Saturday, February 09, 2008

Why I teach literature

New Kid tapped me for this one, which began ages ago with Dr. Crazy and has been around the blogoverse and back (AWB's response being one of my favorites) while I've been off doing God-knows-what.

There are plenty of reasons why I teach literature, including the fact that I get paid to do it--to read and reread material I enjoy. But the reason that I wound up here in the first place, which is to say, the reason I went to grad school and stuck it out, is because I believe that reading literature critically gives us the tools to make sense out of our lives. And as a result, to live better.

I don't mean that in the usual "whoo! art is uplifting and we become more human and more humane through reading great literature" kind of way, and I don't mean that I want my students to seek out parallels between their own lives and the works we read. What I mean is that learning how to analyze and interpret texts teaches us to exist in the world in a more thoughtful, engaged, and critical way.

That's why I went to grad school, although that's also what many people would consider the worst or at least the most naive of reasons: I went, basically, because I felt I wasn't done studying literature, and I wanted to do more of it and to do it better. And even during my unhappiest days I felt that I was learning something valuable--not socially valuable, but personally valuable.

Early in my second year I went to see a movie with a friend, and during the ten or so minutes that it took for him to walk me home afterwards we chatted about what we'd seen. The conversation wouldn't now strike me as remarkable, but it did at the time: even as I was speaking, I realized that I had, somewhere in the previous year or so, learned to see differently. I had a vocabulary to talk about what was going on in the movie narratively--and even though I didn't really have a vocabulary for what was going on cinegraphically, I was still noticing things that I wouldn't have noticed before and fumbling toward articulating those things and their effects.

Recognizing how textual narratives are constructed allows us to understand the other narratives we're confronted with--whether told by our families and friends, our politicians, or ourselves. And although I just said that I found what I learned to be personally rather than socially valuable, I actually think it's both. I believe that understanding how narratives are shaped and manipulated allows us to reflect more fully on ourselves and the scripts we live by (and who's writing them). This in turn gives us greater confidence, competency, and agency in the world.

That, at any rate, is why I study literature. It's why I teach it, and it's one thing I hope my students gain from it.


Belle said...

Oh yes! That new perspective is so amazing, isn't it? I remember finding that, and being startled because the people around me didn't have a clue what I was talking about, or even the language. I was entranced with my new skills and insights, and tried to share.

I was saddened when my friends withdrew as I'd changed into someone new... and they didn't want to be with me. That hurt. But would I go back? Not on your life!

Anonymous said...

Funny that a movie was a catalyst for your epiphany.

My Ph.D. is in New Testament, and I've always approached reading / teaching the Bible from a literary perspective. I see a LOT of affinities between what I do and what, say, Roger Ebert does. I look at a text and ask, what does this teach us about being human?

Love your blog, by the way. It's good to read someone griping about the same stuff I gripe about.