Challenge, not Coddle

Even better than a straw man is an actual rhetorical opponent: in The Daily Beast, David Masciotra takes on James Pulizzi’s assertion that digital humanities will inevitably supplant traditional literary study. Pulizzi is inferring a dichotomy that may not, in fact, exist–I know some digital humanists, but none who have chucked print out the window as he seems to suggest we all must one day. Nevertheless, he may be correct that print is dying and taking the English department down with it. Masciotra argues that the proper task of the English department while there still is one is to stem the tide, insist on the value of print qua print, and keep traditional methods of literary study in place because they do things for us mentally, intellectually, and emotionally that other media do not.  Along the way, he argues for the unfamiliarity, the difficulty, and even the tedium of literary study as aspects of its value. We are here to expand our capacities, not to rest on the value of what we can already do, and in 2014 many of us must expand our capacities to concentrate, shut out distractions, pay careful attention, and grasp nuances. Learning sometimes means failure; it often means struggle; it always means work. As my colleague Dr. Whiddon says, “If college were easy, everyone would go.”

Masciotra explains and supports the idea that reading literature is valuable because it forces your brain to work harder than other media do. I am grateful for work such as his that brings scientific evidence to bear on what I already know and believe, as it were, instinctively.

Probatum est: Read more fiction!

I’ve been curious about the new Common Core standards for English language arts that recommend the teaching of more nonfiction texts (literary nonfiction but also informational texts) in the curriculum. The value of exposing students to as wide a variety of works as possible seems obvious: we need to know how to read and interpret the instructions for IRS Form 1040, a newspaper editorial, or Abigail Adams’s letters to her husband, just as much as we need to know how to read and interpret the usual canonical stuff.  However, my gut has told me that if students take in enough of the usual canonical stuff–or even the cheap paperback junk I read in my spare time as a kid (Scholastic Book Club 4 LYFE!)–they will learn the skills and vocabulary they need to get their taxes paid, understand current events, and branch out into reading in other genres.

Cognitive science now comes along to suggest that my instincts were correct. This article from the Chronicle of Higher Education outlines study findings suggesting that students who read fiction develop greater metacognitive and “theory of mind” skills than students who are explicitly taught metacognitive vocabulary. That is, if you want to teach someone the difference between “imply” and “infer,” they are better off reading about fictional implications and inferences so that their minds actually do the work of understanding what the article calls “nested mental states.” A complex vocabulary, the article explains, is an effect–not a cause–of sophisticated thinking. The article thus argues (not incorrectly, I don’t think) that Common Core’s recommendation is exactly the wrong one if its goal is to rectify the gaps in vocabulary size, reasoning ability, and overall academic achievement that are already especially acute among low-income students. Moving away from teaching fiction in school may mean that only the students who are encouraged to read fiction outside of school develop these metacognitive skills to their fullest extent: widening rather than shrinking the achievement gap.

For our purposes in higher ed. the use of fiction to promote metacognitive development is something to watch out for in the classroom–are students already capable of high-level reasoning, or do they need more practice? It’s also another way to talk about the value of teaching literature. In this results-oriented, data-driven era, our profession is well served by studies that move beyond the gut feeling and the traditional platitudes about the value of literature for advancing human understanding. The platitudes are true, and the science backs them up.

“The Decline of the English Department”

I have only two quarrels with this excellent article.  Well, maybe three.

1. I’m not sure we can unscramble the eggs of theory, identity, gender & ethnic studies, etc. I’m even less sure that we should.

2. Corollary to #1: I love the Western canon, but would a reversion to a strictly English- and American-lit approach serve a student body who wants to–indeed, expects to, see themselves in the works that they read?

3. I am fortunate to work in a department that’s already doing what the article says: teaching literature “in terms of the intrinsic value of the works themselves, in all their range and multiplicity, as well-crafted and appealing artifacts of human wisdom” and “[announcing] that the teaching of composition is a skill their instructors have mastered and that students majoring in English will be certified, upon graduation, as possessing rigorously tested competence in prose expression.” And I don’t think my department is in the minority. Admittedly, these observations are anecdotal, but none of my colleagues at other institutions reports that their departments are riven by internal territory wars or deep conflicts about critical approaches. I’m left wondering, again, if we’re failing at public relations rather than at pedagogy. After all, the underlying assumption re: “intrinsic value” is that everyone else will notice it too. But I’ve seen with my own students that the recognition of that value actually takes time to understand. Students who enter our English major often enter it with an enthusiastic but uninformed sense that they love to read, and, in many cases, love to write. Only after a few years of marching through (my colleague’s term) the curriculum do they start to recognize for themselves the connections that hold the canon together and believe that literary study is what we know it is: a way of making sense of the world.