Teaching Literature

I’m in a big, anonymous building, where endless hallways keep appearing around corners. I am supposed to be teaching a class, but I am not armed with books, and I have not prepared anything. I am looking for the room where students are waiting for me, but there are only locked doors. I feel terrible, and I know that even if I find the room in time, I will not know what to say.

The semester has not even started, and I’ve already had my first anxiety dream. Staring at the ceiling, I decided that apart from preparing the content of my classes, I should also learn more about the techniques of teaching itself. I surfed to my favourite used books store and ordered a pile of books on teaching literature.

The first book on the pile was Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003). I learned a lot, and will write a short review here. Also in, still to be read, are:

  • Wilbert J. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers (1994) — which comes warmly recommended by Showalter
  • Richard L. McGuire’s Passionate Attention: An Introduction to Literary Study (1973).
  • Milla Cozart Riggio, ed., Teaching Shakespeare through Performance (1999).

The crucial thing that all these books make you think about is not what you are going to be teaching your students, but how you are going to teach them. I have taught before, and found ways of teaching that work well for me — I try to stimulate discussion, questions, students’ critical engagement during lectures as well as seminars. I have some tricks up my sleeve to achieve this. Some of those tricks I invented, others I learnt from my own experience as a student. The good thing about these books on teaching is that you learn new tricks, and start to think critically about your style of teaching. They also make you consider what you really want to be teaching your students: is it knowledge, is it the skill of reading literature, the skill to talk or write about it, or is it to make them think critically, to form their own opinions about life? Or is it all these things? And how do you achieve that?

Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature discusses theories and methods of teaching literature, and looks at different methods for different genres (poetry, drama, fiction, theory). She lets you share not only in her own experience as a teacher of English literature, but also in the wisdom of a wealth of her colleagues. Throughout the book, Showalter cites stories and ideas from other university lecturers. I met with many different styles of teaching in her book, and was able to define my own style by comparing it to others’, and by taking from them what I liked. I also enjoyed the advice on stimulating active learning even in lectures with large groups of students (such as a shift of material or approach every fifteen minutes, buzz groups, problem-solving, and Q and A sessions to keep students engaged throughout).

I hope my subconscious read along with me, because Showalter’s Teaching Literature does not only provide many ideas and examples of ways to teach literature, but also acknowledges the anxieties that come with the profession (in her dream, Showalter is six weeks late for class; others discover that they need to teach in Latin!). Emphasising the joys of teaching as well as the worries that come with it, the book really made me feel more comfortable, and gave me lots of ideas to work with. I look forward to the start of the semester, and hope to be blogging more frequently. Reviews of the other books on the pile will follow. In the meantime, you are warmly invited to share your teaching wisdom and/or anxiety dreams in the comments!

Update: New Kid on the Hallway has a great post on student motivation today, with lots of inspiring comments. I was particularly thrilled by Tiruncula’s idea to make small groups within a class ‘responsible’ for a particular theme throughout the term, enabling them to function as experts in discussions. I love it!

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7 thoughts on “Teaching Literature

  1. Glad you liked the post! (I found your link to it via technorati.) It’s all due to the great comments. Anyway, FWIW, I regularly dream that it’s the first day of class (that I’m teaching) and I have simply forgotten to attend! I figured it was an achievement when I started dreaming about missing class as the professor rather than as the student. 😉

  2. My worst nightmare about teaching involves completely mute students staring incredulously at me when asked a question. If this sounds suspiciously like real life, I suppose it is.

    Somebody (was it Churchill?) said that if they wanted him to talk for half an hour he needed a week’s preparation, for an hour, three days. If they wanted him to talk for four hours he could start immediately. I suppose teaching is like that.

  3. A propos Showalter, she writes in her book on campus novels that she considers Trollope’s Barchester novels to be the first campus novels. Whatever one thinks of the truth or falsity of this remark as a matter of literary history, one must admit this suggests an interesting picture of the nature of the university!

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