Class Notes


We like what we like until someone changes our minds

By Paula Marantz Cohen | March 26, 2013


I like black licorice, but my husband can’t abide it. I like frills, but my sister wears Eileen Fisher. I like Victorian houses, but my friends prefer Modernist boxes. Our relationships go uninjured by these differences. Yet sometimes, a divergence in taste can feel like an affront—as though their liking for this and my disliking of that calls into question our liking for each other. How could my dearest friends and relations differ so radically from me in their taste? How could they possibly like or dislike this or that and still like me? Sometimes taste seems to go beyond shallow predilection and become something deeper, imbued with a moral coloration.

The moral element is always lurking for me in literary taste. I feel it whenever I try to explain what is good about a work of literature to students who are predisposed against it. This happens frequently with Henry James. I can’t help but feel that his work opens readers to finer and deeper perceptions. I therefore see it as my duty to teach my students how, if not to appreciate James, then at least to reject him intelligently. The last time I taught The Turn of the Screw, I read the first few pages of the story aloud to the class, stopping and explaining some of the difficult passages, pointing out interesting resonances, and generally whetting their appetite for the ambiguities to follow. In this instance, I essentially “set up” the story, which helped convert more students to James’s side.

In my colleague’s film course, which includes many movies from the 1930s and ’40s, paced and shot in ways unfamiliar to students, he makes sure to introduce the films before screening them. He’ll talk about the production and the filmmaker, and points out things to look for in the film that make it “great.” Afterward, students can watch a film like Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve primed to appreciate it.

I recently assigned my students two short stories—“The Furnished Room” by O. Henry and “Araby” by James Joyce—and asked them to write a paragraph about which story they liked better. More than half the class chose the O. Henry story. But after spending the next class examining their response and discussing both stories at length, I took another poll. Three students had shifted their loyalties to the Joyce story.

Had I indoctrinated these students? Were they trying, if only unconsciously, to please me? Or had I improved their taste? I don’t know. Indeed, I wonder about my certainty on this subject. We explored larger, deeper issues during our discussion of “Araby” than we did while talking about “The Furnished Room.” But is a work that inspires discussion of larger, deeper issues necessarily the better work or simply one that lends itself to better discussion? I often wonder if the moral value that I take so seriously in literature isn’t, in fact, more of an instrumental value—that which makes it work better for me in the classroom.

Still, nothing can shake my conviction that “Araby” is the better story and that my job as a teacher is to persuade as many students as possible to share that view.

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