Sunday, January 06, 2008

Teaching literature

Dr. Crazy recently wrote an interesting post on her reasons for teaching literature,. Unlike those of the panelists, her working-class students don't necessarily assume that reading is a pleasurable act(a given for the panelists), and, in addition to teaching reasoning and reading skills, she sees one part of her mission as giving them the tools for upward class mobility.

Another response to the MLA panel on "Professing Literature" is the one in the Chronicle:
“The scholar-driven professional model is becoming obsolete,” [Elizabeth Renker] said, giving way to “a bottom-up model in which the power resides with the students,” much the way sites like Wikipedia and citizen-journalism have democratized the publishing of scholarship and information. “Student desires will preside,” she said. “The question for us is whether we decide to treat them as invisible.”

These two approaches aren't antithetical, but they do propose some different directions. We do need to take student desires into account, as Renker says, but to ignore that the "power," however invisibly wielded, resides with an elite with a set of rules of its own is to do a disservice to students, as Dr. Crazy points out. Class exists in this country, and Larry the Cable guy or his academic equivalent, however brilliant he or she may be, is never going to be president of Harvard.

There's a problem in saying that people can simply follow their own "bottom-up," Wikipedia-model tastes: such a standard sets its own invisible test, wherein if you share the values of Henry James (or his modern equivalent) you're assumed to have good taste, but if not, you fail the test. "Natural" good taste or critical judgment is something of a fiction. People may have a greater or lesser degree of critical discernment, but it's an artifact of learning, of the person's perceptiveness, rather than a "natural" attribute. In a way, learning about literature is like learning about wine. You can say all you want about individuals having their own "taste," but if you say you like Boone's Farm or Mad Dog 20/20 better than Pétrus, people are going to form their own opinion about your ability to judge quality. This makes us wine stewards, in a way: in addition to opening their eyes to the beauties of literature and all that, we're educating literary palates so that students can choose intelligently on their own.

I think we're mistaken if we don't think they understand this. Over the break, when hanging out with family members I got roped into watching a couple of episodes each of shows that I don't usually see, America's Next Top Model and Project Runway. What struck me, besides the direct, even brutal, quality of the criticism given, was that the young designers/models understood very well how the whole judgment of taste worked. They knew that the people judging them had expertise in the field they hoped to enter, and that the critiques were designed to open their eyes to standards that they (the aspiring models or designers) weren't aware existed. They knew that despite their "I've got to be me" individuality, they'd have to meet challenges and standards if they wanted to succeed. In short, they understood that they didn't know all the rules but could see the benefit of being taught what those rules were, because ultimately that knowledge would benefit them later as they progressed in their profession. That seems to me as good an explanation as any for what we'd like our students to understand about what we're doing, and what they're doing, when we meet in the classroom.


Cero said...

I find it's the middle class students who want to do the bottom up sort of thing, and study television rather than Shakespeare.

The working class ones say they have already had enough television and intellectual DIY, and they came to college to get some scholarship, please.

Alison said...

I'm in a different western country, so its hard to compare the class divide with the U.S. but there is a bit of bottom-up education going on here. An example might be the high school English exit exams including phone messages as a text for analysis.

But where you comment on the reality of people subscribing to an authoritative leader in a field - as in, we listen to our uni lecturer and what they promote because they know what they're on about - I think there is some validity in apply these skills developed in traditional lit analysis to popular culture, if only to create discerning consumers.

undine said...

That's interesting, cero. I've had a few reactions like that, along the lines of "we know there are classics, and we want to know about them" from students. Mine came from more traditionally middle-class students--more conservative, maybe?

alison, thanks for giving the perspective from a different country. I think a lot of pedagogical theory in the U.S. has worked toward deemphasizing the idea that university lecturers know what they're talking about and discourage lecturing. However, when the students fill out evals, they often say something like "I'd like to hear more lectures from the instructor instead of having group discussions." I think studying traditional lit analysis is, as you say, a good way to learn how to critique popular culture, and it's less fraught with problems, too, when students' fondness for some texts might get in the way of critical judgment. That's not as much of an issue when they're not as knowledgeable about/invested in a text, like a classic text.