14 July 2015

"Literature is Ha-a-a-ard!" Wails Empathy Barbie

Gary Saul Morson of Northwestern University asks  "Why College Students Are Avoiding the Study of Literature" in Commentary Magazine.  His answer: because we (mostly college instructors, but also high school English teachers) teach it badly.

(Some might point out that students avoid the study of literature because like to get their Gen Ed. credit in ways that require as little writing as possible--and many literature classes involve a lot of writing. They'd also note the widespread perception that college-level study of literature dooms one to a life of penury and irrelevance.  But Morson doesn't go there.)

No--we systematically ruin literature, in three distinct ways, according to Morson: (1) We load up with critical vocabulary so that students can treat the study of literature as a kind of forensic autopsy that destroys the subject in the course of analyzing it.  (2) We encourage students to judge the literature of the past by the moral standards of the present, which leaves little room for enjoying literary works on their own terms.  (3) We treat literary works not as art but as documentary evidence--we encourage students to read literature as a tool for understanding particular historical moments, not as an aesthetic experience.

Guilty on all charges.  Note that accomplishing both (2) and (3) could be considered a feat of intellectual incoherence and sleight-of-hand so prodigious as to warrant at least some degree of grudging respect.  Yes, of course.  Every semester, I fail my students in all these ways, sometimes in the teaching of a single text.

Do I encourage them to view great works of literature as "just words on a page linked by abstruse techniques...a sort of puzzle one needed an advanced humanities degree to make sense of"? That formalist approach can help students understand a literary work better. What would happen to the narrative arc of Moll Flanders if Defoe had required his self-willed heroine of childbearing years to care deeply about each of her babies? Verisimilitude demanded pregnancies, the exigencies of plot couldn't let them get in Moll's way. So yes, I let them apply their modern standards of judgment anachronistically (Moll was a terrible mother, after all--all those abandoned babies!  And why didn't she just, you know, get a job?) because for many students, interest in this book begins with finding satisfactory resolution to the points that baffle them.   Having hooked them with irritation at Moll's poor choices (as the students understand them), I can assuage their irritation by helping them see the novel as a window into a world that differs substantially from their own (a job doing what?), yet demonstrates the beginnings of conceptual frameworks that they take for granted (Why does it feel so weird to both cheer her on and judge her?  Why are we so mistrustful of her final penitence?)

That said, for every class in which I've successfully surfed the wave of student disinterest, anomie, and fatigue to bring us all to a calm shore of shared knowledge and inquiry, there has been a class in which I'm left castigating myself on all three counts.  I've burdened them with technical vocabulary they don't need, unwittingly affirmed their presentism, and taught a lesson in cut-rate cultural history, not literary study.

As Morson puts it,
In each of these interest-killing approaches—the technical, the judgmental, and the documentary—true things are said. Of course literature uses symbols, provides lessons in currently fashionable problems, and can serve as a document of its times. The problem is what these approaches do not achieve. 
They fail to give a reason for reading literature.
So why read Moll Flanders?

Morson would have us empathize with Moll above all else:
Reading a novel, you experience the perceptions, values, and quandaries of a person from another epoch, society, religion, social class, culture, gender, or personality type. Those broad categories turn out to be insufficient, precisely because they are general and experienced by each person differently; and we learn not only the general but also what it is to be a different specific person. By practice, we learn what it is like to perceive, experience, and evaluate the world in various ways. This is the very opposite of measuring people in terms of our values. 
To be sure, there are other disciplines that sometimes tell us we should empathize, but only literature offers constant practice in doing so.
In the dark nights when I feel like I've left students more baffled than they were to begin with, by a work of literature that has failed to speak to them, this thought--that the struggle is worth it in order to inculcate empathy--is not my go-to.

If only great literature had a monopoly on aesthetic experiences that stimulated students to identify with fictional characters!  Then our classes would be full, our disciplines growing! Unfortunately for us (my tongue is firmly in cheek here), a curious engaged student with a laptop and a Netflix account doesn't have to pay tuition money to find her sympathies engaged in new ways.  Any number of content providers, from the makers of slick highbrow independent movies to the TED world to sensitive articulate souls with videotaping capacity, stand ready to convey unfamiliar "perceptions, values, and quandaries" to others.  And people, including students, choose to have those vicarious experiences.

As Morson describes it, he teaches by performance:
Because literature is about diverse points of view, I teach by impersonation. I never tell students what I think about the issues the book raises, but what the author thinks. If I comment on some recent event or issue, students will be hearing what Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, not I, would say about it.... 
Such impersonation demands absorbing the author’s perspective so thoroughly that one can think from within it, and then “draw dotted lines” from her concerns to ours. ...Instead of just seeing words, they hear a voice. 
It is therefore crucial to read passages aloud, with the students silently reading along. Students should sense they are learning how to bring a novel to life. “So this is why people get so much out of Tolstoy!” 
At that point, students will not have to take the author’s greatness on faith. They will sense that greatness and sense themselves as capable of doing so.
I, too, love reading aloud to students.  Reading aloud seems to be a lost art--at least, they're not very good at doing it themselves.  No matter, I have fun and so do students.  Older texts, in particular, best come alive when students can hear unfamiliar sentence rhythms, the emphasis on certain words, the relationships between dependent clauses.  Hearing the text makes it less remote, makes it seem as if the dialogue could actually happen, to real people.  The longer I teach, the longer I spend establishing these basic foundations of understanding, the more willing I am to let my sheer enjoyment of a text show.  When students don't automatically assume they'll like the books you're making them read, and when their own sampling of the texts fails to win them over, it becomes crucial to bring them inside the worlds you are, for the space of a semester, asking them to inhabit.

But then what? Convincing students that Moll Flanders, like an indie film they haven't heard of, or the fanfic a roommate asks them to read, can be an enjoyable and illuminating aesthetic experience doesn't feel like enough. As Morson asks, "Is there something one can learn from literature one cannot learn just as well or better elsewhere?" The practice of empathy lies all around us. The disciplined study of literature can teach us to use that empathy critically, self-reflectively, consciously. It can direct us to the other bodies of knowledge that we need if we are to experience empathy that isn't just an expansion of our "prison-house of self." The study of literature can also encourage us to recognize the complex role of race, gender, class, and politics in erecting that prison-house.  The study of literature can teach students the limits of their subjective responses and show them how to use their empathetic reactions as an important data point as well as a guide to action.

One would hope, too, that literary study isn't just the passive absorption of aesthetic value. It's okay with me if students don't sense Daniel Defoe's greatness. A lot of people don't. But if they walk away understanding that picaresque narratives generally fail to hold their attention, or eager to explore literary traditions that embrace female reproduction, or curious to see if Robinson Crusoe is anything like the pop culture representations they've seen, or sensitized to a didactic strain in literature that they had met before but not recognized...well, then I feel like they've learned something that the academic study of literature can teach them, that a really good movie can't.

You can't really get there without doing those three bad things Morson says we shouldn't do.
But what do I know? I don't fill 300-person lecture halls with my riffs on Moll Flanders. Sometimes if feels like the best I can hope for is to convey to students how it might happen that they could care deeply about a character like Moll Flanders. The struggle, as the students say, is real.

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