Don’t Race Through a Great Book


For the next several weeks, we will republish our favorite “Teaching Lessons” columns from this year.

It is a tribute to Charles Dickens’s enduring genius that he can hook people who are not predisposed to reading long books—or reading any books, for that matter. The circuitous turns of the plot, the humor and vividness of the characters, the inventiveness of the language—all are irresistible if the reader puts in the time. Time is the key element here. Dickens wrote for serialization and intended his books to be read slowly. Yet most college English courses rush through a novel like David Copperfield in order to get to the next book on the syllabus.

Recently, to address this problem, the honors college where I serve as dean began offering one-credit courses devoted to single works. The courses have proved popular with students, who can tuck them into packed schedules or use them to supplement the odd credits associated with labs and practicums.

Our one-credit courses meet for an hour a week over a 10-week term. The only stipulation is that instructors teach a “great” work. You may wonder what that means. Is greatness a social construction? Are we perpetuating bias by elevating certain works above others? Such questions are worth pondering, but we have embraced the idea of greatness without apology. The point is to showcase works that inspire those who teach them. An instructor’s passionate regard for a particular work can be contagious. And when students can read books in a leisurely, uncluttered fashion, they are more likely to value them.

Initially, we limited our one-credit courses to books but have since expanded them to movies, art, architecture, and music. A filmmaker colleague will teach John Ford’s classic exploration of racism, The Searchers, in the summer, and an art history professor will teach Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic, paintings that depict the evolution of surgical procedure, in the fall, when they will be hanging together in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

At the beginning of my class on Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, three students admitted that they thought the course was about the magician. It was obvious that few of my students read much outside of class—and those who did tended to avoid 19th-century triple-deckers. But to my delight, they genuinely loved the book. It was a great read, they said, but also gave them insight into character development, linguistic ingenuity, and narrative structure; it supplemented their knowledge of 19th-century industrial society and raised philosophical issues regarding social justice and personal responsibility.

Just as important as our lively discussions of the novel’s content was a more lasting gift: the experience of reading for pleasure. “I think David Copperfield has made me want to read more often for enjoyment than just for school,” one student wrote. “The page count and flea-sized text gave me a scare at first, but I will admit that [David Copperfield] has become one of my favorite books,” wrote another. They all said that they had looked forward to reading the novel. It filled the gaps in their day and cropped up in conversations with their friends. They even called their parents to talk about it. They were sad to see it end. And so was I.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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