Hi. This is Kelli T. Jasper, secretary of the NGSC, checking in with an only slightly self-indulgent reflection on the vicissitudes of teaching literature. My regards to all of you out there who, like me, are still figuring it out!
It’s Monday, and the end of September. The euphoria and excitement of starting new projects begins to wear off, and tiredness starts to kick in. I return my first round of graded essays to students, and along with my lengthy critiques sinks in the reality that we’re going to be together for a long, long time. For me, at about this point every semester doubts appear. Perhaps I’ve been too ambitious? Perhaps I’ve assigned too much work? I begin to notice my own teacherly rollercoaster—exultation at gorgeous moments of discovery in class; reservation about the structure I’ve set of for the course; discouragement over the students I can’t seem to reach or who already hate my guts; frustration at the disconnect between short class periods and rich, lengthy texts; and gratitude for those students who flatter me with their enthusiasm or their compliments on my shoes. I take comfort in the regularity of this crisis, and solace in the way it prompts me to reflect—constructively, I hope—on where we are now, and where I want us to go.
This is a semester of firsts for me: first time teaching a literature course, though I’ve taught composition and humanities in the past; first time teaching Milton and Shakespeare, as required by the course; first time reading Paradise Lost, a risk I took alongside my students; first time preparing to take my comprehensive exams; first time contributing to a blog. All things considered, I suppose it’s only natural to feel a bit unsure of myself. And the upshot is that, as sometimes happens with steep learning-curves, I feel some of the various planets of my academic life aligning—or if not aligning, then at least constellating into something as yet ineffable, but still awesome. I’ll do my best to explain.
For my comprehensive exams, I’ve been reading Frankenstein—another first, though how I got to my third year as a PhD candidate without ever reading this book is a mystery. I’m struck by how much of the story revolves around the transformative power of reading: after a failed career as a poet, R. Walton’s reading prompts him on a voyage to the North Pole; reading Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Magnus sets Frankenstein on his path toward animating life; the creature discovers Volney, Plutarch, and Milton, producing in him “an infinity of new images and feelings.” As I try to define for myself what exactly it means to study Romantic Literature as well as what it means to teach literature at all, I wonder how to help my students access this kind of transfiguring reading experience. Have they ever, like Walton, “perused […] those poets whose effusions entranced my soul, and lifted it to heaven”? More importantly, have I?
At times I feel that my own reading experiences have become so focused on analysis that I forget to feel transported. I’m told that as an English teacher it’s my job to teach close reading, and while I agree, it’s so often a tough sell! But today, I had an epiphany. Perhaps in order to teach close reading, I first need to teach active, performative reading. In my class we have been performing short scenes from Richard III. I borrowed the lesson plan from a friend, and had the students break into small groups, choose a scene of about 100 lines, and then stage it for the class—handing in to me about 500 words’ worth of “director’s notes” explaining their interpretive choices. We worked quickly, and having no drama training of my own, I gave them none; I simply asked that they read their parts in a way that conveyed a clear sense of the meaning to the audience.
The results have surprised and inspired me—not because the students were all amazing readers, but because so many of them were not! They could pronounce most of the words correctly, and could pause when they came to periods (that is, they’re certainly literate), but very few of them seemed to read with intentional, interpretive emotion. What a fascinating disconnect! When I read in my head, the characters take on voices in my imagination—they intrigue me with their personalities, and I delight in the visions of their rages or reveries that are somehow conjured in my mind from the words on the page. Having felt relatively comfortable with Shakespeare for many years now, I forget that such conjuring does not happen automatically for most students. Lacking practice in active, performative reading, it’s no wonder they prefer more obvious writers like Stephanie Meyers, Dan Brown, and Nicholas Sparks. While students seem to have no problem connecting emotionally with plotlines (thank you, Sparknotes), it seems to me that the average non-English-major needs training in order to connect emotion to written language—particularly the slightly archaic language found in pre-20th-century texts.
In pondering these ideas, I find myself rethinking the philosophy of my course, and planning future courses exclusively around reading, writing, performance, adaptation, and interpretation. According to Thomas Tanselle in A Rationale of Textual Criticism, written texts provide only the blueprints of a “work” that must be reconstituted by the reader. “Close reading” is simply the term we’ve given to the process of analyzing our own acts of reconstitution—but if we lack the skill or practice to reconstitute effectively, then what is there to analyze? I therefore commit myself to helping students become emotive readers as a means to becoming close readers. Richard III obviously lent itself well to performance, but now as we move on to reading Fanny Burney’s Evelina, I’m envisioning much more reading aloud, and much more discussion about how we as readers might perform these characters. These discussions might propel us toward an exploration of writing as performance, whether it’s the author writing the work, or characters within the work writing/reading/performing.
I know that none of this is headline news. Reader-response theory has been around for a long time, and I’ve learned in pedagogy classes how useful it is as a framework for teaching literature. Yet still, somehow, these concepts have gained substance this week in a way I’ve never experienced before. For the moment, my own “soul is lifted to heaven,” and I think I catch a glimpse of how to help my students rise above the clouds as well. So off I go to make a lesson plan and design a new unit project.
Take that, September blues.