I have reached that point in the run up to the new term where I begin to wonder if I actually want to produce a syllabus.
This is the product of frustration. When I stand back and look at it rationally, I know I want to produce a syllabus. The syllabus is the first line of defense against what I think of as the “anyway A.”
That’s the student who has not handed in anything for weeks or months an wants an “A anyway.”
The first line of attack by such students is almost always the complaint that they couldn’t do the reading because they weren’t in class to get the assignment. Ah, I say, but it’s on the syllabus.
This does not put an end to the problem, by any means, but it does slow it down a little.
Okay, not as much as we’d all like, but you see what I mean.
Having become frustrated with the syllabus, however, I went looking around the web, and I found something…well, something.
Before I get into that, however, I’d like to stress one point from yesterday.
If the English department was to do what the arts program does, it would NOT provide the kind of thing Robert was talking about in terms of the close reading of books.
It would provide instead classes in creative writing. Our arts programs are about DOING art, not learning about its history or analysis.
A little of the history and analysis stuff may go on as well, but it’s never the point of the program in any of those departments.
The other point is this: at places like mine, there are no science and math and engineering programs.
Math tops out at something called “college algebra,” which is just the algebra my sons got in seventh and eighth grades, but with more expensive textbooks.
But, as to the something interesting, whichDOES have to do with the history and analysis:
One of the things that made me like this essay so much is that it is baldfacedly, unashamedly what it is: lots and lots of us like to read and talk about books, so we should do that.
On one level, I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve never had a lot of use for utilitarian approaches to higher education, and I’ve said that often enough so that it shouldn’t come as a shock.
On another level, though, I think this is–well, misguided may not be the exactly right word.
I think it is very difficult to do the kind of thing he’s talking about here in a university classroom, not because the classroom has become politicized, but because it’s a classroom.
I am enough of a writer-type-person to find the endless niggling details of classroom “close reading” to be positively destructive of the one thing reading a work of fiction ought to be: a chance to get lost in the lives of people and places utterly unlike the ones you already know.
Sometimes there is no help for it. We are far enough forward in time from Troy, say, so that some information on the concept of honor in pre-classical Greece would come in handy.
But even as I write that, I’m not so sure. People here who read science fiction and fantasy constantly remind me that they are capable of reading about people and places that have never existed and figuring out the social mores and moral codes and all the rest of it just from context.
Certainly my sons do that, and in a different way I do it too. I do not automatically search out critical and historical materials when I read a novel whose setting or time is one I’m not familiar with.
One of the issues with reading books at least theoretically set in realistic places–that is, books written in the here and now as the here and now applied to the authors–is that it might be hard to work out the author’s intent, or even his meaning, without knowing something about its context.
But I’ve begun to wonder if that isn’t beside the point, too.
It’s a gesture of respect for the writer to know what he actually had to say, instead of just what we think he had to say, but reality says that the time will come for every writer everywhere when all that information will be lost, and all that will be left are the words on the page.
Long before that, we’ll lose something else: the ability to determine the actual quality of the prose.
Languages change. They don’t change as fast as they used to, but they still change.
I read middle English fairly fluently, and I have no idea if Chaucer wrote beautiful, musical poetry or the kind of stuff that makes English teachers want to ban some people from writing altogether.
To be more controversial: I think the same thing is true by now for Shakespeare.
When most English speakers were brought up reading the King James Version, I think it was possible to keep Elizabethan English alive as a living medium.
People so brought up could respond to the language naturally, without the need for translation.
These days, even Protestants don’t use the KJV. Most of my kids not only can’t tell if Shakespeare’s poetry is beautiful or awful, they don’t even know what it means.
If I was going to look for a place to explore the joys of reading as described in this article, I wouldn’t look for it in an English classroom.
I wouldn’t look for it there no matter what the nature of the fiction being taught.
The problem, for me at least, would not be science fiction vs literary or heroic fantasy vs modernism.
The problem would be in the approach, which persists in taking anything it touches and turning it into a set of problems.
The result is that nobody experiences the book. They instead learn to attack it like an alien object to be scrutinized dispassionately–sort of like that dead frog being disected in biology.
Maybe this is why I don’t have the interest in literary criticism that some of you have here.
It always feels to me as if somebody is trying to kill the book dead so that it will stop wriggling and let itself be examined.