Some problems with teaching literature…

May 15, 2016

Back in the old days, there used to be a genuine unseen paper at A Level, where any text might turn up – prose, poetry or drama – for the hapless student to analyse and write intelligibly about. It doesn’t seem to exist now; any unseen text will be linked to a certain theme, and thus present more clues and information to the student. Preparing students for the unseen paper entailed two years of carefully selecting texts to explore in class, to analyse and deconstruct. I used to love teaching it, partly because it allowed me to bring some of my favourite texts along and introduce them.

Until, that is, a student one day bemoaned the need to analyse poems: it took all the fun and enjoyment out of them; one could never go back and read them with innocence, as it were, without the weight of critical analysis overburdening everything… the enjoyment had gone. Good point. The smart-arse answer would have been along the lines of not being there to enjoy, but to study. I bit my lip.

I’d never looked at it like that; it stopped me short and made me think, and I find myself coming back to that student’s point every so often. There is (or was) an innocence to reading, a pure pleasure and enjoyment, especially encountering a text for the first time; you could wallow in a story for the delight of the plot, finish it and think ‘that was good!’ And stop there.

I don’t know when the insidious analysis started; presumably when we were being prepared for O Level back in the dim and distant past, and it went on from there: more detailed analysis at sixth form level; deconstruction in greater depth at university; original analysis and criticism at research level. And where had the innocent pleasure gone?

Because you do end up taking a text to bits. You look at words and why they were chosen, at sounds, at rhyme, rhythm and metre if it’s verse, as well as all the poetic devices; you look at pace, tone and mood. You get down to the detail of what makes a text work, what makes it affect you the way it does. And all this is, to me, fascinating.

Eventually I came to realise that for me that original, innocent pleasure hadn’t gone. I could still manage to read, at least first time around, with that original innocence, and not allow too much analytical thought to creep in, or even suppress it. I gradually came to understand that my studies had provided me with a toolkit that allowed me to get more from what I was reading, to think more deeply, more clearly – and perhaps feel superior to those who didn’t? Perhaps I was deluding myself. To be honest, I can never know: rewinding the clock isn’t possible. But I do know that I really enjoy and value what I’ve been taught and what I’ve learnt over the years in terms of how to get the most out of what I read, making connections and links to all sorts of other texts, writers, places and ideas.

In terms of my students and my teaching, I realised that somehow I needed to try and allow them to retain some of the integrity of the text, and this wasn’t easy. It meant that there needed to be a lot more dialogue in the classroom – less of me teaching – a lot of encouragement to express opinion and personal response, and I needed to give permission not to like, or even to loathe, a text. With a poem, it was relatively easy at the end of a session to pause and re-read the poem in its entirety to bring it all back together as a poem after having previously spent an hour disembowelling it; with a novel or a play, that’s not so easy. But I do think that the relatively recent increased emphasis on personal response in examinations has made this easier. And there was always the pleasure when a student offered a new interpretation or meaning, which had never occurred to you…

2 Responses to “Some problems with teaching literature…”

  1. Wally Says:

    I think that doing textual analysis is a bit like learning to drive. At first you’re very conscious of every movement you have to make, and it’s hard work. Eventually, though, it becomes second nature and your ability to get around is greatly enhanced. In the same way, my critical sense comes naturally these days and my enjoyment of first readings of texts of all kinds is amplified, not diminished.


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