As a professor, how do I teach literature? More specifically, who is the audience I am targeting when I teach literature? Is my target audience the same as the students sitting in the classroom? Ideally, I would answer “yes,” but the answer to this question varies more than I’d like it to. Why is this?
Let me return to the topic of my previous two posts: the distinction between the critic and the common reader. Remember that the classification of these two groups is rather artificial; readers fall more onto a spectrum than into categories. The critic is a reader who has cultivated a level of discernment through either her love of specific books or authors, or through her tireless exploration of literature of all types. The critic is also one whose exercise of that discernment has become a regular habit. The common reader also practices discernment, and he sees value in the reading of literature for its ability to delight and/or instruct. The common reader understands how texts can change or grow a reader, and he welcomes such an encounter.
How do these types of readers influence the teaching of literature? Where a student falls on that spectrum of readership (or whether she falls on the spectrum) changes the intended goals of the course and therefore the professor’s strategy in teaching it.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll divide courses into major courses (junior or senior-level courses taken mainly by English majors) and general-education courses (freshman or sophomore-level courses that may be taken by students of any major to fulfill elective requirements). Again, this division is artificial, and taken too seriously, it may lead to unfair assumptions about students that take either type of course. But we’ll use it for a moment.
Major courses should be designed to refine and exercise the student’s discernment so that she can become a critic or, if she already is one, a better critic. They should immerse the student in the delights of the literary works that the course focuses on, through in-depth discussion and close reading, as well as engagement with the critical conversation surrounding the works. Students should consider themselves participants in that conversation. Major courses in literature assume a target audience of common readers and critics and try to enrich these readers’ experience. The assumption is that students and professor more or less share the same view of reading.
The target audience of general-education courses is variable. There may be one or two critics, perhaps a handful of common readers. Quite possibly, though, there are several students in a general-education literature class who would not consider themselves common readers. Keep in mind that the designation “common reader” does not have to do with intellect or ability to read; the term has more to do with a person’s disposition toward reading. An intelligent, thoroughly literate person may not be a common reader because he doesn’t enjoy reading or doesn’t necessarily expect a literary encounter to change him in any way. The assumption underlying this type of course is that the students and professor do not necessarily share the same view of reading.
With this target audience in mind, what should be the literature professor’s goal? It seems to me that the class should be designed to encourage students to become common readers, to find reading a worthwhile pursuit, to adopt an attitude of expectation when picking up a book. The exposure non-English majors to literature (as if to radioactive material) for two or three courses in their college career has long-term effects; my desire would be for those effects to be good.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, though, I cannot make my students into common readers; rather, I must make my course conducive to students becoming such readers. Of central importance is creating a hospitable space for students to engage the texts, a space where students can draw upon their own experiences and feel free to grapple with the issues the texts present without fear of condemnation. A key ingredient to this hospitality is the sharing of delight: the instructive, good-for-you qualities of literature are accessed through the text’s enjoyment. If I want students to tap into the truth, beauty, and goodness to be had within a literary work, I must help the students find the joy in it first.
This approach requires a certain vulnerability from the professor because it prevents him from hiding behind knowledge about the text. It also changes the type of preparation for classes—the critical skill of the expert is used to persuade students of the text’s delightful qualities. The student should come out of a class with a different kind of understanding of the text, one that’s hard to quantify. Rather than being able first and foremost to identify the formal, technical qualities of the work, the student, I hope, would be able to identify with the human behind the text.
To be honest, I don’t know how this approach specifically would change the look of a class, but I know it would look differently from courses I have taught—and taken. I feel certain, though, that the fruit from such a class would be more elusive but much more satisfying.