Friday, February 01, 2008

Why I Teach Literature

Back on 22 January, New Kid on the Hallway was kind enough to tag me for a meme about why we teach. New Kid wrote that
Craig Smith at Free Exchange on Campus has tagged me for a meme. Inspired by Dr. Crazy's wonderful post about why she teaches literature (and how those reasons are different from the ones espoused at the MLA), he writes, I am challenging faculty to tell us why they teach and do the work they do and why academic freedom is critical to that effort. So, I'll weigh in (and then I have to tag some folks).
This is an interesting charge, asking not only why we do what we do, but also to think about the impact of academic freedom on our work.

This morning, rather than braving the cold to go explore the neighborhood a bit (It's actually Saturday here, though my computer doesn't realize it), I read some of the varied responses to the meme, especially over at a big group site populated by (mostly) males theorizing class issues and criticizing Dr. Crazy for hoping to give her students a chance to talk the talk so they could enter the middle class should they get a break and want to.

It was interesting to me how authoritatively these men (so far as I could tell) feel able to explain that Dr. Crazy's students don't actually need her to teach them to talk about complex issues. One points to hip hop as an example of such a complicated discussion with no influence of white or middle class culture/education, whatever.

Hip hop? My experience of hip hop is admittedly pretty limited to what I hear on the radio, especially these days. I've lived in an urban area, but as a white grad student, I didn't really hang out in the hip hop scene. Nor did the mostly black working class women who were raising their kids in the neighborhood, since they were too busy working and caring for kids. But in my experience, a lot of hip hop is exceedingly conservative in its sex/gender practices; that is, it promotes patriarchal values, violence against women, objectification of women, ad nauseum. No doubt, someone can point to this or that hip hop artist who's so feminist that I'd cheer, but what I've mostly heard isn't.

But I know other white men who seem to think that hip hop is the epitome of radical challenges to "the man." These men hint around that I'm just not cool enough to understand. I am, and will always be, terminally uncool by male standards.

What does that have to do with why I teach? Well, I'm that uncool, and I'm going to tell you.

I teach because I'm paid to. That's right, the Northwoods, in its infinite wisdom, gives me money enough to cover my food and housing and such, in return for certain services, many of which involve various aspects of teaching. I rejoined the middle class (I grew up solidly middle class), and I am glad to be able to buy food without worrying too much about costs, to pay my winter heating bill, to cover my mortgage, and to worry some about retirement! Do you know what a privilege it is to worry about retirement?

I fell in love with Shakespeare and early modern literature, was encouraged by some faculty members to pursue that love, got incredibly lucky on the job market, and here I am, with a job where I teach literature and writing, mostly, do committee work for governance, research and write about what I love. It's hard work, but it's a heck of a lot easier than some jobs I've had.

And it's deeply satisfying. Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the lit I mostly teach are wonderful to read, discuss, and teach. They challenge my understanding and my abilities to communicate. They challenge my students to think about complicated cultural productions, and to think about the hows and whys of culture. If there's anything radical in what I do, then it comes in challenging students to think about "what goes without saying," to think about what we just do without thinking about it. In my case, my most direct challenges are often feminist challenges, using feminism to ask students to think about sex/gender, race/ethnicity, class, language, power.

The literature I teach demands respect. It demands that I attend to what it's saying, not just what I want it to say, or what my ideologies suggest, but to the possibilities of textual meaning. My challenge to my students ask them to treat the text with respect, to really read it, to listen to its intricacies.

Students who can read and listen to Shakespeare, can also use those skills to attend to what loved ones are saying, to what the neighbor says, to what politicians and officials are saying. If I do my job right, then perhaps my students and I can treat other people and their ideas with respect, hear them out, and respond usefully. (Alas, I think there's a lot of evidence in recent political and social discussion that our society is failing in this most basic task.)

I know I disagree in some fundamental ways with my students. But when I see that they can respect texts, work with people respectfully, and discuss complex issues with intensity and care, then I have hope that we can do better as a society.

So what about academic freedom?

On a basic level, academic freedom is important as a principle. We should research, study, and discuss all manner of ideas and literatures (and sciences and stuffs!).

On a practical level, though, too often "academic freedom" is used to protect patriarchal and sexist/racist behavior. Yes, we're allowed to teach women writers, but we're quickly stifled if there's a real feminist challenge. There's a lot of lip service, but real change is another thing.


One of the great things about my time this semester is that being in a different culture makes it really easy to ask basic questions about my basic practices. Why do I live in such a large house, rather than a condo or something? Why do I eat this and not that? What counts as acceptable politeness, and to whom? Why?

On that note, I'm off to challenge myself around the neighborhood a bit!


  1. Excellent! And, you reminded me that I forgot to write explicitly about the academic freedom part of the meme. Oh well, I think (hope) it is implicit in my reasons.

    And yeah, I did not feel very good about the way those criticisms of Dr. Crazy's posts were being enacted. First of all, criticizing someone's personal reasons for teaching is out of line. Second, the presumption that they're understanding of teaching based on their circumstances trumped hers is ridiculous. It drives me batty when people start in with the abstractions about class, a very real, concrete issue that affects very real people. Aargh!

    Again, I really liked your post. I particularly appreciate how you said that the material you teach "demands respect." I feel that way about teaching comp/rhet. Language and the way(s) we use it demands respect. Excellent!!

  2. *I* really liked your post, too, and you're not alone in noticing how that whole blow-up was gendered. As far as the hip-hop argument, puh-lease. Being immersed in hip-hop culture is not going to help you in corporate America or in service-industry America. And at one point they criticized me for invoking Roseanne over their allusion to "street culture" - I could as easily have invoked that 1970s working-class classic Good Times, but at that point I realized that there was absolutely nothing that I could say that would change the tenor of the discussion. Gah, going on too long. But I really appreciated this post. And you know what? I totally teach because they pay me, too :)

  3. Thanks for the post Bardiac--I was going to tag you in the original post, but then figured with the travel it might not make it on to your priorty list! So it is great that you took it up.

    The turn things took their for an internet minute was unfortunate, but we are really happy with the overall diversity of posts that have been written--I just added yours to the list.

  4. Anonymous7:20 AM

    EXCELLENT point about hip-hop. Sure, hip-hop is about class, but it's also about gender - something that was COMPLETELY at play in the original exchange. Sigh.

    Anyway, thanks for responding - great post! (Enjoy the neighborhood!)