A teaching colleague once gave me curious advice—don’t assign literature you love.
She said my mountainous expectations would be unscaleable. She explained how students can find cracks to bring any perfect book, poem, or story down. “You’re setting yourself up,” she said, “you won’t believe me until you kill your favorites, but I wish I could spare you.”
She was right I wouldn’t believe her. Teachers learn energy is as important in a classroom as on stage, enthusiasm is contagious, and students smell insincerity a long way off. How terrible can it be to praise works that moved you? Don’t we want to share what we cherished?
But any advice is problematic, especially when it sounds wise yet seems counterintuitive. At 23 or 24, when I received this warning, I regarded most advice as invitation instead of prohibition. Cautions and condemnations landed in an already long list of propositions to test.
I have thoroughly tested her advice, most recently this summer when I assigned one of my favorite books, Howards End, in a summer school class. Though the class politely humored me through Forster’s novel, I could tell… they hated it.
And I won’t fight anymore. I’m prepared, at last, to face my former colleague’s advice. I understand why teaching favorites is so troublesome…
- No book is a universal hit. If I remembered my own experience accurately, I might have recalled conversations with classmates who struggled with Howards End. Forster didn’t speak to them, but—because he did to me, I saw their problem as inattention, not as variability. Forster says, “One is certain of nothing but the truth of one’s own emotions.” Why wouldn’t a reader feel the same?
- Mistaking affection for admiration is easy, especially with art. Admiration has a subjective component, but affection is invariably subjective. Admiration is sometimes transferrable. Affection is not. When I read Howards End the first time, I’d learned to put judgment aside in favor of understanding and congratulated myself for connecting with every character. Reading the novel this summer, however, my affection seemed to have more to do with me than with Forster. Students don’t feel ready sympathy. Sometimes, they like no one.
- Books are interesting for flaws and triumphs. My colleague may have been urging me to examine literature’s distinctiveness instead of its value. We study writing not because it’s good or bad but because it gets us somewhere. Howards End contains lyrical passages I loved reading aloud and would have loved discussing, but those passages called crickets. The class wanted to examine Forster’s intentions, whether he knew what he was doing at all. Burying my own defensiveness brought out the best in them.
- Teachers should want a fight. When a class believes I’m qualified, they qualify my texts, but they also ask me to substantiate my responses just as I ask them. Discussions of art often trace individual responses to specific form and content. Perhaps no universal response is possible, but you won’t discover anything without examining particulars. This time, I left Howards End with a more thorough and accurate sense of what’s in it.
Looking over my book lists for this fall, I see many works I love, an indication I haven’t entirely accepted my colleague’s advice. I want to teach what’s worthy and can’t always convince myself I’m wrong. My cynicism has limits—hope trips me up every time.
How I teach these books may matter more than what I teach. I won’t wear my affections on my sleeve anymore. I’ll prepare to see my beloved in an unflattering mirror… because it’s true the beholder is boss in the end.