January 23, 2009
"The problem is that Poe has been so completely taught that he is very rarely read with the eyes of a reader." Thus Nick Mamatas at The Smart Set, attempting, with some success, to parse that paradox that good English teachers privately know well, but rarely talk about: that in teaching literature (something that is surely vital and necessary and important), one runs the risk (always, no matter how inspirational and pedagogically amazing one is) of destroying (or just plain preventing) the most essential basis for reading literature in the first place, the reader's independent and personal and self-starting drive to read.
English teachers are mediators. They are not ends in themselves. That's how it should be, anyway. They are training wheels that young readers ought to be able to shed once they acquire the skills they need to read purposefully and profitably on their own. But, too often, this backfires. Kids get turned off, and reading just becomes a chore they have to do for school. Or--and this pattern is less discussed, but still troubling--they become dependent. They may really enjoy reading--but they think they need a class, and spoonfed lectures, and guided discussions, in order to get anything out of what they read. They are willing and eager--but have learned from their teachers exactly what they should not have learned. They have become passive where they should be active, and the teacher becomes a crutch for laziness, fear, uncertainty, and sometimes even a creeping snobbery about reading, about choosing what to read, deciding how to read, and figuring out what one thinks about what one has read. These folks grow up into the kind of adults who answer questions about their favorite books by listing works they think should be their favorites--but that they may never have even actually read.
Teaching high school, you're grappling with the first kind of problem. You are, particularly these days, just trying to get kids to be able to read capably, to enjoy it, to recognize that it has a value that is different from, and perhaps superior to, those to be found in watching TV, gaming, surfing, social networking, texting, and so on. Teaching college, you still grapple with that problem--but you also begin to encounter the second. This is not to say that there is no role for teaching English at the college level. Of course there is. But it is to say that Mamatas makes some interesting points about the built-in limitations of the classroom as a place where people can become engaged, autonomous, lifelong readers, and that those observations may have particular point when it comes to thinking about the goals of, say, the English major.
Anecdotally: I first encountered Poe in an eighth-grade English class. I recall sitting in metal shop (bane of existence!) with my book open on my lap, absolutely astonished by this weird story called "Hop Frog." In the ninth grade, Mrs. Morrison played a recording of "The Tell-Tale Heart," complete with terrible, shiver-inducing, thumping sound-effects. We were hooked. Team teaching a high school creative writing class twenty-five years later, my colleague and I put on a poor man's version of that show. We had the students close their eyes. We read the story to them. And we simulated tell-tale heartbeats as needed. They loved it.
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I remember the recording of "The Tell-Tale Heart." I'll bet we listened to the same one, though I can't remember what grade I was in when we listened to it.
Wild! I would have been 14--and it would have been 1982 or thereabouts, for me, at a public high school in Indianapolis.
I wonder just how many American kids got hooked on literature through reading Poe. I will always go to the mat to defend certain "inquiry-based" learning projects because that's how I got to know Poe -- to really know Poe.
In eighth grade, our teacher let the ten of us in the advanced reading class loose on her classroom library of short story anthologies. We had spent weeks learning about the literary elements of stories: plot structure, mood and tone, point of view, etc. Now, for a month, our task was to read story after story in class, fill out note sheets on the literary elements of the stories, and make up our own anthology of great stories to share with the class in a presentation.
I knew stories like "The Tell-Tale Heart" from Halloweens past, but I didn't know the surreal, darkly humorous Poe. The Poe of "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" or "How to Write a Blackwoods Article." The Poe that at once celebrates and mocks the horror conventions he was perfecting. Going back to the "true" horror stories, you can see Poe laughing his ass off, even as he terrifies you. *That* amazed me: this writer always (wrongly) presented as a pathological freak was actually an arch humorist throughout the majority of his stories. (So the Poe we are taught is very different from the Poe who actually wrote.)
I also loved the strangeness of Poe's language. I had to look up every third word in the dictionary. It was like admiring some extremely gaudy jewel-encrusted sword or something: gauche, but clearly taking pleasure in its own making. I couldn't get through *Huck Finn* until grad school because I never liked writers who think they are capturing some real voice. I liked artificial voices, voices unlike anything around me. (Later in 8th grade, I tried to start reading *Lolita* for the sex. Not much sex, but the weirdness of the voice captured me, even if I couldn't understand anything I was reading. In high school, I was a fan of Anais Nin, William Burroughs, Barthelme, Borges, John Hawkes over against the Cheever or Updike or Carver stories we always had to read. I'll still take 600 pages of Proust writing about shoes over anything by Hemingway.)
So Mrs. Previte's 8th grade class led me to develop my taste in ways most subsequent English classes didn't. I fell in love with Poe, Du Maurier, Kafka, Hawthorne, Chekhov, Mansfield, and Faulkner. I discovered that I preferred writers who didn't try to hide the fact that they were making things up. (And Chekhov changed my life even more, to the point that I always gave Cornel West more credit than I should because he talked about designing a course on John Coltrane and Chekhov, which I thought would be the most humane material ever paired.)
I'll stop rambling now.
Another fantastic post...your point about being a "mediator" between culture and student is so very, very true.
When I was in high school the district required us to read Red Badge of Courage, Great Expectations and David Copperfield. (Although they at least let us read Orwell.) That turned me off to literature (except for mysteries) for years.
I saw a point to Red Badge of Courage, but I attributed the need to read David Copperfield and Great Expectations to pure sadism on the part of my school district. We would have been better served if they had had us read Tale of Two Cities, or Tom Jones, or Augustus Carpe(sp?) or some of Gogol's shorter works (Gogol would seem to be someone teenagers ought to be able to relate to), or even Waugh or Wodehouse.
As it was I didn't discover them until after college. On the other hand I learned my history from Flashman novels, so not all was lost.
AYY -- So interesting. For me, Crane was kiss of death territory. But Great Expectations was a major discovery. It was assigned in the ninth grade -- and I remember saving that part of my homework, doing the geometry and the biology first, so that I could enjoy the Dickens. I was so charmed by the names. I wanted to repeat them somehow, so I wrote them all down in a column in the back of the book in very neat handwriting. Pumblechook. Pocket. Jaggers. Wemmick. In retrospect, that was probably a decisive event for me, given the future direction I took. I've lost count of how many times I've read GE, or taught it. And I love it every time.
Other things read in high school -- The Scarlet Letter (which I adore now, but which was beyond deadly then). Also deadly: Heart of Darkness, though I also adore that now. Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath. All amazing. We read modernized versions of Homer and Chaucer in ninth grade -- and we read the entire Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volumes 1 and 2, in senior year. Those were astounding -- they began with The Iliad and a bunch of Greek tragedies, moved through Old and New Testament selections (which I had never read elsewhere, and which were major for me), and just came on through to the twentieth century. We read Hamlet and Madame Bovary and Moliere and Brecht and so many things inbetween. What a year.
I'm curious what English teachers can say about these two questions:
1. Would The Secret Agent go over better with high school students than Heart of Darkness? It's quite a bit longer, and you miss out on the racial-colonial themes, but I find it gripping and the themes are otherwise very pertinent.
2. I've always wondered why Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde isn't on high-school reading lists. It's not too long, not (as I recall) stylistically intimidating (like Henry James), and is surely more accessible to adolescent minds than The Scarlet Letter or Jane Austen.
Red Badge of Courage made me want to slit my throat.
I don't remember being "taught" books or stories very much. I remember being assigned them and they got folded in with my own reading material. I think that, for me, reading for pleasure was so huge that it drowned out any peripheral noise like a teacher talking to me about what I was reading.
I will say that I remember thinking the high school teacher who told us that it was best that the boy in "The Scarlet Ibis" die when he did b/c he'd have been an invalid if he'd lived, was some kind of idiot. Possibly I tuned out their teaching because it was on that level.
My daughter had such a moment in 9th grade when she was asked on a test whether Wang Lung of The Good Earth was a moral person, with the only possible answers "yes" or "no" (all the tests were Scantron) and the correct answer being "yes". She and I had an entire conversation about that, the short version being that from my point of view he was not. I wrote about it on my blog. But why would you ask such a question if your intent is not to have the student explain her reasoning? All of her teachers have not been so lacking, fortunately. She's in a seminar now about LOTR and enjoying it immensely.
1982 sounds about right. I think it was in my seventh grade class. I remember it being very well done, and very creepy.
I read a lot of Poe after that.
I've never liked Red Badge of Courage, either. I like Maggie and will teach "The Open Boat" now and again, but I don't know that I'm a major Crane fan.
Great Expectations was the bane of my existence in freshman high school English. I haven't really read much Dickens since, save what was assigned here and there through my undergrad and grad years. Which wasn't very much, actually.
But I also read stuff in high school that I hated then but love now, like Crime and Punishment and all of Shakespeare.
It's funny, because in many ways I received a pretty good education from K-12 (I went to Catholic school), but now that I'm on the other side of the podium, I realize that my English lit education was severely lacking in many respects. Only my sophomore teacher really had passion for the subject--I think I learned more in his class than I did in anyone else's, even in AP English, which was very structured towards taking the AP exam, and not particularly interesting.
Occasionally I have vivid dreams about being back in high school with what I know now, and getting into arguments with one English teacher in particular about how ridiculously limited her interpretive skills were . . .