What if Those Books are “not for us”?

This past semester, an extremely bright student in my senior seminar recounted a story of how her high school debate team, which was very successful, found itself towards the end of the season facing debates against kids from swank private schools. Describing her own school as working-class, she said that the thing that stood out most for her was how extremely well-read those private-school kids were. She felt like there was no way she and her friends could ever catch up. And the more she listened to them talk, and quote things, and drop into conversation–without even thinking–the titles of and ideas from things they’d read, the more she began to think that “those books were a luxury that just wasn’t for us.”

That notion–not that owning physical texts and having the time to read them is a luxury, but that merely having access to them, was a luxury beyond the reach of a working-class student–has haunted me since that September conversation. We were talking about cultural capital, about the possible values of reading widely, but quickly, this became a conversation about privilege, access, and, most importantly, entitlement. It became a conversation about students who were made to feel, on a pretty fundamental level, that certain books were simply not for them.

Teaching as I have for the last fifteen years at a university whose students are predominantly the first in their families to go to college, who are putting themselves through school, who have complicated lives with family commitments and a need to balance full-time employment (when they can get it) with full-time student status in order to make ends meet, I am no stranger to these questions of the power of privilege in fostering literacy. I have long said that the hardest thing to accept as a teacher at a place like this is that there is so precious little a teacher can do in one semester to make up for eighteen years of not reading or being voraciously read to.

But, I am ashamed to say, it had never occurred to me in precisely this way that students would come to me already acculturated to feel disenfranchised by the very books that I was including on my syllabi. This is not to say, of course, that in my classes we do not spend lots of time talking precisely about questions of reading, authorship, and cultural value. The problem of who has had a voice, historically, in print is central to any Victorian literature classroom as far as I’m concerned.

The deeper question of why my own students do or don’t see the value in reading the things I ask them to read, or enjoy the texts, or find themselves deeply engaged in wrestling with their ideas, has always been something I considered in terms of problems of access that had to do with the texts themselves: Victorian prose is dense and slow compared to contemporary voices in print, the culture is foreign in time and custom and politics, the vocabulary and lingering descriptions feel “old” in a way that many students find off-putting. I never really registered that my students may have spent a lifetime of schooling being taught that those books were not for them, and that my job in teaching these books was going to be partly about creating a sense that they were entitled to them too.

Of course, the most self-aware and articulate students will rail against that glass ceiling without my needing to do anything to make that happen. At the end of the term, that same student wrote a really incredible essay on her own growing into cultural literacy, in which she explored (in part) the degree to which the curriculum at her high school was consistently dumbed-down, offering insultingly juvenile books to students as the only ones “appropriate” to their aptitudes. She made the following deeply perceptive observation:

My time rubbing elbows with future Harvard graduates gave me a better perspective on the value of the much maligned humanities. When conservative politicians and spineless democrats argue that we should focus more on STEM at the cost of the arts and humanities, I know this doesn’t apply to their own privileged children. I know that the elite will continue to learn the language of Marx while the rest of us will continue to read textbooks written for fifth graders.

I have nothing to add to this powerful claim except the desire to register publicly that if we support college education for everyone as a democratic goal, then we as faculty need to be highly cognizant of what messages may have become ingrained into our students before they ever reach us. And we need to be really thoughtful about what that will mean for our teaching–since it is only the very tiniest minority of students who are as thoughtfully aware as this one about how their educations have shaped their own sense of value, access, and what they ought to consider theirs.

This all strikes me as particularly important in light of the current spate of articles about higher education that focus so squarely on students and situations at elite colleges and universities as if they are representative of the situations of the majority of college students these days. (I have a lot more to say about those assumptions, but it doesn’t belong here. See the link I provided for a great overview of those essays by David M. Perry.) The difficulties that face faculty and students at non-elite institutions are myriad and necessitate real theoretical and pedagogical work. Thinking hard about entitlement, or lack thereof, is certainly a good place to start.

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“Yes, but what will you DO with that English major?”

Towards the end of this spring’s Senior Seminar, we took up this question. I had given the class a 2013 column by Michael Bérubé to read as a jumping off point, with this as perhaps its most pointed bit:

After all, who needs another 50-page honors project on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire?

Well, strange as it may sound, if you’re an employer who needs smart, creative workers, a 50-page honors project on a 19th century French poet might be just the thing you want to see from one of your job applicants. Not because you’re going to ask him or her to interpret any poetry on the job, but because you may be asking him or her, at some point, to deal with complex material that requires intense concentration – and to write a persuasive account of what it all means. And you may find that the humanities major with extensive college experience in dealing with complex material handles the challenge better – more comprehensively, more imaginatively – than the business or finance major who assumed that her degree was all she needed to earn a place in your company.

This piece, in conjunction with other essays we’d read this semester that tried to define the “typical” English major and to identify what one gets from a process of sustained careful attention to texts, enabled my students to generate an impressive list of the qualities that characterize the people who study literature and the skills their degrees help hone.

English majors, they said, have opinions and want to express them, are curious, like to read, focus on ideas rather than memorizing things, are often interested in theories, do not have narrowly-defined career goals that are predicated on their majors, are less grade-driven, and–and this was perhaps the most enthusiastically endorsed characteristic of all–are low on sleep.

We all laughed.

But it did occur to me that this type of person would make an incredibly desirable employee in lots of ways: creative, flexible, driven, given to asking lots of questions and approaching topics from multiple angles. “Low on sleep,” it seems to me, is an excellent short hand for “can’t stop thinking about stuff and is good at multi-tasking.”

An English major at my university, after all, manages to read hundreds of pages from multiple books each week, to keep their ideas both differentiated and brought into juxtaposition when comparisons are apt, and to juggle all of that mental work while holding down a job that goes a long way towards putting herself through college.

But as we enumerated a list of skills they thought their undergraduate degrees had helped develop in them, I was forcefully struck by how very adaptable English majors are to so many kinds of work and how very inept we generally are at explaining that fact articulately. Here is the list they generated. English majors are good at:

  • distilling key points from large chunks of text, quickly
  • synthesizing multiple documents to identify patterns of ideas or central disagreements
  • reading carefully for details
  • analyzing arguments
  • translating (literally, if they are bilingual; figuratively, in the sense of being able to explain complex texts to people who are less skilled readers or less familiar with the topic)
  • having opinions
  • being persuasive
  • making well-supported arguments about anything
  • playing devil’s advocate
  • writing to different audiences
  • anticipating the sensitivities of an audience, and tailoring their remarks accordingly
  • researching in multiple ways
  • being open to new opportunities and ideas
  • managing their time efficiently

This list, of course, is not that different from Bérubé’s more general observation that students with experience dealing with complex material and writing persuasively about it may be able to translate those abilities to many different areas of content. But what I like about this list is how specific and detailed it is, and how easily it enabled all of us in the classroom to imagine the widely disparate fields in which such skills would be invaluable: evaluating business processes, marketing products, fund raising, developing community outreach programming, writing grants, maintaining the public/online presence of an organization,  tutoring, creating public programs for a library or an after-school center, doing research-based writing in many different professional/technical arena, serving as a research assistant, interviewer, or in another public writing capacity, helping administer a non-profit organization, and many more.

You might note, that the three standard answers to the question “What are you going to do with that English degree?”–teach, go into publishing, go to law school–aren’t on the above list. Which is not to say that they are not reasonable options, but rather that one of the most productive things that came out of this particular class was that students were able to think both broadly and holistically about their skills and interests in order to imagine why they might be appealing hires for people working in many different fields.

There have been, certainly, articulate and thoughtful pieces published in the last year or two about why employers at non-humanities companies value people with humanities degrees, and yet, there is a surprising lack of consistent, articulate explanations of the practical skills a humanities degree might develop.

I must admit, too, that there is a part of me that resists the notion that a humanities degree is valuable solely for the practical skills it hones. After all, there are passionate, eloquent explanations of the intrinsic value of the humanities for developing a flexible mind and a compassionate citizen. There is an undeniable richness of culture built through art, music, literature, and deep thinking. And there are global consequences for being willing to give sustained attention to questioning our place as humans in the world–temporally, ecologically, cross-culturally–that surely depend upon the history, models, empathies, and modes of thinking that come to us by way of myriad humanities disciplines. For all of those reasons, I would always advocate for humanities study being central to creating a thoughtful human who will move through the world with integrity.

But for self-supporting students about to graduate from college, who are anxious to explain to their parents precisely how their degrees have been helping prepare them for the adult world of work, this class discussion made me think that perhaps we have created a false opposition in insisting that humanities degrees are either about skills or about intrinsic benefits. Perhaps, my students suggested through their very enthusiasm for all they have been reading, perhaps they may be both.

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The Chastising Professor

Earlier today, I read a mini-rant by a professor I don’t know, who was fuming over students who don’t do their homework. She wrote that, having been educated to PhD level herself at the University of Hard-Assery, she didn’t tolerate slackerdom in her classrooms. As a student, she had once had a professor pitch a fit that involved throwing and kicking things in his fury over student unpreparedness, and she had taken away from that incident a healthy respect for the well-placed hissy-fit (my paraphrase).

She explained that she was fully prepared to kick students out of class, yell at them, and/or make them have a sort of humiliating in-class reading session when they were woefully under-prepared. Reading between the lines, I sense that she felt that having them watch her metaphorically prop her feet up on her desk while they did the preparation they should have done before class would teach them a lesson about the mutual responsibilities of the college learning environment.

But before I could get to that nicely formed extrapolation of her pedagogical reasoning, I found myself catching my breath in amazed horror (admiring awe? impressed terror?) at the notion of standing at the front of a classroom, shouting and berating my students for (implied) laziness.

This is not something I have ever done. It feels tantalizingly bold. Audacious. Liberating.

Also: almost certainly likely to backfire.

Once, as a newly-minted assistant professor, I roundly chastised a lecture hall full of 300 freshmen for their rudeness–reading newspapers, walking into class 20 minutes late and then climbing over 10 people to get to a seat, walking out of class 20 minutes early, packing up books while I was mid-sentence because class was due to be over in 5 minutes, and so on. Nearly half the students had walked out in the previous class period as soon as the quiz was over, and I was frustrated and angry. I felt it was deeply disrespectful to their fellow students, whom they were stepping over, and it was deeply disrespectful to me, whom they were treating as if I were a figure on a TV, incapable of seeing that they were texting, reading, giggling, and walking in and out as if they were in their own living rooms. The upshot of my brief tirade on classroom etiquette was a semester-long backlash of escalating rudeness, students asking whether I was “old enough” to be teaching the class, and other indignities I prefer to forget.

Sure, a few of the students who sat in the first few rows told me they were grateful.

But most of the enormous class seemed to see me as some kind of shrieking harpy. They took that incident and used it to brand me with the worst stereotypes of Angry Womanhood and refused to take me seriously about anything as a result.

Indeed, as a female professor, I find that I am routinely expected to offer sympathy, extensions on papers, counseling, and flexible rules (and occasionally to get called a “Bitch” when I don’t). My male colleagues either do not seem to face these expectations or do not worry about them. And they don’t get nasty slurs when they stick to rules they have made.

This is why the other professor’s tirade struck such a chord. I am not sure how to stand on such a soapbox of fury without losing the class for the rest of the term.

Of course, I (like every teacher) have class periods every semester in which almost no one has read the assigned work, or only one person shows up with the text, or everyone refuses to raise a hand or even look me in the eye when I ask a question–a sure sign no one has done/thought about the reading. My response has always been to give the Sincere And Concerned Speech About Investment In Your Own Education. This is a speech designed to make them see how they are selling themselves short by not being active learners. I have speeches about How To Take Notes, and How The Skills In This Class Are Transferable, and Why You Should Care About Doing Well Even Though You Don’t Like This Subject Matter.

But I do not have a speech about How You Are A Lazy Ass Who Needs To Just Do The Assignment Already.

And I wonder whether such speeches work. How do students respond to being called on the carpet about their own lack of effort? Do their responses differ based on whether the students are at select institutions (where they are more likely to have already succeeded at school because they have internalized pressures that include a sense of guilt over failure) or at ones with more open admissions policies (where many students are still learning how to “do” school well)? Does it matter whether the ranting professor is male or female? mature or young? black or white?

More to the immediate point: Am I just too invested in being “nice”? Any professor who says she hasn’t had class periods where she wanted to throw out the students and cancel class for the day since they were so abysmally unprepared and didn’t even seem to care about that fact? Is lying. And yet I never do those things because I have always felt that ranting at my students to try to guilt them into doing work would be counter-productive.

Do we, as a culture, not push students hard enough or force them to be accountable for their own progress? Can we? Are there ways to do this that do not involve shouting and throwing books or cancelling class in a gesture designed to produce pointed humiliation? And if so, what are they? And if not, how does one cultivate the audacity for such an outburst?

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Darwin and Eliot and History*

My very smart academic friend, Sam Cohen, recently wrote at length about the difficulties of planning a course based on a particular historical moment in terms of the philosophical problems of making fiction stand for history. At least, that’s how I’m choosing to paraphrase a key point implicit in his great discussion of three things he wishes someone had told him a long time ago when he first started studying literature. In lieu of filling his comments section with a rambling diatribe, I figured I’d do that here in my own space.

His course-in-planning is on 1968. Victorianists have a penchant for doing this too–choosing a year and then planning a course (or even a whole conference) around it. 1859 seems to be the most common year of choice. After all, it was the year in which Charles Darwin published On the Origins of Species, and that alone, many argue, was enough to revolutionize the century. But, as even the most cursory glance suggests, 1859 was a banner year. It saw the publication of multiple, field-changing books on medical advances, of George Eliot’s first novel, Adam Bede, and of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities in his newly-minted family periodical, All the Year Round. It was the year in which ground was broken for the Suez Canal; an enormous solar superstorm** was observed; multiple astronomical discoveries made headlines; and the first dog-show was held in England. (There are many other important things one might add to this list if including American history as well, not least of which was John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.)

Sam poses as a central issue the desire to “be wary of looking for texts with characters like people that capture 1968 in amber and have something to say about what happened then,” and it’s this hesitation on which I think I have the most to say. In short, I might ask: why the hesitation?

Not to be snarky, you understand, but really because I want to know.

First of all, I should say I agree with the unwritten premise here, that characters in fiction can’t necessarily freeze a particular moment in time for later careful scrutiny of all its most salient particulars. After all, as Sam points out, characters are not real people and thus do not have the ability to make choices that will reflect accurately on the social dynamics of their moments of creation. That is to say: every character in a novel makes only the choices that his or her author dictates. There are no other possible things a character could have done; there are only other possible choices the great and powerful authorial Oz could have made about where to move that character-puppet through the world Oz has constructed. This is why we cannot reasonably talk about actions characters “should have taken” in the same way that we can talk about choices our roommates “should have made” last Friday night when they undertook some bit of utter foolishness.

To extrapolate from this point, one might argue that the extent that they are not sentient beings, characters cannot be taken as “accurate” reflections of history. On the other hand, I would argue that to the extent that they are created by authors who ARE sentient beings, they might reasonably reflect at least one perspective on a given cultural moment.

This, of course, begs the question of whether characters were designed to reflect their author’s particular cultural moment or not. (Not to mention the far more complex question of whether characters “mean” what their authors “intended” them to mean–which is really another discussion entirely. In the spirit of full disclosure, I probably ought to admit that I think authors can have intentions in what they write–though texts might “mean” differently than authors envisioned, and certainly the project of trying to ferret out an author’s intentions is far less fruitful than simply exploring what a text actually manages to express or imply.)

It might seem that the two novels I’ve named perfectly make this point that fictional characters cannot be presumed to amber-ize the history of their moment of production for us. After all, A Tale of Two Cities, though published in 1859, is set primarily in France during the French Revolution. Adam Bede is set in England, but before the passage of the First Reform Bill in 1832, and thus might similarly be understood as unrelated to events of the post-railroad, scientifically-revolutionized, rights-for-women-politicized mid-century. And yet, I would argue that both novels, and the characters in them, have really useful “somethings to say about what happened” in 1859. Through the metaphor of a displaced time and national crisis, Dickens comments sometimes quite bitterly on the meaning of “progress” in his modern world. Adam Bede, despite the historical anachronism of this fact, reflects far more interestingly on the gender politics of 1859 than on those of 1830.

All of which is to say that while I completely agree that it’s important to get students to think about form and authorial sleight-of-hand and the very constructedness of both characters and texts, I also think that deliberately asking what a character–or a whole novel–might tell us about its historical moment can be enormously illuminating. What, for example, is the relationship between fiction and non-fiction? Can one think about the narrative elements in Darwin’s work–his stories of bird mating that are so often filtered through Victorian metaphors of ideal courtship–without placing them against the traditional marriage plot that informs Dickens’s work or Eliot’s? Can one read characters in Dickens or Eliot without considering how they comment upon the middle-class matrimonial imperatives that were oppressively normalized by 1859?

Another way of thinking about this is through a different line of questions, namely, why is it that so often, the books we like best are ones whose characters make us WISH they’d made “better” choices at certain points. Like the impulse to shout at the television screen “Slow down!” because it’s just so obvious that the blithely cheerful driver on the sunny day will inevitably get into a fatal car accident in about 1/2 mile, a book character in whom we’ve come to invest some emotional energy will cause us to pass judgment. I think what I’m trying to say is that we might well tap into this identification with characters as a means of getting students to see how authors uses words to manipulate emotions. And, by extension, how they construct books, even if unconsciously, as reflections of history.

It may seem a naive desire to read books as if they reveal history (where “reveal” is usually taken to mean “show us historical truths and events as they really happened”). But it is nonetheless perhaps useful to ask what “truths” narratives seem to reveal, and what counter-narratives might lie between the lines.

I think this is less a matter, then, of which texts we select, than it is a matter of the reading processes to which we subject them.

Indeed, the fact that characters cannot actually do or be what readers often want them to do or be is surely a reflection both of our reading practices and of our relationship to history. If we examine both more self-consciously, we could productively unpack the constructed nature of all sorts of narratives, both ones in fiction and ones that are culturally more pervasive. If we choose books for our syllabi in which characters would seem to have something to say about history, we ought to embrace the naive reader that identifies that something. And then we can ask ourselves, for example, why we desire certain kinds of resolution for certain characters. Is this a result of the way the author has manipulated the structure of the story, the way our own expectations of narrative closure work upon us as readers, the way that some character’s traits are ones we see in ourselves so that we project the choices we would have made onto the character? In all of these cases, there is a complex matrix of authorial process, cultural norms, and readerly bias in operation. I’d contend that it is useful to examine how the norms in operation at a moment of writing are similar to or different from our own, and that doing so will help us build a more nuanced picture of the relationship of text to history.

Also, on a less pedagogically sophisticated but perhaps more practical level, given that students often can stand some refreshers on the parameters of particular historical moments, I think there is a place for the apparently representative, sweetly congealed in amber, character–if only to sketch out a set of apparent “facts” against which to hang the more complex counter-reading that can only come when one has some grasp of history to start with.

_____

* I considered ending the title of this post with “Oh, My!” in homage to Oz, but thought that might be a bit too twee even for me.

** Yes, I did just link to Wikipedia. As I tell my students all the time: it’s a bad place to go for interpretations of history, but a great place to go if you just want some basic details of events.

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Of Academic Idealism

I want my students to be brilliant.

I want them to make observations I haven’t thought of, and write sentences that make me smile just because they are so articulate, and draw connections that illuminate literary history.

And in between those flashes of brilliance, I want them to be competent.

And in the lulls between competence, I want them to be hard-working and recognize that there is always room for improvement.

And when they are too busy to be hard-working in my class, I want them to be making conscious choices to prioritize whatever is most important.

Because I am not fool enough to think that my students are all able to be (or interested in being) deeply invested in work for my classes every minute of the day, but I am idealist enough to wish they all–yes, every single one–will be deliberate participants in their own educations.

I think we can all agree that no one gets much out of a class in which the professor is just going through the motions of teaching, without any passion, any enthusiasm, any effort at creative exploration of ideas, any goal of motivating students. By the same token, a class with more than one or two students who are apathetic, under-prepared, over-extended, or otherwise unable to participate in the learning process begins to lag.

Though we tend not to talk about this, the simple truth is that brilliance in a classroom is a product not just of the quality of minds gathered in the room but also of the quality of effort everyone brings to the table. Without thorough preparation and genuine energy from the person leading the class, the class goes nowhere…but even the most thoughtfully creative work of a teacher merely sets the stage for student brilliance. Students also have to rise to the challenge, have to bring their own minds to bear in creating those flashes of light.

It is the hardest thing to do as a teacher: to inspire. There are weeks when I feel that no matter what I do, I have not reached that goal. Other moments, the room lights up with electricity, and everyone has something to say at once, and knowledge is not just rehashed but is produced. There are days when I agonize over the fact that no matter what I do, I cannot seem to get a particular class to reach that dynamic. And there are moments when I remind myself that I cannot do it alone, without their help.

I want my students to be brilliant.

Sometimes, they are too tired, distracted, over-whelmed, over-worked to strive for brilliance.

But I hope that, deep down, they all believe that if they put their minds to it, they can reach it. And I want them to try.

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In defense of making students study things they don’t always want to

I will be the first to admit that the student-as-consumer model of education that is touted by some university administrators drives me batty. This is not to suggest that I think that the needs and goals of students ought to be irrelevant to how we plan our classes or what we teach. Far from it. However, the model as it is propagated by much of the admin-speak that seeks to optimize university educations and lure students in often implies that students know best what they want and need to learn, and it is our job to deliver precisely what students want.

I would like to counter that consumer-demand principle with a small observation: I did not enjoy learning fractions much in school as a child. If given a choice about what to learn in math, or given a say in what we were taught, I would have opted out of fractions. But the kicker is, of course, that I continue to use fractions almost every single day.

And I’m an English professor.

I use them when I bake and when I dole out the remaining jelly beans to my children and their friends and when I calculate how many miles to the gallon my ten-year-old car is getting in this very cold weather. Fractions, though not what I would have chosen to learn, are necessary to adult life.

Even in subject matter that I perennially loved–reading and writing–I took classes in which I was required to read things, sometimes excruciatingly long things, that I would have preferred to avoid. (Where “preferred to avoid” means I would have chosen to do really almost anything else but finish Moby Dick if I could have. Apologies to Americanists everywhere.) And yet, for all that I also hated post-modern angsty books or Hemingway’s hyper-masculine tales, these books were all indispensable to my literary education. Hemingway’s brilliantly spare style surely taught me much about the varieties of cadence and quality of prose in English that I could not have learned from my beloved Charlotte Bronte alone.

All of which is to say that I think that students do not always know what they need to know, or even what they will enjoy. And, in fact, I think there are many many merits to requiring students to take classes in subject matter that is beyond their comfort zone because the purpose of education is to broaden horizons and deepen knowledge, not merely to confirm that we like what we already knew we liked. Along the way, we will certainly encounter things we do not enjoy. But that does not mean that giving those things credence, expending intellectual energy considering them seriously, is a waste of time.

I have been thinking a lot about how to define the purpose of education in the past few weeks. Do we want our educational institutions to disseminate specific content or to provide a common core of skills? To prepare young people for jobs, keep them off the streets, set them up for further more specialized learning, or make them into good citizens? Do we hope that our classrooms will instill intellectual curiosity, or do we assume that students who come to us lacking this vital quality just must be written off?

To a certain extent, obviously, answers to these questions depend heavily on the age of the students. Surely, we assume elementary school students need to have their curriculum dictated to them more than do college students.

And yet, “we” do not make that assumption, necessarily. A Montessori education is often far more student-driven than an education at a public elementary school that faces funding cuts due to its students failing at standardized tests. A small, selective liberal arts college is more likely to presume that its students will tackle a core of traditional literary and philosophical texts than does a regional state university such as the one at which I teach. In fact, our current General Education curriculum allows students to avoid whole disciplines if they choose to do so: they merely have to take six hours of Humanities, six hours of Social Sciences, and so on. They may choose to skip literature or history or anthropology entirely.

Though I risk sounding like E.D. Hirsch in saying so, I am not sure that such freedom is a good thing. To me, a university education ought to be about gaining some deeper familiarity with a wide range of subjects that will ultimately produce an informed citizenry. Just as I shouldn’t have been allowed to avoid fractions in fourth grade because I found them “boring,” I don’t think students–no matter what their long-term career goals–should be able to graduate college without having read a few hard novels, learned something about botany or animal biology, and engaged with the theoretical difficulties of really trying to understand an unfamiliar cultural perspective.

The million-dollar question is: why are all of these things important? Can’t one survive just fine without ever having detailed knowledge of Inuit tribes or the anatomy of stars?

This is where Hirsch’s calls for “cultural literacy” fall shortest, as far as I’m concerned. He spends a lot of time proffering examples of the shorthand available if you can quote Shakespeare or the “horrifying” statistics of how many U.S. high school students don’t know when the Declaration of Independence was signed, but he doesn’t really explain why that matters. What is the disadvantage, really, of not knowing those things? Can’t you be a perfectly good lab technician or surgeon or house painter or legal assistant or advertizing executive or any other career you can imagine without that knowledge?

Yes. You could.

But, I would argue, you will be better at all those things if you also know some history, have read some “hard” literature, have thought about the problems of colonial empires and the physics of solar systems. Because access to disciplines like literature and anthropology force you to think about the perspectives of people whose lives are not yours. The sciences put you in your place in the universe, demonstrating how much vaster the world is than you are and teaching you something about how its building blocks fit together. While any specific fact from classes in these subjects might never be directly relevant to a particular student’s future, the sum of those facts turns that student into a person whose mind is more flexibly able to imagine creative answers to problems because s/he has been taught, on a fundamental level, how to think through things that are hard.

Aiming at what Hirsch calls cultural literacy seems, to me, to be primarily important because people who have been taught to think, to formulate considered opinions, to make and support claims on the basis of facts they have learned, and to do that in lots of different disciplines, will be better at all the things adulthood throws at us. They will be more purposeful parents, more considered voters, more informed jurors, better at the team-work and compromise required in the workplace, more considerate neighbors.

And to sacrifice all of those things on the grounds that students are/will be “bored” or “confused” or “don’t need” particular information seems to me to be profoundly short-sighted.

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Pencils in the Lunchroom

As my students are composing literacy autobiographies, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own early relationships to reading, writing, books, poetry, words. I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read, though obviously there was one. This may be because I learned to read fairly early (which I did) but also because I am too old to remember that far back (which I am). In any case, some of my earliest memories of literacy are of doing writing worksheets at the kitchen table because I’d been bumped up from preschool to Kindergarten mid-year and had a lot of catching up to do. I loved the huge stack of paper that lived on top of the refrigerator. I can still feel the tingle of excitement when my mother pulled another sheet down. I remember trying to manage the pencil, and feeling delighted at my own work.

I also remember asking my first-grade teacher, the following year, for some homework. I wrote the note containing my request on a tiny scrap of paper and handed it to her during a quiet moment when I had finished whatever desk work we were all supposed to be doing. She looked at me scathingly (at least, that’s how it felt), and said, “We don’t have homework in first grade.”

It’s only just this minute, as I recall the enormous quantity of what I called “homework” in Kindergarten, that I realize why I assumed I ought to have the same blissful pile of work to do in first grade.

Also, this minute, I am realizing that I have been an impossibly nerdy person since at least the age of four.

The next deeply vivid memory I have of my own eagerness for reading and writing comes in third grade. We had to sit alphabetically at the lunch tables in the cafeteria, and so I was not with anyone who was my friend. One day, I had the happy thought that since I was always bored after my sandwich was gone, I could sneak a pencil into the lunchroom with me, and write stories on my napkin until the lunch time was over. I am pretty sure I knew that this was not allowed, but–ever stubborn and self-assured when it came to school work–I figured it was probably stupid that it wasn’t allowed.

Of course, on the first day I tried this, I was so content with my writing that I could hear nothing but the soft press of pencil on napkin, feel nothing but the tremendous care it took not to rip the too-thin, bumpy paper while writing. Within moments, my teacher was standing behind me, her arm reaching over my shoulder. I remember the shock of her long, red fingernails darting into my bliss, scraping along the back of my hand as she snatched the pencil away, hissing, “We don’t bring pencils into the lunchroom!” Filled with shame, I said nothing. My burning ears matched the angry, smarting welts on my hand from her fingernails. In my memory, at least, I never saw her face. The entire vision is one of hands, mine small and happily clutching a pencil, hers larger, and marked with authority, descending violently and without warning to enforce a rule whose purpose I could not fathom.

But here is the thing: I did not stop writing. Oh, I stopped taking a pencil into the lunchroom (though I have no idea how I subsequently passed the time). But her assault–for that is what it felt like to my seven-year-old self–her assault did not dissuade me from writing in the slightest. If anything, I became more determined that words and I would not be parted.

And this is where my question comes in. Why? Certainly, some children who felt as traumatized as I did by that moment would have put down a pencil for a very long time. I was never the loud or defiant type, and yet, I could not be dissuaded from writing entirely. I wonder if this suggests that there are some people for whom language, and interaction with words, is a primary mode of being, while for others individual athletic accomplishment, or music, or team dynamics, or making others laugh, or a thousand other kinds of communicating are more central to how they define themselves? I have always thought of myself as a reader. Always imagined I would grow up to be a writer. Perhaps even very young children have propensities towards particular modes of expression?

And if this is the case, then perhaps this might tell us something about best practices for education. Not simply that it is bad to sneak up on a child who is quietly writing and shock and shame her into giving up her pencil. (Though this is undeniably bad.) But that perhaps if we can identify the different ways that children instinctively strive to communicate, we can think about how best to teach them to access language too.

You hear a lot about trying to “appeal to boy readers” in upper elementary school, for example, which seems to mean choosing books with male protagonists and lots of adventure. But what if, instead of thinking in terms of subject matter, we thought in terms of modes of communication? What if we tried to be more creative about teaching poetry, for example, by tying its rhythms to physical movements? Or what if we appealed to the children whose preferred communication mode is class-clown by choosing stories with lots of dialogue that had to be read aloud like a drama?

In short, I’d like to suggest that perhaps there are better ways of engaging children very early on to reel in those who do not intuitively love books and words. If only we could think beyond the institutional rules that say that pencils in the lunchroom are dangerous, we might find that sometimes, doing the unconventional can be the key to inspiration.

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Experiment

For the first time, I have asked my Senior Seminar students to use a blogging platform for part of their course requirements. I have always relied on a portfolio of response papers for their more informal engagement with the ideas in the readings. But those papers increasingly seem to me to be stilted and far less imaginative than the best discussions we have in class. So I thought perhaps a genre that is more familiar (“what is a response paper, anyway?” is not an uncommon question from students) would yield writing that is more engaged, more creative, more pliable in its willingness to wander thoughtfully through complex ideas.

It also seems to me that if we are going do something more than just fraught hand-wringing over the state of the humanities, we need to think creatively about how to equip our students for the next generation of humanities-based careers. This might mean–as many are quick to point out–helping students think about how to parlay the tools of an English major into meaningful work. But “critical thinking” and “analytic writing” are not resume phrases, however much it really is true that excellence in these skills is a mark of top-notch minds likely to succeed in many arenas. (I have lots more to say about this, particularly in relation to the recent MLA calls for changes in how we think about graduate education, but that is a post for another day.)

And so, I have launched this little experiment in building an online presence as a way to help ensure that my students are comfortable creating–not just reacting to–a digital world. In my pretty pedagogical daydream, this process of tinkering with a blog, learning some basic html, thinking about visual design issues, and organizing meaningful content into digestible and aesthetically appealing formats will give them skills that will really be translatable. Whether they are going on for advanced degrees in library science or taking their love of literature with them to a career in business or anything in between, it seems to me that being comfortable with the technologies that are increasingly a part of everyday work life can only be a benefit. If nothing else, my students will be able to jump right in when a future boss asks, “who is willing to take on the upkeep of the Community Projects Calendar online?”

But, oh, I hope this blogging project yields so much more than that.

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