Monday, October 08, 2012

Nerd Despair

My seminar students are working in groups to bring in critical essays for which they're supposed to lead a discussion that focuses on the argument as an argument.  It's not going well.  Today, the group chose an essay that uses a postmodern structure to make an argument for a postmodern reading(s) of a play.  It's not a bad essay, not at all, but it's hard.  And the group sort of bombed.

The essay basically jumps up and down waving and says, "I'm doing this as a postmodern essay to make a postmodern argument!" because making a postmodern argument without a postmodern structure would be less effective.

The thing is, my students didn't recognize that gesture (which was more jumping up and down waving a bright flag than subtle), and so couldn't make out what the argument was doing.  And it took me a while to figure out that they weren't.  So then I sort of stopped things and had them read the first part of the jumping up and down paragraph, and learned that they had no clue what "postmodern" might mean, nor what "modern" means.  And then I despaired.  And tried to teach them (by showing them graphic art, because you can look at a cubist piece and know it's doing something really different from a Turner).  And maybe it worked a little, and maybe it didn't. 

I guess the whole thing just brings out two real weaknesses in our English majors' preparation and training. 

1)  They have no idea of intellectual movements.

2)  They haven't read much, so they don't have lots to compare things to.

I'd rather not think of myself as a stodgy old traditionalist, but maybe I am.  But I think when you say "Renaissance" or "Modernism" or "Realism," an English major should be able to name a century and think of a piece of literature or art that might fit, and be able to tell you in what ways it fits.

I was venting to a colleague about my class, and my colleague, commiserating, said that she'd had a student in a class recently complain that everyone talked about Heart of Darkness but that she'd never read it.  And, fortunately for my colleague's sanity, the other students in the class said that she should go out and read it.

(I hear there are these places called "public libraries" where they'll let you borrow a book for two weeks FOR FREE!  And you can renew it, even!)

I'm going to go yell at the neighbor kids to get offa my lawn now.


  1. While I'm a huge believer in seminar-style classes designed to develop skills as much as introduce students to a wide body of literature and/or sweep of literary/critical history, even for freshpeople, I think we've probably gone too far in that direction. There's something to be said for the reading-intensive survey, maybe even lecture-based ones where a professor (or a few professors) tell a literary-critical story that stretches over the course of the semester. I had a couple of those early on, and they definitely helped me get my bearings (and reading the intros to sections of Norton anthologies helped me regain those bearings at critical moments, e.g. when I had to take undergraduate and Ph.D. general exams).

    Who knows? Maybe MOOCs, or at least streamed lectures, will save us after all (though I still think in-person lectures, preferably done by someone who is conducting at least one discussion section with the same student population, and reading exams and/or papers, offer something that taped ones can't).

  2. I've experienced the same thing with our English majors -- many of them, even the very bright ones, haven't read much at all.

    Especially they haven't read the texts that I think of as essential grounding for being an English major. Almost none of them have read the Bible, at least not effectively -- by which I mean they don't recognize allusions to that text, or even recognize stories that come from it (even the story of Cain and Abel -- they don't know a story that basic); none of them have read Chaucer (and thanks to our school's new "sexy" curriculum, they can graduate and will graduate without having done so); they've read no Dickens, no Eliot (either one), very little Shakespeare.

    Why? And why are they English majors if they don't (haven't) read anymore than this?

    I blame two things. (1) Most of the ones at my school are lower-middle or working class, and have been working since they were 12 or 13, so they haven't had much leisure time and (2) What leisure time they have, they give to other forms of media -- games, TV, movies, anime and (3) the high schools they attend mainly have them reading late 20th century books. (Although all of them read at least one Shakespeare play in HS.)

    I'm not sure what to do about any of this. Obviously the world is changing. Can we stop it? Should we stop it?

    *I* find value in Chaucer, the Bible, Milton, George and T.S. Eliot. Even Faulkner and Hemingway, despite the problems I have with both those guys. But if they find their value in animes or Deadwood, graphic novels and Halo, who am I to say that's not just as much a culture as the one I favor?

    I don't know. I still think they should have to take Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare before we declare them educated and grant their B.A.s. But that might be my grumpy old professor side talking.

  3. Crumbs..I don't think that you're grumpy professors just concerned that your students understand the context in which the works that you're teaching were written. Maybe some people have preconceptions about the novels etc since its not a tv series/film, or anime or something else.. Maybe another means has to be found in order to encourage them to read..I dunno..I didn't do well in English Lit but I liked reading a great deal and used it as a form of escapism. Maybe reading long texts is not 'cool'..or hard work since it doesn't involve a tv/moving image which means that they have to work harder to envisage the environment in which the plots function. I don't know..but good question about why aren't students reading.

  4. Cultural literacy: we can't count on it and that makes our job of teaching even more difficult. I am constantly surprised at what new elements of background information I have to teach. A friend was shocked, saying "but you could Google that information if you didn't know it and wanted to find out the answer."

    But the majority of my students wouldn't go to that much effort for anything academic. Maybe for information on something else, but there are enough who're both uninformed and incurious. It makes me despair!