Fiction Makes You Better at Stuff

nprPVY0I’m planning some research on whether reading/studying fiction and other kinds of narrative is really such an important thing to do.  I was therefore immediately drawn to this article (even though it’s Saturday night and I’m desperately trying to finish grading a stack of papers): a commentary on why techie geeks should read fiction.

Is it true?  Does reading fiction make us more creative?  Can it be “a funhouse mirror, a fantastic reflection that changes your perspective on something you see, but don’t necessarily see, every day”?  If so, is reading fiction better at doing that than other kinds of reading, watching, listening, doing?

I occasionally have a brilliant, creative, articulate, interesting student or meet a brilliant, creative, articulate, interesting person who writes well and analyzes admirably but claims to never/rarely read fiction.  I want to spend time following these people around to discover how they became so evolved while investing little time in a pursuit we readers often hold in higher intellectual/educational esteem than any other.

Does reading fiction really matter that much?  I can’t make up my mind.

Image by Dahlia

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This Book is Too Sad

o3XIW26A reader and colleague sent me this question the other day.  What would you do in her position?

Dear Siobhan,

A few of my college students (note, not the class as a whole) have told me they’re having a really hard time with the book we’re studying in class because it’s too sad. It’s The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. The principal person in this small group suggested that at her age, she’s too sensitive to read a book like this. She’s studied slavery before, but finds this book– which follows a slave woman’s life– too graphic, too emotionally difficult. How would you handle this?

H.

I’m not sure.   Dear readers, what do you think?  Should college students be obligated to read texts that challenge them emotionally in ways they might not be prepared for?  Please leave your thoughts below.

Image by Sanja Gjenero

How Sexy is Too Sexy?

mllLe8AHow much explicit sex is acceptable in a book required for a college class?  If students have some say in whether they read the book, does that make a difference?

One of my courses includes a list of eight novels about adolescence.  Four or five students will read each novel and will work together to present it to the class.  I speak to them briefly about each book at the beginning of the semester.  They browse the books (I provide them with front and back covers and first chapters), and give me a list of their top three choices; I do my best to accommodate their preferences.

Each year, when ordering books for the coming semester, I look at the list from last time and adapt it, based on how the novels from the previous year went over.  This year, I’m jettisoning three novels from last time and replacing them with new ones.

As I carry out this process, I have a foolish habit.  In the scramble to put together a list of eight books (or, in a recent scenario, forty-five books) on a particular subject or of a particular genre, I sometimes throw in something that I haven’t actually read.  And for “sometimes,” read “often.”  Every time, I regret this decision.  And the next time, I do it again.  This semester I HAD to get my book orders in at a moment when I had NO TIME to do any extra reading.  And so I decided to once again throw caution to the winds, and ordered Scott Spencer’s Endless Love for my course on novels about adolescence.

I’d been meaning for years to read Endless Love, based on recommendations from a number of book critics I respect.  I’d even downloaded and read an excerpt on my e-reader, and was blown away by it, and had been intending to buy and read the whole thing ever since.  I hadn’t gotten around to it, but I figured that my impulse to keep reading, and the general critical acclaim the book has received, and its focus on adolescent love, made it suitable.  So I placed my order, and got myself a copy, and started reading.

Thirty-five pages in, I was greeted with a graphic, dripping, pulsating depiction of teenage, heterosexual anal sex.

The scene is not gratuitous.  It’s fundamental to the fabric of the novel.  It is beautifully, if shockingly (at least to me) rendered.  It is absolutely appropriate to the book.

The questions is, is it appropriate for a college classroom?

Some of my students will be under eighteen; some will be deeply and narrowly religious; some will be really immature.  Others will be able to handle explicit sex scenes and appreciate them for what they are: an integral part of the story.  When I briefly present the book to the class and mention that some of them may wish to avoid it if they’re uncomfortable with graphic sex, many of them will be titillated and will choose the book for that reason.  (This is what happens with Alice Sebold’s Lucky in my memoir course, when I tell them they should avoid it if they are worried about the opening rape scene; the vast majority of students choose it as one of their readings.)  Others will be absent that day, will be assigned the book or choose it themselves, and will be outraged.

Is it worth the hassle?  I’m three-quarters of the way through now; for the last 250 pages, there has been no sex, although I can see some on its way.  (Yes, another concern is that this novel is LONG.)  It’s a really good book, and some of them are going to love it.  If I want to pull it from the course, I need to let the bookstore know, like, now.

What’s a teacher to do?  Trust that they will choose wisely and handle the consequences?  Take the chance that there will be fallout?  Find another book?  What would you do?

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The Art of Running Away

meSMNSmIt’s been a tough semester.

I’ve described some of the trials already: a new course that didn’t work very well, an unsuccessful experiment with blogs, a number of unpleasant end-of-semester exchanges.  More than a month after the end of classes, I’m still dealing with a challenge to one of my plagiarism rulings, and still awaiting a decision on what to do about a very rude email.

I’m also trying to work out a solution to a bigger problem, and the solution I like best is the one that probably reflects worst on me.

This semester I had an unusually high number of failures in one of my sections.  Actually, “unusually high” is hedging it – eleven out of forty failed.  For me, this is unheard of: I was consistently astonished by how weak the majority of the students in this section were, how resistant they were to following instructions, how unpleasant the atmosphere in the classroom was.

I interrogated myself about it.  Yes, the course was more challenging than it should have been, but I’d made adjustments, and the other section of the same course was doing fine.  (Four students in the other section had failed, three because they disappeared from the course and/or stopped handing in their work early on.) With only one or two exceptions, those who were making a good effort on all assignments were squeaking by.  It just seemed that there were a lot of students who weren’t invested, weren’t skilled enough to skate through, and weren’t really getting along with each other or with me.  The whole experience was nasty, and it was borne out in the course evaluations: while the other section was very positive, this section returned the worst evaluations I’ve ever received.

Generally speaking, once the semester is over, the grades are submitted, and some straggling complaints are dealt with, it’s time to move on.  Out with the old! Learn from your mistakes! etc. However, there’s a wrench in this scenario.

This course is a requirement for a major.  I’m currently the only teacher who teaches it.  This means that all these students – as many as FIFTEEN REPEATERS, not including students who have failed the course in previous semesters – will end up back in my class next winter.  This includes the student who has filed the plagiarism challenge, the author of the rude email, and the other students I mentioned in the post about requests for makeup work.  It also includes other plagiarists, other students who got angry at me about something or other, other students who have ALREADY failed the course before, and all sorts of other problematic situations.

Perhaps you can imagine how I feel.

So here’s the question.  My “good teacher” instinct is to say: Here’s a learning experience for you!  What are you going to do with this mess?  It will involve, obviously, a close examination of everything that went wrong with the course, and everything that I didn’t do to address issues as they came up.  It will involve up-front discussions with all the failing students right at the beginning of the semester.  It will involve careful “handling” of students who will be resentful and will believe that their failures are all my fault.  What a challenge!  What an opportunity for growth!

My “self-preservation” instinct is to ask someone else to teach this course next year.

I finished this semester exhausted and overwhelmed.  In addition to the struggles outlined above, I’ve been juggling other work, home renovations, MEd studies and, less and less, attempts to work on my own writing.  (As you may have noticed, my blog fell mostly by the wayside.)  The idea of not only trying to fix this broken course but doing it in the face of a pile of students who are coming in with a grudge feels like way, way too much. What I really need is a sabbatical, but I can’t afford one.  So maybe what I need is a sabbatical from this course.

This feels like a massive, cowardly cop-out.  It’s also what I really, really want to do.  Is there a way to justify it?

Image by Moi Cody

Prompt #3: The Writing on Learning Exchange: Who Taught You?

mq5ICKyWelcome to the third installment of the Writing on Learning Exchange!

Thanks so much for all of  you who contributed to the last two rounds.  If you’d like to go back to Prompt #1, or to Prompt #2, please do!  If you’d like to just start fresh with this round, that’s great too.

For guidelines on participating in the Exchange, please go here.

This week’s prompt: Who have you learned from?  What did he/she teach you?

Additional thoughts to inspire you:

  • We learn from our parents, and our teachers.  But who else?  Can you think of someone outside your home or your classrooms who influenced you?
  • Of course, if a teacher or caregiver or sibling is the first person who comes to mind, feel free to go with that.  Or to write about many people!
  • Totally optional: if this person is still alive, you might want to consider sending him/her what you write.  HOWEVER: VERY IMPORTANT: do not decide whether to do this until you’ve finished writing (ie. until all danger of writer’s block has passed).

Post your responses below or elsewhere – if elsewhere, please link back to this post, and direct us to your response in the comments here.

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Prompt #2: The Writing on Learning Exchange: What I Want To Learn Now

mGBNBOqWelcome to the second installment of the Writing on Learning Exchange!

Thanks so much for all of  you who contributed to the last round.  If you’d like to go back to Prompt #1, no worries; there are no deadlines!  If you’d like to just pick up the ball from here, that’s great too.  This is not homework.  It’s for you (and for us, of course, if you let us read what you write.)

For guidelines on participating in the Exchange, please go here.

This week’s prompt: What do you want to learn next?

Additional thoughts to inspire you:

  • Is there something you didn’t value when you were young, and so didn’t actively pursue in school, that you would now like to learn more about or be better at?
  • Is there a skill that you want to have but that you’ve never developed?  Why haven’t you developed it?  Could you develop it now?
  • Do you have a hobby or interest that you’d like to investigate more deeply?  Or a project you want to undertake but don’t feel ready for?
  • Do you envy someone because of something he/she knows or something he/she can do?  Do you think you could turn that envy into action?

…or maybe this topic takes you in a different direction – great!  Post your responses below or elsewhere – if elsewhere, please link back to this post, and direct us to your response in the comments here.

Image by Michaela Kobyakov

The Least Stressful Job on Earth

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy husband sent me this article this morning: the Globe and Mail summarizes some key points from a list of the most and least stressful jobs on earth.  #1 least stressful job?  University professor.

I’m not exactly a university professor, and some of the conditions I work under are quite different from theirs.  My students, for example, don’t “generally want to be there,” at least not if by “there” you mean “English class;” in some cases, they don’t even want to be in college. There are also some university professors who are comfortable walking in, giving a lecture and then walking out and going off to do their own stuff while TAs grade their papers.  I can agree that such a job sounds pretty low-anxiety, and it’s not how I operate (although if I could get someone else to do my grading I would be ALL OVER THAT.)

However, I don’t have to administer standardized tests, and I have tenure and a good salary.  Do I have one of the least stressful jobs on earth?

Maybe.  I can agree that military personnel, airline pilots and taxi drivers have it tougher than I do.  That said, there are days when I think the belligerent students, sky-high piles of marking and standards of performance I set for myself are a bit too much for me to handle.

Post-secondary educators and those who know them: what do you think of this assertion?  Do university professors have the  least stressful job out there?

Image by Michal Zacharzewski

Why You Should Fall in Love with Abed Nadir or Some Other Imaginary Person

I want my students to believe that it’s good to fall in love with fictional people.  But I may be wrong.

My English course for Child Studies majors is called “A Question of Character.”  We’ve spent the last few weeks discussing  what “characterization” means in literature, and what “character” means in life.  Along the way, we’ve talked a little about whether reading literature can influence our personal characters and, as a result, our success and happiness in the present and future.  This is a question I want to explore more deeply in the coming weeks.

Our foray into this topic has corresponded, accidentally, with my sudden, random, out-of-control obsession with the TV show Community.  This obsession is inconvenient because it means that I can’t grade papers, can’t read the 45 books I need to read for this class, can’t really leave the house or do my laundry.  I can’t do anything but watch CommunityI devoured all 74 episodes in 2 weeks, and when they were over, I was so grief-stricken over the loss that I went back to the beginning and started again.  My husband is getting a little worried.

That said, my obsession with the show IS convenient because, although it is a multifaceted obsession, it is also focused.  I love the writing, I love the bizarro universe, I love the many layers of meta-meaning.  Mostly, though, I love Abed Nadir.  And I think my love for Abed is an appropriate discussion topic in a course that deals with character.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Community has followed a band of 7 oddball students and their equally oddball teachers through their first 3 years of community college. (The 4th season has just begun, and I’m disappointed with it so far – a lot of changes have happened behind the scenes – but I still have high hopes.)  Abed is, at least on the surface, the oddest of them all.  In the pilot, another student, irritated with Abed, barks that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, and he does seem to be a textbook case.  His consuming passion is pop culture, and he makes terrible movies that reveal some of his buried emotional truths.  He’s rigid and aloof, yet remarkably sensitive; a genius, yet utterly naive.  He repeats the phrase “Cool.  Cool cool cool” like a distracted owl, and he does a lot of blank, fish-eyed staring and subtle head-cocking.  He’s able to connect with the people around him only by imagining that they’re all in a film or television show – when his friends pressure him to flirt, he channels Mad Men’s Don Draper; when he dresses up as Batman for Hallowe’en, he turns into an actual superhero.

Abed isn’t really capable of loving anyone, but the closest he gets is his relationship with his best friend Troy, former high school quarterback and prom king.  Troy, for his part, loves Abed to distraction.  When a girl Troy’s interested in says Abed is weird, Troy walks out on her.  (Abed: ” I AM weird.”)  When he thinks Abed might be stolen away to England by a pen pal, Troy’s jealousy leads him to go “all psycho girlfriend,” as Troy’s actual girlfriend gently describes it.

It’s not just Troy, though; everyone around Abed loves him, even though they don’t understand him.  His friends listen to his advice because they know he has absolutely no emotional investment in their problems.  They step in front of bullies who want to pick on him; they pay for film courses that his father won’t cover, because they want him to follow his dreams.  From the moment he appears in the first minute of the pilot, telling the leading man his life story and THEN his name, he gives Community its wonky center.  And the fans love Abed with a love so demanding that some critics think it will warp the show’s orbit entirely.  (The Facebook page of the actor who plays him, Danny Pudi, has over 15,000 fans, and I would wager that at least 14,000 of them know Pudi ONLY as Abed.  That’s a LOT of love for a character who can barely make eye contact and has shrieking meltdowns when clocks are reset for Daylight Savings.)

It’s Abed who keeps me glued to Netflix for 6-hour blocks.  I want to spend all my time with him.  In the beginning, I had only a vague, inarticulate understanding of why this was, and a feeling that it would make a good basis for a lesson.  Also, great news: if I teach a lesson about Community, and Abed, I get to spend more time watching Community, and Abed.

My initial, intuitive analysis went something like this:

  • I love Abed because I’m just like him: socially awkward, unintentionally aloof, isolated inside my own mind and often unable to connect with others. (I always score in the borderline-to-Asperger’s range on autism self-tests.)
  • I love Abed because he’s so, so much better than me.  He’s adorable.  He’s charming and funny.  He’s completely self-assured – he fears losing his friends but has no fear of losing himself.  (And he doesn’t lose his friends.  This is also important.)
  • Abed therefore represents an ideal, but one I can actually aspire to.  He’s not realistic, but he feels real; I recognize so much of myself in him that it seems possible I could, someday, be as wonderful as he is.  Maybe loving him will improve me.

What does this have to do with my class?

I decided to find out by doing some research, and came across an article in the journal Children’s Literature in Education called “Why Readers Read What Writers Write,” by Hugh Crago. Crago presents us with the term “emotional matching,” which he defines as the way “a work of fiction has matched or paralleled the reader’s ‘self-narrative,’ that is, the shadowy concept most of us have about who we are, why we act the way we do, and the sort of ‘history’ we have had in the past and expect to have in the future.” (280)

Crago gives us a couple of examples to illustrate how “identification” works as powerfully with a fictional character as it does with a real human being.  For children, especially – and my course is a Child Studies course – an imaginary person can be an (unrequited but never rejecting) friend and role model, someone to connect to and also to admire, to seek comfort from and to imitate.  When we love Anne Shirley or Harry Potter, Tarzan or Nancy Drew, we feel, “I want to be like that, and I COULD be like that, because that person may be awesome, but he/she is also like me.”

Is it really this straightforward?  It feels so magical and chemical, so deeply personal despite its universality, this infatuation with a person who doesn’t exist.  Could it really come down to a simple Lego model of the soul – if your piece fits onto my piece, I get bigger?

Come to think of it, that IS kind of magic.  Maybe it’s why kids love Lego, too.

Or maybe it’s even simpler than that.  Maybe we love these characters because, by watching them or reading about them, we can feel what it would be like to be as amazing as they are, without doing any of the work required to actually be so.  This is a less encouraging scenario, and certainly undermines the pedagogical validity of my lesson.  Are Harry Potter and Anne Shirley and Abed merely ways for us to escape our real selves, to put on, in our own minds, costumes that make us appear to ourselves to be more than we are?

Mark David Chapman and Holden Caulfield immediately spring to mind.

I have written about the benefits of obsession before, but am I making excuses for something that is usually a waste of time and sometimes dangerous?  The greatest achievements in art and other creative pursuits are often the fruit of a creator’s obsession – or perhaps “grit” or “focus” would be a nicer word – but can passive, compulsive consumption of a sitcom or a novel ever lead to real personal growth?  Or can it only offer us, at best, comfort?

Maybe it doesn’t matter.  As any lonely, bullied, awkward or frightened child will tell you: such comfort is nothing to sneeze at.  This moving post, by an autistic woman who saw, in Abed, the first authentic reflection of herself on television, would convince anyone that simply recognizing oneself in the other is one of the most life-changing experiences we can have.

My plan is to start my lessson by asking my students to think of a book, a film, or a TV show that they have, at some point in their lives, loved to the point of obsession.  I’ll then get them to watch an episode of Community, to name the character that they each like best, and to discuss why.  I’ll ask them to guess which character I like best, and that will give me an excuse to talk about Abed for a while.  And then we’ll look at Crago’s article, and discuss the uses of “identification,” of “emotional matching.”  What do kids, and the rest of us, learn from falling in love with people who aren’t real?  Can we learn to be better versions of ourselves?  Or can we mostly just take refuge?

And if it’s only refuge, isn’t it still worth an awful lot?

*

Some related and worthwhile links:

Community is TV’s Most Ambitious Show

The Curious Case of Abed Nadir: Community and “Pop-Orientalism”

Episode Recap: “Virtual Systems Analysis”: The Fears of Abed the Undiagnosable

Crushes, Breakups and Natural Lives: How the Critical Romantic Watches Television

Corporatizing Education: A Justification

speckled paperSo let me just put this out there.

Yesterday I attended a talk by the renowned/infamous literary theorist Stanley Fish.  Fish’s talk was entitled “What are the Humanities Worth?”  He began exploring this question by referencing Louis Menand’s article “Live and Learn: Why We Have College.”

Menand  poses a similar question, often asked by students: “Why do I have to read this?”  Menand’s initial response is “Because this is the sort of book students in college read.” Menand feels this response is inadequate, but according to Stanley Fish, this is exactly what we should be telling students: “Just because.”  What are the humanities worth?  Don’t ask that question, Stanley Fish replies.  (But you just did, Mr. Fish!!)

The auditorium was packed with students, and as I looked around, it was clear that many of them a) had no idea what he was talking about, or b) were unconvinced by his assertion that the poem “The Fore-runners” by George Herbert is  its own justification and that we shouldn’t need to say anything more about the issue.

My main problem with his (entertaining and erudite) talk was this: he started by referencing Menand, who wants to determine why we should REQUIRE STUDENTS to study certain things.  He ended by explaining why the study of the humanities should continue to exist and why colleges and universities should continue to fund those studies.  (Sort of: his talk was also a sort of rail against the whole enterprise of “justification,” a position I also take issue with: more on this in a moment.)  These are not the same question.  Sure, the study of, say, literature, has all sorts of value that can’t be quantified, but Menand isn’t asking about that.  He’s asking a question that I often ask.  Why should every single student who enters a given institution, regardless of his/her personal goals, be required to study literary analysis, philosophy, etc.?

Fish’s premise in his talk was that “justification” entails explaining the monetary benefit of something, and he scorned the attitude that the purpose of an education is to qualify oneself for a good job.  This is all very well for Mr. Stanley Fish, who outlined his own career trajectory nicely during the Q&A: he finished his doctorate in the ’60s, was immediately hired as an academic, and has been in a comfortable tenured job ever since, in addition to having the passion and skills required to be a world-famous cultural critic.  For my average student, who has limited literacy, whose parents may well be scrabbling to make a living after their recent arrival from another country, and who doesn’t particularly like school but knows that he/she has no hope in hell of earning a decent wage without at least a college degree, the problem with viewing an education as part of a career path may be less obvious.

I’m not sure such a student needs to be investing him/herself in the study of George Herbert.  I’m not sure that a CEGEP education, as it is currently organized, is serving that student as well as it could.  I agree that many students benefit from spending time with poetry, or the living conditions in medieval France, or the works of Aristotle.  For some students, though, these studies are frustrating and impenetrable, and the upshot is that they leave these courses having learned little, and feeling relieved that they jumped through one more hoop on their way to the life and career they want.

I have an odd little educational fantasy that might not be fantasy at all – I’m surprised that it is not a more active reality.

What would happen if established corporations, industries etc. set up their own “universities”?

For example: say you graduate from high school and you are currently inclined to work as a telephone technician.  To do so, you need to apply to “colleges” established by major telephone companies like Bell Canada. These colleges do not just involve technical training; they are created by teams of highly trained educational consultants, as well as corporate managers, who determine together what kind of community they want the company to be, what qualities employees should possess, and what kinds of study would encourage these qualities. Literature and philosophy courses, therefore, would have a focus that might seem clearly relevant to students, even if they would also expose students to larger ideas, like the broccoli your mom pureed into your delicious buttery mashed potatoes.

Credits from these colleges would be transferable and recognized by other companies.  Let’s say you apply to study with every telephone company in the country and are accepted by all of them; you choose to study with Bell, but when you graduate, no jobs with Bell are available.  Not just your education but your application history would be valuable information on your CV, and hiring practices would need to account for an applicant’s entire experience.  If you complete some of your studies but decide that working with telephones is not for you, your application to study with a local plumbing company would need to include a personal reflection on what you’ve learned so far and why it makes you a good candidate to study and apprentice with them.

What are the problems with such a system?  What are the benefits?  When I look around at many of my students who are struggling to make ends meet, to fit in all their required courses, and to find the relevance in a lot of their class material, I ask myself what might provide them with greater motivation and therefore greater learning.  Telling them, a la Stanley Fish, that they shouldn’t be looking for relevance, that they’re asking the wrong questions, is not going to cut it with most of them.  Would it help if the goal was clear, and if it was really and truly the student’s own personal goal?

Image by Billy Frank Alexander

The Worst of Me

mmZCRsEWhich of your character traits is your worst enemy, in your life but especially in your job?

In one of my courses, we’re writing reference letters for fictional characters.  In addition, as a possible blog assignment, I suggested students write reference letters for themselves, imagining they’re applying for their dream job and giving an honest assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.  It made me think about how I would assess my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher – and as a person, for that matter.

My biggest flaw (and I have thousands) is irritability.  I get annoyed even with people I love, people whom I know have the best of intentions.  When someone interrupts me when I’m talking, or hogs the spotlight, or expresses him/herself in a way that’s less than clear, I turn bitterly cold and sometimes shut down completely.  This seriously bruises my relationships with my students and others.

Example A:

Student: Miss, what were you saying about that thing?  That talk?

Me: “Talk?” [Long pause]  [Note: I know what the student is referring to.]

Student: You said something about … a talk, you said … we have to do something.

Me: When did I say this?  Today?  Last week?  What exactly did I say?  I need more information here.

Student: Never mind.  Forget it.

Example B:

Me: Would you like some coffee?

Mother-in-law: Well…you always make your coffee very strong.

Me: Yes, we do.  [Long, long pause.]

Mother-in-law: Maybe you could add some water to mine?

Me: So you’d like some?  Certainly.

I’m not suggesting that teachers, or people, should always be friendly and sweet.  However, irritation can be mean, and its primary goal is to make the receiver feel bad.  (The ultimate objective is to change the receiver’s behaviour, but it is not a good method for doing so.)  I struggle with this in the classroom, in my marriage, in my friendships, and in my interactions with grocery store cashiers and people who walk too slowly in the metro tunnels.  It tires me out and in makes me an a**hole.

What about you?  Do you have character traits that make your job, or your life, more difficult?  Have you done anything to change them?

Image by Michal Zacharzewski