Teaching Criticism

from the "English Grad Student Shaming" tumblr.

“What Mom always said doesn’t go far in grad school…” (from EnglishGradStudentShaming.tumblr.com)

This post attempts to puzzle through the impulse to critique and criticize in literary studies; in particular, it considers a grad-student culture of shame via the newly-created tumblr “englishgradstudentshaming.” What happens when grad students and instructors feel like they “can’t say anything nice about books anymore”?

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“Book Club” Ain’t in the Course Description

“I realize that I must have thrown [Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde] into the curriculum only because there was an actual monster to encounter, only because there was some guilt with  my false advertisement. And in that sense, I was right. After all, the course was called Monsters in Literature and not The Political in Literature and once I met the actual students, it dawned on me, in spite of my defenses, that the students signed up for the Monster part, not the literature.”

–Deborah P. Britzman, Novel Education, 116

From retreatbyrandomhouse.ca: "We know all book clubs, like snowflakes, are beautiful in their own, unique ways — and we want to hear all about why your book club is the best book club in Canada!"

From retreatbyrandomhouse.ca:
“We know all book clubs, like snowflakes, are beautiful in their own, unique ways — and we want to hear all about why your book club is the best book club in Canada!”

The quandary Britzman describes above will sound familiar to many literary scholars. It will likely ring true to teachers in any field where “reading against the grain” is an accepted methodological practice, from History to Anthropology to Sociology. I think, though, that instances of what might be called “false advertising” are particularly pronounced in the teaching of English Literature, not because English profs are dishonest, or because students today are woefully naive, but because in the field of literary studies, there is a great deal of anxiety about the role of fiction studies in Higher Education and, subsequently, a lurking desire to escape fiction, aesthetics, and literature itself. Or, at the very least, a desire to distance the study of English Literature from the much-maligned book club.

A Crisis in Literary Studies

Albert Braz’s recent article, “In Praise of Literature,” claims that “It is hard for anyone actively involved in the life of an English department in the last few decades not to notice the way English professors have become ambivalent about our ostensible raison d’être. Whenever one discusses the future of the discipline, it soon becomes apparent that most people feel that if it can be saved at all it will be by embracing some related field, such as film studies, cultural studies or that academic catch-all that goes by the name of theory –anything but literature” (University Affairs, 1 Nov 2012).

“This jeremiad is neither accurate nor new” is Terry Goldie’s response to Braz, and he’s right: Braz’s concern for “the seemingly permanent crisis in literary studies” (Braz) is not new. It betrays a nostalgia for a golden age in literature that perhaps never existed. And yet, I agree with Braz, or at the very least I agree with his suggestion that “the most striking aspect of… “the Age of the Critic” is its antagonism toward the literary imagination.” Braz takes up Paul A. Cantor’s description of the twentieth-century as the Age of the Critic and applies it to the early twenty-first century; in so doing he points to the centrality that literary scholars have ascribed to criticism–to being critical–in literary studies today. What Braz calls “the literary imagination”–by this, I take him to mean “creative imagination”–gets pushed aside in the scholar’s scramble to deconstruct the text. In literary studies, it seems difficult to talk about whether one likes a work of art or not in certain streams of literary studies. It seems increasingly difficult to ask why some works of art appeal, and others don’t. In literary studies today, questions of aesthetics seem dangerously uncritical, and so, too, do questions about reader responses, and finally, what art might have to say about what it means to be human.

But, is this not what students “get” when they read literature for an English Lit. class, at least in part? Perhaps this is even what they are looking for when they enroll in literature courses. Is it the instructor’s job to disabuse students of their woeful misconceptions of what literature does?

I ask these questions because they are questions I have badly needed to ask myself. Deborah Britzman, whom I quoted at the beginning of this post, returns to her first experience teaching English–at the age of twenty, to a ninth-grade English class–to describe how, at the time, “[t]he idea that everything was political crowded [her] centre stage” (115). I appreciate her word choice. Her older, more experienced self does not refuse or undermine her youthful belief that “everything is political”; instead, she explains that this concern crowded out other concerns. In a way, the question, “How is this political?” blinded her to other questions literature compels readers to ask. For the younger Britzman, literature and the human, personal response it compels from readers was secondary; the politics “behind” it: “truth,” and this zealous investment in criticism ultimately blinded her to the people in the classroom. “Students were missing,” she writes, “as was the teacher” (114). In other words, she overlooked “what it means to become human with other humans in the classroom” (116). This is what Britzman calls “the literary and its excess” (115)– the excessive in literature, or what ideologies, ways of thinking, or even scholarly methodologies cannot account for or speak to in literature. Fiction is excessive; it speaks to things that cannot quite be said. It gestures. It creates anew with metaphor in an attempt to take readers off the beaten track, to see things, suddenly, a little askew, to give a feeling of something else. And this newness, this sideways glance out of the corners of the literary eye, can be terrifying, nauseating, and disturbing, for sure, but it may also be joyful, hopeful, self-affirming, calming, and downright pleasurable.

Critical Creativity

I can look back and see a younger version of myself doing the same things that Britzman recalls in her anecdote. I can clearly remember–and I’m sure, so can many of my friends and colleagues, probably with a cringe–a younger, haughtier version of myself dissatisfied with students who confused my tutorials for a book club. In my mind, they weren’t doing literature right. I knew how to do it; they didn’t. Over time, though, as I increasingly become aware of and gain respect for students not as students, but as human beings, I have also come to deeply respect the variegated approaches to literature they bring to the classroom. And not just to literature, but to theory, to politics, and to how all three are articulated in their daily lives. Not only that, I have also come to value the creative, productive side of literature–you know, the writing process that results in the stuff we get paid to teach, and, too, the writers that produce the works we read. I’ve come to value creativity, experimentation, storytelling, self-expression, belief & faith in a new way; I’ve come to value creativity just as much as criticality.

Last week, Joseph Frank, author of the blog Verba Americana, commented on the photosponse as a mode of “critical creativity.” My still perhaps over-zealous grad-student self wants to translate that to, “creative criticality.” (Yes, Joe is rolling his eyes as he reads this). Regardless, Joe has captured a fullness of meaning in that term that the more commonly-used, and more mechanistic, scientific or even mercenary phrase “active learning” can communicate. In the scholarship of teaching and learning, active learning is associated with measurable student success, “deep” learning, and the lowering of student “attrition” (or drop-out) rates. Thinking about active learning as a form of critical creativity has the potential to move active learning away from an ends-oriented teaching tool to an open-ended, student-driven mode of inquiry.

Works Cited

Braz, Albert. “In Praise of Literature.” University Affairs. 1 Nov. 2012. Online.

Britzman, Deborah P. Novel Education: Psychoanalytic Studies of Learning and Not Learning. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2006. Print.

Cantor, Paul A. “The Primacy of the Literary Imagination, Or Which Came First, The Critic of the Author?” Literary Imagination 1.1 (Spring 1999): n. page. Online.