Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Why I Teach Literature Meme

We here at In the Middle have been tagged for the Why I Teach Literature meme, and I thought I’d take some time this morning/afternoon to respond to that tag. But first, an anecdote: For years, back in college, I thought that “meme” (used in the context of livejournal, facebook, etc) was a compound of “me-me” – i.e., the first person pronoun. As in, “this post is all about me! Me and my thoughts! Me! ME!” I’ve since learned it references Richard Dawkins and mimetic theory, and refers to a unit of cultural information that is passed on (like a virus! or a gene...) in the information-web that is the internet. But if it’s a selfish meme, maybe my first interpretation holds a bit. And speaking of selfish memes, I wouldn't want my meme to make you miss ITM's other post today, from JJC, in which the Middle Ages get ecologically sustainable (if only in model form).

I’ll admit, when it comes to speaking of the supposed “value” of the humanities, I have an instinctual urge to cringe. Even though I’ve only been in grad school for three and a half years, I’ve learned what inevitably comes next. It’s either a massive number of people yelling “of course what I do matters, how can this not matter, here’s how I matter!” or – to pick on someone who is no doubt steeled against the arguments and disagreements of mere graduate students to the point of not even noticing them – Stanley Fish’s recent NYTimes blog posts that began the Spring 2008 semester with a hearty “We are worthless.”


I quote Fish at length:

It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.
To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said – even when it takes the form of Kronman’s inspiring cadences – diminishes the object of its supposed praise.

Will the Humanities Save Us? Stanley Fish says: No. They won’t. To which I respond – Of course the humanities can’t save us. I do interesting research, I hope, but it’s not life-saving. However, his more specific question – that of their use – is, I think, disingenuous. I find it disingenuous because it does not address the single thing academics in the humanities do that does influence the world around us: we teach. Teaching must have a use, surely, else why do it?

A number of my blogosphere colleagues have responded to this debate, and generated some debate of their own in doing so. I've not read all of them as yet -- but you can get a full list of those who have responded at Free Exchange on Campus. What I'd like to outline here is teaching literature as teaching connections, and teaching tools for making connections. I'm also interested in hearing what the blogging population of scholars thinks about this question -- my co-bloggers, and readers of ITM, this means you! Eileen has responded at bit at the Kugelmass Episodes.

I teach because analysis matters. I wrote a paper my first year of graduate school – before I’d ever taught a class – on “The Future of Literary Studies”. Highly idealistic, I wrote the following:

What is perhaps most striking, however, is that in literature, theory, science, religion, art and even history—the only thing humanity can consistently prove it is doing is telling stories.... [I also argue that we therefore should analyze all stories, not merely fictive ones.] Literary study is the critical reading and evaluation of literature. And what is literature, if it is not the (scientific, realistic, and even purely fantastic) stories we tell?

Now, ignoring my endless optimism and belief in my field (which has been tempered, though only a little, by the passing years) I think I would stand by this statement as one of the reasons I teach literature: humans need to be able to analyze the stories they are told. In my University Writing class, I do not teach “literature” per se and I certainly don’t teach medieval literature – but if there is one thing I hope my students learn from my course it’s that the stories we tell are not confined to the “classics” they are taught in Lit Hum. Just as influential are the narratives told by scientists (Richard Dawkins, for example, in his Selfish Gene and historians (Adrian Hastings in The Construction of Nationhood, or even Herodotus and Orosius!). More importantly, there are the political narratives: the speeches, the political discourse which in our sound-bite culture trades meaning and thought for a witty turn of phrase or a catch all assumption. I teach, then, because I hope to help students realize that the facts don’t always speak for themselves – in fact, they are often spoken for, used in ways that are ethically charged and moreover contested. Those assumptions need to be tested, questioned – engaged.

I cite it often, but perhaps you, dear readers, will forgive me if I cite it one more time. Kathleen Davis’ article “Time Behind the Veil: The Media, the Middle Ages, and Orientalism Now” (from The Postcolonial Middle Ages) is a perfect example of the stakes of literary studies. Her perceptive reading of public discourse about the Taliban’s restrictions on women in Afghanistan, and the western “reading” of that restriction as “medieval” (thereby allowing Diane Sawyer to travel “about an hour and a half back in to the mountains, and from what we’ve been reading, that’s several hundred years back in time”) matters to the continuation of that discourse. Moreover, it is a sensitive reading of the ways in which the media tells the story of a western world that must “save” the backwards, repressive Other by bringing the “East” forward in time to modernity. Using literary tools and techniques, Davis makes an argument that matters in modern society. Recognizing that these stories are not simply “what happened” (a list of facts and successive events that do not need interpretation) but rather a representation that can do very real things in the world. Stories have consequences, and those consequences are often wrought on people.

Finally, I teach because I do think literature can change lives, open horizons – all those things that seem so unrepentantly idealistic. Do I know this for fact? Not really. Stanley Fish says he never wanted to help his fellow man because of a poem. Further, he avers that one teaches the subject matter and any delayed effect of what happens in a classroom is contingent and cannot be aimed at . It’s a long road, and overly complicated, but literature did change my way of looking at the world – precisely because it taught me that I had to look at it. This wasn’t because “The Wanderer” is a poetic injunction to go out and change the world – rather, a professor who insisted on its complexity and nuance, the ways in which ideological forces are at war within it, taught me how to look closely at the text to parse the way it works in the society from which it came. And the ways in which it doesn’t, or doesn’t have to. Eileen, in her comment cited above, states that aesthetic study -- and moreover, I think, teaching literature -- is also about dreaming and being foolish, which is critically important, I think, for opening up avenues toward a creative and open-minded life which might be said to do some good in the world. It's a point of view with which I whole-heartedly agree -- I may have taken the ideas presented by my professor and done something with them, but I needed the tools she gave me to do so. That seems to me to be one very important function of teaching literature, one too often overlooked: teaching students not what to think, but how to think. Giving them the tools to pay attention.

I teach critical, close readings as a “refined way of paying attention.” In short – I ask that my students really look at our subject matter, whether it’s science or philosophy or politics. It’s surprising what you can notice if you’re paying attention – and if nothing else I do in the classroom sticks with my students, I hope they learn how to notice, how to engage, the discourses that the media and the world tries to feed them – and I hope it helps them to become more informed, and more aware, of the world we inhabit. I teach because I believe in connections. I teach because if we’re going to speak across languages and cultures, we need to do so carefully, generously – we need to pay attention to others, and we need to pay attention to ourselves – most importantly, I teach because I think literature and literary analysis (and yes, even freshman composition) gives students the tools they need not just in their lives, but the tools they need in our collective life on the singular multiplicity of habitations we call Earth.


cross posted to ITM.

5 comments:

Brandon H. said...

Great post! It's well crafted, and a nice way into your pedagogical philosophy.

One book that I always think of in this regard (and a few things you wrote about evoked similar ideas) is Cultural Miseducation: In Search of a Democratic Solution by Jane Roland Martin. In the book, Martin discusses the philosophy of pedagogy in general, discussing why we should continue to teach--and what sort of spheres are taken on by different educational venues/settings. It doesn't focus on humanities specifically, but it's a nice read about teachers and teaching.

Brandon H. said...

Also, I understand that you've just completed this meme and that you're a busy grad student, but I've tagged you to participate in the mutated medieval meme. Take your time getting to it, but I'll look forward to your post.

You can go here for the details.

Jeff said...

Nicely put, MKH.

I teach adult undergraduates, and my occasional moments of hopelessness are mitigated by the enthusiasm with which each new group of students responds to three months of medieval literature. Many of them have waited years, even decades, to major in English, and while they don't always know what they're looking for, these worldly, mature students know that the place to start looking is in a humanities course. I've seen metalheads who will never forget a line they read in Malory; a construction foreman whose study of literature unexpectedly led him to opera; Christians and atheists alike who discovered centuries of context for their world-views...the transformations are subtle but profound. These students are my living argument for the value of the humanities, and if Fish honestly believes that no one is better for having read a poem, then I feel a bit sorry for him. He's forgotten the giddy thrill of expanding one's horizons. I'm grateful to the students who refresh my own memory every single semester.

subtleknot said...

Dunno. You know, I often think that the point is not the content so much as it is getting people to learn how to learn. To be critical thinkers. To care about what they do, even if it's something as minute and stupid as writing a memo.

Benjamin Miller said...

MK, posts like this reinvigorate my faith not only in the humanities, but in humanity. I couldn't agree with you more. ::grins::

The only thing I would add (did you see this coming? Come to think of it, did you see this comment at all? You posted this a while ago now) is an extension of your parenthetical "yes, even composition." What the comp angle adds, and I think this is essential, is the ability / agency / permission to *respond* to what you've noticed, to what you've read. As with the critical readings in a lit class, students' composing and revising won't necessarily change the world, but they can (and, I would argue, should) help students develop a subjectivity that sees the world as changeable, rather than fixed; that values feedback and provides it to others.

I've been reading Robert Scholes' Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English as a Discipline, in which one argument is that both lit (as consumption) and comp (as production) should be considered necessary (and overlapping) branches of an overarching discipline of textuality. (The other two are theory and history; cf. p. 147 ff.) It made me very happy.

As did your post. : )