After years of favoring the endurance-test approach to teaching literature, a professor focuses on how to make books spark to life for her students
By Paula Marantz Cohen
Although I have been teaching for almost three decades, I feel I have only recently begun to teach. For years, I was doing what was expected: preparing detailed syllabi, grading piles of papers, and pontificating in front of a class about the importance of the subject matter that I had assigned. I thought I was teaching, and some of my students thought so too. But they were the diligent, receptive ones, and lately I’ve come to feel that diligent, receptive students don’t need teachers. The ones who do are the ones I used to gripe about: those who went directly to the SparkNotes, who didn’t proofread their papers, and who gave rote responses in class. They were the students whom I traditionally wrote off as not belonging in college—or at least not in my classroom.
Why did my thinking change? I suppose the precipitating factor came when I had children of my own. There is nothing more humbling to one’s self-esteem, more profoundly disruptive of one’s established worldview, than children—those creatures who know nothing of convention or tact, who speak truth to power (that is, their parents) because they haven’t yet learned to pretend or been cowed into doubting themselves. My children, though like me in some respects, were unlike me in others, and I eventually came to see myself through the lens of their difference. Their stubborn individuality forced me to acknowledge otherness in a new way and to question some of my most cherished assumptions. Watching them develop their tastes and interests spurred me to recall how I developed the tastes and interests that define me.
What I realized was that my reverence for books and learning had a dubious beginning. I began reading very young because it pleased my parents and I liked pleasing them. I continued to be studious because I wasn’t a particularly athletic or popular child, and getting good grades was something I could do with relative ease. Those who were like me— “the library crowd,” as we called ourselves—used our book knowledge to feel superior to our peers—and to rationalize the fact that we weren’t invited to the prom. Many of us went on to become college professors and thus gained power in the classroom, where we could lord it over those who were not like us. Louis Menand in a recent book on the stagnant state of the American university, The Marketplace of Ideas, makes the same point indirectly: “The [undergraduate] major is set up in such a way that the students who receive the top marks are the ones who show the greatest likelihood of going on to graduate school and becoming professors themselves.” In other words, most professors aim their teaching at people who resemble them—which is to say, people with the same sort of intellectual proclivities and learning styles that they have. Thus, the profession reproduces itself.
You may argue that there is nothing wrong with this. Whatever the reasons that people become readers and scholars, it is important that they come to do these things well. That may be so, but an inbred, homogeneous learning community is bound to be detrimental both to the knowledge circulating within it and to those who are not part of it. It means that many people are left out of the academic mix: they are never encouraged to discover the joys of reading and scholarship; their ideas never gain authority. Over the past 50 years, education has sought to be more inclusive of minorities formerly left on the margins of serious learning. But the seemingly “deadbeat” college student, viewed apart from his or her affiliation with a disenfranchised group—that constituency has been overlooked.
Until recently, I supported the method of teaching that was used in the undergraduate and graduate institutions where I received my degrees. In each case, the courses were designed as endurance tests to see which students would be able to muscle through the requirements: read a ton of books and write a slew of papers without cutting corners. I will never forget my first day in my first English class in 1971, where the professor handed out a syllabus that was 10 pages long. It included a list of required reading, a list of recommended reading, and a list of assignments, plotted out for each of the upcoming classes, so complicated that I felt myself grow faint at the sight of it. Even I—rumored to have read Pickwick Papers at the age of 8 (not true, but a great spur to my subsequent achievement)—even I was intimidated.
The experience of that English class affected my own teaching. It conditioned in me the idea that I had to be comprehensive in what I gave students and what I expected of them. If the process was painful, so be it—everything worth doing was painful.
Admittedly, over the years, my syllabi grew shorter. I became more “realistic” (the standard phrase) about what I assigned and how much reading and writing I required. But the spirit in which I taught did not essentially change. In reducing the syllabus, I tacitly believed that I had “dumbed it down” to fit the needs of the philistine youth I was teaching. The assumption remained that this was not what one ought to be doing, that the students were somehow not what they ought to be, and that I was, in the manner of the good soldier deployed to an uncongenial war zone, doing my best given the limitations at hand.
As I said, these assumptions began to change after I had children. In time, my students began to seem like surrogate children and began to influence me further.
What has emerged from this rethinking is an entirely different attitude toward teaching that will no doubt appall some of my colleagues. It involves a determination to see the material I teach through the eyes of my students. As I read, I ask myself how they will respond—will this intrigue them, amuse them, annoy them, anger them, bore them? I want any of these reactions, except the last. Boredom can make an appearance later, once students have developed a general interest in the subject matter, but if it comes too early, it is death to learning.
I should note that I myself was an exception to this rule. During my own college years, I never allowed myself to be defeated by boredom but saw it as an opponent to be scorned and wrestled to the ground. I have since come to see my tolerance for boredom as a function of vanity and insecurity—the result of a desire to prove that, if I could manage nothing else, I could manage difficulty. I now know that for most people, boredom is not a challenge but a warning—an indication that they ought to stop doing what bores them and start doing something else. What constitutes teaching, as I now see it, is finding strategies to keep boredom at bay so students won’t decide too early to find something else to do.
But let me take my new perspective out of the realm of the abstract and put it into the classroom. The example I will use is a course I taught last year: a survey of British literature from the Romantic era through the Modern era. There were 25 students in the class, most of them junior and senior non-English majors who chose my course because it fit into their schedules and fulfilled the humanities requirement they needed for graduation. These were students who genuinely needed to be taught since they were not predisposed to the material and had no practical reason to learn it.
In my approach to the class, I adopted two strategies that deviated markedly from the way I used to teach. The first was to keep the syllabus short and open to change. In the past, I established detailed readings and assignments in advance, and these remained immutable. I now saw this as an unrealistic approach. Even a bad teacher knows that a class takes on a life of its own. Being willing to break away from a preestablished syllabus freed me to respect my class as a unique entity.
My second strategy was to be extremely careful about how much material I assigned. If the work was especially challenging, then it was important to dole out the reading in small increments, at least in the beginning, and to start by reading the piece aloud and discussing both the style and the meaning of the opening pages. Since it is obvious that reading a few sentences together with a class can ease the way and make a text much less daunting, it is a wonder that more teachers don’t do this on a regular basis.
The class had a number of memorable moments. One was a surprising experience with Wordsworth. I had assigned a few lyric poems by the Romantics, an excerpt from Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads, and then a set of readings from his masterpiece, The Prelude. This difficult poem—in the past a real interest killer—found a surprisingly warm response when assigned in carefully edited doses. One of my students referred to it as “self-soothing”—a remark that Wordsworth would have found worthy of his intention. I had the class read the sequence in the First Book in which the narrator steals a boat, then feels as if the mountain to which he is rowing is rising up to punish him for it (the passage is famous among English majors of my vintage). We proceeded to spend a class period discussing the first seven lines of this passage:
One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow-tree
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in,
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, not without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on …
You may argue that I had reverted to the New Critical method that had already begun to be out-of-date when I graduated from college in 1975. Of course I had; all good teaching grapples with the particulars of the text. But the approach wasn’t just close reading in the hermeneutical sense; it was also about familiarizing students with the language and style of the work, explaining the use of enjambment and caesura as these elements give the poem its vital connection to natural speech, and discussing Wordsworth’s intimate feeling for nature (“her”) and his profound appreciation for, and possible fear of, solitude. We discussed the mood that the poet was after and correlated it with experiences in our own lives that had given rise to a similar mood. We had read Blake before Wordsworth, and the students developed some cogent insights into the difference between nature in Blake, with its connection to industrial transformation and pollution (“And I pluck’d a hollow reed, / And I made a rural pen, / And I stain’d the water clear”), and the “self-soothing” quality of nature in Wordsworth.
Another high point for the class was our study of the Victorian prose writers. Three assigned readings in particular inspired a great deal of discussion and debate: excerpts from Thomas Carlyle’s Captains of Industry, John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, and John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice. All three readings were short—I had hewed them out of the larger samplings provided in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, and I carefully designated where students should begin and end, sometimes having them skip a paragraph here and there when I thought it might bog them down in unnecessary allusions or confusing verbiage.
In the Newman excerpt, one line gave rise to a good half hour of spirited debate: “I only say that Knowledge, in proportion as it tends more and more to be particular, ceases to be Knowledge.” Another discussion, led by the business students in the class, ensued around the lines from Carlyle: “Let the Captains of Industry retire into their own hearts, and ask solemnly, If there is nothing but vulturous hunger for fine wines, valet reputation and gilt carriages, discoverable there? Of hearts made by the Almighty God I will not believe such a thing. . . . Arise, save thyself, be one of those that save thy country.” I have to say that what I found high-flown and borderline ridiculous in Carlyle, they found powerful and inspiring.
But of the three readings, by far the favorite, giving rise to the most spirited discussion, was the excerpt from Ruskin’s “Savageness of Gothic Architecture” in Stones of Venice. Students were dazzled by Ruskin’s ability to move from an academic critique of the relationship of architecture to climate, to a cultural critique of the demeaning aspects of industrial production, to a larger philosophical exposition on human creativity. One line that sparked particular enthusiasm: “the finer the nature, the more flaws it will show through the clearness of it; and it is a law of this universe, that the best things shall be seldomest seen in their best form.” Many of my students were delighted by this idea. They felt they were expected to be perfect in whatever it was they undertook seriously (which might be why they resisted undertaking much seriously). Ruskin’s forgiveness—indeed, celebration—of the flawed effort over the polished one was a revelation to them: it gave them courage. I should also note that Ruskin might have been speaking directly to parents and teachers when he cautioned: “We are to take care how we check, by severe requirement or narrow caution, efforts which might otherwise lead to a noble issue; and, still more, how we withhold our admiration from great excellencies, because they are mingled with rough faults.”
The discussion of the stultifying effects of perfectionism led directly to my assigning chapter 5 of J. S. Mill’s Autobiography, not originally on the syllabus. Bringing us full circle was the fact that Mill’s reading of Wordsworth helped him out of his depression. He too had been “self-soothed” by that verse. At this point, I assigned Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode” as another addendum, and the students had insights now into how Wordsworth and Coleridge, close friends during a good portion of their lives, overlapped and diverged in their sensibilities, and why it was Wordsworth’s strength—and limitation—to be incapable of the sort of “dejection” (i.e., depression) that Coleridge suffered.
The class preferred the Romantic poets and the Victorian prose writers to the modernists—Joyce, Woolf, and Beckett—whom we also read in small doses. Worried about getting jobs and paying back college loans, the students were annoyed by what they saw as stylistic posturing and self-indulgent alienation. Yet a discussion of Beckett’s Endgame led them back to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, read earlier in the term but more resonant now in the context of this comparison. Some students noted that in both works God was the missing element. What they proposed was not a soppy or fundamentalist notion of God but something closer to a Wordsworthian one—that sense of the sublime in nature and human beings that sustains when brutality and selfishness threaten to crush or debase the spirit. Their return to Wordsworth for spiritual uplift, combined with their embrace of Ruskin’s moral uplift, tied our readings together with impressive force.
In teaching the class, I bypassed the long papers, midterms, and finals that generally punctuate a course of this kind. Instead, I required students to write at least a paragraph for every class session in response to the reading. They were encouraged to vary what they turned in—a paragraph when the work did not speak to them; more when it did. I sometimes graded their work and sometimes simply checked it, depending on whether there was enough substance there to warrant a grade. The importance of the assignment was not determined by me in advance, but by them. The shorter papers also made it easier to teach lessons in structure and style and to wean students from the habit of empty verbiage. In the end, no one felt inclined to dispute the final grade—and I assure you that I did not give all A’s. I suspect that students focus on grades when they believe that this is all they can get out of a course. When they feel they have learned something, the grade becomes less important.
I can foresee the criticism I will receive about my approach. Some will say that I taught this course like a high school course. Perhaps I did, but if so, does it matter? If the course happens in college with college-aged kids, then, it seems to me, it is a college course. I will say that the level of discussion and some of the insights in the papers were as elevated as anything I had experienced in classes where the students were better prepared and more initially receptive.
Another criticism that could be leveled against my approach is that I was teaching the course as a kind of adjunct to self-help. It is true that I pitched the texts to the personal aspects of my students’ lives. I chose the Ruskin excerpt, for example, because I sensed that students would respond to his argument against perfectionism—I knew they felt oppressed by the need to perform according to some artificial standard. But though some of our best discussions did spring from emotional identification with the literature (and there were times when the classroom sounded a lot like Oprah), I don’t think that this was all that happened. The students’ personal connection to the text was a conduit to other things: it sparked abstract thought and created an awareness of the existence in others of what George Eliot called “an equivalent center of self,” which is one of the great lessons of literature.
Finally, I expect that some readers of this essay will say that, though I have done a service to the students who might not ordinarily want to read and discuss literature, I have shortchanged the others, the ones like myself, who deserved to get more out of a course than the sort of carefully pruned readings and measured assignments that I offered. I think when I began this new method I may have agreed with them. But I’ve since changed my mind. Looking back at my own college career, the courses that stayed with me were the ones that engaged the whole class—where I heard people who I never would have thought to be interested in ideas approach the text with a lively irreverence or voice some novel concept.
Moreover, even though I read a great deal when I was in college, what I remember of my reading tends to be certain passages here and there, often those that sparked discussion in class, akin to the passages that I assigned and discussed in the examples above. In some cases my vivid recollection of these passages is why I assigned them now (a limitation in my method, I admit—but then, all teaching is limited by what the teacher admires and chooses to assign and highlight). Students who were truly interested in more reading, whether because they were thirsty for more knowledge or because they were addicted to difficulty (and admittedly, an interest in knowledge and a love of difficulty are not easily disentangled), did read more and were rewarded for it with extra credit and other forms of acknowledgment. But the class never became the sort of two-tiered enterprise that often happens in English classes made up of majors and nonmajors. It remained an integrated whole, with students respectful of each other for what they could bring to a discussion of a text by virtue of being the individuals they were.
This strikes me as the essence of what literary study should be: a kind of performance of the text by the class. Indeed, the comparison one can draw here is to a play performed by an amateur theatrical troupe. The performance may not be technically brilliant, but it is always, I venture to say, illuminating: it opens the play in unforeseen ways by having real human beings inhabit the roles. Hearing the response of diverse students to a text has the same effect. Even if the responses are partial and inarticulate, if they are genuinely felt, they can make the words on the page seem an adjunct to real life—and there is nothing more seductive to students than life. Such responses have the added value, for the teacher, of making the classroom perpetually new. Familiar texts continue to be surprising as their readers continue to be surprising. What is literary study, after all, but the rekindling of a sense of wonder in words, ideas, and the human spirit that made them?
Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and the recent What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper.
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