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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Teaching Literature: The Meme

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 01/25/08 at 05:48 PM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

Over at Reassigned Time, Dr. Crazy has written such an odd post that I have to respond in brief. The inspiration for the post was great: why do you teach literature? A White Bear wrote in with some fascinating observations about how her students respond to literature; she has observed them relying on a phony positivity that tries to immediately neutralize texts by applauding them for being conventional, and then applauding them for being different. This leads to several interesting conclusions, such as a) AWB is back and you should read her, and b) it’s a worthwhile question for any teacher to answer. If you happen to be a teacher, perhaps you will answer it in the space provided for comments.

I teach literature because I love reading it, and I want other people to feel comfortable investigating it. My interest in literature stems from my interest in other people’s experiences of life. To me, it matters a great deal how other people perceive the world and their place in it, and how their speech encodes—often with such astonishing density—those amalgamated experiences and interpretations. If you happen to see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, then you might agree that it succeeds in making the ordinary experiences of a bourgeois Frenchman matter. Bauby, the protagonist, has an unsatisfying love affair, struggles to converse with his father, suffers a terrible illness, and learns from an acquaintance who spent four years as a hostage in Beirut. Were it not for literature, I suspect we would hunger even more for honest characterizations of life. As Wallace Shawn once observed,

We live in such ludicrous ignorance of each other. I mean, we usually don’t know the things we’d like to know even about our supposedly closest friends! I mean...I mean, you know, suppose you’re going through some kind of hell in your own life, well, you would love to know if your friends have experienced similar things. But we just don’t dare to ask each other!

Literature steps into the breach. I confess, at this moment, to total indifference about how we handle the relief from this ignorance that literature provides. For some people, it is an ethical revelation. For others, it is merely interesting. For aspiring writers, works of literature enable acts of literary usurpation. Regardless, we have no other antenna so finely attuned to the aftershocks of experience. For many of my students, serious conversations about bodily, imperfectly comprehended life depend upon some knowledge of literature, and some appreciation for it. The rest of the time, etiquette and convention bar the way. Other forms of popular culture, such as movies and music, do related work. Nonetheless, writing retains its singular value because it is a solitary and largely atechnical enterprise. It does not require collaborators, unlike most films, nor does it require much by way of money, dexterity, or materials.

Dr. Crazy writes that she inspires curiosity; I want to focus on the kind of curiosity specific to literature, namely social or empathetic curiosity. She writes that it disrupts the consumer model of education; that’s true, but not because it’s impractical. It actually disrupts the entrepreneurial model of education, because it privileges solicitousness over selling. She writes that she wants to instruct students in fineness and complexity, chracterizing this as the accomplishment of depth. More accurately, it is the accomplishment of style.

In the end, Dr. Crazy writes that understanding literature makes students capable of conversing with the rich, and inspires them to make space for pleasure. Neither claim holds much water. While it would be nice if every rich family resembled the families in Match Point or Quiz Show, in fact most I’ve known resembled the Wilcoxes from E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. They awkwardly combined erudite, cultured conversation with patriarchal business sense, and even a certain impatience with culture.

As for the second point, my students are avid and self-aware consumers of pleasure, and it’s not my place to legislate what those pleasures should be. Naturally, literature has its peculiar joys, but so do things I often forego, such as early morning walks.

A White Bear writes, very wittily, that she teaches in order to plead with her students not to be suckers. I do love the salty, healthy skepticism that aesthetic training provides. Nonetheless, I have to admit that most often books make readers look like suckers. They bore their friends with the details of character and plot. They buy tributary, explanatory books with annotations or critical essays. They name various things after books or parts of books, including cats, computers, and their personas on the Internet. Whenever a reader is acting most naturally, minus the solemnizing accessories of a leather chair and a study, she looks like a dreamer, a fool, or both. Yes, that’s what I teach. It’s not always dignified, but it’s irreplaceable.


I have learned, via the Constructivist, that scholar of golf and Gojira, that I have the power to tag five people. My votes are for Scott, tomemos, everybody at In The Middle, Rough Theory, and Larval Subjects to respond, since I’d welcome posts covering other fields in the humanities.


JK, there’s so many answers to your question. I teach literature because like Frost I want to make my avocation my vocation. No other form of art excites and nourishes me like literature does, and I want to share that. I’m the kind of person who has bought his favorite books many times because I tend to give away the books that move me the most; to me, teaching literature derives from the same impulse.

The other day, I saw a young woman reading Tristam Shandy. How often does that happen? I sat down next to her and for the next hour had a charming conversation. Reading a good novel is an intense experience; there’s genuine pleasure in finding someone else who’s shared that experience. I think I (we) teach literature because we want more people out there to share these experiences with. (The ancient connection between teaching and sex comes to mind, but I’ll let that pass—and now I find I can’t resist an anecdote. I first got laid because of Jack Kerouac. As a freshman in college I was terribly attracted to a young lady, but too nervous to approach her. But when I saw her reading On the Road, the nervousness faded because now I could talk about the Beats and Gary Snyder and somehow that led to The Doors (man, did that interest fade into nothing), and through The Doors came William Blake, etc., etc.)

To me, reading and teaching are so closely linked I’m not certain I can untangle them. In a way, “teaching” is an unfortunate word, because what we really want is dialogue. Interesting how the solitary act of reading connects us with other minds.

In short, it’s just damn fun. Other, more serious reasons are also true, of course. Literature sparks intense aesthetic experiences, it allows us to understand other lives and other cultures, it crystalizes that which is sometimes not fully formed within us.

One of the saddest realizations a reader can have is realizing that another reader has .. stopped. They are stuck in one genre. We all know people who only read SF, or mysteries, or romances, and we want to shake them and say there is so much more. Don’t stop reading SF, but also read Hardy, and Iris Murdoch, and Twain, and Saki, and on and on. Read some theory (I say that with some trepidation because most posters here are much more versed in critical/literary theory than I am—my last immersion in such theory was a decade ago in order to pass a critical theory prelim.) And don’t stop with literature. Read history and philosophy; read good popularizations of science. This is a short life; use a portion of it to nourish yourself.

As a practical matter, I take it on faith that reading literature does help us not be suckers, but I’m aware that history may not bear that claim out. And now I must stop, because it’s Friday night and it’s time for another of my pleasures: poker (which, come to think of it, involves another type of reading. ...)

By on 01/25/08 at 08:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I got a doctorate in lit because I like lit. I now teach freshman comp in community colleges. My students don’t neutralize what they read and see (I show movies too), but then I rather force them into a commercial perspective. I think, for example, that it’s very important that Shakespeare was perhaps the first capitalist playwright, and I like (and show my students) dvd extras that show discussions of how to make their movies commercial.

Under the circumstances I find my students are often more idealistic about art than I am asking them to be. Of course, one reason they are already thinking like Hollywood moguls is that most of them have been exposed only to the most popular kinds of lit: successful television shows and popular movies. If they were even, say, fans of obscure documentary films they’d be overqualified for my course.

But do we really believe that commercial circumstances should NOT be stressed in a lit course? When, for example, both the novel and short story, not to mention high def dvds, are utterly dependent not only on advances in technology, but on ways to make that technology popular and remunerative? Case in point: dvds advanced so far so fast because of the popularity of pornography, a genre with few, if any, aims beside profit.

By on 01/25/08 at 10:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In defense of Dr. Crazy (not that she needs it), there’s likely to be a big difference between why any one person teaches literature and why literature should be taught.  Dr. Crazy was clear (especially in comments) that these were her personal reasons and justifications (and so it doesn’t seem quite fair or logical to say they don’t hold water)...

Of course all these personal reasons are within a discourse about the teaching of literature.  But I think it’s important to have a space for the personal (which, interestingly, is one of the reasons you give for why you teach literature).

Why do I teach literature?  I don’t - I teach cultural studies.  But I’m glad someone does.

By idgie on 01/26/08 at 04:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment


What a terrific comment. The fact that I received it while playing poker myself is even more delightful.


I don’t object to discussing past or present commercial realities in literature classes. I was merely praising literature for its ability to make it interested in people who cannot possibly compensate us in return.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/26/08 at 05:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Trent’s list of experiences, blending as such things do with his “reasons,” is personal and valid. Dr. Crazy’s list of ways she is benefiting her students, on the other hand, is impersonal to the extent that it makes claims about (for example) rich people or the role of pleasure in students’ lives. Regardless of whether she would accept a different set of reasons for teaching literature, she can’t justify error on personal grounds.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/26/08 at 05:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Trent, What a terrific comment.

Well, OK, or, possibly ... not?

This might be a US/UK cultural divide thing of course.  I’d like to think I share Trent’s, and Joe’s, passion for literature without having, quite, their missionary enthusiasm for forcing it on other people.  The introspective Englishman in me sees what they’re talking about as a kind of evangelicalism, and as intrusive.  If I saw somebody reading Tristram Shandy I’d be minded to leave them to their pleasure, not to bend their ear for an hour.  If I were reading Tristram Shandy and somebody came over to start jaw-jaw, naturally I’d be polite and converse and so on, but inside I’d be thinking: ‘please just leave me alone with my book; if I wanted to talk I wouldn’t have been reading.’

Long grumble short: if you’re interested in meeting people and making friends, why not, you know, join a club?  Literature is not instrumental to some other purpose; literature is its own end.

By Adam Roberts on 01/26/08 at 06:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Wait a moment. I’m not trying to force literature on anybody; I’m writing about teaching literature. The reason that literature is some sort of response to Wally Shawn’s claim that we live in “ludicrous ignorance of each other” is that the problem actually can’t be solved by suddenly asking close friends intrusive questions.

I understand wanting personal space, and the privacy to read; situations vary. There have been times when strangers have entangled me in banal conversations about books or music ("What’s on your iPod?"). There have also been times when I was sitting in a coffeehouse, reading Capote or Salinger, and dying for somebody to strike up literary conversation. It’s really an instance of the broader ambivalence we feel about interruptions: most people, myself included, are simultaneously attached to their routines, and waiting for something amazing to replace business as usual, at least for a short time. So they cut coupons and play the lottery, both.

Most clubs, even book clubs, are organized around activities. Most readers are looking for people with alike sensibilities, so it’s a different problem. Still, I take Trent’s emphasis on conversations with strangers to be personal. It’s certainly not the only way to imagine literary value.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/26/08 at 06:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Yeah, I can see my comments protraying me as, well, a creep. But it’s not really like that. This young woman said Hi when I sat down; I said Hi back and what an interesting book. If she had said yes and returned to reading, then that would have been the end of it. And if someone were deep into a book and lost to the world (as I’m sure we are all at times), then naturally I wouldn’t break the spell.

In America, chaps in white shirts and black trousers knock on our doors and attempt to engage us in religious discussions. That’s inappropriate, I think. Separating the socially appropriate from what is not is a skill I think I have. But as I said, I understand why you took my comments as you did. Sharing literary experiences with friends and strangers is not why I read; it’s just a side benefit. Possibly apropos, Adam, a couple of days ago I ordered four of your SF books because of their good reviews and because I knew you were a blogger on a site I like.

By on 01/26/08 at 10:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

My comment may have come over as more snappish than I intended; lack of sleep you know.

By Adam Roberts on 01/26/08 at 10:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

For links to all Dr. Crazy’s respondents, click away.

By The Constructivist on 01/26/08 at 11:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dr. Crazy is writing about class mobility, and her students are more likely to come from working-class backgrounds than those at UC-Irvine. (She makes this clear.) The name of the book is Howards End.

Since she’s not talking about the Bluth family, but about the conversations and expected cultural range of the middle/upper-middle class, I was personally skeptical of how many items from Cultural Literacy would be needed to hobnob there. But this objection was largely based on my own extra-academic work experience, which was odder than most.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 01/26/08 at 04:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Regarding the book title, my mistake. I still occasionally get Finnegans Wake wrong, and I’m writing a dissertation on it.

I’m beginning to think that the enjoyably wicked novelty of Crazy’s idea about cultural capital is overshadowing the fact that a) it contradicts her point about side-stepping consumerist reasons for becoming educated, and b) it’s wrong. Very few Americans of any class talk about books over dinner.  She’s not running a finishing school, she’s teaching people to do a certain kind of analysis of historically significant literary texts. Regardless of where her students come from, if they expect to get hired on the basis of some timely quotations from T. S. Eliot, they really will be thinking crazy. When I worked at Borders, I was told on my first day that employees should not alienate customers by being too bookish.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/26/08 at 05:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The thing is, though, I don’t think Dr. Crazy meant literally that her students would get ahead by being able to quote T.S. Eliot - I think she meant that studying literature exposed working class students to a way of thinking about the world, of thinking about the role of culture in the world, that they might be unfamiliar with, and which, whether you like it or not, is often a marker of social class. For instance, there’s a class meme going around which I don’t think is all that well written, but one of the markers it uses for being middle class or above is the numbers of books in your home and whether your parents read to you. It’s not about money per se.

By New Kid on the Hallway on 01/27/08 at 01:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I teach literature because it’s a field in which I’ve garnered some expertise and because students keep showing up in my classroom, ostensibly to hear and talk about it. Teaching lit keeps me in a small amout of funds; and, as there is no Dithering Department, the lit dept. is the department in which I am most at home. I try to avoid large-scale justifications (class mobility? really?) because they inevitably make me sound foolish, or feel like I’m failing, which I don’t think I am.

I don’t think anyone needs literature. Books, really, are luxury items; and for that reason I don’t think you can take the argument too far that reading disrupts either consumer-based education or consumerism. I’m willing to be convinced on that point, though. Of course, I do think everyone needs literacy.

I have plenty of reasons for reading lit, chiefly the pleasure of being, as AWB put it, a sucker (does that make me the sucked, or sucking? Yes!). But that’s no reason to teach it (you can’t fool all the people all the time).

I should say my students tend to love me. This isn’t a reason to teach, obviously, but it’s something of a motivation to keep teaching, a reason to like it. The appropriate thing to call it is the pleasure of dialogue, but really it’s pure narcissism. Well, not “pure.” But 65%.

By on 01/27/08 at 02:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This conversation is inherently anarchic. As someone has already mentioned, you can’t call people WRONG for explaining why they do something: personal reasons are often paradoxical, not to mention invented AD HOC. Why did Richtoffen decide to become the biggest air ace of World War I? Would I be wrong to say he had no inner reasons whatever, but “went with the flow” to the point of sacred murderous rage?

I think there’s no need to praise literature. That I enjoy members of the opposite sex (or my own sex) says nothing about the sex, just a lot about my sex urge. Like Stanley Fish, I mistrust idealistic reasons for teaching what I teach. We try to make grammar fun by showing people who use it entertainingly, then lo and behold, we find out the kids don’t understand grammar well enough to be entertained by the entertaining use of it.

I show a documentary on how movies are photographed that bores to near-rebellion a class that would love to do nothing else but watch the very movies whose photography bores them. To insert self-justification, especially idealistic self-justification, into paradoxes like these turns a teacher’s life from challenging to suicidal.

By on 01/27/08 at 12:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How many of us thought so much about the ‘why’ of teaching literature before we found ourselves doing it, I wonder?  I expect many of us were propelled along (as I was) doing what we liked and were good at, without a lot of meta-reflection on it until we were pretty deeply committed.  Is the question why we keep on teaching it?  Who are we answering this question for--ourselves, or those who doubt the value of our work?  In any case, I’m in much sympathy with JK’s account, or with George Eliot’s earlier version of something like it: “a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment. . . . Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” I take JK’s point that the effects may not always be moral, but it’s hard not to think that the kind of empathetic exercise of the imagination demanded by art (though not exclusively by art) is a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for moral development.  The other important and intellectually exciting dimension of teaching is attention to craft, I think: not just the ‘what’ but the ‘how’ of the text.

By Rohan Maitzen on 01/27/08 at 01:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I wasn’t addressing Trent’s comment in particular, and I agree that to say “I teach lit because I love it” or “it’s damn fun,” is valid on all counts. 

It’s true that the class-mobility ("cocktail party") justification is a bit difficult to swallow.  I commented as much on the original thread.  But Dr. Crazy gave a detailed explanation of her reasons based on her own particular experience.  You may not think it a good reason for literature to be taught at university (I don’t either), but it isn’t “wrong.”

Of course, not everything can be justified based on a recourse to the personal.  But this can.  The ability to quote eliot is certainly an asset to class mobility in certain contexts.  I’ve worked with many attorneys and corporate types who were ridiculously impressed by that sort of thing.  It’s sad but true (although maybe the opposite situation that you describe, that no-one is impressed by eliot, is more sad).

It’s easy to say Dr. Crazy’s reasons are invalid, but it’s much harder in this day and age to come up with overarching reasons for claiming that literature is its own end.  I think that’s the challenge of this meme, and its appeal.

By idgie on 01/27/08 at 03:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In general, for those of you who read through Dr. Crazy’s responses in the comment thread after her post, it would be great if you could give us a couple quotes illustrating how you think she clarified her position. I read through the comments, but I didn’t feel that they made the post more sensible. On the contrary, I was really disconcerted by what I read, particularly the bit about giving students an alternative to talking about relatives in jail. Is that supposed to be a superficial conversation, or one to be avoided? At any rate, I’m not giving students an alternative to conversations about jail by teaching Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/27/08 at 08:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well.  I’m not sure how to respond to your charge that my post is insensible, so I will let that lie.  I can however respond to the relatives in jail thing that I mentioned in a comment.  My point was that often students from the kind of background that I come from (I have a cousin who dropped out of high school currently in jail, and many other relatives who’ve also spent quality time there) or where the business of day-to-day getting by is often all-consuming, that one isn’t necessarily equipped, or at the very least comfortable, upon entering college, to have other kinds of conversations because one has never really been exposed to them.  This can be profoundly alienating and it can get in the way of one’s ability to maneuver in and out of social contexts that do not resemble the one in which a student was raised.  If part of what education does is to expand one’s social world (and I think that is a benefit) then it makes sense that we would give students the tools to move around in that newly expanded world without feeling like they don’t really belong there.  Things like talking about money with specificity, or talking about family members in trouble with the law, etc., are seen as crass in a middle class or higher social context. In the world in which I grew up, those were the only things that got talked about.  It’s not that those things are superficial, but in a professional context, yes, those conversations are to be avoided if one hopes to get ahead.  I’m not talking about an abstract discussion of economics or a theoretical inquiry into regulatory procedures of the legal system here, which is a very different thing.

And so, if one can’t talk about the things that one has been socialized to talk about, one must replace those things with something else.  One thing that I think that the study of literature (generally, as in the study of cultural texts) does is to offer students both a methodology for approaching the world and a new language for talking about it.  It also allows for the possibility that there are things beyond the day-to-day that might deserve our attention or contemplation, and that through that attention and contemplation, we might gain a new perspective on that day-to-day stuff.

I’m not sure if you will find this explanation any more “sensible” or less “odd” than what I originally wrote, but I thought that I would speak in my defense against your incredibly dismissive account of what I discussed in my post.  I would also add that the point with which you have such trouble is one among a number that I listed, and it was not the central point by any means but rather just one that came to mind in the larger list.  I understand that not everyone will agree with that point or with the others, and I welcome engaged disagreement.  In fact, the entire point of that original post was that there isn’t enough room for engaged disagreement when this topic is discussed, and the reasons that I provided were about opening up a broader discussion than the ones that usually happen around this topic.

By Dr. Crazy on 01/27/08 at 08:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment


People do need books; writers, for example. It’s not something we have to forego—I doubt I could say anything on the subject that wasn’t already better said in Hard Times, as Rohan pointed out in an earlier thread.


I absolutely agree that many avid readers find themselves doing teaching. I also agree about the moral element in the practice of reading; I only de-emphasized it because I know plenty of fellow academics who think of texts primarily as sources of aesthetic pleasure, and do great work.

Where’s the Eliot quote from?

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/28/08 at 12:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

James, some thoughts about the paradoxical disinterest students show in how the movies they love are made. First, I doubt that the situation with adults is much different. (Sadly.) Second, I wish that we didn’t feel obliged, as scholars in the humanities, to be entertaining. I grant that we do, but there’s no reason we should feel differently pressured than academics teaching the hard sciences.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/28/08 at 12:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"People do need books; writers, for example”

I mean I guess some people do eventually wind up needing books. But, walking around the projects this week, what struck me was not the dearth of Barnes & Noble stores (though there certainly weren’t any nearby). I’d hate to think that my class is about making students feel a lack of books in their lives and presenting myself as the person (or English as the Discipline) to satisfy that newfound lack. That would make me feel like a cult leader. And, you know, one semester just isn’t enough time to cultivate a proper cultish devotion, alas.

By on 01/28/08 at 02:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

(Hopefully, this comment will also speak to the concerns expressed by idgie, James, and New Kid. If not, write in and let me know.)

Dr. Crazy,

First of all, while I might choose different foci or terms, I agree with your points about teaching complexity and encouraging curiosity. I’m also very glad that your thoughtful post has inspired so much conversation.

There were two points in your post that gave me pause. First, you argue that literature classes force students to schedule time for pleasure, since otherwise they would be entirely consumed by their responsibilities.

I think it’s only fair to students to characterize literary studies as work. If they take pleasure in it, that’s wonderful, but they might also enjoy doing work in other academic disciplines.

Working-class people watch television, go to the movies, listen to music, and read. You are not doing anyone a service by implying that culture is the exclusive province of the leisured class. To state the obvious, American street culture was not an invention of the middle-class.

Furthermore, most Americans do have a vocabulary for transcendent concerns: religion. Religion asks them to think beyond the day-to-day, and it is far, far more universal than literary theory or any part of our fragmented literary canon.

In the past year, I have been in conversations with rich people about the price of convertibles and cognac, conversations with middle-class people about the price of housing, and conversations with poor people about their Social Security checks. Crassness, including crassly specific references to money, crops up at every income level.

These are contrasts that make no sense. In your comment thread, conversations about car repair (crass) are contrasted with knowing about NPR (cultured). If we’re thinking of the same NPR, then I have to point out that the beloved show Car Talk comes right after All Things Considered on the weekends.

I’m not sure that you have enough information to generalize about UC Irvine students as a way of responding dismissively to my claims. They may be better off than your students; I don’t know. Regardless, they do divide their time between work and school, and most commute. Many do not get all the layers of references in an episode of The Simpsons, or listen to NPR, or read challenging texts for pleasure. The gaps in knowledge and cultural literacy that you encounter are not unique to the demographics of your school’s student body.

It is really upsetting to me to read these romantic accounts of America’s upper classes. When has that ever been the perspective of literature? Does Fitzgerald romanticize Tom and Daisy Buchanan? Tom is first shown to us expounding on The Rise of the Colored Nations. Do Nabokov or Lewis praise the American middle-class for its cultural depth? What about contemporary novelists like Philip Roth or Toni Morrison? Literature constantly challenges our notions of what conversations are (or ought to be) acceptable; I am thinking at the moment of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, with its indelible accounts of time spent in jail.

“Society,” in the banal sense of the word, has always been hostile to the radical elements in literature, and it is also hostile to devotees of literature. Surely there has never been anyone so attuned to social niceties as Marcel Proust, and yet he eventually realized that he had to alienate himself from the cream of Parisian society in order to write devotedly and honestly. Plenty of people will condone and even applaud reading The Life of Pi before bed, but will accuse you of wasting your life if you want to write or teach.

Don’t pawn off our disagreements as mere personal differences; while I understand your desire to acknowledge difference, a disagreement about how socialization and literature relate isn’t subjective, and neither are characterizations of the American class structure. If I decided that I was teaching literature out of a desire to obey the will of God, you might have different personal reasons for teaching literature, and, as an atheist (hypothetically speaking), you might disagree that a personal relationship with a deity was sufficient justification for anything.

As it happens, I don’t think you are teaching breeding by teaching Whitman or whomever, but even if you could do that with a literature class, it wouldn’t be desirable. Expanding your world, or changing your view of the world, is not something I associate with becoming more likably bourgeois. One cannot expand into narrowness.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/28/08 at 04:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Don’t pawn off our disagreements as mere personal differences.”

You used my post as a straw man.  That was my first encounter with you.  You then went on to call what I wrote or how I explained it (not sure which) insensible. No, it’s not easy for me to engage critically with a person who is not engaging critically with me.  In fact, I was trying to be diplomatic in expressing my point of view as one that is just “different” from yours.  I was attempting, ultimately, to engage with you civilly rather than to engage with the anger that I felt.

But so now I’m going to respond with some anger, because clearly you don’t really have an interest in engaging in a conversation with me or in thinking about the assumptions and givens that guide your own perspective.  (Note: I’ve got assumptions and givens that are guiding my perspective, too, and I am neither presenting those as universal nor right, and I hope I’m being clear in acknowledging them.)

I never said I was “teaching breeding” nor am I glorifying the upper classes.  I’m saying that it’s crucial to learn to pass in certain ways as one moves into the middle class.  (Maybe part of the disconnect between us is that when I’m talking about the students that I teach, they range from what you’d probably characterize as working poor to working class, so I’m not talking about somebody whose dad was a cop and whose mom was a teacher’s aide, still married, and then their kid comes to college and they pay for the tuition mostly or at least help out with books and the kid takes out some loans, but rather about somebody whose parents are divorced, with at least one parent with some sort of substance abuse issue, both parents working in low wage jobs and who don’t really see the value in or have the means to support their child’s education.) But so, yes, I believe that one must learn to pass in certain ways in order to get by.  The reason that I believe this is because I’ve had to do so.  This is a pretty common thing for people from backgrounds like mine to feel that they must do.  Don’t believe me?  Check out Alfred Lubrano’s book *Limbo.* The thing that confirms my belief that passing is a skill worth teaching my students is my interactions with the students that I teach and have taught, students who have appreciated gaining that skill.  Further confirmation comes from the conversations that I’ve had with other academics who teach similar student populations to mine and/or who come from backgrounds similar to mine.  I suppose, however, that you’re totally right and all of us are just lacking in sense.

I never said a thing or assumed a thing about the students at UC Irvine.  The most that I said was that you are in a different institutional context than I am.  I will say this now, since you brought it up: there is a difference between a university - even if commuter, even if a state university - that exists in a system in which the minimum enrollment standards (and a quick glance at the UC Irvine Website confirms that its standards are higher than these minimum ones) include that one must be in the top 12.5 percent of California high school graduates if in-state or have a GPA of at least 3.4 if out of state, a research university, and an underfunded regional university that was open enrollment within the past 10 years and whose current “minimum” admission standards require that a student be in the top 60% of their high school class (not in the top 60% in the state, you notice).  Let’s then add to the mix that I’m in a state with one of the lowest rankings for K-12 education and that most of my students have little to no family support for getting an education (and that’s not to say that your students aren’t working to fund their own education, but the reality is that the majority of students who succeed in high school come from families where there is emotional if not material support for succeeding in school).  We’re not teaching the same students.  And yes, my experience and the things that I think matter in teaching are going to be different from yours, and that is valid, however you choose to condescend to me.

I’m not going to be able to convince you that I have a clue what I’m talking about, and I get that.  But don’t tell me that I’m promoting “expanding into narrowness” when I talk about one of the practical values of an education for students like mine and students like I myself was.  What I’m talking about is giving my students access to broader conversations.  I’m not talking about kids who are involved in “street culture” - I’m talking about kids whose lives much more closely resemble the family on the television show Roseanne.  When I talk about my students (themselves, for I have had students who’ve missed class because they were in jail on assault charges as well as domestic violence charges, or their family members or friends) and jail, or my own experience with family members who go to jail, I’m not talking about people who end up becoming activists and fighting the power, who will go on to write “indelible accounts of time spent in jail.” I’m talking about people who expect the person who has “succeeded” to bail them out, lend them money, help them move at least once every two years, and give them rides when it’s inconvenient.  And so when I’m talking about those kinds of experiences and lifestyles, yes, they get in the way of pleasure.  And yes, it can be a welcome break to read a novel.  That’s all I was saying with that.

I’m not trying to make my students “more likably bourgeois” or, in fact, *more* bourgeois at all, as they are NOT BOURGEOIS.  Students who work 60 hours a week plus go to school full time are not bourgeois.  College freshmen who work 3rd shift at a factory and then come to class right after are not bourgeois.  My students who admit to never having read a *single book* before they come to college are not bourgeois.  My student, a returning student, who had dropped out of high school at 14 and who had 8 children, was not bourgeois. 

So if I teach them skills that give them a fighting chance when they encounter people who will discount their experience or their perspective, discount it in ways that are patronizing and in ways that don’t really engage with what they have to say, no, I don’t think that’s “expanding narrowness.” If I try to give them a fighting chance for when someone responds to their perspective with a bunch of allusions to NPR and radical literature, it’s because without that, the only result would be in their silencing. 

One final note: when I talk about crassness related to money, I’m not talking about people talking about the price of convertibles and cognac.  I’m talking about a cousin who lived in a house without water for 5 months (this year - not in olden times or something) and people who get their phone or utilities turned off with relative frequency (something shut off at least once every three months).  And talking about that crap makes people uncomfortable in a middle-class context, and yes, I needed to learn not to talk about that stuff openly, and so too do my students.  I suppose one way to neutralize discomfort when people bring stuff like that up is to pretend it’s the same thing as talking about the price of luxury items, though it never would occur to me to do so.

So the bottom line, I think, is that we are really coming not only from different perspectives here but also from different galaxies.  And if you’re not willing to grant that my perspective might have some legitimacy, then I’m not sure that we have a thing in the world that it’s possible to discuss.

By Dr. Crazy on 01/28/08 at 07:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

JK asks: “Where’s the Eliot quote from?”

It’s from her 1856 essay “The Natural History of German Life.”

By Rohan Maitzen on 01/28/08 at 09:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I suppose the goal isn’t to help everyone talk openly about money and jail.  The goal is to create a social structure in which few people need to talk constantly about money or jail.

If literature classes become a way for poor folks to find a language to talk about money and jail, we’re basically saying, “Money and jail are your culture, and we professors respect that.” But I don’t respect the fact that a lot of poor people have personal connections to jail.  I have compassion for it.  I want to change it.  But I’m not “tolerant” or “respectful” of that difference.

If students really want a language to understand their class status, they should be studying political science or economics or sociology.  Not that literature doesn’t touch upon class issues, but literature should not be reduced to class issues. 

O, and every class talks specifically about money.  Poor people might do it in one way, but middle class people are constantly talking about their home renovations and bargain televisions and retirement plans.

By on 01/28/08 at 10:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is a side point, and really has little to do with literature or the issues discussed above.  But if you’re talking about politics as it relates to education, I’d really rather encourage everyone to talk about money.  I fully understand that in order to fit in in certain middle-class situations, you are supposed to learn to not talk about money in certain ways.  But mystification about money is one of the primary tools for preserving upper-class privilege.  At work, your bosses don’t want you to tell other people there how much you earn, because having employees compare salaries can only be bad for the people handing them out.  At home, you’re not supposed to have middle-class and lower-class people comparing notes, figuring out how little the lower-class person would actually need in order to have a much more stable life, and how the middle-class concerns look in comparison.  Even two middle-class people are not supposed to discuss how much they actually make; they can discuss their “home renovations and bargain televisions and retirement plans” as Luther says, but those are expenditures (or savings, I suppose), not income.  Without being able to say how much they made, the middle-class people discussing them never have a natural limit on them, never have some inkling that while they are all culturally middle-class, household X is buying those home renovations on twice as much income as household Y is and that’s why the people in household Y are always wondering why they seem to be having trouble.

So I always encourage people to talk openly about money, against the class-enforcing belief that doing so is crass.

By on 01/28/08 at 12:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This seems like a basical liberal/radical disagreement…

Dr. Crazy’s point is that she wants to provide poor students with a better chance at social mobility; JK responds with “épater!”

Implicit in Dr. C ‘s argument, I think, is the claim that the rich kids get an advantage from going to Princeton because of what they learn there, and thus one can give poor kids a fighting chance, the ability to “pass”, by somehow replicating that content.  But the primary content of the experience is social:  having been at, and possessing a degree from, Princeton.

The cultural _differences_ between classes have increasingly little to do with knowledge of literary texts; and so, an undergraduate degree in English no longer has the special relation to class-specific cultural capital that Dr. C’s
claim seems to imply.  It might have been the case at one time that a college degree was sufficient to lift one out of working-class status; but given the gutting of high schools and the vocationalization of the undergraduate degree, things look different now. 

Hypothesis:  the best way for a professor to change the life of somebody (working-class/poor) at a second-rate state university is to get them into a graduate program; radical changes in consciousness may follow.  As P-Funk should have said “Free your ass, and your mind will follow.”

By on 01/28/08 at 04:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dr. Crazy’s already responded and said what I would have said, but just a quick response: I didn’t read Crazy’s original post as at all claiming to teach breeding or wanting to make her students more bourgeois. Nor did I see it romanticizing the upper classes. So I wanted to register that, the possibility of reading her post differently.

But you know, while I grew up irredeemably bourgeois myself, I would imagine that some of the things that academics condemn as “bourgeois” look pretty damn appealing to people who’ve never had them. If I have students in that position, I’d rather help them get those things than tell them why they shouldn’t want them in the first place.

By New Kid on the Hallway on 01/28/08 at 05:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Metaleptic, I think, characterizes the disagreement well.

Rich makes a great point about conversations about money, parallel to my point about jail with reference to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. There are political motivations behind certain kinds of etiquette.

Luther, I understand your point about not narrowing the focus of a literature course according to any particular agenda of “respectfulness,” especially since literature isn’t equipped to perform all the functions of (for example) sociology. I only wanted to emphasize that literature courses will mix polite and impolite topics, and there’s no reason to get shy when a text does take on a political issue. It’s impossible to talk about Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye without talking about Morrison’s attempts to characterize and celebrate African-American consciousness and speech. At the same time, the novel’s identity politics would make plenty of middle-class Americans uncomfortable.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/28/08 at 07:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(Not to mention Morrison’s representations of incest and sexual abuse.)

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/28/08 at 07:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

metaleptic said:

The cultural _differences_ between classes have increasingly little to do with knowledge of literary texts; and so, an undergraduate degree in English no longer has the special relation to class-specific cultural capital that Dr. C’s
claim seems to imply.  It might have been the case at one time that a college degree was sufficient to lift one out of working-class status; but given the gutting of high schools and the vocationalization of the undergraduate degree, things look different now.

Hypothesis:  the best way for a professor to change the life of somebody (working-class/poor) at a second-rate state university is to get them into a graduate program; radical changes in consciousness may follow.  As P-Funk should have said “Free your ass, and your mind will follow.”

I gotta say that sending a working-class or poor student out for more years of education at a higher academic (in both senses of the word) level and having them accumulate more debt seems like the *worst* suggestion one could make. At least if they worked as a teacher or at the billing desk for the local hospital they could be pulling down a salary while getting their consciousness-raising through their union local. (and what sort of jobs do you expect them to get with these graduate degrees? What will they eat once they are radically conscious?)

And in defense of Dr. Crazy’s point (not that she needs defending): what’s the use of getting a higher-education degree (which everyone argues is so important to lifting people up into the middle class) if no one will hire them because they can’t present the appropriate speech and behavior? Middle-class culture values doing things without an immediate payoff (like saving for retirement) or explicit instructions (like managing a project without a checklist from your boss). In a very similar way, studying and enjoying literature and talking about it has no immediate pragmatic end; by teaching literature to her students, Dr. Crazy is showing them how to move in a world where people will talk about topics that are more abstract and less immediate than how to get money for the gas bill or bay for someone’s bail.

By Sisyphus on 01/28/08 at 09:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

New Kid, nobody is disputing the value of material possessions here, as far as I can tell. My reference to the “bourgeois” has to do with bourgeois culture and bourgeois class consciousness. Furthermore, don’t spuriously isolate “academics” in order to scorn them. Radicals and artists, among others, are also prone to using the term “bourgeois” as I’m using it here.

It’s always possible to read things differently, but not every reading is equally accurate.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/28/08 at 10:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment


It seems like graduate school is basically a good idea for people who want the careers it makes possible, and a bad idea for everyone else. If you want a shot at being an academic, or a researcher, etc., then the debt is worth it—otherwise not. It’s definitely not worth it just to raise consciousness, I agree.

And in defense of Dr. Crazy’s point (not that she needs defending): what’s the use of getting a higher-education degree (which everyone argues is so important to lifting people up into the middle class) if no one will hire them because they can’t present the appropriate speech and behavior?

There’s something I’m missing here. Is reading Moby Dick or Their Eyes Were Watching God actually good preparation for an ordinary job interview, compared to equal time spent otherwise? I think not—a composition course might be an efficient use of time, but not a literature course. I’m not teaching my students to speak and behave appropriately (or inappopriately), and I have no desire at all to be Henry Higgins.

I’ll respond to your final point in the upcoming post.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/28/08 at 10:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I should have written “graduate or professional school"--&, to further qualify, these days I’d only advise anybody to go to grad school in lit if they got a free ride; but of course there’s still substantial opportunity cost to spending all those years in grad school....

I think my general claim still holds, though:  how else are English professors going to change somebody’s material economic conditions except helping those who they think can cut it move further along the educational path? 

if your answer is your second paragraph, Sisyphus, I have to say that I don’t so much _disagree_ with your goal as wonder how in the world you might think lit professors are especially well suited to work towards it.  Your goal seems to me to be the sort of thing that a general, introductory, “how to be a university student” course might teach towards, but I don’t see how it’s the specific property of the 21st century Eng dept....

By on 01/28/08 at 10:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

FWIW, I didn’t define bourgeois “things” as “material possessions.” I purposely used a vague term there. I get it about bourgeois culture class consciousness, and those don’t change the meaning of what I said.

And with all due respect, I don’t see why it’s relevant that artists and radicals refer to certain things as “bourgeois,” since this is a conversation about academics. I never claimed academics were the only people who did that - it’s just that the current conversation is about people who teach, hence, academics. If you’d like to amend that to “academics, artists, and radicals,” feel free - again, I don’t think it changes my point.

And no, not all readings are accurate. But disagreement with a reading also doesn’t prove that reading inaccurate.

By New Kid on the Hallway on 01/28/08 at 10:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dr. Crazy,

There are three things going on here.

1. You are really upset about this post and thread, and feel you have been treated unfairly. I will respond to that on my own blog, and put up a link to it.

2. The argument about literature and class continues, mostly in terms of “passing.” I’ll write about that in a sequel post.

3. You claim that I’m turning you into a straw man, and thus have failed to critically engage your post. That I’ll respond to here.

Responding mostly to two of your points does not commit me to a logical fallacy. It might if I were distorting your argument, but really your various reasons aren’t closely connected to each other. In fact, the point with which I most disagree isn’t even consistent with the other reasons you gave.

I am engaging critically with what you wrote, in fact. I’m just not doing so on your terms. For example, in your follow-up posts, you have stressed that you feel entitled to inconsistency. Fine—but that is a demand to be read uncritically, quite the opposite of what you’re demanding here.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/28/08 at 10:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Um, I realized that last line could be used against me as well… what I mean is: I think Dr. Crazy’s post can reasonably be read in a different way. My point is that sometimes there are different readings that are both legitimate (yes, I’m a relativist, sue me). Sure, sometimes not, but I could just as easily say that your reading is the different and inaccurate one - especially since this post seems to treat her post as scholarly argument about why literature should be taught, period, rather than a more personal meditation on her own experiences teaching literature. How is one own’s experience accurate or inaccurate, rather than just being what it is?

By New Kid on the Hallway on 01/28/08 at 10:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Since I can’t trackback—contributor or no, it matters not—I’ll do this manually: my half-witted response.  (Short version, I think we’re mistaking efficient for final causes here, and that’s causing some unnecessary friction.  But I’ve been wrong before.)

By SEK on 01/28/08 at 10:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What we (would like to) think we are teaching students probably bears very little resemblance to what they are learning from us.  Personally I find my students rather opaque, and I don’t mind that.  Their lives, especially their future live, are no concern of mine, thankfully.  I hope they do learn something of value while they’re at university.

By on 01/29/08 at 12:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I am currently applying for teaching positions at local high schools.  Several of the schools ask for a statement of teaching philosophy.  This is the first draft, which I wrote this afternoon.  It needs work, of course.
My main goal as a teacher of English is to foster in my students the most effective uses of the English language.  I ask my students to attend always to the occasion of speech or writing, to be mindful of their audiences, their purposes, and to demand of themselves the rhetorical strategies that will fulfill these purposes.  To this end, I organize my classes around two guiding questions: What is the writer trying to accomplish?  What devices does the writer use to do so?  As speakers and writers, students can use these questions to focus their acts of communication and to ensure that they communicate effectively.  As listeners and readers, students can use these questions to analyze a speech, a poem, or a novel, to consider the rich interconnections between the content of a work of literature and its form and style.  When we speak of “critical thinking” for students of English, at heart we are asking our students to consider the means and end of what they hear and read, of how they speak and write.
I use a variety of teaching strategies to accomplish this goal.  When teaching writing, I shape my assignments around an inquiry-based rhetorical occasion that asks students to write not just for me as the teacher but for a specific audience.  For example, I have taught evaluative writing by asking students to write a record review in which they try to sell a recent album to a family-friendly adult audience.  Likewise, I have asked students to explain new ideas, such as the concept of culture, to audiences unfamiliar with those ideas.  In one unit, my high school seniors designed websites with text and images in order to teach students in the Middle East and Asia about local, New York culture.  With clear goals in mind, students often find the revision stage of writing easier, as they shape their work to do specific things.  These occasion-centered assignments also allow me to introduce vocabulary and grammar lessons with real-world purposes in mind, as students learn the effects of certain words and sentence forms on different audiences.  Games such as “The Grammar Family Feud,” in which students compete in teams to identify problems in small snatches of prose, help enliven student work on these essential and basic skills.
To teach critical reading skills, I often arrange the students in small groups, each with a specific problem to investigate through the text they have read.  By giving the individual members of the group different roles – scribe, presenter, Devil’s Advocate, illustrator—I make room for the students’ diverse talents; and by rearranging these roles, I ensure that students’ move outside their comfort zones and wrestle with new problems.  Often I weave together my writing and critical reading exercises, asking different groups to write in different formats on a given text.  For instance, I asked my juniors to consider the characterization in The Great Gatsby by writing from those characters’ perspectives.  One group wrote a love poem from Myrtle to Tom; another wrote a diary entry by a teenaged Gatsby; a third wrote a “society pages” article about Gatsby’s parties.  With markers and giant Post-It notes, students could post their writings around the room, share them with each other, and then discuss what they learned through their writings.
To ensure that students are developing their critical sensibilities, I draw on several types of evaluation.  Whole-class discussions and short reading quizzes let me know who is falling behind in the reading, while the group activities and writing assignments tell me if students are having trouble with higher order issues in the texts.  Informal writings inspire my ideas for grammar and composition workshops and mini-lectures.  “Tickets-out,” in which each student writes down something they have learned and something about which they still wonder, help me adapt my lessons to the needs of the students.  I evaluate formal writing assignments and unit projects with rubrics I circulate with the assignments themselves.  This way, students know exactly how they are being evaluated, and their hard work is not reduced to a single number or letter.  A diversity of types of assignment, from storyboarding a scene from a novel to performing a singing book report to the class, ensures that the different intellectual muscles each student brings to the class get flexed and worked out.
The poet Ishmael Reed once wrote, “Writing is fighting,” and I find that the significance of teaching English is in helping every student to have the rhetorical skills they need to make their mark on the world.  My students are not in training to be people in the real world; they are in the real world.  They work, they love, and so they already have occasions for effective speech and writing, for critical listening and reading.  I take my inspiration from helping every student shape his or her world with words, words that can make a scary place a home or a familiar world a mystery.

By on 01/29/08 at 12:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s something I’m missing here. Is reading Moby Dick or Their Eyes Were Watching God actually good preparation for an ordinary job interview, compared to equal time spent otherwise? I think not—a composition course might be an efficient use of time, but not a literature course. I’m not teaching my students to speak and behave appropriately (or inappopriately), and I have no desire at all to be Henry Higgins. I’ll respond to your final point in the upcoming post.

No, I don’t have two separate points, it’s the same point, stated two different ways. No one --- not even Dr. Crazy --- is claiming that there will be a direct one-to-one correlation between any content (or even skills) learned in an English class and what goes on in a job interview or on the job. What we _are_ teaching students is just _exactly_ this fact. That is, just as they have to imagine themselves into the world of a book and figure out what to say about it without consulting a checklist or protocol, so will they find themselves in the middle of an office or whatnot and have to rely on their own sense of judgment without being micromanaged.

A trade school teaches a set amount of facts for the job and gives practice in specific skills. it prepares you for a job where you will be doing repetitive work under the eye of a supervisor, or following directions from a step-by-step list. I bet most working-class students already know this, and that’s what they expect, but somehow “more so,” from a university.

A real* middle-class job expects you to be reasonably self-motivated, organized, and able to figure out for yourself what is needed and how to handle new problems or situations. There are so many ways to handle said problems, just as there are many different ways to interact with literature --- and going off and figuring out some of those meanings for yourself, and working on your writing/argument/project until it seems good quality, those are the important things for students to practice. For those students who have never had to deal with open-ended problems or conversations without a direct concrete outcome, this kind of practice is especially important. Just getting them to realize that a different class _has_ a completely different outlook and set of values is important.

*I know that the devaluing of degrees means that lots of bottom-level data entry and secretarial jobs that don’t need a BA now require it, because they can require it, which sucks, but I’m not going to deal with that whole can o’ worms in this comment.

By Sisyphus on 01/29/08 at 01:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sisyphus, that’s simply not true about trade schools or trades in general.  While every trade has certain basic operations, each is also full of open-ended problems, problems that require personal initiative and imagination, whether it’s hairdressing or auto mechanics or cabinetry. 

Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant knows that it’s not simply a “middle class thing” to expect workers to jump in and know what to do with minimal explicit direction. 

Anyone who has ever worked for an ad or law firm or has done a medical rotation knows that middle and upper class people need all sorts of explicit direction.  Teams without good leaders are easy to pick out.  Young doctors fumbling through a set of stitches stand out.  The first years of a law career are often nothing but directly supervised drudge work, not all that different from the apprenticeship stage in a trade.

By on 01/29/08 at 11:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Isn’t there a mismatch between the argument that the teaching of literature is valuable because it allows the exploration of an interest in “other people’s experiences in life”, and a casual assertion that bourgeois life in toto is “narrowness”, that literature is defined by its straightforward hostility to the subjectivity of upper-classes or elites, and that the knowledge that literature provides of upper-class subjectivity is most ably confirmed by talking with rich people about convertibles and cognac?

I readily accept the view that a primary value of literature and maybe humanistic writing more broadly is its exploration of intersubjectivity. Not to mention its challenges to whether or not intersubjective knowledge is possible or in fact desirable: there are many works that one can read, and read with students, with the presumption that we’re seeking to know and be surprised by the subjectivity of others, only to find that we’re reading a work which has contempt for that goal. That’s grist for the mill, too.

I’m just thinking that if that’s your objective, you’re way, way too certain that you know in some final way what some people are like, and know in some final way that you don’t need to know any more about them, and that you don’t need anyone to be like them. For an explorer, you seem to already have your maps well-marked and all the monsters charted before you’ve ever left on your journeys.

By Timothy Burke on 01/29/08 at 12:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment


All along, I’ve been responding to the idea that middle and upper class people know what “crassness” is, and how to avoid it, while poorer people don’t. So I gave an example of crassness among the rich; in this case, though I didn’t flesh out the anecdote, berating somebody for leaving “fifty dollars worth of good cognac” undrunk in a glass at the end of a party.

You mourn my tragic incuriosity while accepting at face value all sorts of deeply nasty statements about opportunism, simplicity, and vulgarity among the working class and poor. I will say that if the middle class people we’re talking about are the sort who prefer allusions to understanding, and who enjoy NPR while giving working class people the cold shoulder, then we are describing narrowness and a really ugly sort of hypocrisy. I’m just trying to work with class descriptors that I’m taking directly from Dr. Crazy’s post and follow-up comments.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/29/08 at 02:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ok, but that’s a separate question (e.g., what those commentators are saying, what they mean to say, how that connects to their own ideas about why one reads or teaches literature, and so on). I’m just struck that you propose a methodological and pedagogical credo (that we read literature to be inducted into a progressively wider and wider range of social being, modes of living, subjectivities, etc.) that seems to me to be perpendicular to the relative certainty and strong fixity of the way you read the social in the rest of the discussion.

By Timothy Burke on 01/29/08 at 04:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Reply to Kugelmass:

I may not, as a lit teacher, be required to be entertaining, but I’m teaching material that IS required to be entertaining, or, to put in more brutally, am teaching material that my students must be entertained by. If they’re not, they don’t get it, and if they don’t get it, I can only give them lists of things to memorize about it for reasons they don’t get.

I solve the problem, of course only in part, by showing some things they are entertained by already: current popular movies.

As for being entertaining myself, I find that at my community college, most of the teachers are entertaining or they can’t get through to the students. Not like Hegel, shuffling through papers, mumbling and silent for long stretches: Hegel’s students were fiercely motivated, and paid attention whether he deserved it or not.

If, as I think most lit teachers believe, entertainment is education, I see no reason to think education SHOULD not be entertaining.

I skipped a couple of messages, but has anyone mentioned yet teaching lit because one gets paid?

By on 02/02/08 at 05:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Popular films are entertaining, and I use them in my teaching also. Personally, I’d rather think of classtime as engaging students, rather than entertaining them, because at least in this country entertainment is usually dissociated from intellectual work, even from the pleasures of that work.

There have absolutely been some shout-outs to teaching for a salary. I liked Trent’s reference to Frost: making a vocation out of one’s avocation.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/07/08 at 07:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I come from another part of the world where Confucian self-cultivation is prized. In which case, we read and teach literature not only to learn English but because learning other languages, appreciating works of art, and understanding the world through learning are the ultimate goals of one’s life. I am told that these views are also seen in several European countries where spending significant amounts of money on high art and cultural institutions such as museums and opera houses commonly take place. Perhaps it is based on ideas shared by Confucius and Socrates.

By on 02/11/08 at 01:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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