Friday, September 27, 2013

The relatability factor

The Little Professor has a nicely argued, well-bred rant about how "relatability" is supposed by her students to be a core literary value. She raises the issue of David Gilmour, who has had his head handed to him by the media for this:
I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.
So, no chick lit and no George Eliot, though as several commenters pointed out, he glides lightly over all the Proust on his shelves in his category of "serious heterosexual guys," boasting about how many times he's read Proust and the hours he's logged listening to audiobook versions.

I teach and have written on a lot of "real guy-guys," too, yet I am not in a Manliness Studies department because for me, relatability  is not THE point but A point. It's one to be made when you're trying to convert students from "I liked it/It sucked" reading judgments to something more substantial: critical thinking.

I get what he's saying about loving some writers and not others. Like our students, we find some authors more "relatable"--but the difference is, we don't stop there. It's my job, as I see it, to find value in literature and to find some "way in" to teach it, to find something to get excited about so that I can  honestly convey some of that to students.

As instructors, we always have something more to learn, and if we're closed off to that, either in what students can teach us or in what a piece of literature that we don't automatically like can do for us, we're not learning.  We're stuck in our own brains. We start pontificating instead of listening and learning.

Gilmour may be an inspired teacher, but if your "truly great literature" circle maps 95% onto "middle-aged white men" in a Venn diagram (exception: Virginia Woolf), you may want to think about how that affects the way your students are shaping their literary judgments.


Spanish prof said...

Gilmour is probably a complete jerk. That being said, as a professional I teach both things I have to teach and things I love. This semester, I am teaching Garcia Marquez's "No One Writes the Colonel" in one course, and Paco Ignacio Taibo II (Mexican crime fiction) on another. Garcia Marquez is the "have to" teach author. Taibo, although it is crime fiction, is not easy for the students (pure Mexican slang).

Maybe I am not a great professional, but my lack of enthusiasm for Garcia Marquez seems to translate into the students. I am diligent, prep every class, etc, but they just didn't get into the text. With Taibo it was the complete opposite. I've had the most amazing discussions, the students have impressive insights into the novel, the enthusiasm was there. In fact, a student tattooed a quote from the novel on her arm and showed it to me proudly! She explained how it had resonated with her and had put into words certain personal issues she had been having this past years

sophylou said...

Speaking as a historian, Gilmour's argument that you should only teach what you love is... um... problematic. I mean, yes, passion is good, but I also would need to teach people about things I don't love, stuff like oh, coverture, slavery, robber barons, McCarthyism (I once had a student accuse me of approving of McCarthyism because I was describing what it involved. Huh?)

It seems to me that it should be about the instructor loving the field (i.e. a love for literature, for history, etc.) rather than only teaching the aspects of it that they happen to love. At least, for something intended to be a survey.

nicoleandmaggie said...

I teach stuff I find boring too (taxes, various accounting exercises, etc.), because it's important. If it weren't important and it was boring, then I wouldn't teach it. Maybe it's even more obvious in something sequential like math or economics why you still have to teach things that don't light your personal fire. Otherwise we'd all be teaching specialized upper-level electives and nobody would know the basics.

undine said...

Spanish prof--That's an impressive level of impact--a tattoo! It sounds as though they have more of an intellectual connection (if at all) with Garcia Marquez but both kinds with Paco Ignacio Taibo II.

sophylou--I agree. There's also something of privilege in that attitude "I can teach what I love and the rest of you lesser minds have to teach what I don't care to."

nicoleandmaggie--"Because it's important"--exactly. Not everything you learn or teach can be fun, and there's a lesson in that for the students, too (basics and electives being an example).

Anonymous said...

"I once had a student accuse me of approving of McCarthyism because I was describing what it involved. Huh?"

A contact of mine who teaches a medieval survey at a deep-south US university complains that she regularly gets both congratulated and taken to task by her students for her defence of Catholicism. She was at her wits' end about it: people in the Middle Ages were Catholic! What can I do? and so on.

undine said...

tenthmedieval, that's a little alarming that the students can't make that historical distinction.

undine said...

I meant to add--in this area, younger students (not university age) will ask if an author was Christian OR Catholic, which they see as mutually exclusive. To echo sophylou: huh?