Teaching literature: Any thoughts?

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?

10 thoughts on “Teaching literature: Any thoughts?

  1. Long time lurker, happy to enter into this discussion since we’re on my turf (PhD student in literature). In my experience as both a student and a teacher in literature classes, the best teachers have embodied three key characteristics:

    (1) a sense of where they wanted discussion to go, and a list of passages they considered especially significant and/or ripe for discussion. The key is to guide students toward them rather than just jumping right into them, and dwell on these passages for some time when the opportunity arises. This does not mean that the teacher forces students to “get to” these passages (which often backfires and results in conversation grinding to a halt) or that the teacher strives to cover all of them in a particular class period–that approach often becomes too formulaic. This will work well with your “New Critical” rails, which sounds like a decent plan to me in terms of teaching, if not in terms of reading at a high-level, etc. Certainly feels right for a lower-level class that’s not primarily English majors.

    (2) my best teachers have spent the first few minutes of a class giving a brief summarizing lecture that sets the tone for the class period. This should ideally be less than 10% of the period, and sometimes just 2-3 minutes. The key is to situate the reading for that day into what has gone before (and even hint at how it will mesh with what comes after) and to weave into this lecture ideas/themes that the class has been dwelling upon, both recently and at earlier points in the semester. This gives students a chance to settle into class and start thinking across texts rather than just about their own reactions. Finally, doing this regularly enables you to break the rule once or twice, and just begin with a probing question or unique exercise, if a particular reading and/or classroom dynamic calls for it–shaking things up in this way can be productive.

    (3) an ability to always (yes, always) begin with some form of “yes” after a student speaks, especially when attempting an interpretation. Further, it’s almost always better to transition with a “yes, and” than a “yes, but.” There will be lots of time when you need to get the “but” into a response, but it helps to put it off. This is probably the hardest thing to do and takes the most practice because there are so many times when a teacher will want to say “no” for important theoretical reasons (and because it ignites cranky feelings in teachers about mollycoddled students who love having their self-esteem boosted). But practically it pays off, and teachers who have mastered this ability are truly spectacular to be in class with.

    That’s what I have.

  2. I’ve taught World Humanities a few times, where the emphasis was on the question “How does this text exhibit how they understood themselves.” The textual approach was a one-two punch of a historical reader and primary texts, e.g., Antigone, the Book of the Dead, Epic of Gilgamesh, Bhagavad Gita, etc. The reader clearly illustrates how the civilization understood themselves that we would later exhibit as we went through the literature; what is up to the student is to draw out these systems of meaning with whatever level of mediation the professor finds appropriate. In this case, discussion of the plot is foregrounded by conversation about scenes that paradigmatically display traits of the culture, such as the scene about the afterlife in the Epic of Gilgamesh–dust and dispair– vs. what you get from the Book of the Dead. Besides, if class gets slow, you can always show clips of Conan (reputedly from Sumeria) and The Mummy (where fictional Imothep reputedly uses the powers of the Book of the Dead). Of course, the point is to end with how our own literature and mythologies do the same for us, and perhaps you could end the class with selections from MacIntyre.

  3. Besides, if <class gets slow, you can always show clips of Conan (reputedly from Sumeria)
    Dude. Conan is Cimmerian, not Sumerian. Somebody needs a close reading of the texts of Robert E. Howard.

  4. I’m teaching a lit class at the moment, and it’s popular mass religious market lit, which has the additional disadvantage for teaching of seeming easy and being hard to take serious.

    I’ve done pretty much exactly what you’ve described.

    When it has worked, it’s been brilliant.

    When it doesn’t, we have conversations about whether or not a character is “believable” or the plot is “realistic.”

    One thing I’d add is, it’s sometimes helpful, when the students go for the subjective, to try and turn that into an analysis of reader response. That’s been sometimes helpful, especially if it can be pointed back into the text.

  5. I teach a couple of novels in my first year course, which is technically a sociology course. As far as I know, I’m the only one in the department who assigns fiction, which isn’t particularly surprising. The students come into the course with no expectation of doing fiction–be it genre or literature–and approach the books from a rather simple and naive perspective: likely something you won’t encounter in your own courses.

    Because I teach them in sociology, I’m not particularly concerned or, at least, primarily concerned, with the literary or aesthetic merits of the texts. My purpose is rather more instrumental: to get them to think about social processes in ways they haven’t done so before. Overall, they tend to be rather intimated by the books (Coetzee, Saramago, and Mieville are the fiction, but not as much by Evan Wright’s war journalism) and initially focus on rather mundane details: what is the plot? who are the characters? who is the book about? why does he refuse to use punctuation! I have to use punctuation and he gets a Nobel Prize!? and so on. I usually indulge them in this.

    Once we get by this details oriented stuff, I have them break up into small groups and ask them to come up with four or five questions/comments on the text. I have them read their questions out loud and have a student record them on the blackboard. We end up with a bunch of garbage questions/comments, a few interesting ones, and a bit of overlap. I may add my own after they are done. I then let them choose which questions they want to talk about, adding new ones on the board if necessary and removing redundant questions.

    This isn’t sophisticated pedagogy by any stretch of the imagination and it may not be the best way to teach fiction, but we usually end up covering most of the points I wanted to get across in the first place. Sometimes they will even start to make connections between books, but I don’t expect that as a matter of course.

  6. You could start with “The Nature of Narrative and Its Philosophical Implications” in Tests of Time by W. Gass. If I am reading you correctly that should help do the trick of setting some guardrails.

  7. “the difficulty here is that the technical, the representative, and the subjective are all very relevant”

    One approach might be to lead off the term by encouraging students to prepare for class by taking note (mental or written) of their response and identifying which parts of their response to the reading are parts of each of those discussions (technical, representative, subjective).

    The leading question for the seminar can also lend itself towards using the inevitable technical etc. discussions as tools for the discernment of expressive content. [i.e., How does X technical feature do more than point to more than Y (thematic element)?] Thus their notes become identified as essential & relevant tools which aide but do not displace the conversational goal.

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