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.