Whine. Whine whine whine. Big sigh ... it has been a tough week. To put it mildly. Turned in my first 5 page paper this morning for Romanticism (Yay) and had to show up both for that class and for Indian prose class not having read the novel and sit through three hours of discussion feeling like an idiot.
It's very hard for me not to participate. This might come as a shock, but I tend to dominate class discussion! :) In fact, during the break, the teacher came up to me to ask why I hadn't spoken yet in class and I came up with a lame excuse, then proceeded to sit through the second half of class. Turns out that the three novels I read in advance won't be discussed until the end of the term, and so I've been reading like a maniac since I've gotten here and barely made a dent. She also loves to toss giant packets on our laps on top of the already enormous amounts of reading for the next class. The first day of class she dropped four autobiographies in our laps and I managed to read only one by the next class. I can't even imagine how - with two other classes of work and another paper to write - I can possibly get it done. I suppose the lesson here is in prioritizing what is of interest and not trying to read everything; either that or never sleeping.
During the week we also have all school lectures in the evenings, Professors reading from their books or poetry or guest lecturers (usually famous scholars or authors). This Monday the guest lecturer was Professor Gerald Graff, who is soon to be president of the Modern Language Association (MLA). As anyone who has had to write an English paper knows, this is the organization that dictates how to cite your sources in bibliographies, etc. Author's name first, etc. They also handle issues of changing source materials in a technology boom.
Prof. Graff's lecture was titled "The Unbearable Pointlessness of the Literature Essay Assignment." And he wasn't being ironic. He has just published a book called They Say / I Say, which essentially discusses how literature students are often trained to write in a vacuum when they should be engaging in an on-going discussion with critics. In other words, he wants us as English teachers to include more critical texts in our classrooms regarding the literature we're reading and get students to debate with those critics. The example he gave us was the difference between a thesis that states, "The Sopranos (the TV shoW) contains complex Italian-American characters" and one that disputes an argument, "Some say that The Sopranos stereotypes Italian Americans. Actually, The Sopranos has very complex characters."
This garnered a lot of discussion amongst the professors, who felt their close-reading, textual assignments were being denigrated. However, I agree that in order to learn to write good criticism, students should be exposed to more argumentative literature at younger ages. The problem is finding genuine arguments (rather than fake, "straw man" arguments, of which I think the Sopranos above is one -- in which you set up a pretend opposing view just to give you something to argue against), and moreover, genuine arguments that are written clearly and simply enough for people untrained in literary discourse to understand. Most critical writing is extremely advanced and written for other literary scholars, not high school students.
The other problem with this model is that it does not recognize that the real argument of the Sopranos issue above is not whether the Sopranos has complex characters or not, but why complex characters make a show worth watching. Who cares whether they're complex or not unless you have a point to make about the complexity?
I'd like to hear what others think about this. Do you wish your teachers had brought in more discussion about whether Huckleberry Finn should be banned from classrooms because of its vulgar language? Or critical debates about the use of language or ideas in your texts? Is the exercise of having students make an "argument" (really a defendable suggestion) about why a poet for example would choose to use personification and certain symbols in his poem completely pointless unless connected to an already on-going discussion about the poet?