The Art in Teaching the Literature Instead of the Literature’s Art

Teachers need to give their students credit. This is the first lesson in teaching I learned on the job, but for whatever reason, one that escapes many fellow teachers and college professors.

I am reminded of an essay I wrote my first year of university in my Introduction to English 1000 class. It was about the patriarchal society in The Vicar of Wakefield (the bane of my literary existence), and how I struggled to identify with its themes as a contemporary feminist.

It was also my professor’s favorite novel. Of all time.

I got an F.

The essay wasn’t that bad. Sure, there were some grammatical errors, some formatting issues, but on a fundamental, novice post-secondary, level the paper was OK, maybe a low B or high C. At least that is what the other three professors said when I asked them for another opinion.

On that fateful marking day I was faced with the most important lesson I would learn as a Red pencil marking an F on paper close up. Image shot 2009. Exact date unknown.university student (and one I would avoid as a teacher): contrary to popular belief, a student’s opinion is not always welcome in a classroom, and how a teacher teaches is the difference between a pass and a fail.

Northwestern Fellow, Gary Saul Morson, thinks that the teaching of literature is the very reason why so many current university students are avoiding it. I am inclined to agree. In his article, “Why College Kids are Avoiding the Study of Literature,” Morson makes a number of compelling arguments for his theory.

First, teachers need to approach their lessons from the perspective of a student who knows nothing about the very subject that the teacher knows absolutely everything about. I can attest that once you allow your own mind to be engaged, and dare I say, changed, if only for a millisecond, you will garner the respect of your students and, in turn, they will allow themselves to be engaged by you.

Next, if you want your students to appreciate a sense of time and place, don’t make the book only about the setting. Let the setting be accentuated by the reader’s experience, first with the characters, then by the awe of the times. As Morson points out, if you really want to hit home about the hard times workers endured in Victorian England, a short factory inspectors report would be a lot more revealing than a lengthy novel by Dickens.

This brings me to my last point: let the students connect to the stories in their own way.

If you are teaching a book only to teach its syntactical elements and figurative language then forget about it. Crickets are already chirping. Stories need to matter to the reader; even the novice student who doesn’t understand the term “protagonist” has to identify with the bare bones of the story. One way to do this is to emphasize the empathy and the human factor of a narrative, then the elements of fiction will follow. I actually gasped out loud at the passage about the professor who admitted that he tells his students never to read the characters as real people. Why on earth would you expect anyone to spend any amount of time with any character if the suspension of disbelief could not allow the reader to see through the characters eyes, to feel their pain, to love as passionately, and to live implicitly? Why teach literature at all?!

A reader must be allowed a personal experience with a story, even one that does not conform to the teacher’s own agenda or point of view. Sadly, many students will learn that there is often only one way of approaching a paper, only one possible analysis of a poem, and a right and a wrong thesis statement.

In my own class I preface each course by assuring students that I am open to any and all narrative interpretations, so long as they can prove their arguments thoroughly. As a result, I read wonderfully creative and insightful takes on the literature I love,  the literature I believe I am an expert on. How wonderful it is to realize that, maybe in the end, I am not an expert at all. The beauty of literature is that there is just so much to learn!

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke

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