Sunday, April 10, 2005
literary down, information up
A lot of college English teachers complain about their students being poor readers of literature. Undergrads might know some of the technical terms of analysis (metaphor. etc.), but they can’t put them together into a comprehensive, coherent interpretation of a literary work. Added to that, teachers note, they just don’t see the point of (or get any pleasure from) analyzing a poem or narrative.
One reason for the problem may stem from a trend in the high school English classroom, one that professors should heed. It is the rise of “informational text” on the syllabus. More and more class time is being devoted to journalistic and business discourse, and less time to novels and poems. Here is what Achieve Inc. recommended to the National Assessment Governing Board in February regarding the composition of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam. A panel of experts advised that the Board “increase the percentage of informational text from 60 to 70 percent on NAEP to acknowledge the heavy presence of informational text in the educational experience of high school students.” The panel did claim that this increase “should not threaten the centrality of literary studies in the English language arts classroom,” but the pattern in curricula these days is that whatever appears on the test gets the most attention. Furthermore, the fact that the panel even mentioned a threat suggests that the possibility is open.
The motives behind the shift to informational text are noble. Colleges and businesses find that high school graduates increasingly lack basic reading and writing skills. Simply as a matter of preparedness and workforce development, informational texts make stronger claims upon U.S. students and workers than do the couplets of Dryden. But before we let literature slide to a lesser place in the curriculum, college teachers should take note and ask whether there is another kind of skill literary reading inculcates that informational reading does not, and that in an economy putatively drifting toward more creative, flexible workplaces, literature may, in fact, be a better preparation than business communication.
The motives behind the shift to informational text are noble. Colleges and businesses find that high school graduates increasingly lack basic reading and writing skills. Simply as a matter of preparedness and workforce development, informational texts make stronger claims upon U.S. students and workers than do the couplets of Dryden.
I disagree with the sentiment expressed in the first sentence, and I think the logic that connects the first and second is post hoc ergo propter hoc. But I don’t understand the third. Is there a content-neutral definition of “informational texts” that can be generalized so that we can make sense of this comparison?
A high number of America’s middle managers once received liberal arts educations of the oldest school, and they did fine. Stevens is only an instance.
Finally, a poster worth reading! Great stuff. Eliminate all business and technical writing courses in colleges. Destroy professional undergraduate degrees, for the love of god (A degree in journalism? What a fucking joke!). The undergraduate business major is one of the main reasons that America no longer has a soul of any sort.
And finally...stop offering high school kids electives like “Leadership in Business.” If they want to completely waste their time, they can just take study hall.
I don’t disagree with what you write, Mark, and I think the sentiment expressed in your last sentence makes sense tactically (i.e. when arguing the worth of our courses and degrees to the administration and the public). But if we are listing pragmatic reasons to study literary texts, very close to the top of my list would be: to give the student some tools with which to understand the ways in which (corporate, media, advertising) language manipulates and shapes our understanding.
Corporate and advertising language is a whole other language from the literary language, let alone the English language.
I, personally, refuse to teach presicely because informational text has become the focus. Excuse my ego, truely, but let other people teach memo-writing 101.
Could one reason why students are poor readers of literature, be that their English professors are poor teachers of reading literature?
After a philosophy B.A., an English M.A., and 4 years of an English Ph.D. program, I can think of maybe 3 professors who taught me anything useful about how to read, and one of those was a classics professor.
Granted, I would not like to see students sacrifice their exposure to forms of literary classics or various genres by emphasizing informational text but at the present time students are not adequately instructed in informational text to meet their needs after graduation or even during later years of academia. If students are going to find themselves without the skills necessary to read content books or to be able to secure a job, of what value is poetry or the classics? As a science teacher, I find the increase in instruction in informational text not mere memo writing but a necessity to understanding the world around us and being able to deal with problems of the future. Without the organiztion and skills related to informational text, students will be unable to acquire needed information or to share valuable experiences in a way that will be valid or worthwhile.
In response to Miriam Jones’ comment regarding deciphering of manipulative language, generally speaking a quality statistics class will provide a discerning lens with which to assess the veracity of claims placed before us. At my undergraduate institution, however, most statistical classes are along the same “pragmatic” vector as other courses - they are are a specific means to a specific end (Statistical Methods as applied to Psychology, etc.) While these do have their values, General Statistics courses are circumvented as often as possible.
In terms of serious reading of the classics, as a recent high school graduate, my English classes were truly a mixed bunch.
One teacher would not accept my selection of Tolstoy for a project, and insisted I select a contemporary author of a non-Western background. While I do see the value of a global approach, there seems to me to be an inherent flaw in refusing a student who wishes to read Tolstoy.