that is probably where people’s comfort zone is going to be. It’s obviously a hugely important aspect of literature, but there’s a lot of other stuff that we should discuss — and a lot of that “other stuff” is probably more immediately relevant for helping them to think about their own writing.
What do my readers think of this?