On Teaching in Limbo

On Teaching in Limbo: A Composite

“You teach English littérature at CEGEP?”  She stubs out her cigarette.  “That is a job that shouldn’t exist.”

She’s on her balcony and I’m on mine.  She’s just home from work and is in full, meticulous makeup; she models for a popular magazine for femmes d’un certain âge.

“One.”  She raises a finger.  “CEGEPs shouldn’t exist.  Two years school, no tuition, between high school and university is useless.  A gaspillage of students’ time.  A gaspillage of my taxes.”

She looks like someone.  Maryse, from my intro class.  They have the same fluttery-lashed aqua eyes.  She could be Maryse’s mother.

“Two.”  Second finger.  “If CEGEPs exist, they should follow the same language laws like secondary school.  Anyone that feel like it can go to English CEGEP?  Why?  They don’t need French after they have seventeen years old?”

She pauses to light another cigarette and puffs, her eyes never leaving mine.  I haven’t smoked in six weeks.

“Three.  Literature is obligatory study for all students.  If I want to work in computers, in nursing, why I read Shakespeare, or Molière?  Grammar, ok.  Writing essays, maybe.  But poetry, talking about…personification?  I can choose that if I want.  If not, leave me alone.”

“Maybe I should be a magazine model instead,” I say.

She looks me up and down.  “Hmph.”

This morning, Jamar asked what personification was.  I told him, and he yelled, “Like Sponge Bob!” and the class cracked up, except Maryse, who rolled her fluttery eyes.

Jamar won’t make it to university.  If I were a university teacher, I wouldn’t have met him.  If I weren’t a literature teacher, Sponge Bob wouldn’t have come up.  And Jamar doesn’t speak French.

“CEGEP makes people happy,” I say.  But she’s offering me a cigarette, and changing the subject.

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16 responses

  1. Well said – I actually laughed out loud…but seriously, this is a very interesting post as you bring up some issues that I have thought of often….

    1. Is literature really beneficial to the ‘Masses’? (I love literature, but if I were a hair dresser, a garbage man, a computer programmer, gym teacher, what use would it have in REAL life?) Society seems to be going in a different direction….

    2. We (society in general) complain that kids today can’t read or write – shouldn’t we focus more on that aspect? (albeit through ‘literature’ or texts of some sort…..but maybe not Molière and Shakespeare?)

    I don’t have answers to these questions but I think you have made an important point; however, your balcony ‘neighbour’ makes a point too…maybe a scary one, but a valid on just the same.

    Have a great week!

    • Can I join this conversation? I’m an English Teaching major at a US university, and I find myself constantly asking “Why?” Why bother teaching literature? During high school, most of my English teachers focused on writing and grammar for business. I hated it. I wanted to learn about people, not grammar constructs. It goes back to something I heard Brian Doyle say: Without stories, man is nothing but an empty shell of egotism.
      I read and hope to teach literature so children don’t become superficial and nasty. I know it’s a Romantic ideal, but one I cling to because you have to be just a little romantic (or crazy) to teach. If anyone is interested, here’s a link to a post on my blog: http://mrlemonscorner.blogspot.com/2010/09/i-read-autumns-post-about-reading-road.html#comments
      It will lead to an application essay I wrote to get into my program. Hope you enjoy, and keep up the good work, Siobhan!

      • Mike:

        I read that Qureshi article last year and it has stuck with me. I have been investigating this question – why study literature? why read books? – for some time now, and I have come up with only one clear reason that reading a book is different from other experiences: it is really the only way for us to learn what it is like to be someone else, to see the world from inside someone else’s mind.

        The questions remain, though: do we need to read certain texts (Shakespeare, for example)? Is analyzing literature really the best way to use our class and homework time, or would it be better just to find ways to help students love reading, as it is difficult to move to analysis when they won’t even read the damn texts? We could just as easily ask them to analyze an episode of Gossip Girl – the elements are all there, I imagine – if we want them to practice those skills, and we could save the majority of our time in literature class for helping them learn to love books.

        Thanks for your comment! I have a feeling we are going to be wrestling with these questions for a while.

  2. GenX: the question of whether literature should be core curriculum at college is one that I’m seriously thinking of examining for my thesis project. I think there are some very strong arguments for focusing on communications and language arts and making “literature” just one medium among many…and leaving “literary studies” courses to those who have a strong interest. But there are also good arguments against this. It’s a big question!

  3. Maybe it’s just because I have a deep and abiding love for literature, but I think there are so many “usable” lessons that come out of it. My students and I talk about characterization–what it looks like in real life and what it looks like in a text. We discuss motivations and whether or not it’s easier to determine them when you have more time to stare at a text.

    We talk about the reliability of narrators or authors for that matter, and we discuss how readers, just like citizens, can be fooled into believing things if we aren’t careful. We use literature to develop a critical eye that views society in a realistic light–not one that is constantly stuck in the cloud of illusion.

    They learn to develop opinions about people, about scenes, about purpose and then they learn to support those opinions. And it is my hope that their brief stint into those lessons will make them better members of society–when they vote, when they make decisions, when they live in this world.

    Of course, maybe I’m just being idealistic.

    • Crystal:
      I don’t think you’re being idealistic – I think students learn all these things from studying literature and more. The question I often ask myself is – could they learn all these things from studying something else? When they don’t do the reading, when they moan and groan about how they hate the books I’ve assigned or books in general or the exercises I want them to do, I ask myself: could these skills be taught through a medium they find more engaging? Because if we’re trying to teach them about life through literature, but they’re not reading the literature and they’re not thinking about the questions we ask them to think about, it seems to me that these lessons are lost.

      • I think there are some lessons that are best processed through reading and discussing the text at hand. Does that always have to be Shakespeare? I don’t know. You’ve said these are difficult questions to answer, and I completely agree–they are the same difficult questions I’ve been trying to answer since I took this job.

        Part of me wants to know if an Iron Worker is ever going to care how dramatic irony works in The Education of Little Tree…or if a certified plumber will ever need to share Shakespeare’s use of foreshadowing. I’d like to think that these lessons benefit them on the whole, but I’m not entirely sure they do.

        Your question (could these skills be taught through a medium they find more engaging?) is, therefore, a pretty difficult one to answer. While I struggle to determine if EVERY text we read is worthwhile, part of me does want students to understand that not everything in life is going to be engaging. I have an article hanging in my classroom called “There’s a life lesson our kids aren’t learning” by Marialisa Calta. In it, Calta says, “Our kids are not stupid. They know that if they complain that a clas is difficult, they will be told to work harder. But if they complain that a class is ‘boring’…well then! The teacher must be to blame…I’m not denying that boring classes and boring teachers exist…but I can’t defend parents who allow children to use the charge of ‘boring’ as an escape hatch…[students] may have to master certain skills. Which may require a certain amount of repetitive study. And repetitive study may be…how to put this?…boring…Let’s give kids the straight dope on life: that it requires hard work and tenacity, and that not every minute of it is jam-packed fun.”

        Just something else that continually runs through my mind.

        Ah. I do love your thought-provoking posts.

  4. I’ve always thought that this (very important!) issue comes down to proportions. As in, it’s fine to require students to be exposed to and attempt to learn about non-practical topics, but if too much of what they’re forced to take is far away from their developing life plans, it just becomes pointless drudgery for too many of them. I agree that students need to learn that not everything is fun (and they certainly learn that in K-8 as they plod through learning to diagram sentences or memorize multiplication tables). At the same time, the law of diminishing returns is certainly in play when we make 18-year old who KNOW that they want to be X-ray technicians or computer programmers or even nuclear physicists, struggle through literary analysis. The fact that they resist applying themselves to the humanities in a classroom setting (and let’s face it, some of them resist pretty hard) can be an indication of self-centered failure to see the wonders of Homer or Hemingway, but it can also mean that they’ve been led down this path for at least six years and they want out.

    • Jane:

      Yes, this is the question. I agree that it’s worthwhile to help students understand that learning is not always fun, but I think there’s merit in helping them feel that even if it’s not fun, it is in some way meaningful to them. Literary analysis teaches us a lot of important things, but so does calculus, and calculus is not core curriculum in my college system.

      Lately I’ve been of the opinion that literary appreciation, not analysis, is the core skill we need to teach in the college English classroom. Many of my students come to college with no interest in reading, and being forced to read texts they don’t like makes the problem worse. What’s more important: teaching them to analyze a short story, or teaching them to be skillful readers in the sense that they seek out books, identify books they think they’ll like, read them for pleasure, and talk about them with their friends? I’m feeling that for my students, the latter is a skill they need more, and it will serve them in every area of their lives.

      • How do you teach them to identify things they find interesting and then discuss those books? That’s been pretty hit and miss in my classroom, but I’m open for suggestions!

      • Crystal:

        In this post, I write about my personal narrative class, in which the focus is on getting them to choose books, sell them to others, and explain their choices:

        https://siobhancurious.wordpress.com/2010/10/07/what-does-learning-look-like/

        This is my first run-through of the course, so I’m not yet sure whether it’s meeting my objectives – I haven’t had time for a midterm evaluation, but I’m looking forward to hearing what students have to say when the course is over…

  5. Do you use prompts with those book talks? If so, would you be willing to share the major requirements from those prompts? How did you choose the available memoirs? Which memoirs do you use?

    I do a nonfiction project with my sophomores, but I’m in the process of trying to figure out the best way to get them excited about reading. Currently, I’m just working on providing books in my classroom that I like and then talking about those books so much that the kids really want to read them. Of course, it isn’t hard when I’m pretty excited about the books to begin with.

    • Crystal:

      If you like, sometime this week I will try to write a post in which I give the details of the requirements for this course. In particular, I’d like to run through my current impressions of how students have responded to the books on the list I gave them. In fact, I might try to work on this tonight now that my day’s marking (of essays in which they discuss these books) is done! So if you give me a bit of time, I’ll go into this in much more detail than I can here in a comment.

      I love getting your responses; thanks for your engagement!

  6. Yes — literature appreciation would work better for many than literary analysis. It sure works better for me, and I have a degree in literature! I’ve now read Huckleberry Finn about four times; I’m willing to re-read it because I love it, and only after the fourth read did I start to see some of the intersting structural features that Twain used. It is VERY, VERY tough to analyze a novel or poem that you don’t find accessible on some level.

  7. Why should a plumber, or an iron worker, or anyone else read good literature? Lots of reasons, all of them important.

    First, because we don’t live or work in isolation. The world around us is incredibly complex, and it does effect us. Good literature expands our viewpoints and lets us see how others live, in other times and other places. It is all relevant.

    Second, because the best way to learn English (or any other language) is to read good literature in that language. Reading simple stories written at the 4th grade level, or using the vernacular, won’t do it.

    Third, and perhaps most important, we seldom know how much we don’t know. Avoiding good literature means you are limiting your world, and you will never know how much you are missing.

    Besides all that, good literature is fun.

  8. You know, you could also argue that all of us need to understand and be able to do accounting. It would help us understand the world of finance, stay out of trouble with our own budgets, be more informed voters and taxpapayers, and many people find it fun to play with numbers. However, we don’t do this. Beyond learning basic arithmetic and how to balance a checkbook, we don’t force students to learn accounting, unless they want to. Why is literature privileged over accounting? I think we feel that literature gives us access to our culture’s history (tho not if the literature we teach is chosen for its appeal to teenagers) and encourages us to explore our own values and aesthetics (and sometimes it does). But we are SO unwilling to be responsive to students for whom literary analysis is just drudgery. We forcethem to go through it anyway, in the hope that they’ll experience some miraculous transformation. I really don’t understand.

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