Monday, April 26, 2010


Flavia writes:
Personally, I've never looked at a novel I thought sucked. . . analyzed it, and come away with greater appreciation.

I more or less agree with this statement, and there's plenty of literature (pretty much all of the Romantic poets, for example), that I just can't like no matter how much I'm bound to admire its artistry, etc. But if you're already reading a work you don't like, talking about it in formal terms at least gives you something to say and do--and something more productive than, "I don't like this."

I mean, I didn't like high school physics. But I had to learn it.

I understand that you (and Ta-Nehisi) are arguing that badly-taught or simply irrelevant-seeming classes may turn students off something they'd otherwise like, and that in the case of English this might mean alienating students from reading--and that physics, by contrast, isn't something that most people can take on as a hobby or pastime.

But I'm not sure they're so different, or that the teaching of English should defer to student tastes or preferences any more than the teaching of physics. Literature does exist to give people pleasure. But literature classes exist to make students more sophisticated readers and analyzers of literature as art, craft, and culture.

People often assume that because reading is a pleasurable activity (for many), then so should analyzing literature be. But most things that are pleasurable are not things we study in school, because we assume that pleasure to be intuitively obvious: we don't study baseball, in part because people like it all on their own. Similarly, we don't believe we have to teach people how to enjoy the experience of reading a gripping novel.

Not everyone who likes reading will find analyzing literature pleasurable, and that's fine. Not everyone who appreciates the existence of gravity will find studying physics pleasurable, either.

I've never been a teacher, but I have this idea that most teachers hope to inspire at least one student with a love of their discipline. I guess I'd always assumed that English teachers would be happy to instill their students with a love of literature.


Flavia said...

I guess I'd always assumed that English teachers would be happy to instill their students with a love of literature.

Come now, FLG. Demonstrate your own reading skills: I said not everyone who likes reading will like analyzing literature. I'm delighted to introduce students to literature they otherwise wouldn't have encountered or have enjoyed (it's both deeply gratifying and a bit appalling how many students tell me they'd "never thought" Shakespeare could be so fun or so interesting), and I'm delighted to give students a richer and fuller way of experiencing the literature they already enjoy.

I assume the same thing is true of teachers of physics: they hope most students enjoy their subject at least tolerably, and learn some things that apply to their daily lives--and that some students will be set on fire by the subject. But no teacher imagines that all students like her subject, and she'd be a pretty shitty teacher if that were her foremost concern.

You'll notice that I'm continuing to pursue that comparison. That's because a lot of people think there's a fundamental difference between what an English teacher does or should do, and what a physics teacher does or should do. Often, they claim that this is because they regard literature as so much more valuable or central to human experience than physics. But if you really examine those claims, it's clear that such people don't regard the study of literature as being as "serious," or as having the same claim to its disciplinary standards and norms, as other fields.

But you don't get to have it both ways. Either literature is so easy and accessible that anyone can study or teach it (in which case, it really shouldn't be a college subject at all), or you accept that it's a discipline with its own specialized training, language, and scholarly methods.

Do you need all that training to enjoy a work of literature? Of course not. But college students are paying to be exposed to that expertise and those methods--and to take what's applicable to their lives away with them.

FLG said...


I think this is more of an internal conflict between three things. I want to instill a love of literature in students because 1) it helps illuminate the human condition, 2) provides a set of common cultural reference and 3) is enjoyable in its own right.

In the end, I think literature is far more relevant than physics to human life. And I'd even say more important for most people. Sure, we need people with expertise in physics, but everybody ought to read literature.

On the other hand, I understand your point. This is an academic class, not a book club. I guess, if you pressed me, I'd say that I'd prefer if HS lit classes were more like a book club, especially in the beginning with a transition toward more a academic approach as senior year approached. College classes, of course, need to be academically rigorous.

I guess I really do want it both ways. But litt is more important than physics for the purposes of education.

Withywindle said...

A Straussian hypothesis: the techniques of literary analysis, as currently taught, presuppose the reader's superior understanding of the text, and close him to approaching the text with a desire to learn from the author--where learning partakes both of reasoned understanding and aesthetic delight. A different mode of teaching literature might provide both the discipline and more of the delight.

A mere hypothesis, presented to be shot down.

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