The acquisition of knowledge is not progression from point A to point B. There in fact, is no point B. The Colossus crawls ever westward, overlapping its own footprints, making new impressions in the Earth.
In my science fiction class, as is often the case, the most stimulating conversation came from ignoring almost everything that was going on. I began to talk to a girl seated next to me about the issues of teaching literature to high school students. When we discuss the decline of English as a discipline, the ways in which students are exposed to literature before they even enter the university setting is not insignificant. Asking many non-English majors what they thought of the books they read in high school (likely The Great Gatsby, Lord of the flies, Romeo and Juliet et al.) and you find that these works are often despised or disregarded. The most common response is “Oh, I read that in high school; I didn’t like it.” Worse yet, when you happen upon a student who did like one of the books discussed, the work was so glossed over and rushed through that the only appreciation the student is able to have is often superficial: “I liked the imagery” or “I related to the characters”; these notions never have time to grow into a deeper understanding of the text.
When asking college freshmen what they know of literary analysis, that is, what they remember of the introduction and application of theory from high school, I’ve often found that one of two things have happened. First, the students were bombarded with meanings and themes which are absolutely infallible. These students are given no opportunity to engage with the text themselves, nor are they given he skills to be able to do so should they so wish. Students begin to believe that meaning in literature is discovered and applied arbitrarily, or otherwise pulled from the ass of whatever pompous jerk everyone is listening to this week. They begin to see literary study as a sham which leads to the notion that it must also be a waste of time, energy, and money. The alternative is the second disservice to our field, which I’ve discovered sometimes extends beyond the high school setting. Students are indeed told that they must engage with the text, but they are given to much free reign that they begin to believe that anything they say or feel about a text is inherently correct; how can a feeling or opinion be wrong? What these students are not told is that when making an argument that this argument must be supported by the text. If you cannot find anything in the text to legitimately support the assertions you’ve made then you have succeeded in being incorrect.
When talking with a friend working on a degree and certification for teaching middle and high school, she mentioned that she had a reading list for the summer. She employed a hierarchical categorization in which types of books were ranked by their usefulness or relevance to teaching English to middle and high school students. When she asked me for suggestions, I mentioned that weeks ago she’d asked me for suggestions for graphic novels to read, of which I promptly compiled a comprehensive list, which was almost completely ignored (she’d also done the same with bands to listen to and television to watch, but that’s only partially relevant). She then referred to her her levels of importance and stated that she placed graphic novels so low on the list that it might seem to a casual observer as though they were not included. My concern over this was deeper than my hurt feelings over having my suggestions disregarded and my general disheartenment stemming from my love of comics, as upon inquiring about the exclusion of graphic novels it was also revealed that she’d omitted short stories, almost all modern books she had no immediate interest in, and all science fiction not penned by George Orwell. I decided to focus mainly on the exclusion of graphic novels (I may have been more reluctant to drop my personal feelings than was previously stated). My friend replied that there simply weren’t any graphic novels which were relevant to any topics outside of children’s literature. The issue here is that without any experience or knowledge of genres or mediums, there are teachers who would disregard them outright because of their own preconceived notions; the irony of a teacher refusing to educate herself is almost too much to bear.
By excluding literature you impart a very narrow and in some ways unrelatable definition of what literature is and isn’t. Upon being presented with this and realizing that they have no real vested interest in what is being discussed, these students conclude, as is understandable from the data they have been given, that they don’t like literature. A student who hated Jane Eyre or Catcher in the Rye, and becomes convinced that all literature is similar to this will not only very likely never read “Repent Harlequin!” Said the Ticktock Man, and if they do, they will be so convinced that literature is long, pompous and stuffy (I really did not like Catcher in the Rye), that anything they read and enjoy must not be real literature. This hypothetical student likes literature but elects not to study it, because he/she is confused about what literature actually is. The original girl I spoke with in my science fiction class asked if students lose something from not reading Romeo and Juliet. I’m not entirely convinced that there’s a difference between not reading a text and learning nothing from it. Like Shakespeare, literature in general is too often taught in one specific way, without regard for the differing styles and histories that exist within it. If we want to expand the study of literature, we need to tell students before they get to a college setting that literature itself is expansive.
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