Recently, my favorite thing to hear from students—most of whom are taking required first-year courses in composition and literature—has become, “English has never been my favorite subject, but I actually liked today’s reading.” I appreciate their candor, for one thing, and think I’m starting to understand why literature has come to seem like a chore to college freshmen in the first place.
My working hypothesis is that when students have been taught to skim for standardized-testable keywords, they have also been denied the joys of truly comprehending a text—that is, of grasping it and turning it over in their hands and minds—and of seeing themselves in its pages. It is as though, I tell my students, someone has laid a table with every delicious thing they can imagine, and then eaten it all and left them with only pre-chewed celery shreds. (Celery is my least favorite food; I invite students to substitute another in their mind’s eye, so long as it has been pre-chewed.) Literature is meant to have both a taste and a nutritional value, and I invite them to join the feast.
As this anecdote hopefully shows, I try to be as concrete and vivid in my explanations as possible. I want students to be able to see my words, as well as the words they read (see students’ drawings of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Filling Station,” above) and—even more importantly—the words they write. I happily embarrass myself by drawing comically rudimentary diagrams with lines and stick figures, to give them an image that they can carry in their minds going forward. I emphasize that I am not simply trying to transfer a particular set of content into their minds so much as I am trying to provide them with a new way of reading, thinking, and seeing.
To this end, I place a strong emphasis on the mechanics of writing in both introductory and advanced courses. As I explain to my students, words are the building blocks of thought as well as oral and written communication; consequently, stronger writing abilities translate into improved judgment. It is gratifying to watch both the quality of a student’s prose and the persuasiveness of his or her arguments develop over the course of a term. More concretely, I provide students with clear expectations for written assignments and a series of handouts to help demystify crucial elements of college-level writing. In my grading, I offer actionable feedback with one specific, skills-based recommendation per essay, and I follow up to see if they have made progress on the next assignment. When Luke made the effort to organize his final paper around claims rather than relying on plot summary, when Lindsay incorporated counter-evidence for the first time, and when JJ rewrote her introduction so that it matched the argument that followed, I was delighted to acknowledge their improvement.
In class, we model and collectively practice the work of literary analysis by close reading passages together, and putting both evidence and sample framing of that evidence on the board. Students’ instinctive reactions to a book can provide one way into understanding—for instance, the question, “Did anyone think it was strange when Jurgis tried to bite Connor’s face off, not once but twice, in The Jungle?” usually prompts at least one emphatic “Yes!,” followed by a consideration of how this pseudo-cannibalism connects to wider themes in the novel. I also encourage students to look for connections between texts and the wider world; each week in courses on subjects ranging from technology to drama to American protest literature, students felt that the syllabus was unfolding just for them.
Finally, as an archival researcher, I enjoy introducing students to the materiality of the text. When they learn that Philip Larkin lined his notebooks with drawings of bunnies, it makes them laugh—and also makes them think about the processes of composition and revision that take place before a classic lands on bookstore shelves. Images of manuscripts can provide a memorable and relatable approach to literature. Students come away with a sense that the work of creating knowledge and art is something they can grasp, literally and figuratively, and participate in themselves.
United States Military Academy, Department of English and Philosophy
Introduction to Composition, and the fundamentals of college-level reading, writing, and analysis
Introduction to Literature, spanning multiple genres (novels, stories, poems, plays) and time periods (from Shakespeare to Keats to Julia Otsuka)
The Novel, focusing on postwar American novels
Drama, survey of antiquity through the present day
Harvard University, Department of English
Postwar American and British Fiction, with James Wood
Castaways and Renegades (American literature survey), with John Stauffer
Harvard University, Program in General Education
American Protest Literature, with John Stauffer and Timothy McCarthy