MLA Roundup #3: Why Teach Literature Anyway?

445. Why Teach Literature Anyway?

12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 201-B, Pennsylvania Convention Center

Program arranged by the Division on the Teaching of Literature

Presiding: John Paul Riquelme, Boston Univ.

1. “Literature as Public Humanities,” Wai Chee Dimock, Yale Univ.

2. “Reading versus Life?” Jonathan Culler, Cornell Univ.

3. “Reading Critically and the Recovery from the Stupid Years,” Jean Elizabeth Howard, Columbia Univ.

I imagine these papers will be published, but I thought this excellent panel, in which three speakers discussed “why,” deserved some rounding up as well.

Wai Chee Dimock answered the panel’s titular question by exploring the kinds of teaching that go on outside of the classroom, giving the examples of programs that offer literary study as an alternative to incarceration and also her own Facebook project on rethinking world literature.  She wanted to broaden the definition of teaching literature from things that happen in the classroom to things that happen outside of it, showing how research and teaching in our discipline have an impact in the world.

Jonathan Culler proposed that those who have written about the value of teaching literature fall roughly into two camps: one group appeals to “critical skills,” while the other appeals to literature’s usefulness for life.  But the “literature as useful for life” argument, he pointed out, doesn’t actually make the case for teaching literature.  To experience the positive effects of literature (extended empathy; bracketing self-interest; resocialization) one needs to read it, but not necessarily take a class in it. The “critical skills” advocates appeal to analysis: students can be taught to read against the grain and to expose implicit ideologies. Culler noted, however, that students often resist this form of teaching; they don’t want to tear apart works they love.  An informal survey to find out how students might answer the “why” question from their end revealed that only a tiny percentage answered in ways that their professors might have hoped. Culler asked a lot of interesting questions: how are these two ways of seeing literature related? Divergent? Opposed? He concluded by suggesting that the distinctiveness of literature is not easily assimilated into either lessons for life OR the exposure of ideological investments.

Finally, Jean Howard gave an inspiring talk about the value of “slow reading.”  Essentially, she argued that the Bush years were a time when the dominant culture celebrated stupidity.  Our work involves teaching student to read critically, welcoming complexity and helping to recover from those stupid years.  For Howard, the skill of critical reading has an important political payoff.  She defended the exposure of ideological investments, but also argued that instructors should not push their own points of view on students, as doing so would be the opposite of teaching critical reading. Slow reading must be learned, she argued, thus answering Culler’s critique of the “literature as tool for life” arguments, for students need guidance to develop this kind of close attention. Critical “slow reading” teaches students to question the face value of a text and its truth claims.  While the text being read is ultimately less important to Howard than the way one reads it, literature departments, she pointed out, teach critical reading better than anyone else.

I hope I’ve done justice from notes and memory here to these very worthwhile talks. Each raised important points.  I was struck, however, by the way each of them read the question “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” in a slightly different way.  An article in the Chronicle claimed that none of them had an answer for the question, but I think it would be more accurate to say that each of them answered a different version of it.  Perhaps Dimock answered the question:  “How does teaching literature, capaciously defined, benefit society?”  The classroom did not figure into this particular talk (although she certainly wasn’t arguing against the possibility that classroom teaching is socially useful).  Culler answered the question: “Why do I teaching literature and what do I want my students to get out of it?”  Howard asked, I think,: “How does my teaching benefit my students and shape their role as citizens, and thus benefit the world in which they participate?”

I think the Chronicle reporter was disappointed because none of them actually answered the questions heard perhaps more frequently outside of MLA meetings: “Why should my tax dollars go to professors teaching literature at my local state school/community college?  Why should literature classes be a priority (or funded at all) in the face of so many other needs and so many more practical and/or relevant options?  Why should I/my kid take a literature course?”  That is, the speakers tended to focus on why they (and perhaps by extension “we”) teach literature rather than on why, from a social point of view, literature should be taught. (It seems to me that the title, lacking a subject, could be read either way.)  I appreciated the important ways that they answered the question, but I hope we can find opportunities to talk about this second possible meaning of the question as well.



7 responses to “MLA Roundup #3: Why Teach Literature Anyway?

  1. Eleanor Shevlin

    Many thanks, Laura, for this very fine overview of this MLA session as well as your engagement with the Chronicle‘s critique of it. I am in the process of finalizing my syllabus for a section of our first of three “core”courses, Conventions of Reading and Writing, and one of its threads address a version (or yet another version) of the question titularly posed by the panel.

    As previous postings/comments have mentioned in passing, explaining the discipline and its value to the public seems a crucial task if we wish to see its continued relevance.

  2. Hi Laura,

    Thanks for this, first of all, and please pass along the link to the Chronicle article if you still have it.

    The divergent tacks taken by each of these well-known critics suggests that the justifications we might use for teaching literature need to be conceived as multiple and overlapping, possibly because of the range of uses we make of the “literary.”

    Dimock seems to link literature up to the principle of “life-long learning,” and the notion that our research and discussions are giving our students and the public tools for understanding their lives on a long-term basis.

    Culler’s distinction between the “critical skills” and the “utility for life” arguments is helpful because these approaches clearly go in different directions, and appeal to different constituencies, different kinds of readers or learners. His observations about the relative indifference of students, say, to the “critical skills” agenda is important, as is the thought that there is nothing distinctively literary about the textual objects that might inspire such pedagogies.

    Finally, Howard’s description of “slow reading” seems to move us in a more concrete direction, because I think she is trying to describe the kinds of texts, or at least the kinds of attention we should bring to texts, that merit such engagement. But I think her assertion that literature departments are the best at teaching this still begs the question of why we should feel this is true: what is it about learning how to read Clarissa that is different than, say, learning how to read philosophy or history, let alone other work in the academy? This is an answer I’d be very eager to hear.

    As for your final point, I think that asking senior scholars to reflect upon their own rationales for teaching literature provides really invaluable insights, but Culler’s suggestion about talking to students, and at various stages, might help us to understand why people would want to learn more about literature. I suspect the answer would have to do with the fact that literature provides insights into people, situations, states of mind, as well as places and times, that are otherwise unavailable to us. But that answer still assumes our interest in such things.

  3. Eleanor Shevlin

    The responses to the query “Why Teach Literature?” that these three well-known academics provide receive some support and elaboration in the number of professional graduate programs that offer electives in literature. In fact, academics in these professional programs have offered their own reasons for why teaching literature has value.

    For example, a March 2006 article, “Leadership in Literature,” published in the Harvard Business Review discusses the value of integrating coures in literature in MBA programs:

    Students could learn a lot more about these subjects[leadership and organizational behavior], Bennis and O’Toole argued, if they took a course in literature. Fiction can be as instructive about leadership and organizational behavior as any business textbook.”

    The essay’s next paragraph turns to Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr., the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School, who is the actual focus of the article. Shad has been teaching literature courses to Harvard MBA students since the mid-1990s.

    Badaracco uses literature to provide his students with well-rounded, complex pictures of leaders in all walks of life—leaders whose challenges, particularly psychological and emotional ones, parallel those of senior executives. In his classes, Badaracco uses texts such as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Sophocles’s Antigone, and Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” to help students understand questions of leadership, decision making, and moral judgment. Badaracco also examines these issues in his forthcoming book Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature (Harvard Business School Press, April 2006).

    More recently, “he has also led discussions about serious literary fiction with executives” at the Harvard Business School. Interestingly, another explanation for why these courses are needed is that many graduate students are no longer coming to grad programs having taken such courses as undergraduates.

    For many years now (and I assume they still are)Yale’s and Notre Dame’s medical schools have included literature electives. Other medical faculty have written about the value of offering such courses and their experiences in doing so.

    For example, Harriet Squires, MD, (Michigan State University’s Medical School) opens her article, “The teaching of literature and medicine in medical school education,” with the assertion:

    The longer I practice medicine, and the longer I teach medical students, the centrality of literature to my work becomes ever clearer.

    The link provides access to a PDF of the entire article.
    In the abstract to his article, “Literature in our medical schools,” Dr. Blair H. Smith (University of Aberdeen) succinctly describes the benefits literary study affords medical students:

    As well giving as a wider general education, areas of medical training and practice that a literary education will benefit directly include critical reading and appraisal, communication skills, history taking, ‘surrogate experience’, understanding the role of the physician, ethics, and self-expression. Many of these are central to our understanding of good medical practice.

    This article, appearing in The British Journal of General Practice (1998 June; 48(431): 1337–1340), also is linked to the full text.

    Many years ago the pre-med advisor at Maryland told me that the verbal score on the MCAT’s has been judged to be one of the best predictors of success in medical school. It was about this time that I began investigating these cross-over courses.

    These are just a few examples. Given the focuses on interpretation and narrative that characterize legal studies and that English is considered a pre-law major, it is not surprising that some law faculty also promote the study of literature. Here’s the reference to an article that uses the benefits of teaching literature to law students as the springboard for teaching literature to accounting students: John R. Dorocak and S. E. C. Purvis, “Using Fiction in Courses: Why Not Admit It?” Law and Literature, 16.1 (Spring, 2004): 65-91. It is accessible through JStor.

  4. Laura Rosenthal

    Re Howard on Clarissa: she raised this issue, but sidestepped by saying that *what* we teach is less important than the way we teach it. I think it is probably true that we teach careful reading better than anyone else, but you’re right that this in itself does not make a case for a distinctiveness of the discipline. Implicit in her talk was the suggestion that this method of reading could be used on a range of texts. Would the logical extention of that then be that there really is nothing distinctive, even methodologically, about reading*Clarissa*? Yet it seems to me too that it can’t be a coincidence that the readers of *Clarissa*, etc., develop these reading strategies that you don’t see in other disciplines in the same way.

    I think you’re right that there was an assumption of ongoing interest in programs that teach literature, which put the panel a bit at odds with the rest of the MLA experience, if not at the panels then in the hallways and lobbies where faith in that assumption seemed to be eroding.

  5. Laura Rosenthal

    Just to clarify–my comment above was a response to Dave. I think Eleanor and I were posting at the same time! Anyway, Eleanor, those are some very interesting references from instructors at various kinds of professional schools. Interesting, too, that they are noticing that fewer students are coming to them with such courses already under their belts.

  6. From my point of view, the “critical skills” position is probably the most reflective of what we do, since it does entail inquiry. Yet what we used to call “appreciation” seems important, too, if we wish to have any contact with the portion of the reading public that reads for pleasure. My position is that the more distant historically the text is, the more necessary the kind of inquiry we teach students to do. Clarissa will not seem like a great novel until you get a sense of where, when, and why it was written.

    Inquiry, though, depends on curiosity and some degree of pre-existing interest, and that is what many of us who study pre-20th c lit think is disappearing.

    I’d say, though, that the “critical skills” position moves us toward what we’re already seeing, English departments that revolve around the notion of “writing,” with creative writing and rhet/comp prominently featured. This is something Marc Bousquet has argued, and I think it has a lot of plausibility.

    That is, unless someone call tell us why studying literary authors, works, and genres in their historical periods necessarily leads us to better critical thinking than studying arguments directly. I’m not averse to such an argument, but it seems weaker than I’d like.

  7. Eleanor Shevlin

    Very thoughtful comments, as usual, Dave.

    I lean toward the “critical skills” position as well. Yet, I think we can expand this notion to include the ability to read “alien” texts and make sense of them within the context in which they were produced. The skills and strategies involved in doing so seem quite transferrable to me. Different technical texts that students might encounter later in their professional lives (or even personal as informed citizens) can be equally “alien,” and the skills and awareness to tackle their foreignness, be it the particular usage of given words (that may welll have a different meaning in a more generalized context) to the conventions governing these texts, can be developed through English courses that focus on past periods. These claims admittedly don’t address what accords “literary” texts any special status in this process. Yet, the term “literary,” as has been discussed previously here, can assume a range of meanings. Indeed, what we treat as the “literary” texts of the eighteenth century often depart from what those at the time would have considered “literary” and the word itself had a different primary meaning, one more aligned with “literacy,” than it has today.