Permission not to like

May 30, 2016

When teaching, I often formed the impression that students were in some way in awe of books, literature, writers and poetry, and that they needed to be reassured that it was all right for them to have their own personal reaction to a text: there was nothing wrong with them if they didn’t like something. I realised that it was part of my role to give them ‘permission’ to dislike something, often leading by example, sharing my own likes and dislikes. When students saw that I both liked and disliked certain books and writers, they were able to be more honest in class: obviously, I never knew what they said outside the classroom…

What I wanted was for students not just to like or dislike (or, indeed, to love or loathe) but to be able to explain why, to give reasons for their reactions, and hopefully to illustrate those reasons so that I and the rest of the class could share them, and argue with them.

This became quite easy at GCSE in my final years, where, in the compulsory poetry anthology, and among the compulsory pre-twentieth century poems (yes, you foster a love of poetry by government edict, forcing it down their throats) there featured a positively dreadful poem by Wordsworth called The Affliction of Margaret. It droned on for two large pages, overblown verse and sentiments, awful rhyme, very repetitively. I hated it with a great loathing, and would share this with my class, often before we read it, pointing out to them that we had no option but to spend a little time on it. Then we would read it, explain it, make some notes, and discuss how they might need to use it in the exam, and how they might avoid using it. All of this made life a great deal easier and kept the students on my side.

We often discussed what we read; students were curious about what I read, and were sometimes surprised about what I owned up to: it wasn’t wall-to-wall Dickens and Hardy. Again, these are two writers I have not grown to like during my lengthy life of reading; I let my students know this, and am proud to be able to say that I never inflicted either of these writers on 14 year-olds. At that age most students will find them long and dull. I did point out that they might choose to read and even enjoy them later on in life. I tried – within the usual constraints – to choose books with which the students might feel some connection.

I never taught a text I didn’t like. When it came to sixth form, we often argued. It took the best part of a year to persuade a certain student (who will know who I’m referring to if they ever read this) that there was some literary merit in Charles Frazier‘s Cold Mountain. The recognition was grudging and hard-won.

Readers will realise that there’s quite a lot of literature I don’t bother with, or actively dislike; life is too short to waste eyeball-time. I am open to being persuaded to read things I express reluctance about, and do sometimes change my mind. In the classroom, however, students tend to regard their teachers as experts, which to an extent we are, though it’s also important to let them know our limitations: we are not the fount of all wisdom, though they may well learn something from us. What, in the end, I wanted was for everyone to be able to speak openly and honestly, but also to learn that it was easy to just dislike something, harder to explain and justify their point of view; that was where the learning lay… they even came to anticipate my one-word response: ‘Evidence?’

Gosh, I miss it…

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