CCTE: Taking Literature Public

Linda K. Hughes, TCU
“Widening Literature’s Audience through Service Learning and Civic Exchange”

8 books, a contract for feminist anthology from Oxford University Press

In teaching, there is always something new to learn.

In the 70s, many more English majors. Now it holds steady.
Creative Writing programs are flourishing.

Today’s students are mostly taught “instrumental learning.” That is, they look at the surface meaning.

Lack of sustained reading makes literature harder.

Reconceptualization of university’s as community partners does not always consign prominence to humanities

Summers “What You (Really) Need to Know” New York Times, 22 January 2012.

Service learning and study abroad were presented as key ways of increasing humanities importance:
empathy
critical thinking
imagination

Various conferences, local campus occasions, presidential speeches led me to develop/create a reason why humanities is important.
“Why read literature?”

2004 National Endowment for the Arts report Reading at Risk
2008 report is Reading on the Rise

Created a New Course: Why Read Literature?
I decided the course
1. Had to live up to the critical inquiry
2. Had to include diverse theoretical and historical readings
3. Had to be proven on students’ pulses
4. Had to consider the question in relation to communities beyond the classroom.

Readings assigned:
Aristotle, Horace, Sidney, Shelley, Arnold on literature
“In Defense of Reading” -> Keillor’s intro to good poems, excerpts from Freedom Diary
reading for pleasure “Reading the Romance” and “Crisis at the Outset in Professing Literature” and “Ideology in Cultural Form and Canonical X”
next turned to science “Science that Makes Us Unique” and “Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction”
then considered book readings and public “Reading Oprah”
first section of Reading Lolita in Tehran
Also read literature throughout the whole course.

Inseparability of critical thinking, critical reading, and classroom experience. The addition of civic exchange and service learning was even more important.
This added a lot of work. Getting students there and getting their liability wavers.

2 high school experiences
2 senior citizen groups (one independent living and one assisted living)
Students select and present a literary work to a Fort Worth civic audiences, whose members receive a copy of this work in advance. Each group (7-9 students) must present on the work for no more than a total of 25 minutes.
The Fort Worth civic audience chose a work. They sent the students the work to read. Then the civic audience presented.
Students had to respond to both of these in a reflective essay.

Easier for the high school students.
Working with a teacher makes sure that the civic audience has a presentation ready.

First visit with senior citizens always went well on the first visit. Retired persons have fewer resources or reasons for creating second presentation visit. (One student group went prepared with a Shakespeare poem to talk about, if their group was not prepared.)

At semester’s end, they had to synthesize the course reading and the service learning experience to answer the question of the title of the course.

Student Responses
Danny:
“moved by Kemunyakaa’s poem… more moved by the pleasure that the senior citizens derived…”

Catherine:
“at the end of my high school career, I was terrified of college… Through service learning these students were given a glimpse into the world that is college. … They made me feel helpful because I could see their relief after our second meeting.”

Kristal:
“any way two totally different generations can come together in one room and have truly meaningful conversations and learn something from each other? The answer is yes.”

Catherine:
“not until I was outside the classroom that I understood the reasons we have talked about in class…. gives common ground where there is none”

Catherine:
“Most people in the room came right out and said they did not like poetry. This allowed us to relate to each other… We were still able to have an in-depth conversation on our different interpretations… I was afraid to go too deep in a discussion and what I felt the poem meant because it made me feel very vulnerable…”

Mary:
“I got to explain to them that reading literature is a personal experience that is all a person’s own. The emotional aspect in reading cannot be tested and cannot be right and wrong. … It is not until I have reached college that I understand reading for pleasure and testing.”

HS teachers:
“My students were so excited to have a chance to participate… more important they were proud of their work… This particular class received no grade or extra credit for their work… They agreed to participate in order to be part of an intellectual exchange with you… because of your work… they were motivated”

“This is my new understanding of the term student self-directed learning… watching my students lead a discussion of a Robert Browning poem.”

They put together an experience that depended on reading literature… got more than they experienced.

Senior Citizens:
Residents were more interested in talking about their war (WWII) than about Vietnam. Students learned about the stark contrast between the returning veterans… Even less expected was that we would all be meeting a poet. (famous Dutch-American poet and carried out hematology research–an international literary figure)

Heaney poem was chosen by the senior citizens.
“When we climb the slopes of X
we were eye level with the cups of the telephone poles…”
One of the residents stood up and recited from memory in high school and had never forgotten.

Students came away with a fresh appreciation of older persons’ knowledge.

Three students returned to talk about the poet one more time.

Activities Director said:
“We have many scholars in our community… and as an outsider, watching our residents interact with the students… Not everyday that they can share with such bright, young students… Residents still inquire about the students…”

DIFFERENT experience at other senior citizens’ center
One person spoke up for the first time about her brother being killed in the Korean War but also afterward when no one ever paid tribute to the fallen in that war.
One of the students in my class was from South Korea. His grandfather had taught him to honor the American soldiers who gave them freedom. Every year they celebrated.

When I paid a return visit this year, the Activities Coordinator told me that the resident had died recently. When her family came, they were told of the experience.

Unexpected and immeasurable outcomes…
Especially when we take literature beyond the classroom and into civic studies.

Though any comments on a take-home final exam are suspect, every final mentioned communal reading.
Private effects, as well as public ones.

Daniel is a CS major. Asserted that without literature there would not be much reading outside of one’s self and “encourages socialization. … Reminds me of Plato’s cave story. Being in a class setting has helped me untie the bounds of reading on my own.”

Catherine, interior design major. Catherine found the theoretical readings crucial. After the HS experience, we read “Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals…”
Catherine said, “Unless we read … in conjunction with theoretical readings…” our reading is limited. “opened my eyes to cultures other than my own”

Jordan, CJ major. Singled out TSEliot’s Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock
“This poem allowed me to learn a lesson personally more than anything else… Trhough the reading and analyzing of this poem I learned … it can be very difficult to not be insecure about the way you look or act… Literature has the power to teach someone to be themselves, rather than someone society wants you to be.”

Alexis, education major. Positioned literature’s social function
“creates curiosity and keeps society thinking and questioning”
“Before this class I saw reading as a burden… I now see it as less intimidating and a completely essential part of my learning experience not only while at college but in life.”

Dr. Hughes’ said
“I also see a public social dimension… have a fresh sense that part of its meaning is what happens… beyond its text…”

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