On teaching literature (2)

March 20, 2014

Unlike many other subjects, with the study of literature a personal reaction is both inevitable, and also desirable. As I suggested in my previous post, we usually start with a gut reaction to something, and to develop our personal response and be able to articulate it is a key part of the study of literature. I often found it necessary to give students ‘permission’ to dislike a text. Because something is labelled literature doesn’t mean we have to like it. You’ll find my confession of disliking and/or ignoring various classic authors here.

I think the important trait to develop is that of maintaining an open mind for as long as possible. I’m reminded of teaching Charles Frazier‘s Cold Mountain to a groups of sixth form students, one of whom developed a loathing for the novel (which I really like) almost at the outset: it was quite a struggle, but by the end, there emerged a (grudging) admission that there was much that was worthwhile and clever in that text.

Poetry was always a particularly difficult form to teach successfully. There’s inevitably a gut reaction, and I find it harder to get beyond this than with other literary forms. My first rule was never to teach a poem that I didn’t like, or couldn’t find something to appreciate in, or, failing that, (exam syllabi are prescriptive!) I would openly dislike a poem and explain why, even as I taught students about the technical devices and ideas it contained. And yet, there was always a richness to poetry which it was a joy to see students gradually tuning in to… language used in so many different ways, often the use of rhythm and rhyme, the imagery, and all that before one even got on to the ideas. I’m particularly reminded of classes where we explored the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins or John Donne, where there is just so much cleverness packed into a short space.

Everyone’s response to poetry is very different and you can’t get very far without allowing and encouraging this. Drama presented different issues: it’s obviously written first and foremost for performance, and teaching it in a school in a small city quite  some distance from live productions was hard. I found that a quick read in order to grasp the outlines of plot, character and important ideas first worked well, if possible followed by a film or TV performance to bring it all to life; then one could begin to explore the detail of the dramatist’s craft and evaluate her/his success. The text can be brought to life in the classroom in different ways, but the entirety has to (at least) be read aloud.

With novels, one was often hampered by time constraints: ideally the entirety would be read aloud in class. This was possible until one reached sixth form, when there was just too much to get through in too little time; then, one had to be selective, using representative extracts to explore the whole.

Literature needs to be read, to be heard, to be discussed. It needs to be the subject of argument and disagreement, because it’s clearly open to individual response and judgement; there can be no ‘party line’, no ‘received opinion’ to which everyone has to subscribe. I felt that my job (for that is what it was, in the end!) was to enable as many students as possible to explore and articulate their response to as wide a range of reading as possible. And I loved it…


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