Tuesday, February 13, 2007

No, Seriously, What Do You REALLY Value?

For the past week and a half, I've been working with on a notoriously difficult American novel. You know the one I mean: the author wanted it printed in four colors, author also memorialized in an early Coen Brothers movie? Right, that one.

Every time I mention to one of my professor friends that I'm teaching "important American novel" or IAN, for short, I get the same response: "I loved that book when I was a student!!" Generally followed by "wow, you're brave." It should tell me something that those of us who have chosen to study literature as an occupation love this novel. But what about my students who didn't, and won't, choose that? What is their relationship to this novel?

My class this semester is full of English students, but the population is dominated by students studying English so that they can go on to teach elementary school. I introduce this fact not to cast doubt on their skills--they're not less talented than any other English major. Rather, the skill set they are intent on acquiring is different: they're going to be teaching Scott O'Dell and Judy Blume, not Fitzgerald and Ellison. What's at stake, then, in forcing them to read the IAN?

I'd like to argue that the benefit is in them having the experience of reading the IAN, that they should feel a sense of accomplishment there. Of course, I also hope that there are a few who will respond like me and my colleagues, finding great pleasure in spite of, or perhaps because of the difficulty of making meaning from the text.

As we close in on the end of the novel, however, I'm not sure that my teaching is actually tied to the above goal. I've never been Canon-Girl (who'd make a great superhero, no? Leaping complex narratives in a single bound? Look out for her lasso of literary value!) by any means. In fact, I'm teaching a well-known comic book in another course and found myself marshalling every literary theoretical piece I could think of (and there are many) to support the claim that this piece IS literature. But here I am, teaching IAN, and suddenly my pedagogy goes awry. For the first few days of discussion, I was more directive than I've ever been. The phrase that kept floating through my head was "they have to get THIS, or they'll never understand the novel." As a result, I think, the students were completely ready to let me lead them through the text. They are, to date, one of the least talkative and most passive classes I've ever had. I've used the IAN to kill their spirits!

Note to self for the future: it's more important to let students make sense of a text--any text--to the extent that they can with some guidance from you (not authoritarian dictation of knowledge). We learn to love texts not when someone tells us what they're about, but when we've found their multiplicitous meanings for ourselves.


Blogger Lee said...

Can I ask what the graphic novel is you're teaching? You can email me if you don't want to post the title

Thursday, February 15, 2007 9:02:00 PM  
Blogger kfluff said...

I think I can say---it's not like I'm the only one in the world who teaches it. We're reading Alan Moore's Watchmen.

Friday, February 16, 2007 10:41:00 AM  
Blogger Flavia said...

I think this is a really hard line to walk--and since just about everything I teach is capital-C Canonical (and from a period about which 75% of my students know nothing, and what the other 25% think they know is usually wrong), I sympathize with the need to fill in the gaps. And the fact is that you DO need to fill in gaps; I figure that I'm doing my job if I make my students wrestle regularly with individual passages; try to articulate the assumptions and values that the text expresses; and brainstorm some conclusions about why the author might have presented the story in a particular way. I'm sure you're doing a great job!

Incidentally, although I'm pretty sure that I know the author you're talking about, I'm not sure of the novel. Does it have a title that repeats itself?

Friday, February 16, 2007 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger kfluff said...

Thanks for the words of support, Flavia. Like you, I'm falling back again and again to the process of textual wrestling. I think I'm beginning to sounds like a broken record on the topic of close reading, but it is definitely the space where students can make a text their own, even in the face of a LOT of gap-filling by the professor!

You've got the right author, all right. Different text, although documenting the same family. You'll appreciate this: it steals its title from Macbeth! ["Life's but a walking shadow..."]

Friday, February 16, 2007 12:28:00 PM  

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