It’s Pick a Fight Day on LJ!

(No, it isn’t. Just on my LJ.)

So, I’m mostly okay with this article in the Telegraph about how it’s okay not to have read John Updike, or for that matter other literary greats. It’s certainly true that it isn’t possible for even the most well-intentioned of book lovers to have read all of the Great Literature that’s been published in the last two hundred years, even if you aim only for the top tier.

But here’s where the writer and I part ways:

This is not an argument against the literary canon. I do believe there are certain key authors – most of them Dead, White, European and Male – who jolly well ought to be studied at school by virtue of the quality and intelligence and depth of their writing. And I certainly don’t believe in the modern anything-goes approach to teaching novels to children in school where they’re served up in gobbets of “text” (whole books being considered too challenging for the Xbox generation) and where literary merit is thought of less importance than “relevance” or “accessibility”.

All I mean is that once you’ve had a reasonable grounding in sufficient “proper” literature to form your taste, you should never again read a book out of duty.


Okay, middle first. I’m with him on the distressing notion that a whole book is too much for kids to read; God, I hope there aren’t many schools doing that. But. But.

Dead, White, European, and Male. The blithe assumption that they’ve got a majority share on “quality and intelligence and depth.” Gyah. I won’t even waste space on arguing that one; you all can do that for yourselves.

The end; the end is where I start talking back to my monitor. The idea that you should form your taste by reading “proper” literature. That literary merit (as judged by, I presume, highly-educated White European Males) should be our primary criterion for handing books to kids — because “relevance” and “accessibility” are silly little concerns, not something we should be wasting their time on.

How the hell does he expect anybody to learn to love reading, with that approach? How does an education in which you’re forced to read books out of duty incline anybody to go on reading them when the duty is removed?

A couple of months ago, I finally managed to articulate one of the things that bothered me about high school English lit classes: I think they force-feed students lots of things the students have no particular reason to understand or care about, and they do it because this is the last chance society has to make you read those books. So who cares if Death of a Salesman is about a guy decades ago having a mid-life crisis and you’re a sixteen-year-old barely aware that traveling salesmen once existed? Who cares if you have any reason to find Willy Loman’s pain sympathetic or even comprehensible? You’ll read it because we think you should do so before you die, and once you graduate our chance to enforce that is gone.

I don’t think any power in the ‘verse could have made me like that play, but I’ve got a tidy little list of authors I should give a second chance, because I might enjoy them now that I’m ready for them.

But I formed my taste by reading books I liked, books I cared about. It probably isn’t the taste Mr. Dellingpole thinks I should have; it’s okay for me not to read Updike, but probably less okay if the reason I’m not reading Updike is that I’m reading George R. R. Martin. But I submit that quality, intelligence, and depth exist as much in one’s interaction with a book as they do in the text itself: all the literary brilliance in the world doesn’t matter if my eyes are glazing over as I turn the pages. You want to know how I learned close reading? By obsessing over Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books and piecing together the fragments of prophecy and foreshadowing scattered through them. And it’s entirely possible I never would have become an alert enough reader to survive Dorothy Dunnett had I not gone through those baby steps first. But if somebody had convinced me I ought to be spending my time on Zadie Smith instead of Jordan, it’s also possible I would have never picked up Dunnett in the first place — or, y’know, other books in general.

If I were in charge of high school curricula, you know what? Literary merit would not be my overriding concern. I would set out to give kids books they might enjoy, and then once they’re engaged, teach them how to pay attention to what they’re reading. Everything else can follow from there, because once you’ve done that, the chances of there being an “everything else” get a lot higher.

It’s a fine irony when Mr. Dellingford decries readers who pick up literary books only out of a sense of obligation — while also telling us we should obligate kids to do just that.

0 Responses to “It’s Pick a Fight Day on LJ!”

  1. tessagratton

    This is one of the reasons I’m a huge fan of the idea of YA literature. It seemed to me that when I was in elementary school we were reading (in school) a bunch of books that teachers thought were great, AND we all enjoyed and wanted to understand because we could relate to the protagonists. But then, once I hit high school, we were supposed to jump into Adult Books, which did NOT mean all the McCaffery and Rice and Jordan I was reading on my own, but meant those cannonical White Euro Male books that nobody cared about for all the reasons you suggest.

    Having a genre dedicated to readers between children and adult, if it can be recognized in places like high school, can only be a good thing. It won’t keep anyone who wants to from reading adult novels (with “proper” literary merit or no), but maybe, if it achieves acceptance it has a chance of bridging that gap where we lose so many readers for the rest of their lives.

    (I’m busy imagining how cool it would have been to read Midnight Never Come or Elizabeth Bear’s Ink and Steel as companion pieces to my history textbook my sophomore year… which aren’t YA so don’t really fit my point, but… still. Look kids: what books can do!)

    • Marie Brennan

      The interesting thing about YA is that it tends to run a few years younger than its protagonists: ten-year-olds are reading about fourteen-year-olds, and fourteen-year-olds are reading about eighteen-year-olds, and so on. Not a strict rule, of course, but it’s a decent pattern, and it means that my pedagogical preference would be for YA to be used in junior high/middle school, and adult novels in high school classes. But then you run into the problem that adult novels are almost guaranteed to include things some parent will object to — Ink and Steel could never be used, what with all Teh Gay Sex.

      Which is why you’re getting all the kerfuffles these days about things like Bless Me, Ultima. YA is much more accepting of swearing and sex and so on than it used to be — and right on cue, the parents are complaining.

      • tessagratton

        That’s a great point about the skew. And, five seconds after I made my comment I realized that about Ink and Steel, and spent a few minutes giggling to myself about The Horror and Banning that would occur.

        (When I was in fifth grade, my teacher privately recommended Anne Rice and Jean M. Auel to me, based on what she knew I was already reading. My mom’s an avid reader and loved that I was, too, but I’m sure she’d have flipped out completely. I should totally tell her about this the next time I’m home…heh.)

  2. difrancis

    Unfortunately most of the canonical authors are dead, white, european and male. Shouldn’t be that way. But it is. And schools often choose them rather than non-canonical authors. Thank Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot for the impetus for that (a rant I’ll not include here).

    The worst part to me is that the school boards pick out books that teachers don’t necessarily like. I mean, I hate Steinbeck and Hemingway (and Updike). If I had to teach them, I think that dislike would come through. On the other hand, other teachers would hate what I love–Poe, Dickens, Faulkner and so forth. They would steal all the fun from those.

    I think there’s a lot of writing out there that could be more accessible if the teachers loved what they were teaching. The love is catching.

    There’s this fabulous Gerald Graff essay called “Disliking Books at an Early Age” that tackles this a bit. Look it up sometime.


    • Marie Brennan

      Thank Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot for the impetus for that (a rant I’ll not include here).

      Actually, that’s a rant I’d like to hear . . . .

      I think there’s a lot of writing out there that could be more accessible if the teachers loved what they were teaching. The love is catching.

      It can be. I went all the way through AP Physics because I had a teacher who was passionate about the subject. Then again, my pre-calculus teacher really loved him some math, too, and he was pretty much the nail in the coffin of my interest in the subject; the passion did not transfer from him to us.

      • difrancis

        Well, the short version of the rant goes like this. Matthew Arnold started the notion of elitism in literature with “the best that’s been thought and said” notion of literature–which meant only dead white guys for him. And also he started the notion of high and low art–that only philistines enjoyed the popular crap and it took taste and discernment that few have to be able to truly understand and appreciate real art.

        He’s the first father of New Criticism (aka formalism).

        Then here comes T.S. Eliot. And he said that art should be difficult, complicated and that it must be understood based only on the words on the page (no going to look up stuff or thinking about authors or what have you). True art stands the test of time because it is deeply complex and yet everything is there to understand, but only if you have the skills to read it.

        He created the notion that ordinary people couldn’t understand or appreciate art without the mediation of oh, let’s just call them ‘priests’ of literature, shall we? Only people credentialed through a process (like academia) were authorized to be critics or understand art. Which of course means that it wasn’t for ordinary people. And hell, ordinary people don’t like it because it was purposely complicated and difficult and often baroque and boring.

        Anyhow, all of this led to New Criticism, which is was formed the basis for most teachers of literature for a long long time and stil does. So when teachers ask students what they think something means, and the student answers, the teacher disagrees and says no. Because according to Eliot, there’s only one right meaning to a work and only priests are able to find it. Students/ordinary people aren’t qualified.

        That method, to my mind, teaches students not to engage in the literature cause their WRONG. And if they enjoy it, it can’t be good because good literature is the stuff they don’t understand and that they are WRONG about. And it’s boring because they don’t understand it and they can’t formulate thoughts about it because those thoughts are WRONG.

        It’s funny. I was teaching a lit theory class a few years back and we’d just finished going over New Criticism and reading a lot of Arnold and Eliot and my students came in, many from this early brit lit class. They were complaining aobut the prof, about how he would ask questions and when they didn’t give him the answer he wanted, he’d tell them they were wrong and keep asking the question, but they all shut up because they didn’t want to risk being wrong. They kept going on and on and I just was grinning at them. Finally I asked them if they recognized anything in that teaching style. and then Bingo! A light! They realized he was totally a new critic and once they got that, the class was better for them because they realized it was a theoretical approach.

        Anyhow, not exactly a coherent rant because I’m proofing a manuscript I have to send in, but there you go.

        • Marie Brennan

          Ah! Yes, I recognize that mindset; I didn’t know it was the fault of Arnold and Eliot.

          I can’t help but think, in my more bitter and cynical (and reductive) moments, that they poisoned the well for everybody — that the decline in reading is ALL THEIR FAULT.

          • difrancis

            that’s pretty much the way I see it. I mean, right around the time that literature as a study is introduced into the curriculum, they come along and tell everyone this crap. And yeah, reductive, cynical and bitter are us, but still . . . .

  3. akashiver

    Well, I agree with what you’re saying re: the importance of teaching fun, relevant literature etc. I think there’s a division, though, when it comes to teaching reading (which is what you’re really talking about) vs. teaching the history of English literature (which is what most upper level English courses do.)

    At the elementary school level there really is more of a focus on teaching “fun” accessible books, because the students need to learn a) to read and b) how to read a book. At the high school level there tends to be more of a move towards teaching the canon, so that students (allegedly) learn more about where those fun books fit in within a cutural history of the form.

    Given the decline of readership overall, I’m all for turning people into readers by giving high school students good books. But, playing devil’s advocate here, what the chances are of a person who does not yet read for fun at age 16 deciding to turn off the tv and start reading for pleasure? Most people I know who are readers were reading for pleasure from a very young age. I have yet to hear a person say “I didn’t read for fun until Grade 11, when my English teacher gave us this great book to read in class, and that’s what got me into reading.”

    Now, maybe that’s because most Grade 11 teachers assign boring books (although I’ve heard of plenty who assign “popular” authors like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King). Or maybe it’s because reading is one of the harder forms of entertainment to process, and if someone hasn’t developed a taste for it by age 16, they’re probably not going to.

    About teaching the “canon” – i.e. all those old books that are considered “good for you” but which few people (even English teachers) read for fun. Well, they aren’t being taught to make people enjoy reading. They’re being taught because educational institutions figure that students should have a grasp of the history of literature; that they should have read a bit of Chaucer, and at least one Shakespeare play, and a Romantic poem or two, so that they have a body of cultural knowledge to draw upon when these things are referenced outside of school.

    Maybe that knowledge isn’t particularly valuable, but I do believe that if, as a school or state, you do think it’s valuable, you ought to teach it. I wouldn’t want curriculums tossed out in favor of delivering pure entertainment. I mean, think of a subject like history. Is Ancient Rome relevant to most 16 year olds? No. Does that mean that in the interest of making students like history, history teachers should not teach anything prior to the 21st century? That maybe WW2 should be taught because it’s exciting, but all that stuff about the Babylonians and the first code of laws should go unmentioned because it’s dull?

    I know there are some people who make exactly that argument. I just can’t agree with it. Education is not just about teaching skills; it’s also about teaching certain foundational aspects of culture. We expect most high school graduates to know who the American president is, and who the Naxis were, and what geometry involves, and where the line “wherefore art thou Romeo” comes from. That’s not to say that they do know, or that they remember, or that they care. But it’s nice to have a common kind of culture; perhaps in a geopolitical sense, it’s also necessary.

    • mrissa

      I wouldn’t want curriculums tossed out in favor of delivering pure entertainment. I mean, think of a subject like history. Is Ancient Rome relevant to most 16 year olds? No. Does that mean that in the interest of making students like history, history teachers should not teach anything prior to the 21st century? That maybe WW2 should be taught because it’s exciting, but all that stuff about the Babylonians and the first code of laws should go unmentioned because it’s dull?

      Hmmmm. And here’s an obsession of mine cropping up again.

      Did you find, when you were in primary and secondary school, that history was mostly interesting based on subject? That, for example, the Vietnam War was interesting because there were lots of people around who had been involved with that in one direction or another, while the Civil War was boring? Did your classmates seem to react that way?

      Or did they tend to get interested when they had an inspired teacher and less so when the teacher was going through the motions?

      Yes, this is a leading question, but if you had the opposite experience from what I had, I’d love to hear it. For me, whether a history class was interesting or not was based entirely on the teaching.

      So no, I don’t think that history classes should become entertainment. But I would rather have a teacher who can teach brilliantly about WWII be allowed to do so, and a teacher who can teach brilliantly about Babylon be allowed to do so, and so on. I would far rather have my godkids learn about, say, the Mughal Empire in their second grade history class and have a really good grounding in it and see that the facts and the details of history are exciting in themselves, not as edu-tainment, than learn the same curriculum about the American Revolution that every other student in their grade is learning from every other teacher of their grade, none of whom have particularly inspired ideas about teaching the American Revolution.

      Common culture is important. But what I’m seeing is a lot of people who know that “wherefore art thou Romeo” was from Romeo and Juliet but not that it doesn’t mean, “Where are you, Romeo?” And people who know that “Now is the winter of our discontent,” is Shakespeare but not that it’s a fragment of a sentence that means the very opposite of “right now we are at our most discontented.” And I guess I’d much rather have kids not know which lines are from Romeo and Juliet but have very strong memories of how interesting it was to study Love’s Labours Lost, or The Frogs, or a Noh play, and have genuine cultural insight about those.

      So we have these ideas about what should be taught in a high school, and we wind up, as a culture, with thousands upon thousands of people who speak a few words of indifferent high school French or Spanish or possibly German, because Those Are What Foreign Languages High Schools Teach, and we read in the newspapers about the shortages of Arabic speakers, or Russian speakers, or on and on. We have people who vaguely remember something about a river in Huckleberry Finn and have been reading Mark Twain solely as, God help us all, part of the establishment. We can’t figure out a total ordering of what is the most important book for 10th graders to read and what is the second most important, because there is no such list. Because the very concept of making it is impossible. But we behave as though we do have it, and we frogmarch kids past the literary and historical canon the way we frogmarch them through museums on school field trips, where there is no wandering off and no staring at that statue that fascinates you and no giggling at that painting because paintings are very serious things and no painter ever meant you to laugh or he wouldn’t have used oil paint.

      I just don’t see that canon has done very well at getting us lasting knowledge or depth of understanding.

      • mrissa

        And! Andandand! In the rare cases where we do have a gifted teacher who is allowed to write a quirky curriculum, we learn the wrong things from it! People say, “Oh, that curriculum worked really well in turning out literate students who were good writers! Let’s make other teachers teach it!” And we don’t see how the teacher’s passion and engagement with worthy material was a great deal more important than exactly which pieces of worthy material were involved.

        In my sophomore high school English class, we read Return of the Native and Einstein’s most famous essay on religion and The Little World of Don Camillo and the book of Matthew from the Christian NT and The Pearl and a million other things. But we did not have any illusion that this was because The Little World of Don Camillo was either better or more culturally central than other works. It was because Bill Novak wanted to teach it and could do a damn good job of teaching it, could make it speak to us in ways that could inform our reading later in our lives. He didn’t focus on relevancy and he didn’t focus on canon. He focused on how he, a limited human being, could get across some of the things he knows about literature and reading to us, limited human beings.

        It worked. It was one of the few classes in that school that did.

        • Marie Brennan

          Our entire educational system is kind of borked in that respect — we’ve set it up such that we need mass-reproducible mechanisms, and those are often incompatible with particularly good results.

          • mrissa

            Right. We act like we want to graduate cogs, and 1) we’re really bad at it and 2) we don’t want them anyway.

      • akashiver

        Or did they tend to get interested when they had an inspired teacher and less so when the teacher was going through the motions?

        Obviously a good teacher should be able to get students interested in practically anything. That’s what good teachers do. But the discussion (as I understood it) wasn’t how to hire better teachers, but about the value of teaching books with Literary Merit versus teaching books that are Entertaining. It’s a false dichotomy, because obviously there are plenty of books with both. But what is at stake here is the value that underpins high school curriculums: are we teaching English Lit in order to get students to read well? Or is our primary goal to get them familiar with a body of information? (Or to put this in the bald terms of debates over the direction of secondary education: should our priority be skills or information?)

        I would far rather have my godkids learn about, say, the Mughal Empire in their second grade history class… than learn the same curriculum about the American Revolution that every other student in their grade is learning…

        Well, a good teacher is a good teacher, and should be able to make the American Revolution just as interesting as the Mughal Empire. But as for your larger point, I have to disagree. Certainly, there are alternative schools that pride themselves providing student-driven learning, so if you want that for your child, you can have it. But within the state (or provincial) system, a teacher’s failure to follow the curriculum often causes chaos, and ultimately is a diservice to the child.

        Curriculums are supposed to be designed to ensure that each grade provides the building blocks needed for the next level. In grade 1 students learn to count & identify numbers. In grade 2 they learn to add and subtract. In grade 3 they learn to multiply, and so on. If, in grade 2, the teacher decides to teach fractions instead of addition, those students go onto grade 3 *not knowing how to add or subtract.* And then the grade 3 teacher has to either play catchup (thus meaning the students *don’t learn how to multiply*) or teach the curriculum and try to help those other students on the side. The almost universal result? Those students fall behind at math, come in below average on standardized tests, and probably develop a complex about their “weak” math skills that will last the rest of their lives.

        I admit that I come to this question from 2 directions. First, because I switched countries as a child, I also switched curriculums, and I found out firsthand what it is like to miss out on subjects like multiplication and national history (it sucked). Secondly, I’ve seen the results in both high-school and university classrooms. The college-level students who missed out on the American Revolution because their history teacher/basketball coach talked about basketball instead? They suffer, and they really resent not learning about the American Revolution. But they have a much, much easier time than the American students we get who were never taught the basics of English reading and pronounciation. (The “e” on the end of “time” is silent. Who knew?)

        • mrissa

          Well, a good teacher is a good teacher, and should be able to make the American Revolution just as interesting as the Mughal Empire.

          I think this is a fundamental point of disagreement between us. To me, this is like saying, “A good musician is a good musician, and should be able to play the violin just as well as the piano.” There are skills and parts of musicality that overlap, and of course there are people who play both well and other instruments to boot. But I don’t believe that all good teachers should be equally passionate and engaged with all material within their own subject.

          I’m not sure where you jumped to “student-driven learning” when I was advocating letting the teachers choose, within their subjects, what to teach. Did I accidentally hit on a buzzword that usually signals student-driven learning without knowing it? There is a big, big difference between Mr. or Ms. So-and-so coming in and saying, “Okay, class, what do you feel like learning today? Go pick a project,” and Mr. or Ms. So-and-so coming in and saying, “Okay, class, our next history unit is going to be on the Aztecs!”

          Your example with the basketball coach also puzzles me, because it looks to me like this is not a situation that is remedied by having a mandated curriculum. We had a mandated curriculum in my seventh grade history class. The teacher wanted to talk about running (he was the track coach) and goof around. He did so. Having the mandated curriculum did nothing to stop him. If you have a history teacher who consistently doesn’t teach history, I don’t care whether it’s because he’s out behind the school with a fifth of gin or because he’s in the classroom talking about how the team did Saturday (I had teachers in each category). But if you have a history teacher who teaches the French Revolution, and the students are learning it, I don’t see the problem. If the same grade level history students in the next room are learning about the American Revolution and the ones in the school across town are learning about Cromwell, I really fail to see how any of these students are being let down by the system–or how it’s equivalent to having the teacher talking about basketball instead of teaching history.

          On the other hand, the honors English teachers in my school resisted having an externally mandated curriculum until after I was graduated and out of there. My seventh grade English teacher had the freedom to teach us Bullfinch’s Mythology, Julius Caesar, and The Illustrated Man. She did an amazing job, and I believe one of the biggest tools she used to make it amazing was the freedom to adjust her curriculum at will–to look at how we were handling Bullfinch and say, “These kids are ready for their first Shakespeare, and I think it should be Julius Caesar,” or else, “These kids are not getting the level of analysis I’d like with the Bullfinch, but maybe I can get them with Our Town.” If you tell her that no matter what results she’s getting with thing one, she absolutely has to go on to thing two, and never thing b or thing beta, you are more likely to get the situation with kids who are not grasping an appreciable portion of the subject at hand, not less.

          And your math example confuses me in more than one direction: do you believe that history is like math in this regard, and if so, how? What things are the direct equivalents of addition and subtraction? Also, how would someone “teach fractions” without teaching the addition and subtraction of fractions? I still believe there’s a lot of room for variability in math curricula–I know two really good fifth grade math teachers who do very different things in the classroom but both get kids who are good at math objectively and comfortable with math subjectively. But I don’t believe that it has nearly the scope for variation that a literature or history curriculum does, simply because if you decide, “I don’t feel like teaching these second graders fractions–let’s do multivariable calculus!”, you will soon find out that your second grade class does not have the background for calculus and will need to be able to add fractions first.

          This is not true of the Heian Era vs. the Iroquois as topics for history classes.

          • akashiver

            I’ll start with the math example.

            First, people (i.e. bad teachers) do teach fractions without having taught addition. And the students don’t get it. And they end up learning neither addition nore fractions properly. Usually the teacher is doing it to impress parents (omg, my kid is already learning fractions, and the other class is still on addition!), and the gaps in the student’s learning don’t show up until a the next grade, at which point the parents usually blame that grade’s teacher for the sudden plunge in their child’s mathematical performance. (My kid was getting “above grade level” in grade 2!)

            And this happens with all subjects. I’ve seen teachers put their students through Shakespeare “enrichment” in Grade 3 (there’s your equivalent of calculus). The kids didn’t get it, but their parents loved it. Ditto with history: the students got a lot of take-home projects on medieval knights in the year they were supposed to be doing national history. As a result, the entire school suffered on the national standards exam. And the students learned how to make tin foil shields, but they didn’t really learn much about medieval history either.)

            The thing about mandated curriculums is that they’re supposed to be tools for holding teachers accountable for the content of their classes, and making sure the province’s students are learning more-or-less the same thing at roughly the same time, and thus will not be at a crippling disadvantage to other students when it comes to applying for college or transferring schools.

            Now, in practice it usually comes down to the school’s principal to make sure his/her school is meeting the curriculum and isn’t getting in trouble. In schools with weak principals, that’s where teachers like the basketball coach get away with stuff. But in a properly administered system, the principal will be held accountable for the school’s adherance to the curriculum, and there are consequences (i.e. losing funding / people getting fired) if the school is proved to depart from those standards. Note that this is different from “students in your low income area are not performing as well at reading as students from this high income area;” it consists of “show us the lesson plans and student work so that we can see that the reason for low student performance is not that you were teaching them about Jesus instead of science.”

            In all of this, I’m speaking based on what I’ve seen of the Canadian elementary/high school system. Fractions teacher was a real person, and he did get in trouble. From what I remember, he got to keep his job, but the union agreed to have him put under close monitoring by the admin. We’ve also had court cases over schools introducing religious curriculums into provincially funded schools. That makes sense to me: if students’ ability to get into university is going to be determined by their ability to explain evolution, they better have been taught about the the theory of evolution.

            (And yes, further explanation – we have content-based Gr 12 exams to determine admission to university. So really, if a student learned about the Aztecs instead of the French Revolution, it will make a difference to that student’s performance on the History Provincial Exam. And that will make a difference to that student’s ability to get into university, or get a job. This may help explain why I’m a bt more leery than you are about teachers independently changing the curriculum.)

          • mrissa

            Yah, that really is a difference in how the system works–and it makes me leery of large-scale standardized tests rather than of teachers choosing curricula.

          • Marie Brennan

            I’ve seen teachers put their students through Shakespeare “enrichment” in Grade 3 (there’s your equivalent of calculus). The kids didn’t get it, but their parents loved it.

            I certainly don’t advocate replacing one thing that doesn’t work with something else that doesn’t work. But I still disagree with the comparison of literature to math, unless you’re trying to map age-appropriateness of texts* to the necessary prerequisite skills of math.

            *Age-appropriateness being a deeply mutable concept anyway — there are nine-year-olds who would love A Midsummer Night’s Dream if you helped them with the archaic language.

          • akashiver

            I’m talking about learning sequenced skills. “Age appropriateness” is often blended into this when it comes to teaching reading, as there’s a certain vocabulary level that students are supposed to have mastered at each grade. Yes, some students can read more, just as some students are perfectly capable of doing advanced math. But from a teaching perspective, the instructor usuallly has to teach to the middle/upper-middle of a 25-35 student class.

          • Marie Brennan

            I still don’t agree that reading is a sequenced skill, though — not the way math is. There’s not a prerequisite order you have to learn words in, nor do you graduate from sentences to paragraphs, except at a very young age, which is not the kind of education we started out discussing.

            And I don’t think the point I raised is served by being dragged off to other contexts: I’m not talking about teaching Shakespeare to third-graders, I’m talking about teaching Death of a Salesman (yes, I hate that play THAT MUCH) to juniors in high school. There is no skill-based reason to argue for or against its inclusion in the curriculum, nor — I think — is there one for preventing teachers from having greater flexibility in choosing texts. You don’t need to have read Dickens to understand, say, Updike. (Or Tolkien or Stephanie Meyer.) Will you gain something by having done so? Perhaps. But you’ll gain a lot more by choosing a text that doesn’t rely heavily upon a cultural context (in that case, Victorian England) that your students don’t know much about, and therefore don’g have much interest in.

        • Marie Brennan

          (Or to put this in the bald terms of debates over the direction of secondary education: should our priority be skills or information?)

          Skills. Hands-down. Because the information doesn’t do you a damn bit of good if you don’t know what to do with it — and, as Mrissa has pointed out, the information we are getting across tends to be fragmentary and misunderstood.

          And your math comparison really doesn’t work for me, because math has a much more rigidly-defined progression, where you can’t really do algebra if you can’t do arithmetic. What’s the equivalent in literature? You can’t do Gaiman if you haven’t done Dickens? You can’t do Dickens if you haven’t done Shakespeare? Sure you can. You might miss an allusion or three, but those allusions are only one part of understanding a text, and not even necessarily the most interesting to talk about.

          History is a better comparison, and I can make some of the same arguments there that I do for literature: I’d rather history classes focused less on making students remember dates of events, and more on helping them understand the patterns and forces behind those events. In other words, critical reasoning. But cut-and-dried facts are easier to test, and so in our mass-production educational system, that’s what we increasingly focus on.

      • akashiver

        Generally speaking, we have shortages of Arabic classes in high school because we have shortages of high school teachers who can teach Arabic. And we have that shortage because, for many years, speaking Arabic was not perceived to give students an advantage either when it came to getting into university or when it came to getting jobs after graduation. (And even post 9-11 it didn’t confer the advantage you’d think it would – Bush closed or threatened to close a bunch of Middle Eastern Studies depts, thus depriving American education of Arabic teachers at the very point when Arabic was actually becoming a popular language to study. But that’s another story.)

        French & Spanish are in place for institutional reasons, I grant you. It’s easy for schools to teach these subjects because there are lots of French and Spanish teachers available, and there is no question about these courses counting towards college admission. And also, there are practical reasons for learning these languages: if you want to do business with the countries that border the USA, it really helps to speak French or Spanish. (To clear up one popular misconception: it does help to know French if you want to do business in Canada.)

        We can’t figure out a total ordering of what is the most important book for 10th graders to read and what is the second most important, because there is no such list. Because the very concept of making it is impossible.

        Well, states and provinces do have such lists, albeit not in ranked order. (See links like amd for the curriculum expectations for Indiana.) And if you’re on the English AP system I believe they’re still more prescriptive. I agree that picking one book as the “must read” of grade 10 is probably pretty stupid. But you’ll notice that the curriculum tries to be as specific as possible about what they expect the students to learn.

        I just don’t see that canon has done very well at getting us lasting knowledge or depth of understanding.

        Would it be fair to say that you don’t see what the current educational system has done to foster knowledge or understanding? Because “the canon” (as I understand it) represents agreed upon works of cultural value that are recognized by a multitude of groups (universities, governments, libraries, businesses etc.). It’s not really a high-school specific thing.

        • mrissa

          I know that states and provinces make those lists. But the justification for them is approximately, “We think these materials are good stuff, and people have to teach something.” And I’d rather have teachers making that call with their individual classes than state administrators.

          And I think that the last 20-40 years have highlighted exactly how little agreement there is or can be on what should and should not be in the canon, and for high schools to pretend that none of that has happened and that the canon is unitary and secure is totally disingenuous and does not serve students well.

        • Marie Brennan

          Because “the canon” (as I understand it) represents agreed upon works of cultural value that are recognized by a multitude of groups (universities, governments, libraries, businesses etc.). It’s not really a high-school specific thing.

          And this is what I said originally: students read those things in high school, not because high school is a good time for them to encounter the texts, but because that’s society’s last chance to make them read them. After that, it’s subject to the vagaries of college course choices and individual interest.

          Which is problematic seventeen ways from Sunday, starting with (as Mrissa says) the disagreement on the nature and value of the canon. I don’t think our current system does a good job of inculcating students with that kind of cultural literacy to begin with, and I’d rather see a focus on the development of critical thinking anyway — as taught via texts the students have more reason to identify with. (Not the same thing as “entertaining,” but close.)

          • akashiver

            And “critical thinking” and essay-writing argumentative skills are, as I understand it, generally the goals of a high school English class. Perhaps more time should be spent on that, although to be honest, this has become the emphasis in English education to the exclusion of other skills/bodies of knowledge such as grammar.

          • Marie Brennan

            We could chase ourselves all the way back to in utero talking about how the educational system has fallen down at teaching important skills — like, say, grammar.

            If I had my way? Early elementary school would be spent teaching you how to read (this is the alphabet, these are vocabulary words), later elementary school moving more toward learning how to understand what you read (what happened after the cat ran away? Why was the little boy sad?) Junior high would get into the basics of grammar and literary devices, and then in high school, you’d learn critical thinking. The history of English literature, I would honestly leave until college — either as an option for those who are interested, or (if the college desires) a required course for graduation.

            Unlike with math, you can still think critically or understand the history of English lit even if you can’t explain what subject-verb agreement is. But it would be better for us all if the early skills got learned properly — which is to say, if our educational system didn’t abjectly suck.

    • Marie Brennan

      Given the decline of readership overall, I’m all for turning people into readers by giving high school students good books. But, playing devil’s advocate here, what the chances are of a person who does not yet read for fun at age 16 deciding to turn off the tv and start reading for pleasure? Most people I know who are readers were reading for pleasure from a very young age. I have yet to hear a person say “I didn’t read for fun until Grade 11, when my English teacher gave us this great book to read in class, and that’s what got me into reading.”

      But I have heard people say they used to read for fun, and stopped somewhere along the line. Where “somewhere along the line” is frequently around the point that their English classes change their focus.

      This is tangled up in a bigger problem, namely, the fact that the work those earlier classes should have done all too often hasn’t happened. Sure, the kids know how to read — they know what the words on the page are, mostly — but they don’t know how to think about what they’ve read. And over time, I’ve come to believe that’s much more important than teaching cultural literacy: I’d rather have a bunch of students who know how to identify and argue with an author’s agenda than ones who can tell you why Dickens was important to the development of English literature.

      • akashiver

        I’m suspicious of the “I stopped reading for fun because of high school english” argument. If people stopped watching tv because their bio teacher showed them a boring video in class, then perhaps I could buy these types of arguments, but to be honest, I think the fact that schools stop having scheduled “reading time” in class at high school has a lot more to do with people’s decline in reading for pleasure.

        People might remember and blame the English course content, but the fact that nobody is *making them* stop and read for pleasure in class time probably had more to do with a decline in reading for pleasure at the mid/high school level.

        • Marie Brennan

          Even a boring video is a good chance to sleep. 🙂

          The thing is, the pushing of Dead White European Male classics is also (usually) paired with the prejudice that this stuff is Worthwhile, and that the stuff you enjoy reading is a waste of your time. When I was in junior high and high school, you generally couldn’t write book reports or critical papers on fantasy novels — which started driving a wedge between my education and the rest of my life, instead of treating them as integrated. And for kids who don’t read as fast as I do, that time they spend slogging through The Scarlet Letter? Is time taken away from reading something they might want to read and think about. So reading becomes associated with dreary and uninteresting labor, while the books they did enjoy fall by the wayside.

  4. querldox

    My problem with this is that “literature” and “literary writing” has been put on a pedestal by a particular group of self-perpetuating authorities. Certain aspects of writing are considered better and more important than others, not for any good reason I can see other than “that’s the sort of thing I like, and I’ve got these other English professors to back me up”.

    I’ve had a theory for a while that brain structure might have a significant influence on what aspects of writing individuals like and/or consider more important in their reading. Certainly the science/engineering culture of Snow’s Two Cultures seems to value plot and novelty of ideas and concepts much more than the humanities culture.

    • Marie Brennan

      My problem with this is that “literature” and “literary writing” has been put on a pedestal by a particular group of self-perpetuating authorities. Certain aspects of writing are considered better and more important than others, not for any good reason I can see other than “that’s the sort of thing I like, and I’ve got these other English professors to back me up”.

      This is a thorny question, I think, getting into issues of what constitutes “quality” in a general sense, etc. But I do think there’s some real validity to what you’re saying: for example, the English lit canon being mostly formed by upper-class white Protestant males, they were culturally inclined to value manly stories of war as being more “important” than squishy female stories of marriage. Exceptions exist — they always do; there were influential UPWPMs who praised Jane Austen to the skies. But those tend to be exceptions.

      And I think it feeds in on itself, too, in an analogue of what’s happened in some SF. Just as certain branches of science fiction tend to be appealing (or even comprehensible) only to people already versed in the genre, high-end literature has turned inward in search of qualities opaque to the general reader. And it’s hard not to read a quasi-class aspect into the trend of valuing the arcane and devaluing that which is accessible to a broad audience.

      • querldox

        I’m reminded of how Roger Ebert once said he tried to review movies. He doesn’t approach it from the “this type of movie is good or bad” angle, but rather “if you like this type of movie, is this a good or bad example of that type”.

        So, let’s say you have a movie that’s basically just an excuse to hang a lot of special effects, explosions, and fight scenes together. He’s not going to judge or review it the way or by the criteria he’d use to review Schindler’s List or the latest Woody Allen film, but rather by criteria appropriate for a shoot ’em up FX film. I think that’s a reasonable approach to take to written works as well.

        • Marie Brennan

          I suspect it helps that movie critics generally have to review everything (at least that’s showing in their area) — films in wide release are few enough that nobody can get away with hiding in their own ghetto, and a reviewer who slags everything that isn’t their preferred type is more likely to annoy their employer and be dropped.

  5. oddsboy

    I would say the reason schools push the Late, Great, Whiteys is partly as a hold over from older, more conservative days where these *were* good books, and heretics were burned at the stake. However, there is also the idea that students should already be reading stuff themselves by the time they get to the end of high school. Therefore mucking through the craft of and cultural significance of, say, Shakespeare or Faulkner (damn his fish and damn his mother, grrr), comes at a time when students are already at least somewhat versed in literacy and their own preferences are taken care of privately. F’rinstance, much as the events of the Antebellum South may not be of any interest to the high schooler, he should already appreciate something of a historical context about the world at large, or perhaps know something of geography. This is, of course, not terribly true in what people have been bemoaning is becoming an increasingly illiterate age since, well, the 1700’s. Or maybe Homer. The problem we face is that students need to be already somewhat versed in literacy by the time they get to late high school. The great downfall of ‘new’ or ‘fun’ or ‘counter stodgy old farts’ methods of teaching is that, at least in my experience of public schools, these helpful, easy-going activities fall into a jungle of student’s active dislike of doing anything. Most days start out with the teachers desperately trying to get more than a tenth of their class to actually pay attention, where the larger probability is that students will do whatever they can, to the least amount that they can to get through their classes and go home, so that they can rail against the fact they can’t go out on their own. I usually found that out of a thirty student class, maybe 3 people paid attention and actually took things in. I’m being dire, of course, but the truth is that the majority of any one class takes absolutely nothing in, and doesn’t want to. Give them the option of choosing their own reading and they will wheedle, like prisoners for cigarettes, for the lowest stress, easiest, most passing grade insuring text that they will likely not read. What needs to happen is that these students need to, for some reason, find it culturally weird to not have, at least, read something or have a literary preference by high school. I think it’s good to still teach saavy and complex literature, and ‘the greats’ (in a vein of cultural significance alongside other, less well known greats) to high schoolers, but the only way to get the horse to water is to try an make him think it’s just as viable as Mountain Dew (namely, Xbox). I, of course, think that such a change is possible, but mostly as a fluke of fate or cultural fluctuations.


    • Marie Brennan

      That’s pretty much a whole other rant, about how bad a job our school system does of getting anybody to care about learning or even paying attention.

      What’s really scary is an article I read a long time ago — alas, I don’t have the link, and can’t remember enough to dig it up again — pointing out that our school system is based on a model promoted by a guy who wanted to turn out good little mindless citizen-sheep.

      Mission accomplished, I guess.

  6. lowellboyslash

    Let me play devil’s advocate here. What are your feelings on kids reading:

    – street lit?
    – Stephanie Meyer?
    – old-school erotica (I’m thinking Lady Chatterly’s Lover, or hell, parts of Ulysses)?

    • Marie Brennan

      Saying “devil’s advocate” appears to imply you think I’m going to object to what you’re proposing. 🙂

      I say, rock on.

      Now, that’s the short answer, and it leaves a lot out. So let me expand: first and foremost, I’m happy they’re reading. Reading is a necessary precursor to getting them to think about books.

      I don’t think I’d personally get much out of street lit — not unless I had a reason to be trying to understand that corner of culture, like I’m writing a story — but for some kids, it might be a powerful thing indeed, speaking to their lives, rather than the lives of some people dead a hundred years ago. There’s ways to teach the dead people stuff that makes it relevant to today, of course, but this could lead to that. (More people should approach Romeo and Juliet from a gang perspective, sez I.)

      Stephanie Meyer? Use the squee to hook ’em, and then get them thinking critically about it. Might be a bit of a hurdle to clear, since there are readers so fanatical about it that any comment which is “critical” in the sense of “negative” will shut them down — but hey, if you can channel that passion in the right direction, you’re off and running.

      Old-school erotica? I haven’t ever tried to read Lady Chatterly’s Lover, but dude, they are NOT going to be picking up Ulysses. If your point is more “books with sex in general” . . . my junior year, we were given a choice of three books by African-American authors; the one I read, and from what I hear the other two as well, contained some passages that were candidates for the Bad Sex Writing Award. By the time you’re talking about sixteen, seventeen, eighteen-year-olds, I think “omg there’s sex in it” is a dumb reason to exclude books from the curriculum (not that this stops parents from trying). As a hook to get students interested, though, I think it’s pretty weak, since they’ll skip right to the dirty bits, and ignore the rest of the book — unless the rest of the book is really compelling.

  7. kizmet_42

    Based on what my kids are reading in public high school, I think that the standard of reading the “classics” is dead and gone. My son is reading Staggerford. My daughter gets to choose from a list of memoirs, none of them over 20 years old (for some reason, Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth is included on that list.)

    My freshman daughter has read My Sister’s Keeper and The Secret Life of Bees this year for her Honors English class. If my son were in the class, I’d probably have the teacher up on charges of abuse.

    • Marie Brennan

      I think it varies a lot depending on the state and the school district. But I also don’t know how much it’s changed; it’s been ten years since I was in high school.

  8. Anonymous

    I have some strong opinions (big surprise) about the teaching of “literature” in high school. I hate it. I cannot stand it, and if I ever have children I hope they don’t have to go though it.

    Allow me to explain.

    When I was in high school, I had one of those, “why do I have to learn this stuff,” moments with my parents about a book I was reading for an honors english class. After a lengthy discussion my parents got me to realize that the purpose of the class wasn’t to learn the plot in these books but ultimately to teach me how to think, and critically analyze. I have always stuck with that as the ultimate purpose of english classes so, a lot of my opinion is based on that. If you disagree with that then I suppose you’ll probably disagree with my whole point.

    The problem with the whole, “teaching me how to critically think,” thing is, they were trying to do it with books that I found difficult to read and just didn’t care about. Instead of learning how to critically think, I learned how to write papers about books I never read. I had it down to a system by my junior and senior years.

    At the most I’d read about a quarter (sometimes a little as one chapter) of whatever book was assigned, keep in mind it’s not because I was lazy, I tried to read each book, but they were all so hard for me to read, that I couldn’t make it though much more than that. Then when there was a class discussion about the book I’d make sure and take really good notes about what people said regarding characters’ actions, and themes etc. When anyone would offer a quote in class to support their statement I’d write down a paraphrased version of the quote and the page number it was on, so I could find it later to use. Then I’d write my paper from those notes. Basically each paper I wrote was an amalgamation of the ideas of four or five other students’ ideas. I never got less than a B on any paper.

    This didn’t teach me how to think, it taught me how to ride off of other people’s work. Also since I didn’t like any of these books, it did not form any sort of collective literary basis for me to later draw on. I have no idea, except in a very very basic (almost useless) sense of what those books were about.
    A Tale of Two Cities: I don’t know, I remember someone got run over by a carriage at one point.
    The Scarlet Letter: It was about a chick who committed adultery and had to wear a red A on her chest because of it. The only thing I remember from that was getting into an argument with my english teacher because he said that a rosebush outside of a jail in one scene symbolized hope, and got angry because, “Who the hell says it represents hope? Why doesn’t it represent love, or hate, or blood, or pickles? What great authority decided the it represents hope?”
    The Sound and the Fury: To this day I have no idea what that book is about, I don’t even remember where it was set. I remember that there were people in it, and they may have even done stuff. That’s about it.
    The Great Gatsby: It was about a rich guy, and there was a billboard with a pair of eyes on it that was supposed to represent God.
    The Fountainhead: It was about a guy who was an architect, that wanted to do his own non-conformity thing.

    The Fountainhead is where I start to make my point. I didn’t understand a single significant thing about The Fountainhead, or Ayn Rand until earlier this year, when the developers of a video I really want to play said there’s a lot of Ayn Rand influence in their game. So I went to wikipedia and read a bit about her, and now I have a basic idea of what her beliefs are and what she wrote about in The Fountainhead and her other works. It is because of a video game that I learned this. Or more specifically it’s because of something I am actually interested in that I learned this.

    -Continued in next post because I’m too long winded for LJ’s character limit.


    • c0untmystars

      The only reason I know anything about T.S. Eliot is because they used names and imagery from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock on the TV show Push, Nevada that was on ABC a few years back… I retain much more of what I learn when it’s connected to something I have a particular interest in than I do when I’m just told “here, learn this”.

      • Marie Brennan

        Everything I know about John Donne, I learned from Diana Wynne Jones.

        Which is to say that I know one of his poems is actually a curse the Witch of the Waste placed on —

        Er, maybe not. <g>

  9. Anonymous

    The whole time I was in high school and not reading whatever book was assigned in english class, I was tearing through any Stephen King book I could get my hands on. Now if someone had sat me down with say, Needful Things and said, “Okay, now why are these characters doing these things? What does this event/thing mean? Should you take it at face value, or look for some deeper meaning, and if so what might that deeper meaning be?” I probably would have paid attention. I would have paid attention because it was about something I actually liked.

    I posted a response to this LiveJournal a few weeks ago about how I found myself doing a lot more critical thinking about the things I read and watched than I used to. The more I think about it, I think that’s because I didn’t really get into critically analyzing the things I read and watched until I moved to Bloomington, and a lot of my friends did that (more so than previous friends ever had). I got the habit from them. The reason I got the habit from them is because they were doing it about things they were interested in, which many times were things I was also interested in. I have now learned what I was supposed to have learned in back high school. I am almost 30. Kinda’ seems a little late doesn’t it?

    Also interestingly enough, now that I’m almost 30, and have started to critically think about and analyze every thing I read, I’m planning on going back and reading a lot of that literature I was supposed to have read and got something out of in High School. I’m actually quite looking forward to it. I’m going to start with Mark Twain (just ’cause) and go from there.

    My ultimate point being, if they had tried to teach me these critical skills in high school using something I was genuinely interested in I probably would have picked them up a lot sooner. That is why I hate the forced teaching of “literature” in high school. That curriculum didn’t teach me what it intended to teach me, unless it actually intended to teach me how to piggy back off the work of other people to achieve a good grade.


    • laurelwen

      Kinda’ seems a little late doesn’t it?

      Nope. Learning things is never “late,” kind of like wizards. “Late” by the standards of the system that was trying to prepare you for college, yeah. But screw those guys now.

      • Anonymous

        Well yeah, I know it’s never to late to learn stuff in the, “The More You Know,” or “Now you know, and knowing is half the battle – GI JOE!” sense of the word.

        But essentially my point is, they were trying to teach me something, and due to the poor methods used I didn’t learn it until a good decade after I was “supposed to” and I essentially learned it on my own.

        If you’re trying to teach someone something usually you don’t try and force feed them the idea/concept and then just kind of walk away saying, “Eh it’s okay, he’ll get in ten years or so.”


    • Marie Brennan

      The bit about being interested because of a video game: hell, that’s an experience I’ve had, and I’m somebody who soaks up random books like a sponge. But it was round about the point where I found myself gleefully tearing through a guy’s dissertation on an obscure band of bodyguards in the sixteenth century that I realized how much of a difference it makes if you have a reason for reading a book. If the information links in with something you know or care about or want to know more about. I would not have given a flying damn about the Gentlemen Pensioners, let alone strong-armed a professor I’d never met into mailing me a copy of his dissertation, if I hadn’t had a use for the information.

      The arc you describe is exactly the kind of thing I was thinking of. Our schools are very good at teaching students how to skate through with a minimum of effort, but very little of the cultural literacy or critical thinking seems to stick for most people. I can’t guarantee they’d have more success with books the students liked, but at least they’d start with one thing in their favor.

      As for learning it late: it’s a failure on their part, but “better late than never” has become a cliche because it’s true. Twain is a good place to start; the man was a smart-ass, and I think you’ll find that congenial. 🙂

      • Anonymous

        Oh I completely agree that, better late than never. However, even better than late is on time. On time was possible if they had actually tried to teach me using something I gave a shit about, and I’m guess I’m not the only person for which that is the case.


  10. schreiberchen

    Am I late?
    I think they force-feed students lots of things the students have no particular reason to understand or care about, and they do it because this is the last chance society has to make you read those books.

    I completely agree. Speaking as a fairly well-read highschooler, a lot of books at the “high school level” are really pretty bad. Classics come in two levels, I think, and those are matters of personal taste: “wonderful” and “oh God, let it stop.” I could not even finish reading the first chapter of Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” but one of my favorite classics is “A Christmas Carol.” “Moby Dick” is text-blob of horror and Tolkien is so much worse.

    I think we should be trying to work our way back … start with something like “The Giver”, “The Phantom Tollbooth”, “A Wrinkle in Time” (yes, fantasy and science fiction… sue me), “Flowers for Algernon”, “Fahrenheit 451”, “Alice in Wonderland”, because, let’s face it: literature is not something you can dive into. It takes time and coaxing and dipping toes into the water to test the temperature. You don’t toss little kids into the deep end and say, “There you go, swim.”

    • Marie Brennan

      I think my school did a decent job of ramping us up — we read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and A Christmas Carol in seventh or eighth grade, I think, and Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alas, Babylon (SF!) in ninth grade — but that was also when they rammed A Tale of Two Cities down our throats, and I think it was a bit early for that one.

  11. c0untmystars

    How does an education in which you’re forced to read books out of duty incline anybody to go on reading them when the duty is removed?

    It doesn’t, is how, and it infuriates me that this is how kids are taught, just as it infuriated me as an elementary-school-aged kid/preteen that my local library didn’t have Nancy Drew or any other popular books because the head children’s librarian thought that they were of insufficient merit. When I was growing up in the 80s and early 90s, at least where I’m from, “of merit” meant “about realistic kids dealing with Real World Problems”… anything imaginative or what I would consider “fun” was looked down on. Fortunately for me, I was home-schooled, so while I did have to read some of the White European Male Canon (Hawthorne and Orwell; also Shakespeare and Sophocles, who I did like) I also had to read Edith Wharton, the Brontes and others, and had lots of time in which I was encouraged to read whatever captured my imagination, instead of being forced to read some School Board’s idea of What Kids Should Learn.

    The “White European Males are best, but if they can’t be white, European or male, they have to be Obscure and Serious and Only Understandable by the Literary Elite” attitude is also what drove me away from majoring in English in college… I knew if I spent four years being told that that was the One True Way To Write, I’d never pick up a pen or a book voluntarily ever again. My second semester, one of my professors started a class by saying “There’s GENRE fiction and then there’s GOOD fiction”; she then proceeded to spend the following fifty minutes expounding on that — that if a genre story is good, it can’t possibly BE genre, it SURPASSES genre and thus becomes something worthy of notice. And this wasn’t even in a class for English majors, this was the American Lit survey that EVERYONE took. I wasn’t courageous or articulate enough at that point to challenge her in a substantive way, but it was at that point that I started to question my choice of degree program. (My questioning was validated when my [white, male] advisor told me in so many words that if I wrote what I wanted to write — i.e., genre fiction — instead of what they taught I would end up working at McDonald’s; I changed majors and never looked back.)

    • Marie Brennan

      (My questioning was validated when my [white, male] advisor told me in so many words that if I wrote what I wanted to write — i.e., genre fiction — instead of what they taught I would end up working at McDonald’s; I changed majors and never looked back.)

      . . . and if you wrote litfic, you’d make pots of money???

      I mean, genre fiction is not a safe way to avoid a job at McDonald’s. But it’s often safer than the litfic route.

  12. Marie Brennan

    That’s kind of what I was trying to get at in parts of the post up there. I’d like lit classes to be about understanding whatever it is that you read: not just basic comprehension (what happened after Tybalt killed Mercutio?), but the ideas behind the words. Which usually gets boiled down to simplistic crap about symbolism and synecdoche and the like, because that’s something you can write test questions for (what is the “red badge of courage”?), but should be much more about actual critical thinking.

    What it’s actually about — or was, in my high school class; I don’t know how much it’s changed, and where — is familiarity with canon, and a trite understanding of literary devices.

    In retrospect, I think one of the best things I ever did as a teacher was in my creative writing class last spring, when I stood up in front of the students and said, here’s what I hope you get out of this class. Because I knew most of them weren’t going to go on to write sf/f/h seriously — but I wanted the rest to know that they could take what we were talking about and apply it to writing anything, up to and including job applications and e-mails to their boss. I wanted them to write better, regardless of purpose. And I made sure they knew it.

  13. mindstalk

    Reading the posts of Tony, akashiver, and mrissa, I tentatively conclude:

    For teaching reading skills, or just getting kids interested in reading, you should use books they’ll be interested in. This may have tension with having all of a class on the same page with a single teacher, but you should try.

    For teaching cultural literacy, you try to make them read the damn Holy Books, by testing or what not, but perhaps shouldn’t try to be teaching deep analysis at the same time if they don’t like the books. It’s an open question how much one should be trying to force kids to absorb the Favorites of the Elders as some cultural binding glue, but don’t let it hurt other goals.

  14. silme

    I’m late to the party due to illness.

    Okay, in KS3 classes in England and Wales (think middle school in the US) students mostly do read extracts, not whole books, in English classes. I taught in the best state school in the county (and one of the best in the country — number 11 last time I checked) and in Year 7 (6th grade), the students read ONE novel as a class, although I encouraged them to read more outside of class. I always did book talks, brought in new books etc. In Year 8, we didn’t read any novels as a class, nor did we in Year 9. Sad, but true. We read extracts.

    As one of my colleagues used to say, we read a lot more literature before we had the literary scheme. 🙁

    Of course, I encouraged them to read outside of class. And in Year 9 (8th grade), when we had a six-week enrichment session in the final summer half term and students signed up for a ’roundabout’ where they’d meet with different teachers for different projects, I ran one on reading. The students would read self-chosen books and create web page book reviews for the school web site. I had kids thank me — and tell me they’d never read that many books ever (some read a book a week — or more; we ravaged the library and the librarian gave them first dibs on new books). They appreciated being able to read full stop, but they particularly appreciated being able to read what they wanted. I had kids reading everything from JK Rowling to Jane Austen.

    For GCSE (US 9th and 10th grades), they tend to read one novel, usually Of Mice and Men. My colleagues thought I was nuts for choosing To Kill a Mockingbird from the list when I wasn’t teaching an advanced class. But my kids did fine on the exam. They’d read one complete 20th-century play (usually A View from the Bridge or An Inspector Calls. The advanced group would read an entire Shakespeare; most of the others would read a few scenes. The advanced group would read an entire pre-1914 novel, such as Great Expections. The rest would read a couple of chapters and watch the movie.

    I’m now teaching sixth-form college and A-level English Literature. I have students who struggled with The Great Gatsby. It was a real challenge for some of them. Of course, they’re the kids who barely read what’s required and don’t read anything outside of class. They’ve not read many whole books — they mostly have read extracts. 🙁 (English and English lit are not required at A level. I don’t know why non-readers sign up for lit, except that they managed to perform well with GCSE English Lit.)

    • Marie Brennan

      The extracts thing just kills me. How can you understand or enjoy it if you don’t get the full story?

      • silme

        Oh, I forgot that for GCSE they also read about 18 poems and various non-fiction extracts. 🙁 (That’s all the reading they do for a two-year course in English Language and English Literature.)

        Reading extracts doesn’t train them to read whole books, so by the time they take a class in which they have to read whole books, they’re often in trouble. It’s not wonder I now have kids who earned ‘A’ and ‘B’ grades at GCSE Lit and now struggle to read books at A level. Students who are avid readers are often very disappointed as they mostly read extracts in class. In other words, they may go and read the rest of the book on their own, but they miss out on discussing it with the others.

        They used to read more whole books, but then the government got on this literacy kick. As my former colleague said, “We used to read a lot more literature before we had the literacy scheme.” 🙁

        I didn’t like it, trust me.

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