Love or tradition? That is the question.
This week’s New York Time’s Book Review essay, “From the Heart” by Dean Bakopoulos, gives his opinion on the best way to teach literature while instilling a love of books. Is it through traditional theory or through reader reaction? In short, the author argues that people – not just English majors – connect more to a book if they form a relationship with it. He believes that asking basic questions about what makes your spine tingle in a work and what lines you wish you’d written are a better way to learn the arts of reading and writing than classical deconstruction. I’m not a teacher, but I have to say, I agree.
As a book lover and English major, I wish more attention had been paid to how a book made me feel when I was in school. I would have learned more about the craft of writing from analyzing questions like, “Why did this passage move me?” or “What makes me hate this character?” – all things I’m learning to do now as I read as a writer – than, “What form of literary theory was used here?” or “What do you think the author meant by this?” (How the heck do I know? I’m not in their head!) Perhaps these traditional teaching methods informed me in a ways I fail to recognize – after all, I never thought I’d find value in the dreaded History of the English Language class, and I use it all the time – but I think there are more accessible ways of learning about literature.
Thinking back on college, I remember very few of the books I was required to read, mostly because I’m not a big fan of the classics and that’s what we focused on. But those I do remember, I recall because they moved me – not because I was able to elucidate a hidden literary theory or expound upon their narrative form. I remember the independence I admired in Moll Flanders, the heart-rending pain of Tess of the d’urbervilles, and the laugh-out-loud hilarity of the Importance of Being Earnest (or anything else by Oscar Wilde).
Today, when I reach for a new book, I don’t often ask myself what the critics thought (although sometimes I do ask myself that upon finishing a book!) or what school of literary thought the book comes from. But I can tell you what I tend to go for in a plot and why I like a certain author’s writing. In the end it comes down to one thing: I connect with the book. If I don’t, I usually don’t finish it.
The books that truly move me are the ones I could easily teach a course on, but it wouldn’t be Ivy League accepted curriculum; it would be why I and the students like/hate the characters, how the author builds a world we want to inhabit more than this one, and what it is that tugs at our souls when we read it. These are the things that make people avid readers and what give them the urge to try to create something themselves. This is how we make sure literature, whether classical or popular, doesn’t die out, and how we inspire generations of future writers to make that same connection with readers.
What do you think? Is there value in traditional methods of teaching literature? Or would you rather focus on the emotional connection with the reader? Why or why not? What moves you as a reader? English majors: what was your experience in school? Teachers: how would/do you teach?
My major was English, so I did have quite a few literature courses. I would say only two of my lit courses touched on how the materials made us feel, and they were both taught by a man who was also a well-published contemporary literary critic, essayist, and creative writing teacher; his understanding of language was tremendous.
I loved this approach but can understand the difficulty of just getting students to understand the meaning of, say, medieval or Renaissance lit, given how hard it can be to understand the cultural or historical context.
Starting the conversation in a traditional way and moving to the more emotional aspects, I feel, would be ideal and keep more students interested in such studies.
I like your approach. It’s a nice blend of both worlds.