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 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

High Literature – the comics addition: Fun Home

James Joyce’s seminal post-modernist masterpiece, Ulysses, has been collecting dust on my bedside table for five years. Occasionally it changes location from under the lamp to the top of the pile, but there it remains, spine un-cracked, pages pristine, metaphors and ambiguities unearthed- unread.

I can hear the guffaws of my peers in the literary community as I type this. That strange comic book reader calls herself an English graduate?! Blasphemy!

I am a fraud.

My entire degree in English literature is a lie because, not only have I not read Ulysses, I don’t really want to.

imageAt least I didn’t, until a comic book changed my mind.

I was late getting around to Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical, Fun Home. In fact, I was late getting around to autobiographical comics, in general. When I did, Fun Home didn’t pull at my inner historian’s curiosity like Maus, nor did it make me want to self-evaluate my own anxieties like Marbles. Like UlyssesFun Home was a book I knew I should read, a contemporary classic (a game-changer in the world of comics), but I was in no hurry to pick it up, and it took me years, collecting dust on the shelf below Joyce.

Now, I guffaw at myself.

 Fun Home just may be the most important comic I have ever read, but not for the connections I made with the characters. I have very little in common with Alison, the young protagonist who comes of age in a home devoid of outwardly affection, who watches her parent’s marriage deteriorate behind a velvet facade, brought up in a house that is both staged for beauty and death. Sure, I cheered for her as she reached her milestones and personal enlightenment, I joined her on her quest for identity, but the connection to the character was not what kept me up reading all night. I was connected, instead, to what sustained her.

Bechdel’s intimate relationship with English literature is enviable and, I would argue,  the crux of her book. This is where she got me. Hook, line and sinker; the way to a literature junkie’s heart (even one that hasn’t read Ulysses) is through reference and allusion. I could not relate to Alison’s plights and conflicts, but I could relate to the way she engaged with books to get her through each major event in her life. Like her, I lost myself to works such as The Importance of Being EarnestThe Taming of the ShrewAn Ideal HusbandThe Wind in the Willows, The Great Gatsby, and poetry by Wallace Stevens. Here was a protagonist, an author, pulled between her love of great literature and her desire to live in a world of comics- such is my plight!!!

I could’t put Fun Home down. In the panels of a graphic memoir I saw my own reflection- someone filled to the brim with literary passion, but someone who did not quite belong. A poet and a comic. An essayist and artist. I may not have seen myself in her story, but there I was front and centre in the medium.

Fun Home has broken barriers across genres, has incited discussion for gender identification and sexual orientation. It has shed light on the secrets between family and the darkness of both life and death. But for me, much more simply, it has validated my love of reading, most especially my love of reading comics.

As my foray with Fun Home came to an end I realized Bechdel likened herself and her father to the two main characters in James Joyce’s Ulysses. For the first time, ever, I had the urge to read Ulysses, not because it belongs in the pantheon of books I am supposed to read, but because the characters suddenly became real to me. Joyce didn’t do this. Alison Bechdel did. Not a seminal novel, a graphic one. But hey, no matter the medium that is what a good book does; it encourages a reader to read on, read more, and read unabashedly. It is time to dust off Ulysses. Fun Home, on the other hand, will never collect dust again.

By Leigha Chiasson-Locke    @ldchiasson17