INTRO: Renee Harris, Emily Zarka, and Daniel Nutters will focus their roundtable discussion on pedagogy around two essays by Mark Edmundson included in his recent book Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education. The essays are entitled “The English Major” and “Teaching the Truths” and were previously published in The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 29th, 2013) and Raritan (23.1) respectively.
While Why Teach? contains a polemic against the bureaucratization of education and the corporate logic of professionalism that governs academia, it also offers a vision of a “real education” that rests upon many assumptions inherent to what we now call “romantic ideology.” What makes this book, and especially the two essays we will consider, such an appropriate text to consider for a roundtable on pedagogy on the NASSR Graduate Student Caucus blog is the manner in which it demonstrates the continued relevance of such highly charged categories as “genius,” “imagination,” “truth,” and all the motifs of a “natural secular” theology of art. At the core of Edmundson’s thinking is not just a familiar and clichéd humanist vision, but one that has survived the culture wars (see Edmundson’s edited volume Wild Orchids and Trotsky), the apparent anti-humanist theory (or as he puts it anti-literature philosophy) of the 1970s and 1980s (see his Literature Against Philosophy). Absorbing these consequential intellectual events has allowed Edmundson to assess our current academic scene and argue for a vision of education that builds upon his own experience of the changes witnessed and occurring in higher education.
BIOS: Daniel Nutters is a PhD candidate in the English at Temple University. He is working on a dissertation entitled: The Man of Imagination: Transformations of Romanticism in Late Henry James and teaches classes on the European and American literature and art from the long 19th century. Emily Zarka is a PhD student in English at Arizona State University. Her research focuses on representations of the undead in Romantic literature. Emily teaches introductory level writing classes, and will be teaching a literature and film class of her own design this fall entitled “The Evolution of the Female Monster.” Renee Harris is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Kansas. She is working on a dissertation entitled: Reading Keats: Sociability and the Work of Affect. She frequently teaches introductory courses in poetry, and she is currently teaching the second half of KU’s British Literature survey.
DANIEL: I want to begin with a pedagogical hero of mine whose prognostication about the “The Uncertain Future of the Humanistic Educational Ideal” seems to cast a shadow over the context of Mark Edmundson’s work. In a very late essay bearing the aforementioned title, and published around the time of his death, Lionel Trilling expresses his belief that the “humanistic educational ideal” has reached its limit in a post-1968 academic environment. For Trilling this ideal necessarily rests on some variation of Bildung: whether we conceive of it in the more philosophical sense of German Romantic-Idealism (Goethe’s Beautiful Soul or Schiller’s Aesthetic Education), in terms of Keatsian soul-making, Nietzsche’s call to make our lives a work of art, or simply the assumption that we study works of art to learn how to live. A humanist education, in other words, presupposes the notion that literature and art contain the necessary ingredients for shaping our lives. But as Trilling witnessed on his own campus in the late 1960s, American students were beginning to see humanism as an overt denial of their right to autonomy. Professing Arnold’s “best which has been thought and said” was a way of preventing students from choosing for themselves what was best. In Trilling’s eyes, an awareness of the disciplinary effects of the “humanistic educational ideal” engendered the counter-culture the 1960s and 1970s and would begin the slow erosion – for back of a better word – of tradition.
Considering my love for Trilling’s critical genius and his insight into the relationship between literature, culture, and society, his prediction failed to see how the resistance to a culturally elite tradition or a specific, pre-ordained, top-down, and teleological understanding of self-fashioning could still exist after the removal of that structuring authority and particular telos. Here is what Trilling predicated:
The desire to fashion, to shape, a self and a life has all but gone from a contemporary culture whose emphasis, paradoxically enough, is so much on self. If we ask why this has come about, the answer of course involves us in a giant labor of social history. But there is one reason which can be readily isolated and which I think, explains much. It is this: if you set yourself to shaping a self, a life, you limit yourself to that self and that life. You preclude any other kind of selfhood remaining available to you. You close out other options, other possibilities which might have been yours. Such limitations, once acceptable, now goes against the cultural grain – it is almost as if the fluidity of the contemporary world demands an analogous limitlessness in our personal perspective. Any doctrine, that of the family, religion, the school, that does not sustain this increasingly felt need for multiplicity of options and instead offers an ideal of a shaped self, a formed life, has the sign on it of a retrograde and depriving authority, which, it is felt, must be resisted.
The modern individual’s need for multiplicity is a theme that pervades Edmundson’s work, especially his diagnosis of our contemporary educational environment (see the essays “Liberal Arts & Lite Entertainment” and “Dwelling in the Possibilities”). However, as both the essays addressed to colleges students (of which “The English Major” is an example) and the essays addressed to teachers (here we’ve chosen “Teaching the Truths”) suggest, the humanist ideal actually realizes its full potential once it begins to accommodate what Trilling once described as “variousness and possibility” (see his Preface to The Liberal Imagination).
When Edmundson critiques the University Inc. he describes how our need to cultivate and consume as many experiences as possible, our desire to be in total command, and, more aptly, our wish to multitask in every arena of life, can potentially prevent us from attaching meaning and value to those experiences and to our lives (see his essay “When ‘Awesome’ Isn’t Enough”). This seems to be the future direction of education that Trilling anticipates. Yet when Edmundson begins to describe the unfulfilled possibilities of a humanistic ideal, he speaks to the ways in which literature can satisfy that desire for multiplicity. “Real reading is reincarnation,” he writes, because it allows us to live over and over again in the lives of the texts we inhabit. Reading, to borrow Trilling’s phrase, allows us to access the “limitlessness in our personal perspective.” It makes us aware of the language that authorizes our inchoate self and also, in turn, gives us the tools to begin claiming our own authority. To use rather than be used, to create rather than be produced, as Edmundson puts it: “Some of us speak, others are spoken.”
What Edmundson calls teaching the truths (emphasis on the plural) is not some menial universal or transcendent truth, but rather the multifarious truths contained in works of art. Literature magnifies Melville’s dictum: “Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges.” This is, Edmundson will surely admit, a highly subjective process. Although his writing champions Emerson, my own personal experience with the America’s sage makes me view his latent nationalist agenda, lack of a sociological imagination, as well as his inadequate response to the death of Waldo (“I grieve that grief can teach me nothing”) as a philosophy to be rejected. For me, personally, as an individual reader, Emerson does not speak the truth, while on the other hand his offspring Nietzsche does… however ironic it might seem to call Nietzsche truthful. Nonetheless both figures offer what Edmundson describes as a “number of possibly usable human visions of experience.” Exposing our students to as many as possible is at the center of why we teach and it involves enabling “human beings [to] attempt to come to terms with who they are and who they wish to be [through] the most effective medium [of] verbal [literature since it is] through words [that] we represent ourselves to ourselves, we expand our awareness of the world, we step back, gain distance, on what it is we’ve said.”
This expansion, stepping back, and distance is what I always think of as a vision of Romantic irony that does not end in Schlegel’s “infinite absolute negativity” or Paul de Man’s “permanent parabasis.” It is what David Bromwich recently called the moral imagination: “the power that compels us to grant the highest possible reality and the largest conceivable claim to a thought, action, or person that is not our own, and not close to us in any obvious way” (see The Moral Imagination: Essays) or what Peter Brooks describes as reading as an immersion in the destructive principle (see his “Misunderstanding the Humanities”) whereby our subjectivity obliterates itself only to begin the process of reconstruction.
The kind of pedagogy offered by Edmundson and these other critics relies on almost all of the statutes of Romanticism as they evolve throughout history: including, of course its Biblical analogues and Victorian, Modernist, and Postmodern variations. In Trilling’s pessimistic view, many of his Columbia students would mature into the opponents of humanism within the academy: the so-called critique of Romantic-Modernist-Aesthetic-Ideology, in all of its variations, Marxism, Foucauldian historicism, Feminism, Postcolonial, and so forth. What I want to suggest, before yielding ground to my interlocutors, is that the working assumptions of our scholarly efforts can often blind us to admitting that the very rationale for teaching in the liberal arts relies upon a version of Romanticism that we often reject. Edmundson, I believe, offers us a way of putting this tradition to use in such a way as to avoid its more often reproached and potentially deleterious tenets.
EMILY: Overall, I agree with Edmundson’s assertion that teaching English is a “soul-making” endeavor. However, while he limits “reading” to written literature alone, I would like to expand that definition. “Reading,” as Edmundson explains, is not just about letting your eyes wander over the page. To be a true reader is to engage in the minute and the massive, to see the story as a narrative, as well as what it represents, or perhaps as Edmundson would say, whose soul it reflects. This does not apply to books alone. While Edmundson largely dismisses the texts of popular culture (a statement I hope we will engage in during our discussion later), I use film and advertisements as teaching tools as well. While written literature is at the core of the English major, and the human, it does not and cannot reflect personhood and society entirely. We must teach our students to “read” the world around them as a whole.
“Real reading is reincarnation,” Edmundson states in “The English Major.” I disagree. Real reading is reinvention. You do not become another author, transporting their personalities and souls into your own body, but rather you are provided with another set of principles, feelings and experiences with which to situate yourself in the world. By reading about others from another person’s perspective, one stands to better understand their own soul. Who is Edmundson to say that Dickinson, Whitman, and Austen possessed more “ample and generous minds” and therefore lives? Although I will surely not disagree that current society has been dulled in some ways that these authors would find distressing, arguably because of technology and the detachment it can promote, I do not think that all worthwhile thought has been lost. I teach to promote the recognition and expression of the beautiful minds all around us, within ourselves. My hope is that by teaching students to read in every sense of the word, we can regain and retain such creative and inspiring expression.
Most people see life as though they are looking at the moon— in black and white, perhaps in shades of gray if they (and we) are lucky. The English major, or rather, the reader, sees light and color and infinite possibility for exploration and understanding. They see the galaxy.
The question then becomes how we can promote this way of seeing inside and outside of the classroom. If our role as English professors is to teach someone to “become human,” where do our duties begin and end?
RENEE: What an exciting and unnerving task we have set ourselves with this roundtable! Recently, I taught selections from Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy alongside Thomas Huxley’s Science and Culture address at the opening of the Science College in Birmingham. After we looked at their respective views of “culture” and modern education, I asked my students how they saw these same debates occurring today. Many of my students are English education majors, and they are all well informed on the state of education in Kansas under an increasingly restrictive cultural atmosphere that recently included the removal of protections for LGBTQ state employees and Senate Bill 56, which would remove protections for educators distributing material “harmful to minors.” Many across the state, including my students, fear misdemeanor charges and even jail time should they teach texts like To Kill A Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn, or to choose something potentially “harmful” from Romantic texts, Don Juan.
But more interestingly, my students were less concerned about what the senate bill might mean for the humanities than what it might mean for the sciences. In a state where teaching evolution is still a matter of debate, in a country where a state can outlaw the usage of the term “climate change” in the classroom, my students were less interested in the shift of cultural privilege from a traditional liberal (humanist, Hellenist) education to “practical” STEM disciplines. Trained in a field that feels pressure to justify its position in the university curriculum, I found their response surprising, but perhaps I forget just how intertwined my area of study is with its assumed opposite.
My department is currently enduring an enrollment crisis as the university has reconfigured its common core and removed a literature course requirement we once depended upon to recruit majors and employ graduate teaching assistants. I have been very fortunate to have a majors course this semester and a fellowship for the following year, which has kept me from feeling the pressure personally. However, this is the type of crisis, budgetary and/or cultural, that requires us to defend our profession and the benefits of the courses we teach.
I’m the strange teacher who squirms at idealistic visions of the liberal arts education. Dead Poets Society gives me something quite different from the warm fuzzies. But I am equally bothered by “practical” models of education that assume English general education classes should only teach essay writing. Yes, we teach something beyond the text. English majors and their teachers are continual scholars of becoming, the Bildung as Daniel has said. And yet, I don’t wish to gloss over what I teach with this transcendent vision any more than I wish to gloss it as an education in critical thinking and communication.
I think literature is a really valuable entry point for studies in a wider range of disciplines, both liberal and pragmatic. I think that is why I majored in literature. (That and the je ne sais quoi of a beautifully written line of verse.) Literary (written, performed, or otherwise manifested, as Emily has so well made the case) is a portal into multiplicity, and I like the range of knowledge it encourages and makes available. My teaching pushes toward a convergence of multiple interests as well. For instance, the class period after I taught Arnold and Huxley, we studied poetry related to the burgeoning scientific fields (“Dover Beach,” “Caliban Upon Setebos,” “God’s Grandeur,” etc.) to get that personalized perspective of Victorian life that Edmundson calls “reincarnation.”
I do believe the humanist agenda to become somehow “better” begs for multiplicity because it desires more than just the acquisition of knowledge. Betterment is an individual task that equips one for the betterment of something beyond the individual. Adam Smith and many of our beloved Romantics conceived of this as sympathy. The imagination made elastic by literary “reincarnation” allows for imagined substitution with the ailing, which in turn encourages action. And after all isn’t this the danger inherent in teaching “harmful” texts? I don’t wish to say my job, or any teacher’s job is to motivate change and action. Again, this makes me feel uncomfortable. But maybe all the pieces are there.
DANIEL: I greatly enjoyed reading Emily and Renee’s responses and should remark that I feel grateful for a chance to participate in this dialogue, which is already making me question many of my pedagogical presuppositions. In Emily’s response I noticed three themes: first, the question of medium (literature/film) and genre (popular culture/classics); second, the pressure she places on what exactly Edmundson means by “reincarnation”; and three, the praxis of pedagogy or our ability to enable students to take what they learn and put it to use in their own lives.
While I do not believe that Edmundson’s articles would preclude different artistic mediums and genres, Emily tacitly raises the question of “what is literature in general.” This is a question that haunts me as I think about the purpose(s) of literary criticism and the nature of literature as an institution. This question is also inextricably linked to the question of genre in general. I fervently believe (though always open to reconsideration) that some forms of expression are more useful than others for the purpose of teaching. Of course there is a subjective justification to this: Whitman raises more worthwhile questions to me than particular 20th century avant-garde poets or, for that matter, different cultural artifacts such as advertisements, political speeches, and so forth. Though almost every text to some degree represents the numerous cultural and historical contexts that helped create it, the texts we tend to teach are those that also put direct pressure on their own capacity to represent. As Edward Said puts it in Freud and the Non-European: “Texts that are inertly of their time stay there: those which brush up unstintingly against historical constraints are the ones we keep with us generation after generation.” Those texts are the ones we should, I believe, teach. Life is too short to do otherwise.
This also speaks to the idea of reincarnation. I think that Edmundson employs this term in the same manner as Emily defines reinvention. When we offer our students a poem or film we are asking them to decide whether or not this artifact can facilitate (re)invention. One comes to this knowledge through experimentation: embodying the artifact, experiencing it, taking it on. The only way to know that we want to be reinvented into something is to assume or undertake the different experiences available to us. The artifacts that contain these experiences are discourses or drives that simultaneously shape the culture in which we were born and, in turn, allow us, through our own creative invention, to define create, and forge our own unique identities. More important, I would add that they give us a ground for comparison as we try to ordain our lives with meaning, value, and purpose.
Renee’s response picks up on Emily’s question of praxis as she addresses the institutional fragility of literature in general. I hope, in this regard, her administration reads her response, as she seems to point directly to the link between literature and our more mundane, that is non-literary, existence. Renee writes: “the imagination made elastic by literary ‘reincarnation’ allows for imagined substitution with the ailing, which in turn encourages action.” Her choice of Arnold, both the prose and poetry, seems to fit this belief perfectly. When teaching Culture and Anarchy I wonder how her students respond to his vision of perfection, his claims about the anarchic aspects of society, and his hypothetical solutions. Do they see how Arnold reflects and addresses our own world? Do they have his aspirations albeit with a different methodology? Texts such as his directly speak to the liberal art’s praxis and the importance of imaginative experience to understanding the motivations and aims that underwrite that praxis.
But when it comes to “Dover Beach” I want to raise a question that presses on me. I find that I am never able to bring up the questions we’ve been discussing because, simply, my students find the poem – any poem – difficult to read. The heresy of paraphrase is the law by which they live. Most poetry that is not immediately available to their experience, either because the grammar, language, allusions, tone, and general subject elude them, or something else, becomes impenetrable. A poem like “Tintern Abbey” takes me two full weeks, first to get through what is actually happening, the second to raise the pressing questions that that poem addresses in order to prevent its reduction to some cliché. But even if we do finally get to the stage where, returning to Arnold, we can speak about how they come down on the faith/doubt debate, the poem bewilders them to such a degree that that conversation becomes too abstracted from the text in front of them. Because of this desire to paraphrase and be reductive, in other words, when we get to the “truth-value” of texts, in their own lives, those texts disappear into oblivion. Simply put: how do we raise the exigent questions literature raises itself, when our students have such a difficult time digesting or reading whatever assigned, without losing that literature in the process? By the time I fill in the necessary contexts, help them follow the plot, characters, setting, and so forth, time is up. Admittedly the Arnold isn’t that bad… the Wordsworth and the Browning, that’s another story.
RENEE: To address Daniel’s response: I greatly appreciate the inquiry into praxis and student response. He writes, “When teaching Culture and Anarchy I wonder how her students respond to his vision of perfection, his claims about the anarchic aspects of society, and his hypothetical solutions. Do they see how Arnold reflects and addresses our own world? Do they have his aspirations albeit with a different methodology?”–I would like to pose these questions to my students in the future. Given that many intend to teach, and are preparing for teaching a variety of educational levels, I wonder what their own pedagogical mindsets/philosophies are and how they imagine literature to “directly address our ability to change the world, our ability to act, and the importance of imaginative experience to understanding our motivations and aims.” They were so keen on not divorcing the disciplines from one another and not favoring one as the means to developing “cultured” citizens. They preferred Huxley’s middle-class pragmatism over Arnold’s paternalism, and perhaps in doing so limited the potential interpretations of Arnold’s social concern.
Despite bristling against Arnold’s prose, they felt the poetry deeply, and many reported “Dover Beach” was their favorite for that day. We had been talking in class about crises of faith, having read “The Everlasting No” and “The Everlasting Yea” of Sartor Resartus and J.S. Mill’s own crisis as told in his Autobiography. I think they were well prepared to approach “Dover Beach” with these things in mind, and luckily the poem offers signposts to help them decode some of the exigent historical themes: “The Sea of Faith” has always made me cringe a little.
However, what I did that day to encourage such attention was have them work in groups of two or three, choose a perspective–“God is good,” “God is cruel,” “There is no god”– and discuss its presence in a variety of poems we read for the day. They had to be able to point to exact lines and passages from at least two poems where they found the author wrestling with this theme, especially with regard to nature, scientific advancement, or the cultural emphasis on fact-based knowledge.
I believe approaches like this assume a sophisticated level of understanding and challenge the students to go beyond comprehension of content as they attempt analyses of meaning. And having them work in groups of their choosing (I know this isn’t always ideal and depends upon student maturity) allows a comfortable environment in which they can consider varying understandings and interpretations in order to come to a consensus. Moreover, with people they trust, individual students feel comfortable admitting that comprehension was difficult, and I find that if the group agrees, they find confidence in numbers to ask me for help. This exercise was our class opener, and I feel it gave them confidence to contribute to later class discussion of the individual poems as we looked at them more closely with other themes or contexts as our lenses.
Emily, how do you use a variety of genres to open up the “big” questions and get students thinking about how medium affects a work’s staying power (i.e. a text’s canonicity)? Is staying power a legitimate concern for us as teachers? Is the desired impact of our teaching the skills acquired (as I tend to understand Edmundson implying)? Or the appreciation of our subject matter (also implied I think)? Or both and more?
EMILY: Renee’s approach to the debate of culture and education seems particularly relevant to the stresses of university students as a whole. I know my students are incredibly concerned not only about the rising cost of higher education (both financially and emotionally), but also their entry into the career world. The anxiety regarding science and Senate Bill 56 is surprising to me as well, although not unwelcome! Like Renee, I feel pressure to defend my own degree and teaching purpose to students, non-humanities scholars, and the general public. While I think the students’ raised some very valid points about the dangers of restricting material, and teaching what only what is legally appropriate in the STEM disciples, I wish we could make them see how regulating the humanities could be just as dangerous. If as we have been discussing thus far in relation to the Edmundson material, the humanities are where we form real personhood, denying students the ability to fully develop as critical thinking, unique individuals can only hurt all areas of education. Science gives us answers, humanities give us the questions.
That being said, I do think that some English scholars tend to glorify what we do (myself included). Ultimately, teaching the student to think critically and engage in “soul-making” means little if we do not also teach them how to express these thoughts and revelations coherently. This is where more “traditional” lessons regarding writing and composition equally valuable.
In his response Daniel stated, “some forms of expression are more useful than others for the purpose of teaching.” This is where my own thoughts become clouded. My first reaction is to say that is inherently untrue, that all cultural expression has value and impact, even in the classroom. However, I cannot claim that a Tumblr blog dedicated to cute animals does not have the same weight as Darwin’s Origin of Species. But that is my opinion. I do not think that the humanities have the right to assign value. Ideally, we should present others with the tools to make such assessments for themselves.
In my last composition class I allowed my students to choose what topics they wanted to discuss, what issues they wanted to address, and what kinds of texts they wished to engage with. Of course, in many ways this was only an illusion of power given that as the professor I had the ability to veto certain ideas and provide suggestions that skewed towards my goals for the class and my own interests. I did find that students responded positively to structuring their own class. Even their peer review used criteria developed together as a class delineating what they considered “good” writing. I am curious to hear if Renee and Daniel have any thoughts in regard to allowing this kind of controlled freedom in the classroom.
Renee’s use of group work reflects some of this philosophy. By allowing the students to choose whom they want to work with, and what position they wanted to assume, they became more comfortable discussing the work in general. I will definitely be adopting this kind of “opener” to encourage student engagement with the class and material.
In response to the questions Renee posed, I use a variety of genres and texts to approach “big” questions as my class opener. For example, to aid in the instruction of concepts of tone and audience in their writing, I showed Super Bowl 2014 commercials and we discussed them as a class. We examined then in terms of who created them, why, what messages they were trying to imply about their products and whom they wanted to be consumers of such goods. This transitioned into looking at some selections from modern memoirs and answering the same questions, then reflection on how they could apply or avoid such polarizing methods in their own work.
The concept of “staying power” is complicated. In some ways, medium can advance a work’s longevity. Take Melville’s Moby Dick for example. Not only have paintings of massive sperm whales warring against humans permeated culture, but the 1956 film of the same name (with a screenplay by John Huston and Ray Bradbury) and the upcoming In the Heart of the Sea film starring Chris Hemsworth (and based on a book about the destruction of the Essex whaling vessel in 1820) evoke Melville’s classic tale. I would not be surprised if sales of Moby Dick rose during the distribution of these movies. Paired with the recent controversy surrounding Sea World and the improper treatment of their whales makes the themes addressed in the literary classic all the more enduring. What I am trying to get at here is that culture is an interconnected web. What materials are produced now find root in history as well as invention in our present culture. Our desired impact should be to increase appreciation of subject matter both in its original and more modern forms by giving students the instruments to see the connections like the ones mentioned above, and question how and why such works create an impact.
DANIEL: Renee and Emily both offer several classroom strategies that interest me: background, context, or what I believe is also called frontloading; group work related to the text; linking texts to student’s lives in terms of choosing careers, their place in the university, etc.; and what Emily describes as freedom in the classroom.
I’ve tried these strategies in my classroom with various degrees of success. The fact that I teach 50 min class session is a severe limitation that I must mention up front but I want to offer a more specific example with the problems contextualization raise for me. When I last taught Arnold and Browning I linked them to Dickinson and Dostoevsky (Notes from the Underground). This came after the Romantic poets, Goethe (Werther), and a bit of Rousseau (First Discourse), along with paintings from Dürer and others. Those texts were the context for the mid-19th century poets. I wanted to show how particular themes associated with Modern literature develop over time but this became quite reductive in their minds (everything is alienation) or unclear and muddled. For example, even as Lippo Lippi and the Underground Man feel the restrictions placed on their various attempts at self expression/definition, those restrictions are radically different: from Catholic stringency to existential unrest (to vaguely characterize Dostoevsky). Either the two texts get reduced to the same thing – as I’ve just done here – or they become unlinked since the contextualization of one differs from the other. Let me put this differently: how does one contextualize theoretical predicaments in order to teach literature across historical periods, genres, and mediums? How does one contextualize modernity?
I try to bridge this gap by linking the texts to their own experience of the modern world: for example, the pressure to enter into a profession or career. On the one hand, I find it difficult for them to imagine a world in which the things they take for granted are still incipient. On the other hand, when the artists I teach take direct aim against the evils of the modern world, attacking it relentlessly, my students feel turned off. They’d rather not think about the demands and pressures exerted on them and they have a point. Won’t this lead to us all becoming Underground Men? They should try grad school!
Finally, I also give my students a lot of freedom in the class, especially when it comes to writing assignments. This creates a different kind of anxiety. Freedom precludes specific direction to a certain extent. When I ask them to think about how a text speaks to them – are they Dickinson’s loaded gun or are they a Fanny Price or Emma Woodhouse? – they tend to have great difficulty identifying with what they read. The same holds true for the question of a text’s truth-value – do they agree with Rousseau on art and science? – since my requirement of some form of close-reading hinders their attempt to adequately respond, given, that is, the foreignness of the writing.
As much as I believe in what Edmundson writes, his initial diagnosis of University Inc. – and a generation of students who (and I include myself here) are utterly enframed by the modern educational bureaucratic disciplinary structure and raised in a world of ceaseless testing and media inundation – seems like too much of an obstacle to overcome, at least from my limited experience. When I teach English majors who cannot name their favorite poet (either personal favorite or favorite poet/poem they’ve read in college thus far), how am I, in three 50 min sessions a week, able to combat (via counter-education or whatever we might call it) over twenty years of discipline?
RENEE: Something I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity of trying lately is the integration of various mediations and revisions of the texts I’m teaching. As Emily has noted with Moby Dick’s multiple reincarnations, these can be really valuable tools for understanding how a text’s meaning changes and adapts over time and across readerships. I have often taught visual art in conjunction with literature, looking at Pre-Raphaelite paintings with Keats and Tennyson, studying Ford Maddox Brown’s “Work” with Sartor Resartus, etc. But lately, I’ve been incorporating film, too. I just showed clips from The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) so my students could see the cinematographer’s interpretation of aestheticism and decadence. And Gwendolyn’s Pre-Raphaelite imagination inspired quite the discussion of Romanticism versus Mid-Victorianism and Wilde’s critique of “modern literature.” Before this, I showed clips from the most recent adaptation of Jane Eyre to discuss framing the novel as romance, Gothic, and/or bildungsroman. The trailer to the film sells it as romance, but the film itself better represents the complexity of the original’s genre. Seeing the historical awareness and literary research that goes into a film adaptation brings the contextualization we teach in lecture to life.
The examples I have shown so far are all reinterpretations of a work that largely keep to the original historical context. I can’t wait to see what my students think about Apocalypse Now when we study Heart of Darkness. I think this pairing gets more to the questions you present, Daniel, about the extension and evolution of themes over time, rather than adaptations of the texts themselves. I like the idea of teaching eighteenth and nineteenth-century themes manifested in twentieth century literature and art, and I think these have as much value and potential as pointing to the relatability of intellectual debates from the nineteenth century to those we encounter today every time Congress is in session.
For me, to teach literature is to teach a history of ideas. I am much more comfortable with this somewhat matter-of-fact definition than the more defensive positions I see Edmundson presenting, such as creating “better citizens” or even teaching personhood. The difficulty of such a task, teaching a history of ideas, is finding the balance between multiplicity and reduction–not everything is alienation, but a lot is! (My poetry students in particular have frequently asked if happy poetry exists). I think in particular widening our canon to ensure the ideas that we teach aren’t only of particular groups helps establish the fact that diversity of thought exists and existed. Teaching the “Big 5” Romantic poets is certainly out of vogue in Romantic studies now, but my own Brit Lit courses in undergrad featured embarrassingly few women writers. I made it a point to rectify this oversight in my own syllabus. Also, while my undergrad syllabi often stopped in the 1970s, I made sure to get as close to the present as possible in order to incorporate a wider diversity of race when choosing authors. Experiences of alienation manifest very differently across nationalities, races, classes, genders, sexual orientations, ages, abilities, etc. We have to make these small adjustments where we can, within time constraints and with consideration of our students’ often limited familiarity with the periods and perspectives we present.
EMILY: Renee’s statement “to teach literature is to teach a history of ideas” is incredibly astute. It implies that the literature itself is only part of a much greater environment of knowledge and history. Our students’ impressions of what we teach only add to this great history. As long as we as instructors adapt to the diverse needs of students to the best of our abilities, I believe we serve an important purpose.
We must try to do so. As a scholar and educator, I personally could not dedicate my life to a practice that I believe has little chance in succeeding. Yes, 50-minute class periods are far too short a period of time to radically change years of indoctrination and education outside of my classroom. And yes, the majority of the students in the classroom will sit idly by, completing the work necessary to pass the class while rolling their eyes at their “crazy” professor who takes her work too seriously and perhaps too enthusiastically. But as that self-identified teacher, I cling to the hope that I can change just one person’s outlook on literature and on life.
Our engagement in this roundtable proves that pedagogy in teaching is an important subject. We all ardently feel, one way or another, that what we do in the classroom is important. I know this discussion has given be plenty of ideas and a handful of new approaches to take into my classroom. Thank you Daniel and Renee!