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How to Breathe Life into Literature for Students

Posted on Monday January 21, 2013 by Michael Keathley

There’s an old expression that says, “art imitates life.” Nowhere is this more true than in literature. In fact, the development of the field closely parallels the growth of civilization from prehistoric cultures that may have painted and chiseled markings on cave walls to tell the stories of their lives, to ancient civilizations who praised forces of nature that they feared, and finally to the genres of more recent centuries that place humankind at the center of the universe.

Around the world since the beginning of civilization, the human experience has been told in beautifully composed works of fiction and non-fiction. Why would we not excitedly pass down such magnificent pieces of ourselves to the generations that follow? Too often literature is presented in a sterilized format, carefully chopped into bite-sized bits in the hope that students will taste just one small piece and enjoy it.

This is the wrong approach and one of the key reasons that students of all ages resist reading great works of literature. In order to reverse this approach, faculty must breathe life back into this art form.

Poetic Justice
Many faculty in English and humanities departments express the desire to teach literature. As one who has chaired departments in both fields of study, I can attest to the fact that instructors frequently make comments such as: “If you ever have need of someone to teach literature, I would love the chance.” These professors will follow their comments with some rather delightful narratives about their affection for literature.

The irony, in my experience, has typically been that when offered the chance to teach a course, they begin to complain because teaching literature is difficult. Some of the most common complaints are that the students:

    • come to class unprepared; typically, they haven’t completed the assigned reading.

    • haven’t spent much time thinking about the work if they have read it.

    • struggle with unfamiliar names, places, cultures, and time periods.

    • have difficulties with vocabulary.

    • whine about having to read certain works.

Begging the forgiveness of my colleagues, I have to say that this situational irony may actually be poetic justice, a punishment of sorts for the way literature is often taught at the secondary and postsecondary levels. How could I say such a thing? Listen to the students for a clue. Here is one example.

A Student Voice
Christina H. recently published, “4 Ways High Schools Make You Hate Reading,” (2 October, 2012). At over 600,000 views in less than four months, she’s onto something. In summation, she mentions what a great job the elementary and junior high schools do getting students to love reading. She reflects fondly on bookmobiles, read-a-thons, and books that were fun to dive into; she shares that she actually loves reading. However, this all changed for her at the secondary level, and I would interject that her complaints are mostly valid for the undergraduate level. Here are her four reasons she feels students are made to hate literature from least to most significant:

    1. High School Required Reading Sucks: Christina does not dispute common educator arguments that works of literature have significance beyond “fun,” but she explains, “when just about every single book on the reading list is something that makes the majority of your class go home and blog about how much they hate it, it starts to seem like a Fahrenheit 451-style plot to destroy people’s interest in reading.” Similarly, do undergraduate course interject some works that are fun to read and discuss? Comedic works and situations have been around for at least 2,500 years. Are professors sharing some of these with students alongside the more serious classics?

    2. You’re Not Allowed to Talk Smack about the Books: She observes that teachers seem to fear that any criticism of a work will spark a revolt of epic proportion in the classroom. She asks how students can learn to think critically about literature—about many other representations of life—when they are not allowed to examine all facets of it. The discussion becomes a sterile, synthetic regurgitation of what faculty want to hear. I have observed this same phenomenon at the undergraduate level, too.

    3. Anything Fun Is Too Shallow: Christina makes an excellent analogy that “fun books” are treated by faculty as if they are candy; students may have a small piece, but not too much or it will be bad for them. Wouldn’t it be great, she asks, if classic works of literature could be placed beside modern literary works and other forms of media (e.g., movies and video games) so that students could make connections about life experiences and actually learn from what they are reading and studying?

    4. Enjoy Reading? Preposterous! Christina points out that “There is a point in time where a lot of adults stop telling kids that reading is fun and start telling them that reading should be work. That if you’re not improving your mind and broadening your horizons, reading that book is just a waste of your time. And they have a lot of ideas about what kinds of books broaden kids’ minds.” Again, the same attitude is often observed among undergraduate literature faculty who believe they know what students should enjoy.

Clearly, for students beyond junior high, the study of literature has had the life sucked out of it.

Lit. Prof., Heal Thyself

No one is better suited to breathe new life into the study of literature than the faculty who love it and the students who crave the joie de vivre that reading and discussing great works can bring. There are some simple ways to do this:

    • Share the journey with your classes. For example, when I have taught Classical and world literature, I usually select a few of my favorites so I can enthusiastically share my affection for them with my students. Then I have my students each choose a work to read and share with the rest of us.

    • Make connections, especially to students’ lives. Christina is correct in that it is sound pedagogy to allow learners to connect a literary hero’s quest to a modern video game.

    • Avoid “sanitizing” classic works so that students may enjoy and develop critical literacy skills (e.g., See Voelker, A. ”Sanitizing Children’s Literature,” Education Week. 11 December, 2012). Let students see human failures and weaknesses so they can give the fullness of life due consideration.

    • Present complete works rather than watered down versions. I have watched students at the secondary and postsecondary levels devour The Odyssey when presented in its entirety, but loathe it when it has been presented in watered-down versions or excerpts in which Odysseus does not even reach home.

    • Allow students to have fun, and enjoy the works with them. Some classics, for instance, such as Don Quixote, make great use of humor. Laugh with your students when studying such masterpieces, and they will want to read more.

Although there are certainly other reasons to teach literature at all levels of education, the most powerful reason is that literature reflects life. Let it live. Breathe life into the works you choose to share with your students, and let this art form enliven your students.

Do you have any great tips for teaching literature? Please share them in the “Comments” area below.

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