Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Head Banging and High School English

I was on campus and saw one of our graduate students doing some paperwork or something. Like many of our grad students, Rob is doing a teaching credential and working towards an MA. He was excited because he'd done some student teaching this past semester.

Rob seems like a good guy. He wants to be a good teacher. He's concerned about justice and equality in his teaching.

I asked what he'd taught, and, alas, not being much of an actor, I winced when he started telling me about the joys of teaching Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. He saw my reaction, and asked about it.

I detested The Catcher in the Rye when I was in high school. I just wasn't interested.

Later, when I thought about it after some years of doing literature, I realize that I hated it because we were taught it as if we were supposed to somehow identify with Holden Caulfield, and I just wasn't good at identifying with a prep school boy from the 50s.

Face it, I knew even in my deep innocence then that any female who'd run around doing the things Caulfield does in the novel would have been raped and probably dead.

I explained my reaction to Rob, and he momentarily protested (because really, no one was raped in the 50s... and then he realized that wasn't so). Rob grew disappointed and asked how I'd approach teaching the novel. Err, I wouldn't, really, but if I had to, I'd teach it as an example of how one sort of white masculinity works and gets represented in given contexts. I'd discourage students from identifying with Caulfield, and instead try to get them to think critically about why this book gets taught to them.

And yes, this is why I don't teach high school. (One reason, at least.)

I acknowledged to Rob that it would be difficult to work this way in a high school. And then he surprised me and said that the master teacher he'd worked with had been really open minded, ready to really challenge the status quo at the school, and welcomed his ideas for teaching the American Lit class.

Aha, I said, then that gives you a great opportunity to use The Catcher in the Rye as a contrast to other sorts of representation and experience, right? Set up Caulfield in contrast with the narrator of The Woman Warrior to talk about family relationships and growing up issues/choices, or show how Salinger's representation of masculinity in the 50s differs from Wright's or Ellison's in the 40s, or Malcolm X's autobiography in the 50s/60s! There's a world of great possibility!

So I asked what else they'd taught.

One book was by a woman. No books were by people of color or first generation immigrants.

How the heck is that sort of syllabus supposed to represent the "American Experience" in any meaningful way?

I worry that Rob thought he and his master teacher were challenging sexism, racism, the patriarchy, or anything else. The master teacher? Also a student of ours.

What the heck are we teaching these teachers in our ed courses? And why aren't we teaching them to think on even a basic level about the canon they teach?

Some days, I despair. If these are our teachers, and they're teaching the local students, I despair. And I know I'd hate English studies as much today as I did when I was in high school. That makes me sad.


  1. Anonymous7:17 PM

    I, too, disliked Catcher in the Rye in high school. We weren't forced to read it, but I picked it up because so many people mentioned how much they liked it. I remember thinking it was unrealistic and irrelevant to me.

    As a professor at a university that used to be a normal college, I work with loads of future high school teachers. Though I include texts that are off the beaten path for my students, I know they'll stick to what's safe, school-board approved, etc.

    We're lucky as college professors not to have to deal with parents, principals,and pissed-off community members in the same way public high school teachers have to.


  2. I, too, thought Catcher was shite when I read it... what did this have to do with me? Especially me in California and not even knowing anybody who went to a prep school, much less what a prep school was?

    So one advantage of not teaching it would be that you might be reaching more people, another would be if you taught less "canonical" stuff then it's harder for the students to plagiarize Sparknotes.

    Here, go pass along this list from the top of my head:

    John Okada, No-No Boy, or Mine Okubo, Citizen 13660

    Ana Castillo, So Far From God

    Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven or Mean Spirit, Linda Hogan

    Helena Maria Viramontes, Under the Feet of Jesus

    Lan Cao, Monkey Bridge

    James Welch, The Death of Jim Loney

    Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Place

    Ann Petry, The Street

    Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

    most of these are fairly recent, deal with important historical events, and are fairly short. Hmm, I notice that my African American list is lagging. (Baldwin, Hurston, Wright, Ellison, Walker, and Toni Morrison are all pretty big names so I didn't think they needed listing.)

    What always gets me is how the secondary school teachers around here are all Education majors, not English majors, and they don't double major. Bah.

  3. Cather in the Rye never appealed to me either, although I tried my best to like it because my dad was so excited when it was assigned to me -- apparently it was the first book he had read with curse words in it and it still held that air of the forbidden for him.

    I've always liked reading, but never liked English classes in high school or before. We basically had to memorize birth and death dates and churn out rigidly formatted essays. I never understood why anyone would want to major in the subject. And now here I am in grad school ... take that, past self.

    I wonder if there's some sort of divide: books that go over well in high school are ones that kids can identify with, while books taught in college/university classrooms ...

  4. My best friend from high school teaches high school English; my BFF now teaching English Ed courses and observes student teachers (each friend is in a different state). From everything I know from them, the reason that h.s. teachers are not "thinking about the canon that they teach" is because they don't have the freedom to do so. It's not just about taking the easy way out and using school-board-approved texts: it's that they will be fired if they don't teach those texts. Sure, they may have the freedom to deviate and teach one thing here or there that's not mandated, but overall, they need to think about doing things identically to the other courses being taught at the same level at the school, teaching either to proficiency tests and/or AP exams, etc. High school teachers don't have autonomy in their classrooms. They do not have anywhere near as much say in choosing *what* they teach as they have in choosing *how* to teach it. I suppose all of this is a long way around to saying that I don't think it's fair to judge what high school teachers are doing from the perspective of our own experience as college teachers. The jobs have just too little in common.

    As for CitR, I loved it. That said, I probably loved it because on the same syllabus for that year were:

    Billy Budd
    Of Mice and Men
    The Chosen
    The Glass Menagerie
    The Great Gatsby
    A Farewell to Arms
    The Awakening
    Short Stories like Bartleby the Scrivener and Young Goodman Brown

    Think about those books and their protagonists - or even just characters generally. Yes, I found it most easy to identify with Holden Caulfield, even though it was 1990, I came from a working-class background, and I was a girl. I understood his attitude even if I didn't get his circumstances. Now, I liked some of the other stuff that we read, too, but I feel like CitR is getting a bad rap here :)

  5. Anonymous4:53 AM

    I teach music history in a department where music education majors are in the majority. Although I include non-canonical works and composers, the students choose not to learn that material, since no one programs that music or assigns it in their lessons or puts it in their K-12 music texts. When I challenge them to think about why, their response is that the music in the aforementioned places is the "good" music, while the rest is not good. What does "good" mean? They aren't really sure, but it seems to mean that someone told them it was -- someone not female and standing in front of them, obviously.
    I, too, despair.

  6. Yes, I found it most easy to identify with Holden Caulfield, even though it was 1990, I came from a working-class background, and I was a girl. I understood his attitude even if I didn't get his circumstances. Now, I liked some of the other stuff that we read, too, but I feel like CitR is getting a bad rap here :)

    Ditto, except for the working-class background part. (Incidentally, it was when we read Catcher in high school that I learned that my parents' courtship had begun when my mother sent my father a J.D. Salinger short story through the mail!) I think it's one of those books that just hits the sweet spot for some readers and not for others, but I agree that "You should all identify with this character!" is NOT the way to teach Catcher, or, indeed, anything.

    I agree that I'd like to see a broader variety of works taught in h.s., but I don't much like the way that they typically get taught; too often, the unstated message is something like, "Now, here's some Sandra Cisneros for the Hispanic girls in the class, and next we'll do Richard Wright for the black kids." When, really, the students who benefit most from having a non-white-male-privileged perspective are probably the white, male, privileged students (who very often pick up on that unstated message and end up summarily dismissing the authors in question). One of the great perks of studying literature is that it offers students a window into the worlds of people who DON'T think or express themselves or live like they do, and I hate to see that get lost.

    Incidentally, we had a very dead-white-males curriculum when I was in high school, and by junior and senior year I was LOVING it (it took a while to overcome the effects of an awful ninth-grade English teacher and a generally Holden-Caulfield-ish bad attitude). I didn't really start to question the virtues of such a curriculum until I was in college, and I still have more questions than answers; I guess the one answer I do have is that a generous education includes a reading list that is broad and varied, and teachers who are genuinely into the books they are teaching, whatever they may be.

  7. "I explained my reaction to Rob, and he momentarily protested (because really, no one was raped in the 50s... and then he realized that wasn't so). "

    I read it a long time ago, but doesn't Holden's roommate essentially date-rape his date? with Holden in the car?

  8. Anonymous6:57 AM

    i hated that book. I didn't read it as an assignment, though. the same year I read it, we were assigned a term paper on an american author, anyone we wanted. I chose Alice Walker. Not exactly school board approved stuff, that. but my teacher let me do it.

    actually that teacher--10th grade english-- was always reminding us that this was a dead white males curriculum and a dead white males textbook. it was american lit and there wasn't even the sort of "here's your token hispanic writer" on the list.

    So we read the dead white males and we talked about other things. best of both worlds, i think. we read the red badge of courage, billy budd and the great gatsby in class and for our term papers, we read alice walker, richard wright, katherine anne porter

  9. I have to echo Dr. Crazy concerning teacher autonomy: There isn't much. At times, it's amazing that teachers accomplish anything in their classrooms, bound as they are by standards, community expectations, school rules, state mandates and testing, testing, testing. It isn't that they don't want to push students past the canon - of lit or thought - but that they have to skirt such a minefield in order to do so.

    Which doesn't mean they shouldn't. I have education majors coming through my classes and I'll admit that they are rarely rebelling against the status quo. Then again, these are the kids who know how to "play" school. The status quo worked for them, so it's difficult for them to see past the facade. They can, however, if they have a good push in the right direction.

    University education isn't just about content, it's thinking about the content and asking the lovely question, "Why?". Education majors usually have to focus on the content to get through their programs - they take lots of proscribed classes at my university that make sure they meet certification and accreditation standards. It's up to the professors in those classes to teach the content but to also teach the questions. Most do; some don't. Most students begin to run with the freedom to think outside the box; some don't.

    I understand the frustration - and sometimes share it - but I don't despair. And I apologize for such a long-winded post!!

  10. This is particularly sad because so much amazing young adult literature has been written in the past 30-40 years! Just a quick look at award winning books from the past decade would provide a much larger look at the American experience. Recent texts such as The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place, American Born Chinese, Copper Sun and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing are rich and challenging.

  11. My gorgeously marvelous high-school English teacher taught us Wright's Black Boy and Native Son, and another nearly-as-marvelous one taught us Beloved. In each case, I think they were going "off-list," and I've never stopped thanking them for it.

    I remember liking Catcher in the Rye when I was in high school, but then again, Hamlet was my favorite Shakespearean play in those days: I seemed to over-identify with angsty, emo-ish white guys for some reason. Maybe because that was most of what we were taught.

    But yeah, teaching it as "this is somebody you should identify with" seems not so useful to me. It'd be more useful to investigate why people think teenagers in 2007 are supposed to empathize with a prep-school kid from the '50s and whether that isn't a bit coercive in its determination of personal identity.

  12. Anonymous4:54 PM

    As a high school English teacher, I can attest that teachers will not be able to think about the canon they teach when state and national legislation creates rampant paranoia in the hearts of administrators. In such a climate, we are required to see that students are well-enough equipped to score well on standardized tests; this means that English teachers are informed that their classes are skills-based--literature is simply a vehicle with which teachers attempt to teach the prescribed set of skills. Higher scores provide bragging rights, to be sure, but little substance behind it, at least in the students' understanding of literature and writing.

  13. Amen to Sisyphus on the education major. We had one math teacher who insisted on being called Doctor - whose doctorate was in education.

    And I'm so glad to see I wasn't the only one who hated Catcher in the Rye.

    And I also think that high school teachers are stuck with a list. What I remember is that literally, they could choose from whatever books there were copies of in stock...no money to buy new books, so the options were just whatever they still had full sets of for the class after many years, that no other teacher was trying to use at the same time...and that had been more or less something that had gone over in the past with no parental complaints. For us, in a white area with lots of the crazy religious right, this meant a lot of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Steinbeck, and Hemingway. Things I remembered that got objections and taken off the list included: Solzhenitsyn (too Russian, regardless of the fact that it was anti-gulag), Oscar Wilde ("no fags in my kid's school"), anyone black - I remember The Color Purple and Black Boy being tossed (anti-American), Fitzgerald (too racy), Madame Bovary (adultery), and Othello. What can a teacher do?

    But the flip side is the idiocy of Berkeley - where just because something is "diverse" it must be good - and I spent a tremendous amount of time reading absolute crap because it was "subversive" or "minority." That's just as bad.

  14. Anonymous5:53 PM

    How fascinating to find a new generation of holden-disdainers. It's a book I've disliked for more than fifty years now; for the reasons, consult, if you will, http://drmetablog/2006/02/what_we_read_in_1.html