Sunday, December 2, 2012

More thoughts on English Ed

A good grad school friend who now teaches at a top liberal arts college (and specializes in 18th century aesthetics and Hogarth) sent me the following wonderful and provocative thoughts in response to my previous post about English education. I'm posting it here with her permission and will respond tomorrow, probably.

I read what little of Readicide is available on google books; now I need to go read the chapters on overteaching and underteaching. Your post, and Gallagher's diagnosis that English ed is killing the love of reading, got me thinking a little more about my expectations of my own students. It may be that your choice to leave academia already implies an answer to this question, but I wonder if those of us teaching at the college level shouldn't be more oriented toward both teaching reading and trying to instill a love of reading. Especially for those of us who end up at non-elite institutions, our lack of exposure to English ed in our graduate training means it's much harder for us to recognize our students' reading deficiencies, let alone develop strategies to address them. I suppose, if reading instruction wins out over English lit, we might have more skilled readers to teach when they get to college--but it seems much more likely that less secondary teaching of literature will mean college lit teachers will have to go back to basics, and as a group we are wretchedly bad at that.
As for love, the course I find most frustrating to teach here is part 1 of the British survey. It's frustrating because it does double duty in the curriculum: it's a requirement for English majors, but it also counts toward the literature distribution requirement in the common curriculum. In practice, I teach mostly finance majors and engineers in that class. Often, the scientists are my favorite students to teach--at the most basic level, because they are not afraid to count things, which gives them a leg up on the English majors when we read poetry. It's the English majors, mostly, as I wrote yesterday, steeped in fiction, who keep looking for stuff to identify with, as if the whole purpose of literature (= narrative) is to see likeness everywhere. That's why the word "relatable" has been the bane of my existence since I arrived here (SO MUCH WORSE than "rigor," if I do say so myself). And it's the true source of my jadedness about teaching fiction, and why I think poetry is so useful and important: because it trains readers to deal with complexity, as you say, partly by defying their expectation that everything out there exists to be identified with--which is the other half of "students don't know how to write about anything but themselves."
So that alienation effect is important, especially for teaching about literature as a thing with a history--which is what the Brit Lit survey is supposed to do for the English majors. But identification has to come before alienation, which is one reason you worry about your students as readers (not recognizing irony; finding e.g. Malcolm Gladwell inaccessible). (I suspect it's probably not quite right to equate access with identification, but then that gets into canonicity issues.) Rigor as alienation, or alienation as rigor, does not help students become enthusiastic readers of anything. I don't want to say that literary history has no value for nonhumanists, but I also tend to return to Debbie Nelson's idea that it matters for English profs to think about what they want to teach scientists and captains of industry in what is likely to be the only lit class they take in college (a.k.a. the last lit class they take in their lives). I very much like surprising engineers with the realization that they can understand Renaissance lyric. I am much more skeptical about the proposition that it matters for them to know how Wyatt's poetry reflects the political culture of 16th century Britain (as much as some of those engineers are interested in *the fact that* it does). At the level of the survey course, my dilemma is: I want the English majors to love literature a little less (to be analytical, to historicize) and the non-majors to love it a little more (to realize it's accessible to them). Structurally, in [my school's] curriculum, I think we do a poor job of the latter--but I wonder if my impression reflects a broader reading vs. English issue, too. (I realize I have smuggled in a formalism vs. historicism polemic here. I don't know what to say about that, except that I didn't really mean to.)
It also strikes me that the English/reading divide mirrors exactly the old debate about English comp and writing across the curriculum. If reading *as a skill* is going to trump literature as content, then you (and Julie Price) are totally right that the onus of teaching it should not fall entirely on English teachers. Similarly: if writing *as a skill* matters in every discipline, than literary scholars are not the only or even the best people to teach it. Unbelievably, we are still having this debate at Trinity (with profs in other departments clamoring about how they don't know how to teach writing. Dude, me neither!). At the same time, we are worrying about about declining numbers in the English major. Well, when students use "English" as shorthand for their comp class because they think English = reading/writing skills ("What do you have next?" "English"--the class is actually called Writing Workshop), then it's really no wonder that they don't want to go on and take literature classes!