Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Literary Snobs or Common Sense???

Over the past two days Roger Sutton has posted two intriguing entries: Getting the Shakes and And if you're not an English major. These posts are in response to a published report entitled: The Vanishing Shakespeare. The debate? Whether it is a *crime* against the Bard that English majors are not being required to take a course on Shakespeare before graduating with their degrees. The implication is that the focus of English majors is being directed away from great authors in the literary canon--such as Shakespeare--and instead being redirected to focus on previously neglected authors and works: perhaps focusing on gender studies, multicultural studies, pop culture, folklore, children's literature, etc. What is slightly insulting about this study is that they title one chapter: "The Advance of the Not-So Great." Lumping in everything that isn't part of the traditional canon--Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, etc. as being in the "not so great" category.

While Shakespeare requirements are on the decline, courses on children’s
literature are proliferating. For $40,000 a year, students can now
spend their precious college years at Yale, Purdue, the University of Pennsylvania, and others studying the works of Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Lemony Snicket, and J. K. Rowling.

Further on, in one of the appendices, they write:

Children’s literature is one of the hottest trends in English departments today. Parents may well wonder why their grown sons and daughters can read Charlotte’s Web, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and Alice in Wonderland for college credit, but it is happening in literature departments all over the country.

Yale University, “Literature for Young People” gives “an eclectic approach to stories and storytelling for and by children.” Readings include works by J. K. Rowling, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, L. Frank Baum, Roald Dahl, and Lemony Snicket, plus stories written by children themselves.

University of Pennsylvania, “150 Years of Children’s Fantasy” proclaims
that “The Harry Potter Books are the latest example of an important, much-loved genre, children’s fantasy!” The course tracks “children’s fantasy from the 1850s to the present day,” focusing on such authors as Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, J. M. Barrie, J. K. Rowling, and Lemony Snicket. Films are also featured, and “may include The Wizard of Oz, Snow White, and Mary Poppins.”

The University of Pennsylvania also offers “Feminist Fairy Tales,” which examines “the impact of popular culture on fairy tales and fairy tales on popular culture, as well as the effects of fairy tales on the formation of a woman’s self-image.”

Indiana University, “Children’s Literature” “is primarily a historical survey of what is widely considered the best that has been written for young readers. We will read fables, folk tales, myths, classic and contemporary children’s literature, children’s poetry, and illustrated books for the very young.” Readings include Treasure Island, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Charlotte’s Web, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Harriet the Spy.

Purdue University, “Young Adult Literature and Teen Identity” explores “the connections between literature written for young adults and contemporary adolescent identity.”

This isn't surprising that those proclaiming the wonders and genius of the literary canon are slamming children's literature, women's literature, multicultural literature, queer literature, etc. They have always, in my opinion, held that the canon is closed to anything *new* or *different* or *challenging*. They have never been one to embrace change. The whole report contains a long list of courses they deem "unworthy" of an English major. (They're actually quite interesting to look at!)

Here are some examples:

University of Chicago, “The Graphic Novel” looks at “the recent rise of the graphic novel, a form that presents an opportunity to refresh our critical vocabularies for examining narrative and visuality.” Special attention is paid to “how the graphic novel critically engages the history of the comic.”

Swarthmore College, “Food and Literature” is a course that “examines the place of food and drink in Renaissance literature and culture” and covers such topics as feasts, famine, cannibalism, and “the adoption of new and exotic products such as sugar, tea, coffee, chocolate and tobacco.”

University of Virginia, “Critical Race Theory” asks, “What does race mean in the late 20th and early 21 st century?” Declaring that “race as a biological ‘fact’ has been discredited,” this English course explores why race “continue[s] to have vital significance in politics, economics, education, culture, arts, and everyday social realities” including “sexuality, class, disability, multiculturalism, nationality, and globalism.”

Vanderbilt University, “Problems in Literature: Shakespearean Sexuality” centers on “the question of sexuality in Shakespeare’s plays,” noting that “[t]he issues raised by sexuality are particularly rich and complicated in Shakespearean drama, which is preoccupied with mistaken identities, connections between eroticism and violence, marriage plots, crises of political authority, and self-conscious theatricality.”

But do they have a valid point? I have a BA in English literature. I have my degree from Texas Woman's University. Shakespeare was a requirement in 2000. And it's still a requirement in 2007. I took one Shakespeare course as an undergraduate, and another course in graduate school. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Did I love it? Yes. Do I think it made me a better person? In a way. But not in the traditional sense of the word "better." Let me introduce you to Dr. Phyllis Bridges. There is not a better teacher in the entire world than Dr. Bridges. She is the embodiment of everything that is good in the world. She inspires fear, love, and respect all in one breath. I have met NO ONE on the entire campus who wasn't in awe of her. She is one-of-a-kind. She is THE teacher to have on Shakespeare. It is one of her passions. It is her joy. She loves to teach it. My life was changed because of her. And Shakespeare is where it all began. My first course with her, but not my last. She became my academic advisor, my friend, my inspiration, the one person I could always trust. I am probably passionate about the Bard because of her influence. So I am of the opinion that everyone should be required to read some Shakespeare in their life. Either high school. Or college. Or both. I am of the opinion that a person seeking a degree in English SHOULD be required to study Shakespeare. Why? He's great. He's important. He's significant. I am grateful that I studied him under the expertise of Dr. Bridges. But she also taught other courses--including women's literature and folklore. She also always encouraged me to study children's literature in college. When I chose to go into library studies instead of pursuing a doctorate in English literature, she encouraged me. And she was just one of many. I had *many* inspirational professors along the way.

But I also feel they're being more than a little silly. For one thing, they didn't study every university, every program. They were elitist in who they selected. When you only study the "top 25" colleges in America (okay, so the study chose 70 schools to examine out of thousands), you're leaving out hundreds if not thousands of schools and programs that could very well present a more balanced perspective on the issue. (They didn't even have a ranked list of Top 25 schools in the field of English literature as part of their study. So the schools selected don't even represent the BEST literature programs in the nation necessarily. 15 out of the 70 required Shakespeare.) Maybe their study shows a forthcoming trend, but my guess is that 85% of the academic world would be a decade behind that trend. They haven't had time to follow suit. I think their study is biased in more than one way. Another way I think they're biased is that they highlight courses that illustrate their point of view. They target courses from catalogs to supposedly show how HORRIBLE the education system has strayed from the "good old days" when Shakespeare was king. They don't illustrate or allude to the fact that there are probably dozens if not hundreds of more traditional courses being taught alongside some of these newer ones. They want the reader to assume the worst. That there is NOTHING of value being taught. Nothing traditional. Nothing sacred. I would imagine if you were to look at a course catalog from any of the 70 schools represented that you'd find a more balanced offering than they'd like you to believe. Second, why do they have to bring someone else down to make their point? Why do they have to attack others to make the point that Shakespeare is so marvelous? As if they can't stand to see someone reading a book outside of their precious canon. Why say that it is better to study Shakespeare than to 'waste' your time and energy reading books by a woman or ethnic author? Perhaps they fear a loss in power, respect. Maybe they fear that they'll lose their jobs of telling the world how they should be reading great works of literature. Especially since the article spent a good percentage of time slamming literary theories that encouraged readers to think for themselves. Who knows why they went on the attack...the point is...they would have made a better argument if they had simply stated that they feel Shakespeare should remain an important part of a well-balanced diet of an English major. You cannot live on Shakespeare alone. You need to have a wider perspective on the world. You need to be exposed to MANY authors, many genres, many styles, many outlooks. Change isn't necessarily a bad thing. They need to realize that.

While I have two degrees in literature, I've never considered myself a literature snob. One of those sorts that think if you're not reading a classic, you're reading worthless trash. I've never looked down my nose on popular literature, never thought that genre fiction was a waste of paper. I see value in ALL reading. If you're addicted to science fiction, fantasy, romance, westerns, mystery, horror, etc. there is nothing to be ashamed of. Embrace the genre. In this regards, I wish that there was a way to encourage students (in high school and/or college) to read whatever they want and know that it's okay. That it is good to read *anything* and *everything* that they want. Here is what Roger writes:

I wish (and maybe this could be my next job) high schools offered their seniors a class in Reading. Not literature (although I hasten to add that I think they should be studying that, too), but a class instead designed to demonstrate the breadth and methods of reading in one's life quite apart from the pursuit of educational degrees. The students would learn about the different genres of popular fiction, for example; cross gender boundaries by reading Danielle Steel and Tom Clancy; go on a field trip to a book store and library to learn how to browse. Slow readers could learn techniques for speeding up (if they so desired); grinds could be taught to relax; fluent readers could be challenged to stretch their preferences. Everybody would learn how to skim. Students could practice giving and receiving book recommendations. They could learn to give up on a book that isn't working for them and how to stick with something that might prove rewarding.

Something along the lines of The Readers' Bill of Rights:

The Reader's Bill of Rights
1. The right to not read.
2. The right to skip pages.
3. The right to not finish.
4. The right to reread.
5. The right to read anything.
6. The right to escapism.
7. The right to read anywhere.
8. The right to browse.
9. The right to read out loud.
10. The right not to defend your tastes.

—Pennac, Daniel, Better Than Life, Coach House Press, 1996.

I agree that if people could disassociate reading with the pain of having to read literature and have opinionated views of what it all means, the pain of due dates, the pain of writing long essays, long debates, long presentations...that maybe reading could be seen as a pleasurable pastime again. Required reading takes the life out of reading. It may take years for a person to pick up another book after the trauma of years of forced reading. Some people never recover. Whether this *magic* course teaching the love of reading (or art of reading) is possible in the current world is debatable. But like Roger, I tend to dream of the *perfect* course that will change the world.


John Ottinger III (Grasping for the Wind) said...

Good post.

Thought you might like to know about the New Notions Five Reading Challenge

Carl V. Anderson said...

I like your thoughts on this and like the Reader's Bill of Rights. Had never seen that.

These kind of subjects rankle me sometimes because I believe in teaching the classics and also believe in teaching newer stuff as a way to breathe life into literature. The solution seems easy enough to me, but what do I know? I'm just a reader!

I really enjoyed reading about your professor. In senior high English my teacher, known to be somewhat of a crab, taught us Macbeth. I fell hard for Shakespeare right then and there because she did such a good job of it. In both high school and college courses I was 'forced' to read many things that I might not have otherwise picked up and I truly believe they made me a better reader, thus a better person. I'm so thankful that my interest in Shakespeare was sparked that early.

Anonymous said...

"He's great. He's important. He's significant."
Could you explain why WS is these things?


Libby said...

I came here from Fuse8, having read Roger Sutton's posts as well. And the thing that still bewilders me is the false comparison--Shakespeare is no longer REQUIRED, but children's (women's, etc.) lit is OFFERED. So really, the problem is not that one can't study Shakespeare--that's not it at all. It's that one can study these other things. Which is a bizarrely anti-intellectual argument for these guardians of the intellect to be making, if you ask me.