Existing in a Vacuum: A Rant About Literature Classes

I’m teaching a philosophy class this semester. First time. Nothing big, just a basic introduction course, but it’s been interesting and I LOVE the students. They are so curious, so questioning. They don’t hesitate to call ‘crap!’ on these philosophers!

But today we had a discussion that really broke my heart.

I’m a historian and a writer, above all else. (And, currently, a feeder of newborn kittens every two hours, but I digress.) So in philosophy, I love to go into the history of the times, so my students understand why these philosophers were thinking about certain things, what their inspirations were, even what they were railing against. So today, we finally got to the Existentialists – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, etc. – and I was able to talk about the tragedies of the Industrial Revolution and the horrors of World War I.

And I mentioned the literature of the time, too. How it was moving from the romanticism of Jane Austen, to the more rugged adventures of Mark Twain. That it was a reflection of the times (I forgot to mention Upton Sinclair, though!), I especially mentioned Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour.”

Now, let me be clear:  I don’t love all literature, and I don’t think all the literature we force down the throats of high school and college students today is worth the paper its printed on. If I ever get my hands on a TARDIS, the first thing I’m going to do is go back in time and shoot Flaubert before he has a chance to write Madame Bovary. I’ve never, ever wanted a character to die on page 1 as much as I wanted that self-centered, self-absorbed bitch to die!

Again, I digress. Suffice to say, there is literature we all could do without.

But what broke my heart was when I discussed “The Story of an Hour” and heard that my students a.) weren’t reading it in class, and b.) hated their literature classes. Hated their Comp 2 classes, in fact, because they are basically literature classes. And what they hated most was the stories the teacher had chosen.

No, I don’t like all literature. (See remarks on Madame Bovary, above.) I think there’s a lot more out there that could be explored, but isn’t, either because the teachers are too lazy to do the prep work, or because they just don’t like the stories. I hate that students aren’t allowed to ‘choose their own adventure’ when it comes to literature. I took a British Lit class once because I adore British Lit – but the stories the teacher chose were really, truly awful.

More importantly, though, what I always hated about my lit classes was the lack of history that went along with them.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2Here’s the thing:  nothing exists in a vacuum. Teaching is, and should be, a holistic experience. In Anthropology, we explore everything – history, colonization, artwork, marriage and family relations, religion, biology, forensic science, current events . . . and I do the same in my history classes. Because nothing exists in a vacuum.

PARTICULARLY LITERATURE!

Ever read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis? I have, and when it was presented to me, I had no clue how to interpret it (though I did despise Gregor’s family and sympathized with him greatly, which earned me the ire and mockery of my classmates). Now, I know far more about Kafka’s life, and the society in which he lived, and his influences, and I have a much better grasp on that story. But when I was younger? Nope. It’s really quite philosophical, in fact; really, it’s a discussion of Kafka’s own bleak outlook on life, that all humans are doomed to be alone, to always live as outcasts, never to be truly known by others. (And, apparently, also doomed to die with a rotting fruit stuck in our carapaces.) So if you thought it was just about a guy who turns into a bug, think again.

Let me go back to “The Story of an Hour.” If you’ve never read it, here’s a link:  http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/webtexts/hour/

This is a story about a woman who has been under the thumb of her husband for her entire married life. Maybe he was abusive; maybe he wasn’t; Chopin lets us draw our own conclusions there. But once she this woman realizes he is dead, she also realizes one critical fact:  she’s free.

I talk about this story in my US History classes, when we look at the Victorian Era. This story was published in 1894 – twenty five years before women had the right to vote! Chopin was a voice crying out for women’s liberation before the term had ever been coined. She urged women to fight for their rights and their independence, every bit as much as Jefferson, et.al., urged the American colonies to rebel against the shackles of Britain (their words; I’m a Loyalist, myself!). But unless you know about the Victorian Era, the ‘cult of domesticity’ that kept upper-class women busy with silly affairs of the home, and the wrath and ridicule that women who dared step out of their sphere of influence endured – then how can you fully grasp what this story’s about?

Fact:  You can’t.

Every single time I put this story in its proper historical context in my courses, I see the light dawning on students’ faces. Hear the words. “Oh! THAT’S what it means! We read it in Lit, but I had no idea what it meant.”

Good grief, Charlie Brown. How can you pretend to teach Siegfried Sassoon, Kate Chopin, Anna Sewell, Rudyard Kipling  – any of the 19th century writers – without putting their works into context? How??????? How can you sit there and preach to the students what they should and shouldn’t “get” out of these stories and novels, and not give them the tools to understand them?

Fact:  You can’t.

No one would dare try to teach the Declaration of Independence, or Common Sense, or “Vindication of the Rights of Women” without historical context. So why do it for literature? These are historical documents, too! No, when they were written, the authors didn’t consider them to be historical. But they are. They are microcosms of 19th century life – the mannerisms, clothing, hair styles, society and social hierarchy, politics, humor, even the jobs and modes of transportation, are all there.

Nothing exists in a vacuum. Not you. Not me. Not literature.

So please, lit instructors:  give it context, and make it interesting.

And if you can’t – maybe you need to hand the reins over to someone who can.

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5 thoughts on “Existing in a Vacuum: A Rant About Literature Classes

  1. Robyn, you have hit the nail on the head here. A lot of literature teachers don’t like teaching literature. Putting the readings in the context of history, science, literary terms, etc. makes it so much more understandable. There are a few literature texts that discuss the stories in these varied contexts, and I loved it! Those textbooks made reading and teaching literature actually fun.

    You are on a roll with this post! 😆

    • I know. It really makes me think that we’ve got to rethink EVERYTHING about teaching lit. I love literature. I like talking about it. We talked about “The Metamorphosis” in Philosophy today. They were enthralled by it. I think a couple of them are going to read it this weekend, in fact. But how do you know what a story ‘means’ if you don’t know how to think about it?

  2. I agree! It really isn’t that hard to do this, even really dedicated fans of something like Star Trek can put the aforementioned show in context with its time and place of origin. It’s second nature in a way. I mean, there’s Trekkies who can tell you about the Shakespeare parallels and things like the parallel between Alexander the Great and Hepheaston and Kirk and Spock. If fans of something that people tend to call silly and a waste of time can do this, someone who has decided to teach can damn well do it too.

  3. You’ll be glad to know that in teaching literature, we always talk about the historical and social content of what was going on during the time period stories were written and how that context influences what writers write. As a matter of fact, one of their papers is to pick an author and then write about the various factors, personal, society and historical, that impacts their writing. I was so sadden recently when discussing one of my favorite Flannery O’Connor story and a student said they’d just discussed it in Comp II. We delved into the history of the civil rights movement, both as it was occurring in the South and the drastic difference of how things were up north and how this impacted O’Connor, then got into the meat and bones of the religious aspects of the story and how it was influenced by O’Connor’s on struggles with religious faith due to her illness. After the discussion, I asked the student if these were the things they discussed. Nope. None of the important, meaningful aspects were discussed. It would have been like saying, “Yep, Gregor Samsa’s a bug and that’s what the story’s about.” NO! I felt like the students had been cheated of the richness of the story, the mastery of it. It’s like having students put on a blindfold to look at amazing art. Some teachers just don’t want to scratch beyond the surface to really get to the true meaning and power of literature. I’m right with you. It breaks my heart!

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