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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

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Okay, before I start in on th is for real, I’d like to recommend this link


which goes to an article at the Chronicle of Higher Education about the study of literature in schools and colleges.  In a way, it constitutes one possible answer to the first part of the e-mail from  Robert that I’m going to post next, and it’s interesting reading for anybody who likes to think about reading.

As to the e-mail from Robert, the salient part is this paragraph, and  I think it manages to sum up why it is Robert and I are never going to respond the same way to literature in general or to the study and teaching of literature in particular.  Here’s the paragraph:


Still brooding over your belief that a love of reading can’t be instilled or encouraged and that it’s unreasonable to expect English teachers in the critical years even to make an effort. How about we split the difference? Have them teach video games the way they teach literature: a semester of Pong and a semester of Donkey Kong accompanied by lectures on how important these are to the culture and how it’s the student’s duty to learn them, followed up by writings on the place of Space Invaders in the origin of the modern video game–all explained in excruciating and boring detail,and with never the least implication that someone might play these voluntarily–oh, and be sure to be condescending toward any game a student does enjoy. If you can’t instill a love of books, I’m pretty sure that method wold instill a distaste for video games and level the playing field. Imagine what could be done to TV with such a program.
This first thing that strikes me about this paragraph is this:  I have never in my life had a literature course that would fit the description Robert provides above.
Not once.
I have had good literature courses, and bad literature courses, and mediocre literature courses, but none of them have been the kind of thing Robert describes.
I’ve also got to admit that I’m always a little suspicious when people tell me that they’re being “looked down on” by people who are theoretically, at least, better educated or more urban than themselves.
Bill came up with a concept when we were living in New York that he called “rubophobia.”   I don’t like the neologism, because it seems to mean “fear of rubes,” but what he reall meant was “fear of BEING THOUGHT OF as a rube.”
If you live in a place like New York, you run into a fair amount of this sort of thing, especially by people who come to the city from the Midwest.  I think it’s a result of the combination of two factors.
First, there’s the fact that the person sees himself as somehow lacking, that he fears he isn’t smart enough or educated enough or sophisticated enough and that whatever he lacks is likely to be apparent to everybody.
Second, there’s a clanging case of cultural dissonance, in that certain styles of speech and expression, which might signal one thing in Topeka, don’t necessarily signal anything at all when produced by New Yorkers in New York.  And that same dissonance can occur between educational types and levels–what might signal “contempt” of produced by a high school kid does not necessarily signal contempt when produced by a guy with a master’s degree. 
NOTE–I’m talking here about styles.  I’m talking about vocal intonations and syntax and common ways of expressing things, as well as the use of “big words,” since what makes a word “big” is in the eyes of the beholder.
At any rate, I have run into too many cases of rubophobia not to wonder when somebody tells me his English teachers “looked down” on him.  I’ve been accused myself of snobbishness, pretentiousness, and a whole rank of other things–remember that woman who thought I was “haughty”–simply because I talk the way  I talk.  
You’ve got no idea what an odd or disconcerting experience it is to be just sort of talking away, thinking you’re having a pleasant conversation about something, only to have the person you’re talking to suddenly explode into recrimminations, “Who do you think you are?  You’ve got no right to judge me!?
When you weren’t juding them at all.  Or even thinking about judging them.  You were talking about cucumbers.
I have a bigger problem with this than some people do, because I’m saddled with a real Connecticut Gold Coast accent.   I’ve worked on it for years, and it’s better than it used to be, but at my worst I sound like a cross between Katharine Hepburn and Ann Coulter.  My voice alone can sometimes send a certain kind of Midwesterner straight up the wall.
That said, my English courses have simply not been the kind of thing Robert describes.  My bad ones have been simply boring, or–mostly in college–tendentious.  My good ones have been contextual and historically informed.
But most of the courses I’ve taken have been mediocre, and they’ve consisted of reading the books and then talking about them in a vaguely systematic way, usually accompanied by questions that used to seem to me to be so obvious that they would make me roll my eyes in exasperation.
The “readings” approach described in the article whose link I posted above can be good, bad, or mediocre.  The best “readings” based courses actually have you analyze work from different readngs systems and see what you get.  The bad just drum home whatever the reading du jour is.  
But even then, my courses were nothing like what Robert describes.
Let’s take Faulkner’s “A Rose for  Emily,” one of those short stories now beloved on Freshman Englihs anthologies.
A bad class in “A Rose for Emily” would be having the students read the thing and then the teacher droning on for an hour and twenty minutes about the Southern Gothic and oh, look at how bad they treat the Negroes.
A mediocre class in “A Rose for Emily” would concentrate on discussing “issues,” like “who is the narrative of this story?” and “in what ways is Emily’s relationship to the town like her relationship to her father?”
A good class in “A Rose for  Emily” would make sure students knew the answers to the kinds of questions the mediocre class asks, but then show them how the story is actually a metaphor for the postBellus South’s relationship to its own past. 
But, as I said, absolutely none of it was, for me, what Robert described.
As for his question–if we taught video games the way he was taught literature, would kids still like video games?–the answer is
Yes they would.
They would still like them because they would have played them before they ever got into a classroom.  They would know most of what they know about video games from sources outside of school.  School would therefore have little or not impact on whether or not they liked videogames, although it might affect which ones they liked.
And in the end, that’s the problem with reading.  My father became a great reader not because his English classes were better or worse than ours, but because they didn’t particularly matter.  He was already a great reader before he got to school. 
As long as reading most students “only” do in school, as long as they come from homes where nobody reads and nobody even knows anybody who reads, they’ll respond to even the best of  English classes as something that has no relevance to the real world at all. 
It’s just something they make you do in school, so the sensible thing is to do as little of it as possible until you reach the point where you’re not in school any more, and then you never have to do it at all. 

Written by janeh

April 25th, 2009 at 8:54 am

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One Response to 'Post Traumatic Stress Disorder'

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  1. Sadly, it’s not possible to set the wayback machine for 1964-70, and let you judge for yourself. (I wouldn’t go back myself under any circumstances.) I can only say I know exactly how harsh it sounds, that I considered that I might have been too harsh, and decided on balance that it was a pretty good summary of English over that period, excepting 8th and 9th Grades. (Mr. Rothaar, if you’re reading this, I didn’t mean you.) The only one of my contemporary friends who doesn’t describe English classes in roughly similar terms went on to teach English.

    So now I’m a victim of rubophobia. Well, it’s rightly said that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t really out to get you. Perhaps being a rubophobe doesn’t mean your aren’t really being contemptuous of your taste in literature. And I’ve NEVER suspected my teachers of being smarter or more sophisticated than I was–well, not prior to the Post-Graduate Intelligence Program, when some of them probably were.

    I quite agree that if a student sees his parents read around the home and has himself learned to read well prior to school or in the earliest grades, the most the program can do is instill a deep distrust of anything recommended by the English Lit establishment. Telling me a book has been shortlisted for the Nobel, Pulitzer or Booker Prizes, or is now on many required reading lists is a good way of ensuring that said title will not be accompanying me home from Books a Million any time soon.

    But if the love of reading is effectively hereditary, since we already know educated people have on average fewer children, that’s a death spiral. Seems to me I remember something about sales of 2,000 copies in hard covers being a BAD thing. If we want more readers, some of them will have to be the children of people who don’t read much–or at all. I don’t think it’s impossible: religions and political causes do it all the time, none of us had great-grandparents who watched television, and all of us are, ultimately descended from illiterates.

    I would suggest to English teachers what I say to politicians, businessmen and military officers: if you don’t like the results you’re getting, change your procedures.

    Incidentally, between writing Jane this morning and reading her this evening, I began work on Joseph Pearce’s TOLKIEN MAN AND MYTH and read the critical reaction to THE LORD OF THE RINGS being voted the greatest book of the century in polls conducted by Waterstone’s and by the DAILY TELEGRAPH, and as favorite book of any age by members of the Folio Society. I suggest anyone thinking “contempt” too strong a word read Pearce’s quoted responses from the literary establishment.


    25 Apr 09 at 5:42 pm

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