Category Archives: Humanities

Or What’s an Education For?

1425522-LOnce during a parent conference I found myself pulled into a dispute over an advisee’s mark in a freshman art class.

“I don’t think it’s fair they grade subjects that rely on talent,” the parent said.

Teachers know it’s unwise to contradict parents—understandably, they expect you to acknowledge their feelings, not challenge them. Still, foolishly maybe, I answered, “Every school subject calls for talent. Sometimes you’re developing skills you don’t have yet. Why should art be different?”

The parent answered, “It’s different because it’s not as important as other things.” I swallowed hard. I suggested that, since art was challenging for the student, she should spend more time working with her teacher.

The parent replied, “But it’s a waste of time… that’s just my point. She doesn’t like art, and she’ll never be good at it.”

This exchange sticks with me partly because I spent the next week developing counter-arguments:

  • People may regard art as “extra,” but the ability to think visually grows more and more essential in a post-literate world. Exposure to art seems especially relevant whether you’re good at it or not, and those who can “do some art,” have a serious leg-up in the working world.
  • What’s more, if we appreciate, value, and admire art, sustaining it relies on taking it seriously, ratifying its importance to assure its continuance. Whatever your tastes, who wants to live in a world without art?
  • Yes, receiving a high grade in art acknowledges special talent, but someone good at art deserves affirmation. Do you want to tell a student who makes an “A” in art that it doesn’t matter? Talent should count.
  • Even if art doesn’t count to everyone, students rarely like every topic they meet in school and learn even by struggling… perhaps particularly then.
  • Is the problem grades in general? What’s really in dispute is the mark. Without letter grades, students might argue less, worry less, and explore subjects that are not strengths and, hence, learn more.

If you follow this blog, you know which argument is most compelling to me. However, I have another reason for rehashing this exchange, a bigger lament, one encompassing our increasingly narrow sense of what education is for.

This spring, while trying to praise training programs in Wisconsin, President Obama joined my problematic parent in dissing art, specifically art history:

I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.  Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree—I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.

The President’s immediate backpedaling and subsequent apology acknowledged, his vision of what’s needed from education and what’s not is ubiquitous, as is his position on education’s exclusively extrinsic purpose. He assumes all schooling must lead to “a really good living” and “a great career.” Every college degree must contribute to the economy, or else it is a failure. Lost is how education adds, intrinsically, to enjoying life and appreciating others’ talents.

As it happens, art students have transferable skills and typically find gainful employment even when they leave art behind. Supposing they didn’t, however, they still receive more than a positive feeling about their contributions to the GNP. Indeed, they may find more pleasure in creativity and aesthetic appreciation than those with really good livings and great careers and money.

Perhaps I should have said to my advisee’s parent, “If for just a moment you can put aside the mark and your resentment (which may be poisoning your daughter’s encounter with art and artists… but I wouldn’t say that) has she benefited? Can this one freshman class contribute to her larger sense of how diverse and variable learning is?”

I suspect I know the answer—you can’t convince people how to feel, after all—but I’d remember myself better if I’d been true to my own thinking.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Arguments, Art, Desire, Education, Essays, Grading, High School Teaching, Humanities, Identity, Laments, Memory, Modern Life, Opinion, Parenting, Teaching, Thoughts, Visual Art, Worry

Answering To a New Name

9719098440_575ae9edbd_oMaybe you remember getting lost as a child, that moment at the shopping mall or carnival when you looked up to discover a stranger instead of your mom or dad. I still occasionally feel the same disorientation, though the particulars have changed. I expect what I know and find something else instead.

Most recently, at work. As a colleague teaching in the room before me hurriedly gathered his materials, he responded to a student noting all the desks pointed in the same direction, toward the board.

“Test?” the student said.

“No,” my colleague said, “Probably some English teacher arranged the desks this way. They like that.”

I said, “Oh yes, we’re into that full-frontal teaching thing.”

Then it occurred to me, that period I was teaching U. S. Social History. I was a history teacher, not an English teacher.

Back in the hippy-dippy sixties and early seventies, when people asked teachers what they taught, they were supposed to say, “Kids.” Teaching was teaching, and the subject mattered less than relationships with students. I believe that. The fundamentals of encountering new information, thinking about it, and demonstrating mastery aren’t that different from subject to subject. The methodology may change—examining history and novels demand diverse skills—but the teacher’s role as a guide is largely the same. You know. You understand. You can do what they can’t yet. Your job is to instruct them in learning, to help them figure out how to absorb and explore what, a few moments before, was new.

Nonetheless, I quickly corrected myself after identifying as an English teacher. “But this is history,” I said, “I’m a history teacher right now.” I suddenly feared losing the students’ confidence. They might begin to question if I knew my stuff, and a panicked part of me shouted “Imposter!”

As an English teacher I come in with big ideas and hope the class will find passages and episodes to discuss them. But in history, I’m more fearful. If we’re talking about the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson doesn’t come up, I know I’ve screwed up. Or, anyway, that’s how I feel in my imposter moments—knowing my stuff is critical. My history department chair says “No.” He says, as long as I teach them to think about the implications of historical detail and to grasp the way historians assess it, dates and events matter less.

If the colleague who teased me was covertly sincere in his commentary about the desks, maybe he doesn’t make a distinction, as he implied English teachers love to lecture the way history teachers, as the cliché goes, love to impart the Story of Civilization. Yet any history teacher who describes the past moment by moment had better be a brilliant story-teller. Any English teacher holding forth on his or her interpretation had better be brilliant.  Most of the time, spilling secrets and playing “Guess what the teacher is thinking?” fails. While I hope I know more history than my students, I also hope they’ll engage the detail they encounter, perhaps even empathize as a reader might.

For many years, I’ve been co-teaching a course that combines American history and literature. I teach the literature half, but I’ve traveled through the national story several times. What I gained from watching the other teacher wasn’t the information she knew—though she knows an amazing amount—but her skill at encountering it, her knack of changing the angles on what students thought they knew, and drawing them back to documents and artifacts that spur fresh theories. It’s not simply stuff to her.

It will take some time before I answer to “history teacher” and perhaps longer to feel I deserve the title as she does, but maybe forgetting what I’m teaching is another sort of progress, the recognition that, whatever I am this period, I’m just trying to help.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ambition, America, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Humanities, Identity, Laments, life, Revision, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Worry

On Art

duchamp_nude.jpg Reprise…

Albert Einstein worked to unite the forces of the universe under one “Theory of Everything.” I wonder if one aesthetic umbrella covers the arts—music and sculpture, acting and painting, photography and writing…and everything between.

Probably not. Saying what art is includes accounting for performing arts and visual arts and arts we don’t all label art, but that’s not quite the same thing. The proof of the Unified Field Theory is rigorous and mathematical, but possible. Aesthetics seem murky. We might not know we have the answer. We may never agree.

And usually the receiver—and more specifically and perhaps unfortunately the critic—defines art, not the artist. It’s hard to accommodate both artist and audience. The observer or listener can study the product and assert what a poem or song or sculpture or painting or performance is. For the artist though, the process seems mysterious, perhaps even mystical. The impossibility of definition, paradoxically, defines the process.

William Carlos Williams said, “It is almost impossible to state what one in fact believes, because it is almost impossible to hold a belief and to define it at the same time.” What he says of belief may be true of creation as well. Because discovery is central to creation, you only know it when you find it. Defining it later, like defining a belief, is hopelessly reductive, dubious. You may find a way to describe “it,” but that won’t say what “it” is. The descriptions can become the current mode of doing art—some tangible code to cling to—but they’re descriptions, conceptual rather than essential.

I’ve dabbled in most of the arts. I’ve acted and sung and played an instrument and made 2D and 3D art. I’ve written poetry, fiction, and (a term I loathe) creative nonfiction. For all that, I don’t have enough experience with creation to say I understand it. If I ever do, I may stop. The unknown is all the fun.

Having said so, I can’t resist venturing one probably pretty obvious universal aesthetic theory I learned from acting. Just as you can’t effectively play a character that isn’t in you, all art locates the universal in the personal and vice versa. To be clearer, I have to show something that you know too and do it convincingly. I have to show that I understand it and you must believe I do. You have to be convinced of my sincerity…even more than that, you have to be convinced that sincerity is my primary motive. An artist can achieve that state accidentally and/or intentionally. How it plays out in photography, opera, and abstract expressionism can be very different. But the effort to reach mutual understanding needs to be real. No posturing. No fashion-mongering.

Art isn’t about the skill, virtue, currency, or identity of the artist—truly great art makes connections over large spans of time and in disparate contexts…because it’s human. Being human, it can also be hopelessly subjective—artists and audiences and critics may never agree what’s good—but only the connection counts.

Art can have an agenda—”political” and “art” don’t have to be contradictory terms—but the passion behind a view and not the view itself comes first. Great political art moves you and may move you to action, but what makes something art and not propaganda is the artist’s need to express him or herself versus the need to have the viewer or listener think and act a specific way.

To finish with William Carlos Williams, ” It is not what you say that matters but the manner in which you say it; there lies the secret of the ages.” We may never have a unified theory of art—never mind a sense of what’s good or bad—we can only hope to know it when we experience it.

5 Comments

Filed under Aesthetics, Art, Criticism, Essays, Humanities, Meditations, Thoughts, Writing

Why Teaching Criticism Matters

When I talk to students about critical essays on literature, I try first to adjust their audience and purpose.  You are writing, I say, to another reader.  You are hoping, I say, to illuminate something specific the reader has not seen before.  Being a literary guide seems to make writing more manageable for them—it gives them direction beyond being commanded to write—but my motive is selfish.  Guides are more interesting than formalist drones.  I want their criticism to be purposeful.

In the January 2nd edition of The New York Times Book Review a number of smart people give quite different reasons for literary criticism.  The feature “Words About Words: Why Criticism Matters,” offers the views of six critics.  I don’t claim to understand everything they say—some pieces seem more lament or rationalization than justification—but they do make me wonder if teaching students how to write about literature could have a more profound function.

In arguing the importance of criticism, the Times authors seem divided over whom it might matter to.  If criticism matters, then who benefits and how?  Stephen Burn seems to see the critic as a valuable counterbalance to the proliferation of opinion on the web and elsewhere.  Katie Roiphe highlights the critic’s challenge to write, “Gracefully” and “protect beautiful writing” and “carry the mundane everyday business of literary criticism to the level of art.”  To Pankaj Mishra, “Literary criticism was always destined to turn into a kind of competitive connoisseurship—a parlor game,” but will be relevant only as long as it anchors authors’ works in cultural and historical contexts.  We need a critic, he says, to identify a writer’s “Particular quarrel with the world, the rage or discontent that took her to writing in the first place.” In each of these cases, the critic serves society.  Criticism, all of them suggest, is good for us.

I would have a hard time selling these goals. Many of my students are so immersed in popular culture that they do not know they are there.  Some do argue with the modern world, some seek beauty, some hope to spread understanding about peoples and times, but those students are uncommon.  And those uncommon students don’t always write reliably compelling criticism.  Extrinsic motives often contribute to stilted and reaching work.  Instead of engaging a text, they use literature for a higher purpose, taking a reader away from instead of into the authors’ words.

And I’m afraid to give students such exalted aims.  They most need to string together a few sensible and effective sentences, make discerning observations, and be themselves.

The more convincing portions of the Times article suggest organic, implicit compulsions.  I have many students who resemble the former self described by one of the authors, Elif Bautman.  She tells of time when she felt criticism superfluous, citing her understanding of Tolstoy’s rebuff of a critic: “The only accurate interpretation of Anna Karenina was a word-for-word retelling.”  I have students similarly reluctant to interpret.  They think we read too much into Shakespeare and Golding, Dickinson and Salinger and, in some sense, we violate authors’ intentions by breaking up the whole, proverbially murdering to proverbially dissect.

Bautman says her salvation was recognizing literature as a sort of dream where the author acts at least somewhat unconsciously, in ways he or she doesn’t entirely recognize.  If our own minds baffle us, authors might create literature beyond their own understanding… but not beyond careful guides.

Seen in this light, a dream interpreting critic enters into conversation with texts, contributing thoughts about meaning that enlarge rather than reduce the work.  Sam Anderson, another of the authors in the Times feature, puts it this way:

Our work is a kind of ground zero of intertextuality, in which one text converges on another to create a third, hybrid, ultratext.  This self-reflexiveness doesn’t make critical writing secondary or parasitic, as critics of the critics have said for centuries; it makes it complex and fascinating and exponentially exciting.

For every student reluctant to analyze literature, I have another who buys into criticism too ardently and writes papers arguing for seeing a literary work in a correct light.  They attempt tight legal cases aimed to establish, beyond doubt’s shadows, that THIS is what the author intended, that THIS is the true meaning or implication of this work.  Anderson’s perspective offers a valuable anodyne for both the skeptic and the zealot—the critic’s job isn’t to redefine literature.  Quite the contrary, the critic adds to the original, makes more of the work visible and significant.  Critical essays supply exponents.

Perhaps the most relevant part of the Times article was the statement of poet and critic Adam Kirsch, entitled “The Will Not to Power, But to Understanding.”  Kirsch goes beyond criticism’s effect on the work or even the reader.  Some critics, he points out, persist long after the literature they analyze, because, “They each show a mind working out its own questions—about psychology, society, politics, morals—through reading.”  For Kirsch, thoughts about literature are thoughts first, and truth, not interpretation, lies at the center of criticism.  When your purpose is broader, “You write for an ideal reader, for yourself, for God, or for a combination of the three.”

Call me crazy, but I enjoy papers written from that stance.  If I could get my students to see their interaction with stories, poems, plays, and novels with that sort of vitality—as a way to discover themselves and something bigger than themselves—their criticism might mean much more to both of us.  They would no longer be writing five paragraphs but true essays that, however flawed, seek revelation.

Leave a comment

Filed under Art, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Humanities, Modern Life, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing

“Winter Wonderland”: An Exegesis

In that last few weeks I’ve read many, many critical essays on literature, so I thought I’d offer this parody suited to the season.  None of the papers I read are really this crazy, but perhaps it says something about the critical essay form that it can be twisted this way.

Don’t worry.  I’m not serious.

Recent criticism of the song “Winter Wonderland” has focused on it as a work of faith—Nagurski called the poem, “A utopian examination of how the coldest and least lively season, naturewise, can be really pretty cheery” and R. Grange mentioned it in his respected collection of critical essays, Songs that Make Me Grin.  However, to see the work correctly, a reader needs to note its accretive fiction and the purposeful delusion that piles up like so many deep snow drifts.  Doing so leads to the same conclusion T. S. Eliot reached when he said the song was “more a work of doubt than faith.”

As Eliot pointed out, the initial question in the song really frames the entire work.  The first line asks, “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?” and the astute reader might ask in response, “Am I listening?  Of course I’m listening.  Wouldn’t I hear some damn sleigh bells if they were ringing?” The true question behind this seemingly innocent inquiry is whether the listener is willing to participate in an obvious fiction.  The song queries, “Are you willing to accept the sound of sleigh bells?  Conjure them now, if you will.”  If the reader is unwilling to conjure, the end of that first verse, “A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight / Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland” rings emptily, offering an unsubstantiated, entirely unjustified happiness. Who is to say “We are happy tonight” after all?  What is the basis for this so-called happiness?  All the reader has to go on is the “glist’nin’ snow” in the lane in the third line.  Is that enough?  What if the reader had to drive somewhere—because some readers work at night, remember—would glist’nin’ snow make them happy?  The aesthetic question “What is beauty?” also lurks like a creepy, half-inflated, ghostlike front lawn Santa.

Some readers undoubtedly will cry for suspended disbelief, but the poet, it seems, expects just such skepticism.  The next verse makes no effort to rouse a reader or justify his or her elation over a little “glist’nin’” snow.  In fact, it opens with an absence, “Gone away is the bluebird.” As an established symbol of happiness, the bluebird’s disappearance is conspicuous.  The happiness so tentatively granted in the opening moments immediately disappears as well.  It is gone, and in its place is some unnamed “new bird” a reader is supposed to find so comforting.  An unnamed bird that arrives in winter when all of the others are flying south is worth comment.  Few readers speak bird and thus could say with certainty whether this clearly lost bird is singing a love song or a lament that he is freezing in a climate for which he is clearly unsuited, the average tolerable temperature for a small bird being 45°F  or 7°C, well above freezing.  Does the author even expect a reader to swallow what is now the fifth supposition of the poem.  Is it believable?  It is not and—this is the song’s brilliance of course—it is not meant to be.  This text looks happy, but like the glist’nin’ snow, its shiny surface hides a pretty bad car wreck waiting to happen.

The accumulating fictions continue apace in the third verse.  “In the meadow”—does a reader need to be told it is a meadow; is not a reader just being reminded of what it is not—green, lush, and full of life?  Then “we”—the author is careful to include readers so they begin to chafe against the restrictive hempen restraints with which he binds them so very, very, very tightly—”can build a snowman.”  Yes, a reader could build a snowman, but would he?  And if he did, would said snowman be anything more than an empty white figure who really stands for nothing and no one, a symbol of the companionship so many people so desperately seek and cannot find during the holiday season because no one really understands the workings of another mind, particularly a discerning mind that sees so, so much more in what others simply accept as “happy”?

By the appearance of Parson Brown, the enigmatic center of the song, the fiction has begun to wheel like the falcon in Yeats’ “Second Coming.” “We,” the identity superimposed on the reader, superimposes the name “Parson Brown” on a white no one.  The name is pointedly bland, generic, but the color is interesting.  The juxtaposition of white snow—which at its best might represent new hope—and brown—the color of decay and decline—is pointed.  Similarly the verb “pretend” stands out.  It is out in the open now, the reader is pretending and knows it.  The conversation with this specious parson is not any more comforting.  He says, “Are you married?” which is quite a personal question from a pile of compacted frozen precipitation.  Yet the reader answers, “No, man!  But you can do the job when you’re in town.”  Again the fiction stretches beyond the bounds of credulity.  Even if readers could accept they are out in a frozen meadow having a conversation with what amounts to an icy mannequin, even if they could accept that this frozen figure is endowed with a name and a job, even if they can accept that they are going to marry whoever is the narrator of this song, would any sane reader call a parson “man”?  “Parson Brown” evokes early New England and “man” evokes Jack Kerouac and smoky nightclubs.  The two cannot be in the same sentence. G. Sayer argues that it is the only way the rhyme would work, but a reader might remain unconvinced because the reader could have been convinced that a reader is supposed to be unconvinced by what is patently unconvincing. “You can do the job when you’re in town” obviates the failure of these multiple fictions.  The parson / snowman is in town, and he cannot do the job because, based on thorough research into international statues, snowman weddings are not legally binding in any state or country.

Ultimately the poem leaves readers huddled by the meager consolation of a tepid fire. Readers “conspire” because they know it will take some cabal, some magic obviously absent in the early twenty-first century world, to make our “dreams”—aptly named—happen.  The seemingly optimistic promise that readers will face their plans “unafraid” just illuminates the fear they do feel and can only attempt to face.  Why do readers need to fear their own plans unless they know that these plans, like the parson statue still standing like a post in the empty meadow, are vulnerable fictions, ideas they cannot ever completely convince themselves are real.  The final image of “walkin’ in the winter wonderland” leaves readers thinking of Lear wandering the moors, all anchors lost.  It is indeed a “wonderland,” but readers are left wondering that they did not perceive its emptiness before now.

4 Comments

Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, Experiments, Fiction, High School Teaching, Humanities, Parody, Satire, Teaching, Thoughts, Winter, Work, Writing

Grading December

This time of year, assessment fatigue creeps up on me.  I know the immense responsibility of responding to student work, but I grow tired of judging the merit of what they produce.  Hours of reading essays, tests, and rewrites improves my attention to students’ writing and thinking—what’s missing, confusing, promising, what’s singing and what’s stammering, what’s reaching out to readers and what’s just fulfilling the assignment.  However, the final act—writing A, B, C, (or worse) and deciding what a student’s effort deserves—becomes painful.  I’d rather skip it.

In a creative writing course last year, I experimented with assessing the volume and quality of student effort instead of judging the merit of what they produced.  To pass the course, students had to complete major writing projects conscientiously, through multiple drafts and workshops. But they could raise their grade from there by choosing to write smaller, optional assignments. I reserved the right at the end of the semester to lower or raise their final average by up to five points if they exceeded or disappointed expectations, but few fell short.  For the most part, students worked hard to reach the grade they desired.  And all I had to do was make challenging and inspiring assignments, monitor what students had completed, and assess the quality of their effort.  While I responded to all their work thoughtfully with the same volume of comments I always do, I did not put a letter on any assignment all semester.

As exams approach, I’ve been wondering, would it be possible to devise a “contract exam”?  So, though I should have been writing my real exams, I’ve written a contract exam instead.  I know it’s not realistic—I know it would never work, and I confess to indulging a little wish fulfillment in creating it.  I wrote this exam for fun and think of it as a sort of fantasy of what an exam might be…

SEMESTER EXAMINATION: Literature Class

Before you begin, please review these general directions:

  • By fulfilling the tasks on this examination, you will gather points towards 100.
  • This exam is unlimited—you may spend as much time on it as you like and respond to as many questions as you like.
  • However, you should spend no more time on it than you like—writing that is perfunctory, desultory, spiritless, disengaged, or generally obligatory is unlikely to receive points.
  • Please choose tasks that inspire you.  Doing everything on this exam—the shotgun approach—is counterproductive and will not yield success.

Section I: Must (75%)—In order to pass this exam, you must complete THREE of the following tasks connected to critical moments in the works you have read.  As always, your writing will be assessed for its focus, organization, and substance.  However, those comments will be for your personal growth as a writer only.  It is up to you to decide what is the proper length, form, and content of your responses.  You will receive full points if you complete what you are being asked to do in a credible fashion.

For THREE different literary works, write about a moment when…

  • a main character recognizes something important about him or herself
  • the author reveals a characteristic approach or technique
  • a secondary element (minor character, setting, motif, etc.) supports a major theme
  • a work establishes a question or issue it means to address but not answer
  • the resolution of tension or contradiction becomes clear

Section II: Might (30%)—All of the six point tasks below are optional. Please proceed only if a task inspires specific thoughts or reactions.  You will receive points if your responses add to a reader’s understanding of the work in question. As in the first section, commentary on your ideas and your expression of them will be a means of developing your writing skills.

  1. Take a moment in a work in from one genre and convert it to another—turn a poem’s line into a scene from a short story, make a scene in a story into a poem, etc.
  2. Speak in the voice of one of the writers we’ve studied and talk about what you are trying to accomplish in one of your works.
  3. Imagine a director has chosen to adapt one of the works we’ve encountered—write a letter advising him or her of the particular challenges the work presents.
  4. Discuss one personal connection you made with one of the works we’ve read—when did you say “I really understand what that’s about”?
  5. Choose the writer we’ve encountered who seems to come closest to your own view of what writing should be and do and discuss why.
  6. Create a conversation between characters in separate works we’ve read.  What might they have to say to one another if they knew each knew both stories?
  7. Recommend one of the works we’ve encountered to a friend—what is it exactly that makes it worth reading… perhaps because it offers something this particular friend?
  8. Describe a main character during a private moment in which he or she says nothing.  Communicate your understanding of this character within this constraint.
  9. Explain how an absence in one of the works we’ve encountered helps establish what the author hoped to communicate.
  10. Use a statement from one of the works we encountered and write a two minute radio piece expressing why that statement has been memorable and meaningful to you.
  11. Address the work that gave you the most difficulty and account for why.
  12. Devise a task along the lines of the ones above—but not covered in any of them—and respond to it.

Section III: Recovery Points—You may receive points to compensate for losses in the first two sections by writing a letter about your experience reading literature in this class. All decisions about the length, form, content, and direction of this letter are your own—please think about what you want to say.

When you have completed your work, please check it over to assure that you have presented yourself in the best possible light.  See you next semester.

Like I said, it would NEVER work.

1 Comment

Filed under Education, Essays, Exams, Experiments, High School Teaching, Hope, Humanities, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Writing

Only Disconnect

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Aging, Art, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Howards End, Humanities, Laments, Opinion, Teaching, Thoughts