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The Joys and Sorrows of Teaching Literature

31 August 2014

From BookRiot:

Like many who become English majors in college and train to become teachers, I started out on the road to professor-dom simply because I LOVED READING SO SO VERY VERY MUCH. I read at the dinner table, I read during family get-togethers, I read in the car, I read under the covers with a flashlight when I was supposed to be sleeping. Reading was and is my addiction.

From middle school until college, I devoted myself to reading as many “classic” authors as I could: Dickens, Austen, Fielding, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Twain, Wharton, Ellison, Melville, etc.

. . . .

And my mom enabled me. During the summer before college, we were throwing around ideas for my future profession, and I declared that I would be a Writer of Novels. We decided that I couldn’t really count on that for a stable income (since I wasn’t exactly churning out the prose like a prodigy or anything). I came up with a brilliant solution: I would become a Professaaahhhh of Literachaaaah to support my real passion for writing. Perfect. Great plan. What could go wrong.

. . . .

Because I went to a small college, I never had any TAs (teaching assistants), so when I became one myself during grad school…well…shock, fear, disappointment, panic: you get the picture.

. . . .

Of course, we had received some TA training, and I had sat in on other TA sections, but still. It was me versus them, and I finally had my opportunity to unleash my love of words and ideas on students whose minds were supposed to be open. To say my first couple semesters of teaching were a bit rocky would be an understatement. And by “rocky,” I mean uninspired, dull, frustrating, and anxiety-inducing, streaked here and there with interesting after-class discussions and a few interested kids.

It wasn’t the literature’s fault, or the students’ fault. It was up to me to make these kids see the beauty of Henry James’s sentences, or the twisted brilliance of Gilman’s famous story. But all I wanted to do was rant (as I used to to my family and friends) about my love of such-and-such a character, or my admiration of this or that writer. Gushing, though, didn’t move my students. And only then did I understand that reading a book and teaching it are not necessarily connected. The teacher must make connections. She must reach her students…somehow. Even if they are of different generations and have wildly different interests and outlooks on life.

. . . .

So it took a while, but I learned from my colleagues and from experience something that everyone eventually learns: that just because you love to read, doesn’t mean teaching literature is simply an extension of it. If you’re meant to be a teacher, that’s what you’ll do. But no one makes it easy for you. You don’t just live in a world of ideas and words- you have to deal with all of the administrative stuff that goes with it. You have to perform, entertain, excite, and grade grade grade and hold office hours and also read all those books you assigned.

I will always love the idea of teaching, and I’d like to teach again at some point in the future. But thankfully I was introduced to other literary spheres: publishing, blogging, reviewing. Working at a press, writing for Book Riot, and starting my own bookish blog have shown me that there’s a whole other world out there where you can express your love for this author or that book and other people will feel the same way.

Link to the rest at BookRiot

Books in General

84 Comments to “The Joys and Sorrows of Teaching Literature”

  1. I feel sorry for Rachel. It makes a difference when a student wants to learn, but so many are forced into certain classes in college (not just English) to fulfill the administration’s concept of a well-rounded curriculum.

  2. Twenty years later and I still don’t understand the study of literature. “It was up to me to make these kids see the beauty of Henry James’s sentences, or the twisted brilliance of Gilman’s famous story.” So it was like an art appreciation class, except with books?

    • For some students, yeah. And on it’s simplest level, that’s what all Humanities is, kinda.

      But really it goes a lot deeper into social, historical, technical, cognitive, linguistic, philosophical, political and psychological levels than what you think of when you say “art appreciation.”

      At the college level in particular literature classes don’t just study how artful the words are, but they also study that “twisted brilliance” of how the book interacts with the culture — manipulating, demanding, changing, affirming, informing.

      • Well, that makes some sense. Art has a context, and I can see how one could learn a lot by using literature as a gateway to understanding a place and time.

        In high school, it was just frustrating. We were expected to pick up on these things hidden in the text, but only the teacher could see them, and the teacher could never prove they were really there. I had good English teachers, and they never convinced me that analyzing books was a worthwhile use of time. (I got As, though, because I could write.)

        Humanities classes made a lot more sense. When Plato had a point to make, he told me what it was. He didn’t try to hide it in a metaphor that only an ancient Greek or an English teacher could understand.

      • Studying how art affects and interacts with culture is great. But when has poetry every been popular enough to do that? How long since literature has? Has fine lit ever been that influential? It hasn’t in my life time.

        Why not study movies? Popular music? I know why, too accessible. Too much fun. Learning needs to be somber and prosaic.

        I am, perhaps, overstating a bit her. I just am saddened to see so many teenagers turned off from reading because they are still teaching The Scarlet Letter in school. Or Catcher in the Rye. Things most people would never ever read for fun.

        Meh. It’s an old debate. Not meaning to get too political here. Hate me some politics!

        • In the case of Gilgamesh, Odyseus, and Beowulf, the literature is the best window I know into what those people were really like. I guess I don’t care much about 20th century culture.

          But you’re right. Movies would be a great way to try to understand mid-20th-century people. One thing I always wonder about: were those real American accents, or were they made up in California for the movies?

          • Good question and great point. Literature as a window into history is a fantastic angle. I have a degree in history, we studied quite a few plays trying to put the historical records of the various periods into cultural context. Paintings as well. Studying WWII, Cold War/Korea and ‘Nam era we tended toward film more than literature. Good stuff.

            I guess when I think of literature I think of studying story, archetype, meaning, expression, all of that. Wasn’t thinking of the social history angle. Literature might be seen as a primary source when studying social history of the time period.

            Again, fantastic points.

            EDIT: About the accents. I’ll go find out, I know some linguists. Do you have a good example in mind? Something I can Youtube them? I’m thinking you are thinking of the “look here, see, there’s a lotta funny business…” type accent and word choice?

        • Years ago one of the classes I had to take was art and culture, essentially a study of how art and culture intersect. Part of the class was spent exploring the local art museum or going to performances. But there was a stipulation. We were not allowed to use movies or rock concerts for any of our papers.

          My view was these were and still are important looks at how art is part of our culture. The instructor took the elitist view that they weren’t nuanced like real cultural artifacts.

          I still think she missed the point…

  3. I find it sad when I hear this from teachers, especially ones who teach literature. I ask them one question: Why would your students be receptive to the content you foist upon them when you’ve given no indication that you will tolerate the things that they’re interested in?

    Today’s high school and college students have grown up with the Internet, which is a knowledge- and text-based medium. It would stand to reason that they come to class with stories that they appreciate, even if those stories are not bound in paper. Yet it never occurs to teachers to ask–and then use–the texts that the students resonate with.

    A good teacher can make ANY text teachable. Give me a World of Warcraft tie-in novel, a Knights of the Old Republic Let’s Play, the Marble Hornets web series, and I’ll give you a class that is enthralled with characters, setting, plot, and narrative, which, ostensibly, should be the point of a literature class.

    But whatever. Continue trying to force students to love what the canon mandates, which is almost exclusively dead white dudes. That’s the best recipe to make sure that they hate literature for the rest of their lives.

    The author of this article is correct in one regard–it’s not the students’ faults or literature’s fault. It’s her fault for buying into a desiccated educational paradigm without thinking for one second about what her true obligations to her students really are.

    • This is nonsense. They know that stuff already and its future usefulness is questionable. Possibly, they arrive in class already unteachable because of it.

      • The elitist hath spoken; all bow down to the elite!

        Seriously: No one ever became ‘unteachable’ because they had read lowbrow entertainment. The kids who become unteachable are the ones who don’t read lowbrow entertainment, because they never learn to read for entertainment at all.

        • Indeed.

          When Harry Potter became a success, there were many experts who bemoaned that children were reading this trash instead of “real literature”.

          The BBC invited one such snob for an interview (I think he was a Guardian columnist who also taught at Universities). When the host asked him if it wasn’t good that many children had gotten into the habit of reading, this snob said that they were better off not reading rather than reading genre nonsense.

          No wonder students don’t care for their teachers. They can see they are being taught crap. In a situation like this, if a young TA wants to get ahead in their career, s/he repeat the party line, or find themselves in the unemployment line.

          ” It was up to me to make these kids see the beauty of Henry James’s sentences”

          Maybe the students were smarter than the teacher, and knew the story is more important than beautiful sentences? Maybe they revolted because they knew they were being taught by person who could never make a living at something she was teaching them?

          I read the article, and it seemed to me “Oooh lala, these stupid students don’t share my reading tastes. Education is doomed”.

          Kris Rusch’s blog series on Perfection and Professors comes to mind (http://kriswrites.com/2012/07/04/the-business-rusch-careers-critics-and-professors/)

          • In general, I agree, but when you’re dealing with 100-level students, many of them just don’t make the effort it would take to really appreciate whatever you teach. By their third and forth years, they are usually much better about putting in the time and effort. But for low level classes, required for all students… ugh. That’s a tough demographic. There’s lots of other stuff going on in their lives, and a lot of temptation to do just enough to get by and get done with it.

        • This is also not true. You assume that high-brow books are not entertaining. I’ve found lots of entertainment in Dickens, Steinbeck, Balzac, Fielding, and others. It’s when you distort young people’s perceptions with quick, cheap thrills that they no longer have the patience to read for other things.

      • Holy moly Parker. I know you probably didn’t mean it that way but you came off as the worst kind of snob here. The type of person who kills reading culture, yanking it out by the roots.

      • If you think a student is unteachable you, simply, don’t know anything about teaching or how to connect with students. Please, tell me, what does the sometimes genius, always bat***t insane Rimbaud bring to the table that students couldn’t learn from their favorite novels? What does Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” teach students that they couldn’t learn from the much better written works of modern horror writers?

        I’m convinced that half the reason literature was dying a slow death before my generation grew up on the web and started consuming the written word en masse is that our education in literature was stale, boring, and completely at the whim of whatever “great works” our teachers grew up reading.

        You want students to love reading? Give them something good to read, not the same “classics” that have been proven to be of no interest to anyone but a small minority of self-professed elites.

    • Totally agree. I got to teach a university-level literature course on fiction.

      I started that course with a read of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that focused on the monomyth idea — and then dove straight into Stephen King’s Night Shift collection and Rita Hayworth & Shawshank Redemption.

      What was difficult was that I started to lose them after we started reading from the big curricular book the course generally used.

      I got them back a little, toward the end, when we started to talk about The Great Gatsby and The Jersey Shore, though, so that was nice.

      Which is to say, I think a great teacher can make any text teachable (like your World of Warcraft tie-in novels) and any text engaging (like pointing out that The Great Gatsby was just MTV’s The Real World for the Jazz Age).

      • Exactly! Through what students know and appreciate already you can engender an interest in more classic literature by saying “if you like X, you might like Y.” I’ve encountered too many otherwise smart students who sat there and proudly proclaimed that they didn’t read books. We have to reevaluate how we think about educating the students of today because they are different than they were even twenty years ago.

        • Or we could just put our heads in the sand and try to say kids are just dumb nowadays. That’s also an option. 🙂

          Also do we really need the end goal to be getting students into classic literature? Do we really need to use fun books as a ruse, for the end game to be us saying, “and if you want to be a real reader here are some books that don’t speak to you at all. Smart people can gut these out and pretend to like them…”

          Ha! When I was in school I read a Metallica song on poetry day. When asked why I thought it appropriate to pick Creeping Death as my poem, I told the teacher that poetry was and always will be socially irrelevant next to the power of popular music, and I don’t like to waste my time.

          I was excused from class. I think it was a punishment but at least I was spared from having to hear The Raven for the 100th time.

          • Also do we really need the end goal to be getting students into classic literature? Do we really need to use fun books as a ruse, for the end game to be us saying, “and if you want to be a real reader here are some books that don’t speak to you at all. Smart people can gut these out and pretend to like them…”

            Oh, hell to the no! I’m so agreeing here.

            The idea of “classic literature” itself might be the problem. But then, what’s funny is that what the canon considers classic literature . . .

            Well, come on. I’m trying to think of a modern writer as versatile, vulgar, and downright bawdy as Chaucer — and when I say “vulgar,” note I mean appealing to common readers. Or Shakespeare — who started as the Michael Bay (Titus) of his time and then moved on to become the Christopher Nolan (Hamlet).

            In a hundred years, I think we’ll look back and put Stephen King and Jo Rowling into the same category. I hope we’ll teach movies like The Exorcist, Jaws, and Jurassic Park alongside their respective novels. I don’t think anyone will be talking about the Franzens or the Weiners, and I expect that when people talk about vampires in the late twentieth century, they’ll start with Salem’s Lot and continue on to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

            I don’t think it’s a case of “They don’t make ’em like they used to.” I think it’s more that there’s a lack of engagement caused mostly by boredom. I don’t know when it happened, but it’s like “Literature” has become this static, unmoving, pre-approved body. The Canon. This “These are the good books.” This isn’t really changing. The internet and book bloggers and reader sites aren’t really expanding the idea of the Canon so much as they’re mostly just adding GIFs to it (not that there’s anything wrong with GIFs. Especially when used like Libbie does). Every year it seems like there’s a newly christened book (this year it’s seemed to be The Goldfinch. I tried. I got, like, twenty pages in. There was no joy in it. It was this static, hulking thing).

            But literature at its best is a conversation. Great books make us talk about stories and ideas and life. They contribute to our understanding of each other and the world around us — not of themselves. Why character x committed action y and what that’s symbolic of is boring; why we empathize with characters and get, at a visceral level, why they committed the actions they did because we hope we never find ourselves in those situations but honestly if we did we’d probably do the same (or not)–that’s what storytelling is for.

            • What if we are teaching Star Wars or Jaws and the kids react like we do to Grapes of Wrath?

              • That depends. Are we teaching the story for what it is, or are we adding layers of academic interpretation that never existed before they were thought up by a critic? Worse, are we then presenting those interpretations as the “one true meaning”?

                • Oh gawd…that is the difference. And what if in the future the language has altered so drastically no one can actually understand the story, the flow is broken up, it’s a huge pain to even understand what the heck is going on?

                • Adding layers of meaning: Not much point in teaching if you can’t bring something to the book that students didn’t already get. I imagine classes where the exchange goes something like this: “Did you read JAWS?” “Yeah, great book, teach!” “Amen to that, Johnnie. Anybody else think of something to say? No. OK. FIFTY SHADES for next week.”

                • Adding layers of meaning: Not much point in teaching if you can’t bring something to the book that students didn’t already get.

                  There’s a world of difference between conveying layers of meaning to students about a work they may have missed and inventing those layers, or regurgitating the inventions of others, that the author never intended.

                  Can we learn about the unspoken realities of an author’s cultural upbringing by analyzing their works? Yes, we often can. The problem comes when we, like multiple professors and teachers I’m well acquainted with, begin to view their works through our psychological and socioeconomic filters. Worse, those same educators often begin to believe that their interpretations are THE one true interpretation.

                  Personally I’ve never seen the value in that mentality, or considered it of any value in the education of others.

          • I wonder what happens to classic literature when books no longer go out of print?

    • Many TAs for Lit 101 and most US public high school English teachers have little-to-no ability to choose the reading curriculum. They can recommend extra reading to students that seek the challenge, and they might be able to add 1 or 2 texts late in the year, but more often than not, they cannot choose which books are to be read–or that are available from the district’s book repository.

      There are great teachers, but it usually takes them (poorly compensated) years to learn how to stir young distracted souls, and how to wring meaning out of a required curriculum. Many of us, like Rachel, became rapidly disenchanted with that challenge when coupled with academic politics and TA poverty.

      I don’t know Rachel, but please give her a break and see what else she has to say in this essay as a result of her experience.

      • I’m sure there are many great teachers. Alas, In my high school experience I had 4 of the worst English teachers in the history of teaching.

        My freshman teacher was so jaded from years of teaching unruly highschoolers that she clearly just didn’t care anymore. There was absolutely no order to the class and she was constantly getting in verbal battles with the worst offenders. I just sat in the back and read quietly to myself to survive it.

        My sophomore teacher was constantly telling us how we were going to fail in life because most of the class hadn’t the fainest idea how to answer any of her questions. I could have but I was very shy and didn’t like calling attention to myself in class.

        My Junior year teacher was an airhead constantly distracted by her relationship with the teacher she was having an affair with. Everyone in the class (it was an advanced class this year) was smarter than her.

        My senior year I was in an advanced placement college level course. We were the smart ones but our teacher was constantly railing on about ridiculous examples of symbolism that she found EVERYWHERE and telling us we were “culturally illiterate” when we didn’t know what Guernica (the painting) was because that had something to do with literature.

        Somehow my terrible experience in high school with English didn’t turn me off from books completely. (Probably because I managed to discover LOTR during that time as well.) But it’s hard for me to sympathize with English teachers and their literature agendas.

        • It could be worse. I once studied under a tenured professor who was adamant that the only true path to moral nirvana was veganism and postmodern philosophy. He spent more time on his pet psychology theories than he ever was on the literary works we were supposed to be studying.

      • You’re right. I get really flustered about this particular topic. The financial problems aside, the education system’s pedagogical problems have only grown worse. Instructional designers butt up against student attrition all the time and lament how difficult it is to get instructors and administrators to try new methods when old ones are obviously not working.

        Rachel is trying to do her best and that’s commendable. Her enthusiasm for the content is great. I understand her frustration. But you can’t simply make students engage in something because you want them to. Take the time to understand them, and they’ll be willing to listen to what you have to say.

    • I’d split the difference with you on canon vs. pop fiction.

      We read the canon in high school, but much of it was the Greek canon, with a jump to Shakespeare, with some Dante and Chaucer thrown in. Unless you’re an utter killjoy it’s easy to keep a tenth grader’s attention with Lysistrata, especially if you know the Greeks inside and out, as my teacher did.

      The canon is necessary to teaching the origins of ideas and archetypes that appear in books and movies time and again. “Oh! So that’s why someone who guides you through life is called a ‘mentor.’ Because that was the guy’s name!”

      At the same time, a teacher tried to steer me from taking the science fiction class because it was intended for the slow-track kids who couldn’t handle Lysistrata. I still see no reason the college-bound, the trade school-bound, and the no-school bound would not have all enjoyed reading “The Marching Morons” or Earth Abides.

      I think a good teacher could combine the two. Have the kids read the Odyssey, and then recognize Dumbledore as Mentor. Just as the blind seers always saw what was going on, loony Luna Lovegood knows what’s up.

      I strenuously disagree; however, that Harry Potter should be read instead of the Odyssey. I already see far too many people who are adrift, not knowing where their ideas come from or unable to recognize an intellectual (or fictional) cliche when it’s staring them in the face.

      Children are natural narcissists, and the canon helps them to realize “they didn’t start the fire,” that the world existed prior to them, and that on a fundamental level there’s nothing new under the sun. I would not trade that knowledge for Harry Potter.

      • We read the canon in high school, but much of it was the Greek canon, with a jump to Shakespeare, with some Dante and Chaucer thrown in.

        I thought I didn’t like English class, but I loved all that stuff. Maybe I was already learning to be a fantasy writer and didn’t know it yet. Beowulf and Gilgamesh are pretty cool, too.

        • Agreed, I enjoyed Beowulf and Gilgamesh, too. I always thought of Shakespeare as the ultimate genre writer, since he did them all, even horror (Titus Andronicus). I always point to Shakespeare and Dante whenever I met people who questioned why I’d waste time reading/writing fantasy.

    • Yes, in High School, school boards are prone to dictate (to the teachers) what is to be taught. And yes, the students sometimes blame the teachers for it.

      The problem is that students come in assuming that’s what the teachers are going to do. Maybe they had one bad teacher, or maybe they just go with what they hear about on TV about what teachers do — but they assume motives on the part of the teachers that the teachers don’t have. They also seem to assume that teachers don’t have lives or interests like ordinary humans, that they somehow sleep under their desks and disapprove of everything students do.

      (I’ve met grown ups who are shocked to see a teacher at a Marvel movie, for instance. Or that they play a guitar or collect toys.)

      And that’s a part of the teacher’s job — to challenge the student’s prejudices, and open their minds to new things. Very often, the student didn’t realize it was happening, and never realized what the teacher was doing. They just think the teacher is a dork — but you can watch the student become more open to the next idea or person.

      And, of course, the best teachers can teach the canon such that it is as interesting as commercial fiction, and also use commercial fiction to teach literary principles. It really doesn’t make a difference which books they are teaching — it’s that they are teaching principles that change the way the students see the world.

      If you ever notice that sometimes the kids love a teacher who is cranky, strict and seems to have no social skills? When that happens, it’s usually because the teacher got them to see something they never saw before. Strangely enough, even teenagers love when that happens.

    • Also, why should you learn to eat vegetables? They’re icky.

      • You dress them up to make them palatable just like you do anything else that’s “good for you”. It’s the reason I prefer Flintstone’s chewables to any adult vitamin. 😀

  4. just a thought on education of the masses. It needs to be burnt to the ground and started over by seers and visionaries who are also down to earth. The cost of a degree with no job at the end of it, is outrageous. That people take loans to support a bloated admin of the colleges, is foisting usury on the students. It is unethical and immoral to decide curriculum and ‘you must study this c and that other c’ without full student input about what THEIR interests are, what they want to learn. College is not a holiday. It’s a course of immersion study for four long years and perhaps longer.It’s an intercultural exchange. But if it ill-prepared you for earning a wage in your areas of gifts and interests… it is no longer college for the students, but a bilge bag of money for the admins at university.

    I sympathize with the writer of the article not being trained sharply and in depth to be a TA. And also, it is clear principle in ‘marketing’… and college classes prob would be better off if teachers wondered and implemented what their consumer/students wanted and in depth, than thinking what the teacher digs is what everyone else should dig. Students are not there to be remade in the teacher’s image and ways of seeing the world. They are there to develop their gifts to the max. That is so elemental that there is no one size fits all for humans, so as to be amazing in one sense of the varigation amongst people… and shocking that one could not realize such. Even little children say, want to play? and then negotiate what they will play.

    The biggest huge humongous overlooked attribute of human’s in depth learning, by schools and unis, is that play is learning. In other words, the student arrives with energy and interest… they dont have to be forced to it by a teacher.

    I think teachers and librarians of such stalwart vision have hung the moon. But also, as in every profession, there are those who are there in a fantasy, ill trained for the realities of how people actually learn in many different ways. The gifted, and there are many gifted teachers… chafe against curriculum handed down from on high, or that inserted politically by lesser teachers who are the current darlings of admin, even though they are ambitious beyond ambition, cant hold a candle to teachers who truly see the spirit of learning and try hard to follow it within the confines of others’ bs. Just my 02

    • “The biggest huge humongous overlooked attribute of human’s in depth learning, by schools and unis, is that play is learning. In other words, the student arrives with energy and interest… they dont have to be forced to it by a teacher.”

      Yes yes yes yes yes!

      AND, nobody trusts that “in depth” learning is fun — kids are wired for it — so “dumbing down” the subject matter is not nearly as effective as going deeper and challenging them more.

      Yes, sometimes you have to slow down and teach them the skills to handle something, just as you you have to learn the rules and principles of a game before you can play it well. But that’s a very different thing than just giving a kid less to learn and then making them memorize it.

      • you said it better than I ever could Camille. Wise and pithy. All of it.

      • Even little children say, want to play? and then negotiate what they will play.

        So true. I remember being bored to tears through 6th grade. I learned far more at home, reading children’s classics voraciously and my father’s Scientific American issues. Finally, in 7th grade, the material began to be interesting and I started enjoying school.

        I’ve always loved learning, but not much learning took place in my early years of school.

  5. I’ve heard many English lit majors sing the praises of Henry James, but they are the only ones who read him.

    For my money, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote better.

    Why can we not accept that tastes differ and be glad that an author finds an audience, however small, however eccentric?

    • I think that the problem isn’t really taste, when it comes to teaching lit, but rather it has to do with generations and what gets studied at a higher level.

      Some things are worth studying that aren’t very entertaining. And worse, some things are so entertaining that nobody stopped to think they were worth studying. But in both cases taking it to a deeper level can really change your view of something. But James has been studied more, so it’s quicker and easier for an English major to get to a level to say “wow, I never would have noticed that!” Stevenson, on the other hand has some pretty amazing levels to him, but nobody bothers to look that deep — so they seldom get to the scholarly wow factor.

      (However, Stevenson IS studied and some people have got to that level. You just don’t see it much with undergrads.)

      The thing that bothers me in these conversations, though, is when people dismiss the scholarly interest factor. Different books really do have different levels of scholarly interest. And I’m not talking about the canon vs pop culture. It’t just that some books in every class of book have a higher re-readability factor. They have more to think about afterward. The best, IMHO, work on every level.

      (An example from movies: I feel Casablaca is the greatest movie of all time because it works as entertainment – a comedy, a pot-boiler,etc – as well as on all the scholarly and artistic levels. I understand why scholarly folks picked Citizen Kane as first – it is a real wow of a thinker’s movie – but imho, it doesn’t work on enough levels to be the greatest. Still both are sure bets in a film history class to win over students.)

  6. There’s a lot of teacher hate here. It’s not as simple as merely reading books that will interest the kids. From tenth grade on, the teacher is supposed to teach reading and writing as skills, as well as literature as historical artifact–sort of the greatest hits of American, British, and world literature. There’s obviously some disagreement about whether kids should be expected to become familiar with these ‘greatest hits’. I think it’s good for many reasons, but I won’t insist on it, because I can see the other side too.

    But as far as reading as a skill goes, it’s not enough to only give them the popular books that they might be interested in, because the majority of bestselling fiction, genre and otherwise, is written at a fifth to seventh grade reading level.

    Right now, most students who show up to college are two reading levels below where they ought to be, in large part because for the past fifty years text book publishers have been making their textbooks easier and easier to read. That’s a good thing, when it comes to students learning each particular subject, but it doesn’t develop necessary reading skills, which then falls to the English teacher.

    The English teacher has to assign texts that are slightly more complex than what the kids are used to reading. As someone who loves reading and wishes everybody would read more, I wish I could just assign what I think they would like. As a teacher at an underperforming school serving mostly lower-socioeconomic status students, I have to assign them things they probably won’t like, because a) they already very vocally hate reading, and b) their chances of success in this economy will depend in part on them developing their reading skills, which they will not do by reading The Hunger Games (upper fifth grade level) in the ninth grade.

    • It’s not a matter of assigning complex texts, but of assigning texts that are, quite frankly, boring, antiquated, and full of themselves. I use Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” often in these discussions but I stand by it as an example of the problems with English education. It was touted as one of the greatest works of the 20th century by the most influential tenured liberal arts professor on my campus and it doesn’t have anything going for it that can’t be found in an RL Stein teen horror novel.

      • But some of those “boring” books are boring because the students aren’t equipped to read them. (And not just in reading level — other foundational skills in analysis and thinking and familiarity with the background or certain kinds of information.)

        Kafka, for instance, is often badly taught, because very often even the teachers aren’t familiar with when he was being literal and realistic. Nowadays, when we come across something, say, unbelievably bureaucratic we say “It was downright Kafka-esque!” and nobody realizes that the world Kafka was writing in was actually really and literally Kafka-esque.

        I blame New Criticism for this — the New Critics liked to study the text based purely on the words, and thought that anything outside the text was irrelevant. But that leads to things like reading Kafka as more metaphoric than it is. And yeah, it’s bad horror if you read it totally on that level. But if you are familiar with the truth — or use it as a springboard to studying the truth — it suddenly becomes much more interesting.

        So yeah, I agree with you that Kafka is an example of what is wrong with modern education — but for a different reason.

      • The Metamorphosis was the worst. I hated every single word of it. Being forced to read (and appreciate! Or else I was a failure in life!) something like that which goes so extremely against my interests and enjoyment was what I hated the most about formal English education.

        • Being forced to read may be part of the problem. There’s a lot of things I hated reading in high school that I later discovered I liked. Having to read it when you’d rather do something else can go a long way toward ruining a book. I don’t know any way around that, though.

      • Leaving aside the question of whether The Metamorphosis has anything going for it that Goosebumps doesn’t, it requires much more advanced reading skills, at least in vocabulary and sentence complexity. The Metamorphosis is written at an eleventh grade level, while R.L. Stine’s books range from third to sixth grade. That alone doesn’t make it a better book, but it does make it a more appropriate choice for assigned reading in high school or college.

    • John F, I’m sorry you perceive the comments here as teacher hate. From a parent’s POV, it’s frustration with an antiquated methodology. If you are able to select the texts to teach your students, then fabulous!

      However, that’s not the case in most high schools and colleges. I saw the frustration in my son’s teachers when they were forbidden upon surety of termination from deviating even the slightest from the state mandated curriculum. And frankly, the Texas BOE are nucking futs.

      My son decided (on his own) to take Latin this year in order to read Julius Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul in the original language. It all started with a potty humor joke about the Emperor Commodus when he was nine.

      Maybe The Hunger Games is the way to lead students to something more complex since it is based on Greek mythology. No one wants to find the connection to engage today’s students.

      • It’s true that the state departments cause a lot of trouble, especially in Texas. Here in Arkansas, the ADE wants to implement every innovation immediately, without giving the students a chance to catch up. I guess it’s because we’ve been behind in education for so long. Theoretically, I have some degree of freedom in what I teach, within certain parameters (tenth grade is world lit), but the district doesn’t have funds for new books. I’m stuck with what they have.

      • good points Suzan. Nothing better than observing and preserving your child’s learning spirit. Keep on.

        If I had it to do over again, no matter what it took, I would home school. I can see that school public systems of educating ‘the masses’ have lost their ways by not changing with the times; the industrial revo is DEAD… and blaming the children and parents for the enormous drop out rate is in most cases an interesting projection that carries no accountability in those who have failed to hold the learning attention of the children when young.

        Dont tell me, I well know about children come to school without food, with dinners of Doritos. Too, children of those adults whose lives are mayhem and yet, no ill circumstance ought deprive any child of learning that is compelling to the child. In little one nearly without exception, one can see the curiousity, the discovery impulse, the deep desire to DO and to KNOW. The toy industry is complicit in mockery of children by giving fake means instead of real ones to learn the crafts of the hands for instance, sewing, cooking, building. C. colored plastic toys that cannot fire imagination as the actual, supervised, can do.

        No child should be bored for years on end and that be called ‘education.’ No, it is training to join a uniformity, to be willing to accept boring jobs, for one is already steeped in twelve fn years of boredom and being forced to behave in certain ways, produce in certain ways. NO. That was the way of the graft kings of our world; carnegie, mellow, rockefeller and more. They wanted no imaginative creators, no inventors, no artists, no innovation unless copyrights/patents/owenership were squatted on by them. They wanted workers who would shut up and work at unfair wages in rank conditions, and be uniform– and LOYAL for the crumbs.

        We are long long past that. It is no wonder that there are dropouts. Many are right on; they are enraged at the prremises they are made to bow to. They do not want to be shacked to a desk and be told to perform according to others’ sights. Who would? And there is no net to help them once they drop out that is geared toward them as souls, minds, spirits, bodies and hearts.

        In public schools across the country, in the poorest of the poor in Mississippi for instance, in BedSty, in the richest of the rich Exeter prep, the fads re education that have been foisted on children by the latest unsolid and ineffective idea [of teaching how to read, dont get me started] is shameful. Shameful.

        THERE IS NO EXCUSE that all day and every day in preschool should not be geared toward, via many avenues of the senses, teaching the children to read. AND WELL. FIRST AND FOREMOST, to read, to write one sentence after another– is so BASIC to stopping the arterial severances via dropping out of school later, I think those who push children from grade to grade are guilty of spiritual crimes, KNOWING the children cannot read well, and piling on more and more texts that have to be READ, causing the child to fall behind.

        Mass education? Let the children find their own interests and be taught by those true teachers, which are legion. Get the government out of the classroom; ruling learning environs by committee instead of according the gifts of each child, come from the idea of making slaves, nice slaves who wont notice because they have a car, crushing mortgage and student loans, but look they have a new car and a degree. Slavery comes in many forms, and is most easily foisted on those who are raised up in some way, while being vastly stolen from in others, Ya basta.

        Those who want uniformity to control the ‘masses’ can go buy widgets by the pallet. I want our children to be civil, know civics, help others and develop their talents and be able to READ well and NEVER again be passed from grade to grade without the heart of learning: READING

        forgive me, i was one of the ones passed over, unable to read well because of undiagnosed learning challenges. It was torture, daily torture. The years of school and torture. It’s own gulag for children like us. There were many of us. And no one came to help when we cried out. No one.

        I’ll say it again and keep saying it; there are millions of gifted teachers, dedicated, across the world. To me those teachers hang the moon. But also there are also as many and more who go along to get along, and who cant wait for retirement and are what in the military we call ROD, retired while still on duty.

        I still hope for a cadre of teachers to step out, gird up and break down every faux premise about education, not waiting for all school superintendents to be enlightened [fat chance], instead of deadbrained Pols who are issuing paybacks to their ‘true constituents’ meaning the rich and the connected– and attempting to graduate students without ALSO busting the student loan debt racket… graduate into college, hurray, but dont look at the debt you saddle the young with. Slavery by another name .

        The issues in schools are very much like those in trad publishing, I think, for what it’s worth: elitism, gatekeeping by whim, high paid topsters, slaves [authors] at the bottom feeding the kudzu and being grateful for having to give 92% of their books’ earnings to the topsters.

        If authors are waking up and taking charge, I wish there were a way for teachers too also wake up and take down the ill-founded system of preparing student for a lifetime of debt, instead of a life time of gifts with restraints on debt.. Except there is no AMZ yet, for teachers…

        • Get the government out of the classroom; ruling learning environs by committee instead of according the gifts of each child, come from the idea of making slaves…

          I wish we didn’t have factory education. Factory education steamrollers the individual child: “you will learn via the process we follow, because that is all we offer.” I hate that. I think education should be an artisanal process, with each child’s path geared to that individual child.

          Even as a parent, I feel like dealing with the institution of public education is like waltzing with the elephant. So easy to get stomped flat.

    • They will not develop reading skills by reading The Hunger Games? They need to read things harder than that to be successful in the economy?

      Bull effing shiz.

      The Hunger Games, Twilight and Harry Potter are the greatest hits of American, Brittish and world literature.

      Yes, it is as simple as giving students things they would like to read. The alternative being they don’t read. Ever.

      We aren’t blaming you though. You aren’t making the decisions. Being screwed over by administrative micromanagers is surely the problem.

      I’m not hating on the teacher so much as the system. I don’t know how teachers do it. I’ve taught in high schools and was shocked I couldn’t kick the stoned kids out of my class. 50% day care, 50% bureaucratic nightmare.

      My family is LDS and home schools, I was mainstreamed. I didn’t get why we homeschooled until I went back as an adult and taught a short stint (street law, 8 weeks, nothing really). With over 100 first cousins we are beating the average on college admissions tests by a mile. And we read all the fun stuff. Read the Hobbit in 4th grade and and again at 17. Great fun to compare!

      No hate John F. Just frustration. Not at you though. It’s like when people hate on lawyers (me), it’s not that they really hate lawyers even if they think they do, they are really hating the system. Teachers and lawyers, we just work here.

      • So basically, Uncle Jo (and many others apparently), you are advocating teaching in literature classes only things that students already know and enjoy ?

        I wonder what kind of results you would get if you applied this principle in the other fields of education in high school : maths, chemistry, history… The curriculum would be indeed quite a bit shortened.

        Thank you John F. for your voice of reason.

        You can’t progress without being challenged.

        • You can’t challenge without engagement. The primary problem is the initial engagement. Holding a kid down and shoving “good” literature down her throat is a guaranteed way to make her throw it back up.

          There’s nothing wrong with starting with the familiar, like Harry Potter. Break it apart, show the student the archtypes and themes, then work backwards to the unfamiliar, like The Once and Future King, Tristan and Isolde and The Odyssey.

          As for comparing some of the other disciplines? Basic math and science is not subject to interpretation. 2 + 2 is always going to equal 4. Two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom are always going to form one molecule of water. Neither is open to the subjective criticism/analysis of the teacher (except for certain groups, which I’m so NOT getting into here on TPV).

          • When I was a small boy my mother forced me to read the entire Little House on the Prairie series of books as a way to get me to love reading. It, quite simply, failed catastrophically. From the age of 8 to about 12 I refused to pick up another book for fear that I would despise it as much as I did those books.

            Then in 6th grade my math teacher told us a story out of The Odyssey and, when I seemed interested, gave me her copy of the book to read on my own time. That book, more than any other, taught me that the written word could be education and entertaining. From there I discovered a whole slew of YA novels and by the time I was in 8th grade I was reading Tolkein, Sagan, and Asimov at a prodigious rate.

            I fell in love with reading because I found a story I could relate to and that I enjoyed. This was just before the advent of the web so these were, outside of my educational textbooks, my only interactions with the written word. If it weren’t for them I quite simply wouldn’t be a reader.

            I found the book that was my key to the world of fiction. Many kids don’t, and I blame that entirely on our elitist obsession with making them read high brow literary dreck they’re either not ready for or, more often, that was never entertaining to begin with.

            A clever turn of phrase or poetic use of grammar doesn’t make most people fall in love with the written word. When you make reading a burden you can’t be surprised when people give it up the first chance they can.

            • Finding the book is the problem. Some people love Little House on the Prairie. Some people love The Metamorphosis. Some people think The Odyssey is high brow literary dreck that they shouldn’t have been forced to read.

              No book that is still read 100 or more years later ‘was never entertaining to begin with.’ I hate Henry James. I’ve tried and tried but I’ve never been able to like him. I don’t say though that no one really likes him, they just pretend to. I don’t say that people who like him are elitists looking down on the rest of us, because I know people who like him who aren’t scholars, just readers. He has something that some people like. I can’t see it, but I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

              To deal with that some, I am requiring my students a certain amount of outside reading that is their choice. Hopefully they’ll find something they like. But, to conduct class (and satisfy the state) I also have to assign major works from certain regions of the world that we all read. It will be less fun for them than the reading they do on their own, but it’s necessary, if only to have a common book to discuss in class.

              • there’s the wounding to the teachers, the hobbling of their own creative ideas “To satisfy the state.”

                Something must be done about that unagreed-to contraint. It is truly like trad publishing that called all the shots until there were alternatives

                I teach at university and also to mid career professionals and also as visiting writer/ artist in residence to grade and high schools. What shackles the teachers tell me they are constrained by — make them weep and rail privately, and without cease. I hope it can be en masse and public some day. Teachers unions as per public perception, are about pay and bennies and job protection. I know it is far more than that. A civil rights arm. I wish, for I know a divided house must fail… that one cannot well serve two masters. The state has its nose in woman’s health, but not men’s health. It has its nose in how we will educate children, but not educate parents in what the h the state is actually doing to their children. We have the state saying certain teachers must teach to this test and that test, without the administrators being tested for what they know about actual human beings. I wish you the best John. Keep truckin’.

                • ^What USAF said.

                  John, I don’t envy you your job. The state ties your hands. It’s difficult enough to find the trigger for one kid. You have entire classrooms where you’re trying to inspire students and juggle the idiotic requirements of the state. Teaching isn’t like manufacturing widgets, but you’re put in that position to treat it as such. It sounds like you’re doing your best to be something more to your students. Best wishes to you.

      • Thank you. Kids need to be challenged. That’s my whole point, said more simply than I was able to.

      • I’m not hating on the teacher so much as the system. I don’t know how teachers do it.

        True. Dealing with the unweildy system of education makes me crazy, but my children have had some brilliant and amazing teachers. I don’t know how they do it either, with so many constraints, so little support for bringing out the best within each child. But they do it. I am in awe!

    • “But as far as reading as a skill goes, it’s not enough to only give them the popular books that they might be interested in, because the majority of bestselling fiction, genre and otherwise, is written at a fifth to seventh grade reading level.”

      I once banned the use of any punctuation other than a period. The clarity and effectiveness of the department’s business writing immediately improved.

      • I don’t know, that block quoted section seems perfectly clear to me. Of the four commas used I can only see one that I, personally, would have avoided. I don’t know where the rule against “gratuitous commas” came from but I’ve always felt it originated in people that couldn’t tell the difference between a soft pause and a hard stop.

        If punctuation is a means of conveying information in a clear fashion how can using it to also convey the cadence of delivery be bad?

        • Interesting. Here it is heavily edited for some commas and stuff that don’t make sense without no commas.

          “As far as reading as a skill goes it’s not enough to only give them the popular books that they might be interested in. The majority of bestselling fiction is written at a fifth to seventh grade reading level. Genre and otherwise.”

          • IMNSHO the edited example is choppy, less engaging, and contains one sentence fragment and a sentence that doesn’t feel complete.

            So mileage, as ever, varies. As for me, you’ll get my barrel of commas over my dead body.

      • I often take too long to get to a period. It’s something I have to watch out for in editing.

    • What John F says makes sense to me.

      I have to say that while I’m extremely frustrated with my local elementary and middle schools (don’t get me started or I will HULK SMASH), I rather like the high school, at least their AP curriculum. My 10th grader was assigned 3 books for summer reading. These were: “War is a Force that Gives us Meaning” by Chris Hedges, “A History of the World in Six Glasses” by Tom Standage, and “The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin. (If anyone is bothered by the Darwin choice, note that my son had a long list of books to choose from and picked that one.) And that’s just the summer stuff. Most of the kids are delighted by the 6 glasses book in particular; there has been a lot of chatter about it.

      I know that’s the AP curriculum and therefore we’re talking about kids who are already strong readers. I admit I’m not sure what the best strategy is for kids who hate reading and will struggle with material that’s above their reading level. But I’d hate to see my son assigned “The Hunger Games” (which he’s already read multiple times) instead of this far more meaty stuff.

  7. The ‘art’ of literary criticism developed as curriculum only in the past 150 yrs and is already passé IMO.
    We are all writers – what are these analysts going to say about our books when they use a Marxist filter, or a Checkovian framework?
    I’ve always rejected lit crit because I know what’s behind my writing and it’s not what they think.
    Hell, Dickens wrote to put food on the table – his stories had to be entertaining and realistic to achieve that- not because he had a desire to change society via whatever some eng lit major can dream up.
    I think kids see that this way of studying books is a lie.
    They would be better served being encouraged to read & share their reading matter & think about it.

    • many of us dont want no stinkin’ lit crit. Life is to be lived by deeper standards than opining in a book about another book. Authors can speak for themselves. Far more candidly and in depth than someone selfsppointed.

      On the shelves of the local book review mag office, are thousands of books that reviewers can sort through to choose to review in print. The shelf containing the lit crit, is NEVER touched. NOT once.

      And you are insightful Christine: “I think kids see that this way of studying books is a lie.” Yes. and more yes.

  8. I probably should add the authors of lit crit are not the point, to me. They likely are just as dedicated as any other writer. My point is that living authors have so much to say, just given a venue, that is so interesting. Let the living authors who wish to, speak for themselves and give them the venues to do so, instead of relegating it to second and third order sources. First order, the living author is going to be the most of the most.

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