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Snarking the English Major

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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.

Written by janeh

August 28th, 2013 at 8:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Snarking the English Major'

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  1. I found myself wondering if when you begin class, in those few moments when you actually *have* their attention, you just flat out tell the class what other class members have TRIED and failed at trying to get away with not actually doing the work.

    “They tried telling me they didn’t know the assignment. Syllabus. They tried telling me their grandmother died, several times over that term. They tried pleading discrimination, ignorance, aliens from space. Seen it all, NONE of it worked. Do the work in the syllabus to a standard set by me and the curriculum board, and you pass. Otherwise, do NOT come whining, it will not work.”

    Then I’d pass out, along with the syllabus, a form requiring them to sign their name to something like the above, prettied up, and “I understand”, and require them to read it out loud and then sign and return it. Still might get some of those types, who if they spent as much time doing the work as they do trying to get out of it, would rule the world, but at least you could wave their own signatures at them.

    Of course, the school admin might not go along with this.

    At our local city college, my son graduated several years ago from their *nationally known and highly ranked* two-year program for aircraft engine & airframe maintenance. He was in the last graduating class, because they shut it down after that. Why? Because of the intensive format, 6 hours per day, 5 days per week, for 8 semesters, they couldn’t keep their instructors as “adjuncts” and pay them the crap wages they wanted to. Every instructor maxed out their hours per week, and they had to bring in subs for Thursday & Friday.

    I don’t know whether to blame the college’s hiring policies or the union’s requirements, I just know that a fine program, always fully enrolled (and over-enrolled, they could have run twice as many students if they wanted to) was trashed over stupid policies.

    Sorry, I know, off topic. My semi-point is that with city or community colleges, where there is no expectation of anything beyond an associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year school, sometimes it seems like the goal is less education than it is keeping the administrators employed. They have plenty of money for building new facilities, just not to staff them. Education of any solid sort is a secondary, perhaps even tertiary importance.

    As for telling if Shakespeare is good poetry, can’t we depend to some extent on contemporary reviews? Some critics thought him vulgar, but the audience voted with their attendance, and his plays always had that. In the hands of a superb actor, it’s still compelling music to the ear.


    28 Aug 13 at 12:33 pm

  2. So many topics. Let me save literary criticism for last.
    I think at some level I look on reading as a creative act—at least something so different from writing that it wouldn’t attract the same people or save the same purpose. Also, I have my doubts about writing as something that CAN be taught. Painters and musicians study first, but several of my favorite authors started as cub reporters, were banging away on a typewriter at ten, or writing with crayons at six. The only one I know to have attended a writing seminar was already published.

    Prose. Or for that matter poetry. Yeah, language shifts, and a lot of the best stuff was written in foreign anyway. Fortunately, I lack Jane’s hypersensitivity which causes her to break out in hives whenever she reads Georgette Heyer. Get me a good plot, interesting characters and an interesting setting, and I can make do.

    Setting—and SF. For me, the setting has to be interesting and plausible, but it needn’t be any place I can buy a ticket too. The last ship for Regency London left the harbor a long time ago, no more trains will arrive at Victorian London, and there will be no flights to Barsoom. But I’d rather revisit a Regency ball, Baker Street in the fog or Jekkara Old Town than tour some modern San Diego with the serial number filed off.

    Worth noting, though, that a science fiction author or a historical novelist knows that her readership doesn’t know certain things, and, if she’s any good, integrates the necessary information into the text. Jane Austen’s readers knew the difference between a coach and a phaeton the way John D. McDonald’s understood what a Corvair convertible was, or Homer’s knew why that armor had to be salvaged. Time passes and we have to be told in class what the original readers knew without being taught.

    But there is a different aspect of criticism. In fact, there are two. There is picking out the theme of the work, which is a thing that should be done in school until the student gets the hang of it. But there’s something else, which is NOT trying to kill the work.

    Let me try an analogy. Some of you know that when I can find the time, I’m a miniature wargamer, and often painting toy soldiers. Now, for game purposes, I can get myself a bottle of dark blue to paint a coat and be done. It’s called block painting, and there are toy soldiers so simply sculpted that you should quit there. But if you have a better sculpt, you can go back over that coat with a very dark blue wash that settles into the folds in the cloth. Then you get a much lighter blue, work it almost out of the brush, and lightly “dry brush” that coat, exaggerating the highlights. Then you take a very fine brush and paint the piping collars, cuffs and buttons in their appropriate colors. THEN you have a coat. You haven’t “killed” the sculptor’s work: you’ve made it easier to see. So too with the right kind of criticism.

    Now, my books are boxed, so I’m going from memory here. But when I read Tom Shippey’s ROAD TO MIDDLE EARTH, there was a chapter on Rohan. Shippey discussed the similarities to Old English (Mercian) in language and to BEOWULF for customs and so forth, and concluded “there is an Old English word for every portion of Eomer’s gear but one, and for every part of what the Roherrim are but one. There is a word for both those missing things, though it is not an English word, and it is the same word—panache.” I will never read LOTR again without seeing that panache. Someone else—Marion Zimmer Bradley? “Men, Halflings and Hero-worship?” wrote on the differences between Merry and Pippin. [NB These do not exist if all you did was watch the movie.] If you pay attention to those Hobbitic genealogies, you see that Meriadoc Brandybuck is about 11 years older than his cousin Peregrin Took—just into adulthood while Pippin is still in his “tweens.” Then she showed me how this played out in the text: that Merry had the money when money was needed, it was Merry who studied the maps at Rivendell and Merry Aragorn turned to for help after the loss of Gandalf in Moria. And, having read this, I noticed examples she didn’t give–that in the Scouring of the Shire, it’s Merry who has to organize a defense against the Men, and Pippin who rides in to the rescue.

    Yes, I’ve had teachers kill books before. Physicians lose a few patients too. But that doesn’t mean medicine is a bad idea.

    Too long a reply, but I didn’t know what not to say.


    28 Aug 13 at 1:42 pm

  3. And I missed one. Gropnik’s delightful notion that because people like to read there should be taxpayer-financed college English departments. It’s spectacularly wrong two ways.

    First the logic. If lots of us like to bowl, should taxpayers ante up for bowling alleys? Being human involves a lot of things: let’s hope the government doesn’t start supervising them all. And if it spends, it will supervise. remember “we pay for it.”

    Second, the preposterous notion that reading has to do with English departments. In high school, in college and graduate school, I hung out with the kids who read. We talked Tolkien and Kipling, Heinlein and Conan Doyle and all the other “new” authors we’d discovered. What we didn’t do was take any course from the English departments which wasn’t required by the administration. Those people had nothing to do with reading. From what I can gather, they still don’t.


    28 Aug 13 at 2:54 pm

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