Sleight of hand and misdirection

I keep meaning to write something substantive here, but I’ve been distracted by the conversation going on over at Mike’s academic blog, Ad Nauseam, specifically on the post “Finding the countercanon.” Originally, Mike posed his problem and request this way:

Back to my problem: as a product of my time and place I know the canon as it is espoused by my university, and I know the canon as it is espoused by my authors. (Woolf and Rushdie are graciously forthright about the books they think people should be reading.) But I don’t know, and I don’t know how to know, the canons that boom outside the walls of my little University, the list of 100 Essential Books They Won’t Teach You In College.

But then in the comments, other interesting questions related to his desire to learn about non-English-department-approved literature comes up:

So few of the students who go through intro lit classes will pick up a book after they graduate. Lit profs have only the 14 or 15 weeks it takes to satisfy a gen ed requirement to give students a map of the literary library, so that students who don’t have your natural drive for reading will at least get a sense of what’s out there, and feel that at least one author connected with them and represents something like their inner & outer lives.

This is part of why my own canoniphilia distresses me: I’m already at a demographic remove from the great majority of American students; if my syllabi are demographically identical, then I have that much less of a chance of breaking through to the infrequent or non-reader.

Back when I taught ESL, I spent a great deal of time pondering how to get non-readers to read actual books, and how to make them like it, and how that is actually quite different from teaching them to write literary analysis papers, which is often done at the same time and becomes quite linked in students minds (classic literature = writing papers, which often also = boring and annoying, leading to = don’t like to read.) So I had some stuff to say about the use of non-classic literature in the academic setting, and helping students learn to make reading choices on their own that they’ll actually enjoy.

In addition, a librarian friend of Mike’s has brought up the question of why English departments are so stuck on teaching fiction, when non-fiction is a very wide, diverse, and engaging genre of its own. She points out that many students perceived as “non-readers” by literature teachers may actually be quite in-depth readers of non-fiction about subjects they are truly interested in. Which is an excellent point: there is no reason that fiction is the only type of writing that can be analyzed for the actual structure of its writing. Too often, non-fiction is relegated to being viewed as all about the content, not about the style, but as any reader of non-fiction knows, some writers stand out as far better organized or far more entertaining than others, and some writers, knowledgeable as they may be, write so badly as to make their books unreadable by a non-specialist audience.

So if you like books and reading and thinking about how to get other people to like reading, or even if you ever had an opinion about how your high school or college English class could have taught you better, go join the conversation. Or join it here. Either way. Discuss!

-posted by Dana

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7 Responses to Sleight of hand and misdirection

  1. k8 says:

    Greetings! I’m actually not a librarian at the moment. I’m a PhD candidate in English (composition and rhetoric) who happens to have an MLS (although I have worked in libraries off and on). It makes for an interesting combination in terms of the ways different attitudes towards literature/books/materials are perceived. Plus, here at UW children’s and YA literature are taught in the Library School, not the English department.

    But yeah, the conversation has been fascinating. I love reading about how people relate to texts.

  2. goodreadings says:

    I actually am a librarian at the moment, at a small, non-elite college where many of the students (to hear the English faculty talk) definitely have a great deal of trouble connecting with canonical literature as it’s taught here. One professor in particular often speaks of the considerable fear that many of her students have of basically anything that is presented to them as great literature: that they assume from the outset that it will be obscure, difficult, and impossible for them to relate to. And students who come out of English classes afraid of the texts they’ve encountered aren’t likely to have gained any deeper love of reading from the experience. Maybe this is part of the problem, at least for some students: since literature is presented as something that needs to be appreciated and labored over and struggled with, rather than enjoyed, students who don’t have much other experience as readers may assume that this is what reading is all about, period.

    As for the differences between library and and English people in approaching literature: when I took a YA lit class in my library science graduate program, one clear difference I noticed right away was that librarians tend to be interested in readers far more than they are in texts. Most of the substance of the class wasn’t focused on the YA books we read, but rather on the interests and psychology of their readers. Also, the approach was thoroughly pragmatic, rather than theoretical: to understand readers and the act of reading, we were assigned articles by developmental psychologists and educators, rather than by (say) Stanley Fish.

  3. Mike Shapiro says:

    It is a bit sad that English lit graduate programs haven’t embraced the work that LIS, education, and psychology departments have been doing for years. I feel more than a little ashamed that I haven’t read more than two or three obligatory pop-psych articles about reading (e.g. Caleb Crain in the New Yorker)—Proust and the Squid has been sitting on my bedside table for about three months now, mournfully unread.

    Only one graduate seminar that I can remember began with the professor’s observation that very few Americans acknowledged having been in a bookstore the preceding year, and that our job ought to be to create more numerous and more ardent readers. That professor? Rob Nixon.

  4. k8 says:

    I had a mix of both, but I’m fairly certain that this is because one of the children’s literature professors here (just retired, actually) focuses her scholarship on the literature part of the equation. I enjoy both aspects of literature – I’m very interested in how readers approach reading.

    I definitely know what you’re talking about in terms of students’ fear of literature. The poetry really scares them. I try to remind them that the Dr. Seuss books they loved as kids are poetry. A lot of people forget this and don’t realize that most of his work was in anapestic tetrameter. Using Seuss can be a nice way to get college students engaged with poetry.

    And, I agree that too often we focus so much on the work of literary interpretation that we forget to show/model the pleasures of literature. It is one of my greatest frustrations. Another difference I noticed between the library school and the English department was that in the former, more people talked about books and reading as fun or pleasurable. I don’t always get that impression in the English department, which is really pretty sad.

  5. Mike Shapiro says:

    On the question of pleasure, k8, there was a now-infamous MLA ’07 panel titled Why Teach Literature? As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports it, “After the panel one member of the audience asked why none of the speakers had said anything about pleasure. ‘We’re all for pleasure,’ Mr. Bromwich assured him. ‘We just took it for granted.'”

    “We just took it for granted.” I find that phrase instructive.

  6. k8 says:

    I’m well-aware of that session and the chatter after the thought. The position of the speakers there (where they work, etc.) really says a lot about the assumptions they made.

  7. TheGnat says:

    I think one of the problems is that after middle school, literature = writing papers. Writing academic papers is not terribly fun for most people. I love reading, and I like writing about what I read, but I hate writing papers. My best “literature” teacher or professor hands down was Mrs. Long, who taught me for 3 years in high school. Her classes involved one big academic paper at the end of the year, but the rest of the time it was all art projects and skits and the like. We didn’t sit back and ponder and write, we got involved and interacted with what we were reading.

    There’s an attitude in the academic world that if you aren’t writing an analytical paper, you aren’t learning or taking anything away from what you’re reading. And then they want to know why there aren’t as many readers in modern American society…

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