April 23, 2008

Literary Impressions: Uphill Battles

When I started my doctoral studies in literature at the City University of New York Graduate Center, the English department nestled in the top floors of the gently sloping and thus aptly named Grace Building, which looked benignly down upon Bradley Park behind the New York Public Library. In my first years as a graduate student, I received free tuition and had a stipend that paid some living expenses.

Two years later both tuition grant and stipend were gone, and I had to support myself as an adjunct instructor in the CUNY system. Luckily, the English department offered a course on how to teach college-level composition and literature. I never again--with one exception--had so practical a class during my doctoral years.

Despite how noble the effort, one is never truly ready for the challenges of the first college class you teach. I taught at Baruch College, the "business" college of the CUNY system. Baruch tended to draw greater numbers of foreign nationals than its city university peers, largely because its emphasis on business played to their immigrant ambitions and desire to enter society through that most American act of citizenship--the making of money. As a result, Baruch generally drew a sprinkling of second-language students in all of its beginning courses.

Unfortunately for me, my first class--an introduction to writing course--was less sprinkle than flood. I had several Chineses nationals, a Lebanese Muslim and Christian respectively, an Israeli, an Ivory Coast native, another from Indonesia, a few Spanish speakers, and two Jamaicans, who though English was their first language, offered accents so thick that they proved the most difficult to understand clearly. Roughly two-thirds of my class comprised second-language English speakers. And, mind you, this was not an ESL (English-as-Second-Language) course, nor had any training in that specialized field.

This was a baptism by fire since I never had that many second-language students again. But it was a wake-up call to the difficulties that can confront the unwashed, adjuncting masses. How unusual fifteen years later to read the ruminations of one Professor X on the adjunct teaching of English in the June 2008 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. I read this article in Maine at the end of August and found myself neither bemused nor nostalgic but frightened by the very sameness of our experience: the same corporate motivations that serve as the raison d'etre for the adjunct instructor and the neverending "prerequisite" composition 101 courses that have students paying again and again, no matter how often they fail, just to get a foot in the door to the rest of their academic training.

As the article burbled along, documenting that which I already knew, it pitched back to an Arnoldian sentiment that I have touched upon elsewhere. I quote in full:

There is a sense that our bank tellers should be college educated, and so should our medical-billing techs, and our child-welfare officers, and our sheriffs and federal marshals. We want the police officer who stops the car with the broken taillight to have a nodding acquaintance with great literature. And when all is said and done, my personal economic interest in booming college enrollments aside, I don’t think that’s such a boneheaded idea. Reading literature at the college level is a route to spacious thinking, to an acquaintance with certain profound ideas, that is of value to anyone. Will having read Invisible Man make a police officer less likely to indulge in racial profiling? Will a familiarity with Steinbeck make him more sympathetic to the plight of the poor, so that he might understand the lives of those who simply cannot get their taillights fixed? Will it benefit the correctional officer to have read The Autobiography of Malcolm X? The health-care worker Arrowsmith? Should the child-welfare officer read Plath’s “Daddy”? Such one-to-one correspondences probably don’t hold. But although I may be biased, being an English instructor and all, I can’t shake the sense that reading literature is informative and broadening and ultimately good for you. If I should fall ill, I suppose I would rather the hospital billing staff had read The Pickwick Papers, particularly the parts set in debtors’ prison.

The phenomena Professor X discovers--shortened attention spans leading to truncated reading experiences--is not new. When "reading biographies" were all the rage in the 1980s and 1990s, those I received were rife with my students general dislike for anything longer than a Sports Illustrated feature. In a pre-Web age, magazine and newspaper articles were their preferred, if not sole, reading. To them, reading a Dickens novel was just waterboarding by another name. This failure in the ability to read well became especially apparent when I had made the foolish mistake of assigning Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Obviously I had not thought through the matter clearly, as I mistook its brevity and reputation as an adventure yarn for a reading pleasure. Heart of Darkness is a pleasure to read...for me. For my students, it was dull, dull, dull. Too much atmosphere, too many conversational ellipses, too much unsaid historical background. Even now, as I reread it, its plodding sensibility weighs the reading experience down, just as Conrad intended, obligating you to wade into a darkness that is more than semifictional Africa but linguistic and moral.

For my students, its vagueness was a bore, and no amount of exegetical cheerleading that transformed the novel's vagueness into its point was going to make a difference to their reading experience. It was a painful lesson in teaching literature to today's American college students, one that continues to trouble me...and no doubt the good Professor X. For it does little more than raise the specter, over and over again, of whether teaching literary criticism to students is a worthwhile endeavor.

April 22, 2008

Literary Impressions: Why Bother Teaching Literary Criticism?

At the home of Mark Oppenheimer, one of the editors of New Haven Review, for which I serve as publisher, we had a conversation about writing literary criticism. Context for the conversation was the course in journalism that he will teach next semester at Yale, which makes sense given his credentials as a journalist. He noted that he much preferred teaching nonfiction writing courses of this sort to literature classes because he neither wrote nor knew all that much about literary criticism. This, too, made sense to me, which explains why I chimed in: "I don't really understand why we teach students how to write literary criticism at all."

So why do we teach students how to write literary criticism? Make no mistake, it is a form of writing that can approach art in the right hands. But even for beginners it is a far more difficult mode of nonfiction writing--in my humble view--than the standard nonfiction forms of narration, description, and argumentation. Technically, literary criticism is a subdivision of the last, but it remains one of the hardest to do well. I attribute this difficulty not only to the inability of students to read well but also to the inherent complications of trying to formulate an argument about something as slippery as a finely crafted story or poem.

In my own experience, the slipperiness of literary fiction derives directly from the story-like nature of this species of discourse. When I taught, my students continuously wrestled with the Herculean (or perhaps Sisyphean) task of unwinding the author from the characters, the storyteller from the story, the telling from the showing. Even I still have difficulty with the boxes-within-boxes, or better yet wall-of-mirrors, nature of this discursive mode--and I have a doctorate in literature, mind you.

I'm currently convinced that high school teachers and professors teach students how to write literary criticism not because it instructs them in how to "think critically" or "formulate an argument" better. These can be done just as easily using another topic. Instead, I believe many teachers in their heart of hearts would rather not teach students how to write literary criticism at all. What they probably do like is reading works of high literary quality and talking about them intelligently--like a book club but with the teacher's authority intact. That certainly was my experience as a college instructor. I loved selecting, teaching, and discussing (or more appropriately discoursing on) the work at hand. What I despised to no end was marking my students' papers, which were poorly written, generally incoherent, and pedestrian in their interpretations. And most literary instructors I speak with echo this same sentiment. It probably explains why I became an editor: I grew tired of marking people's dry runs. If someone is going to write poorly, and I'm going to have to redline it into readable prose, I might as well make sure that the fruits of my labor see light of day in published form.

In some ways, I miss the halcyon days of teaching literature. I even sometimes miss the stress and strain of writing literary criticism myself--no easy task, even for me. But the idea of teaching students to write literary criticism, as if that would constitute training for a profession other than, well, writing literary criticism (which is not even a solid basis for the art of book reviewing) is a misbegotten notion that serves no one other than the instructors who recognize this chore as the price that must be paid for the pleasure of teaching literature.