I’m at the end of a week in which I’ve taken to using Medium to sketch out some notes on strategies for teaching literature to upper secondary and first-year undergraduate students. The result is a six-part series of posts focusing on student engagement outside of the literature classroom — one of the hardest nuts to crack, in my experience — and how teachers can facilitate engagement in some unconventional ways. If you’re interested, here are the links to the various topics:
I last wrote about student engagement back in September, building on an essay by Gary Saul Morson in Commentary. That post was more idealistic and aspirational than these more recent ones, establishing the target I aim for in the classroom. This past week has given me a chance to address some of the nuts and bolts of the attempt to keep a true aim and hit the target bang-on.
Gary Saul Morson has an essay in Commentary entitled ‘Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature.’ It’s a real piece of work. He begins by taking a few pot-shots at Martha Nussbaum’s familiar concerns about declining enrolment in literature courses at colleges and universities, then he identifies himself as the teacher of “the largest class at Northwestern University, with an enrollment of about 500 students. The course is about Russian literature.” He continues:
I speak with students by the dozens, and none has ever told me that he or she does not take more literature courses because every moment at school must be devoted to maximizing future income. On the contrary, students respond by describing some literature course they took that left them thinking they had nothing to gain from repeating the experience. … What can students learn from literature that they cannot learn elsewhere? Why should they bother with it? … For understandable reasons, literature professors assume the importance of their subject matter. But students are right to ask these questions. … To teach anything well, you have to place yourself in the position of the learner who does not already know the basics and has to be persuaded that the subject is worth studying. You have to subtract knowledge and assumptions you have long since forgotten having learned. And one of those assumptions is that literature is worth the effort of reading it.
That sort of stuff is music to my ears. I teach literature partly because I love exactly that aspect of the job: challenging myself to approach the familiar from an outsider’s perspective, dismantling my own assumptions about literature at the beginning of the academic year, and finding new and creative ways of introducing students to the discipline without ever taking for granted their interest in it. But then Morson drops this paragraph: Continue reading