Monday, August 31, 2009


I was always a voracious reader as a child. Reading that was required for school barely pinged my radar; I read it and moved on to something else, like the Narnia Chronicles or Madeline L'Engle or Alcott or Hardy. I liked doing well in school, so I liked doing the reading and getting a good grade on the test. I remember not liking Silas Marner and hating Great Expectations. I was meh on MacBeth but really *liked* Hamlet.

There's a mini-debate going on in the blogosphere over English classes that no longer center around required reading but instead are run as reading workshops in which students choose their own books. The NY Times reports, Meg Cabot responds and points to an essay on the Accelerated Reader program and Smart Bitches responds to Cabot as does Linda Holmes of NPR. Joanne Jacobs wants to see both required common reading and reading choice.

A lot of this comes down to effective teaching, I think. I've gained a bit of a rep in my college for teaching "The Office" in my lit survey class. But I taught it alongside "Bartleby the Scrivener" and "Death of a Salesman," two texts I usually find difficult to engage students in. I throw in "Dirge" by Kenneth Fearing, too, and it makes a nice little cohesive unit about work, consumerism, capitalism, and masculinity. I recently watched "Office Space" for the first time (yeah, I know--in my defense it came out while I was 6 months pregnant with my first child) and Peter is a kind of Bartleby-esque figure.

I think Cabot misses the boat totally, though. It seems to me we have a series of challenges when it comes to reading. We have to:
*get students to see value in reading (Cabot would argue therefore we have to let them read what they want)
*continually challenge students to read more complex language (one of the arguments for developmentally contructed reading lists--increase the challenge bit by bit)
*teach students about how language works.

This latter aspect is where Cabot misses the boat, but I have heard her complaint echoed again and again, by students and by friends who complain about their days in high school. She writes:

I don’t think there should be mandatory reading lists in school. I cannot think of a single book I enjoyed that I was required to read in school….

…with the exceptions of books I had read before they were assigned to me in school, like To Kill A Mockingbird, and Catcher in the Rye, which were then ruined by someone going on and on about all the “symbolism” in them, and what the authors really meant, which, as an author myself, I can tell you–THE PEOPLE WRITING ABOUT THESE BOOKS DO NOT KNOW. Seriously. THEY DO NOT KNOW WHAT THE AUTHOR REALLY MEANT AT ALL, AND ARE MORE THAN LIKELY WRONG. THIS IS WHY THESE AUTHORS ARE IN HIDING.

How is it that understanding symbolism can *ruin* a book for someone?

Furthermore, isn't understanding symbolism (and metaphor and tone) a crucial lifelong learning skill? Isn't it essential to understand how writers can influence us with their words? Doesn't symbolism, metaphor and tone exist outside of fictional writing?

When I'm teaching writing, I often use a passage from this essay, written by Mona Charen:

On Dec. 10, 2003, freedom took two body blows. The first was the decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to permit the limitation of political speech. This is not exotic dancing or flag burning. This is "Vote for Sam Smith" -- the beating heart of our democracy. The Supreme Court has just tied a gag around our mouths, and most of the intellectual class is delighted....

Liberals have howled for three solid years now that in 2000, the conservatives on the court stampeded over the law to place their preferred candidate in the White House. (The truth is that the Democrats had successfully suborned the Florida Supreme Court to flout the law and the U.S. Supreme Court merely stopped them from hijacking the election.) But look carefully at McConnell vs. Federal Election Commission, and what do you find? The conservatives on the court were vehemently opposed to this assault on speech despite the fact that these restrictions will undoubtedly favor incumbents.

When my students are done reading it, I ask them if they know what Charen is talking about. They have no clue. I say, well, is it good or bad? They know it's bad. In this case, it's so obvious that Charen is deliberately using imagery of violence to describe McCain-Feingold.

It's important that they learn those skills, and richly written literature can help them learn. They need to understand how word choice contributes to tone because they need to be able to interpret tone in an age where most communication is done online in written language. They may not want to read "Bartleby the Scrivener," but they need to understand precisely how pompous and self-serving the narrator is, and how Melville is crafting the story to mock the narrator.

Scholarship of popular culture can help draw out the ways that seemingly unserious writers also use the elements of literature, patterns of imagery, meaningful symbols, in order to craft a particular response from readers. Plot is one element, but use of language is another.

I am never one who believes in the One True Way of teaching something. My feeling is that you have to use what works with that group of students and adapt accordingly. This is why I would find it hard to teach anywhere with a standardized curriculum, and I'll be honest that I chafe a bit against having a required textbook. The problem is there is so much at stake--or so much perceived to be at stake--with K-12 education that it's difficult to be that adaptable.

I think if we had less high stakes testing, we could see more experimenting from teachers trying to increase the challenge of the reading selections while still promoting the joy of reading.


Amy P said...

She's got a point, you know. After dismembering the lifeless corpse of a book in English class, the last thing I wanted to do was to read it again for pleasure. I can't imagine picking up To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Death of a Salesman, Grapes of Wrath, or The Scarlet Letter for fun. All of these books stink of the classroom. That's true, even though I actually liked English a lot, and I suspect that this is very unfair to To Kill a Mockingbird. Perversely, exhaustive analysis actually helped me get to like the poetry we covered in AP English.

Wendy said...

See, maybe I'm like a doctor or pathologist or something, but I see great beauty in the entrails of a book. Of course, perhaps this is why I got a PhD in the stuff. :)

Btw, of the 5 you mentioned, I read only 1 in HS. GoW was grad school, DoaS I read because it was in the textbook I was teaching from, and I finally read TKaM when a friend of mine was going to name her daughter Harper.

I don't know how these books got into the curriculum, to be honest. Toni Morrison's works are just as vivid and well-written yet 100 times more interesting. You want to challenge kids? Give 'em a good Borges story. There was a cult of the 19th century author in the academy for years, and I say good riddance.

Btw, forgot this comment was waiting in moderation! I saw it last night while checking mail on my iPod Touch, but I had to log into Blogger to post the comment, and I didn't feel like it. :)

Amy P said...

"See, maybe I'm like a doctor or pathologist or something, but I see great beauty in the entrails of a book. Of course, perhaps this is why I got a PhD in the stuff. :)"

Although I can't enjoy those books any more, I'm sure my dissecting work helps me a lot in reading and enjoying other books. I'm glad we didn't do Jane Austen or Nabokov in high school--that would have been tragic.