What good is reading?

“…the first Principles of Honour, Truth, Temperance, Publick Spirit, Fortitude, Chastity, Benevolence, and Fidelity. The Names of all which Virtues are still retained among us in Languages, and are to be met with in modern as well as ancient Authors, which I am able to assert from my own small Reading.” –Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, Part 4, Chapter 12.

It reminds us of the things we hold dear or have held dear. And, according to Gulliver anyway, good authors will tell us the truth, that we may learn from them.

How to teach literature

Reading literature:

As an avid reader, I have enjoyed taking literature courses. My second field of study in my doctoral program was Old English language and literature. In addition, my master’s focused on literature primarily in early British and American literature for a total of thirty-six graduate hours in literature.  I have relished the opportunities I have had to teach literature classes, both sophomore British literature through the eighteenth century and freshman writing about literature.

In teaching a literature course, I believe that the more the students enjoy the readings in class, the more likely they are to finish the assigned texts and continue reading similar works after they finish the course.  Examining the choices available, I select works I am enthusiastic about, since enthusiasm is contagious.  Beowulf is a favorite of mine and the students benefit from studying the work with someone who enjoys it.  I have had students, even those who have studied the work before, tell me that they did not realize Beowulf was so fascinating.  I do not think the text changed, but the way they looked at it clearly did.

Providing background information:

I also make sure the students have the background they need to understand a particular work, including historical, linguistic, and cultural information.  For example, when teaching “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I introduce the students to the history of psychiatric care and to the changing expectations of women, specifically delineating the idea of the “weaker sex” and how that plays out in illness, relationships, and social life. Additional readings include Nellie Bly’s biography and her expose of asylums, Ten Days in a Mad-House, while those who wish to learn more about historical responses to insanity might read Torrey and Miller’s The Invisible Plague or for a quicker overview examine posts on the topic at www.claytoncramer.com/weblog/blogger.html. I also try to give the students related literary readings, so that they can see the work as a part of a larger canon and not as a work in isolation. When teaching Gilman’s short story, the class also reads “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin and the play “Trifles” by Susan Glaspell.  This gives the students the opportunity to compare the role of illness, both mental and physical, and the role of women in different stories written during similar time periods.  This enrichment approach to literature encourages the students to develop their own deeper insights about the works and the themes and ideas presented in them.

Modeling how to read literature:

Modeling how to read literature is a practice essential to my courses.  I usually begin to read the assignment with the students, since this introduces them to the work in a non-threatening way.  When a concept is new to the course, I often have the class brainstorm together; when teaching Shakespeare, the class collaborates on possible definitions for tragedy and comedy.  When I am teaching poetry and want them to practice intense reading, I allow them to choose a poem not on my assigned list and, as a class, we read through it on consecutive days, making notes and identifying our changing understanding of the work. They expect me as the expert to know everything about a poem with the first reading and this experiment lets me show them how even someone well versed in reading poetry can learn from subsequent readings.

If the literary work is challenging, I provide help with vocabulary lists and questions to focus on particular issues as needed.  Several of my students have said that these act as a guide for them when they are reading so they know that they understand the text when they are able to begin to answer the questions.  A sample question for Gulliver’s Travels is:

Gulliver says, “Although there were few greater lovers of mankind, at that time, than myself, yet I confess I never saw any sensitive being so detestable on all accounts; and the more I came near them the more hateful they grew, while I stayed in that country” (Bk. 4, Ch. 2).

  Gulliver’s revulsion forms the basis for his intense hatred of mankind (misanthropy).  Why and to what extent is it normal for Gulliver to react to the Yahoos this way and how is his reaction problematic?

Questions like these allow the students to explore the text and its implications rather than just rush through a reading to say it is finished and perhaps miss the reading’s most important lessons.  If a student can read well, most things become accessible.

Goals for literature:

In my classes I also discuss the applications of literary analysis to other areas of their lives.  A character analysis can be very similar to a personnel review, for example.  It can also be useful when trying to sort out personality conflicts among friends.  In addition I try to show that other people, besides English teachers, have read the works and expect that they will have too.  To do this, I bring in comic strips or cartoons that refer to the works we are reading.  I also reference editorial letters in newspapers or magazine articles on other topics that refer to literature. It is a light-hearted way to make a serious point.  I hope that they are encouraged to keep reading long after the assignments are completed.