Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Wherein I am annoyed by a Washington Post article. I think.

The article in question is this one, "Ripped Books" by high school English teacher Nancy Schnog. The link probably requires registration, but the gist of it is, Schnog thinks students don't read because high schools are teaching the wrong books, and teaching them the wrong way.

"Butchering." That's what one of my former students, a young man who loves creative writing but rarely gets to do any at school, called English class. He was referring to the endless picking apart of linguistic details that loses teens in a haze of "So what?" The reading quizzes that turn, say, "Hamlet" into a Q&A on facts, symbols and themes. The thesis-driven essay assignments that require students to write about a novel they can't muster any passion for ("The Scarlet Letter" is high on teens' list of most dreaded). I'll never forget what one parent, bemoaning his daughter's aversion to great books after she took AP English Literature, wrote to me: "What I've seen teachers do is take living, breathing works of art and transform them into dessicated lab specimens fit for dissection."

OK. I can kinda-sorta see Schnog's point. One correspondent, a high school senior, writes in to the online discussion about the article with a description of an all-too-typical high school English assignment: We are never given a reason Why? We are given highlighers and copies of text, told to find at least three metaphors and five similes along with the juxtaposition of this work and another. Fair enough: this is bad teaching, at least if the activity never goes anywhere. And I have to admit I've always been puzzled about why The Scarlet Letter, of all books, is standard high school fare: just how much does the average teenager know about adultery and guilt and vengeance and Puritanism?

Thus far, I'm with Schnog. I'm all for opening up the canon; I'd like to see high schools teach more contemporary lit, more science fiction, more books by nonwhite authors, and (my pet hobbyhorse) more books with happy endings. And I agree with her that some of the classics can wait, because there are books and authors students have to grow into. Dickens was mine. I remember reading Great Expectations in ninth grade and hating it. A year later, when we got to A Tale of Two Cities, something clicked. I remember exactly when it clicked, about a quarter of the way through the book:

'The old Sydney Carton of Shrewsbury School,' said Stryver, nodding his head over him as he reviewed him in the present and the past, 'the old seesaw Sydney. Up one minute and down the next; now in spirits and now in despondency!'

'Ah!' returned the other, sighing: 'yes! The same Sydney, with the same luck. Even then, I did exercises with other boys, and seldom did my own.'

'And why not?'

'God knows. It was my way, I suppose.'

And my tenth-grade self totally got this, because my tenth-grade self was not a good student, and blew off assignments that she was quite capable of doing, and let the kid sitting next to her in Algebra cheat off of her tests without really knowing why she was letting him do it. All of which seems to bear out Schnog's thesis: that students are more engaged, and learn more, when they can see at least a little of themselves in the books they're reading.

But. Butbutbutbutbut. Schnog starts to lose me when she assumes that teachers can necessarily predict which books are going to speak to high school students, and when and how and why this will happen, and in particular, when she makes some blanket assumptions about gender.

It's hard to forget my son's summer-reading assignment the year before he entered ninth grade: Julia Alvarez's "How the GarcĂ­a Girls Lost Their Accents." Try as he did, he never got beyond the first of 15 vignettes about four culturally displaced sisters who search for identity through therapists and mental illness, men and sex, drugs and alcohol. I could hardly blame him. We ask 14-year-old boys to read novels about the travails of anguished women and want them to develop a love of reading?

IIRC, this isn't a totally accurate characterization of Alvarez's novel, since the characters are children or teenagers for large chunks of the book. And I think Schnog is being a little inconsistent here; whatever one thinks of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, it clearly isn't one of the "classics" Schnog rails about elsewhere in the article. Whoever chose this particular summer-reading assignment was trying to do precisely what Schnog suggests that teachers should do -- add more contemporary lit and more multicultural voices to the curriculum. But one problem with this contemporary novel, evidently, is that it is about girls. Schnog admits as much in the online chat: I am ambivalent about assigning "girl-oriented" stories to young male teens: Why? Because in the main, they don't like them.

Cringe. Let's assume, for the moment, that she's correct. Wouldn't the next logical step to be to ask why they don't like them, and whether there's anything we can do about it, rather than assuming that this is an immutable state of affairs? And what about young female teens -- do they have the choice of a) attending an all-girls school or b) spending four years reading only books with male authors and protagonists (because everyone knows that's all the boys will read, and girls will read anything, so their wishes and perspectives are of secondary importance)?

Actually, come to think of it, that was pretty much all we read when I was in high school. And I didn't really feel the absence of female voices at the time; by eleventh grade I'd pretty much worked out that I liked English, and I was fine with a steady diet of The Great Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Hamlet and Greek tragedy. I enjoyed all of those books, even if I did get a C on an AP English essay for arguing that Clytemnestra was the most sympathetic character in the Oresteia. Which might, again, seem to prove Schnog's thesis...

All the same, I think a reading list like that does skew both boys' and girls' ideas about what counts as literature and, more broadly, whose voices and perspectives are worth hearing. I'm pretty sure the skewedness was accidental on my eleventh- and twelfth-grade teachers' part; both men were wonderful teachers, alert and sensitive to both texts and students. But I find it unconscionable that someone would deliberately argue that we shouldn't be teaching "girl-oriented" stories to teenaged boys, knowing that in a typical, mixed-sex public school classroom, that means we won't be teaching them to anybody.

Whew, that was a lot of very inconclusive blather. I have no high school teaching experience, and no very good solutions to the problem Schnog is trying to address: how do you keep students from becoming disaffected with the whole idea of studying literature? But I do have one insight from my own experience as a formerly disaffected student: The books don't matter nearly as much as the teachers do. I stopped hating English about midway through tenth grade. This didn't happen when it dawned on me that Sydney Carton kind of interesting (because I'd been interested in lots of books without necessarily liking the class in which they were assigned), but when my sharp-tongued, not terribly charismatic teacher somehow managed to convey to me that she liked books, respected books, and also got a lot of pleasure out of thinking and talking about how books worked. This was something of a revelation to me, because my ninth-grade English teacher, who was very funny and popular with most of her students, had not liked books, and let her disdain show.

And so I find myself wondering whether Schnog lets her disdain for The Scarlet Letter, and her love for The Great Gatsby, show, and whether this is why her students react so differently to these two novels -- both of which take place in worlds far removed from a twenty-first-century teenager's experience. And I wonder, also, whether there are enough high school teachers with a passion both for books and for the pleasures of analysis to go around, and how we can entice more of them into the schools.


Bardiac said...

I think we read one book in high school English by a woman, Carson's Silent Spring. Other than that, women didn't exist except as objects of patriarchal desire and hatred, which probably taught us lots, but not what I'd want to teach.

I always wonder why they don't teach Shakespeare's comedies rather than Hamlet and such. Sex, pairing off, dealing with homosocial/homoerotic issues? What could be more important?

Ceirseach said...

We studied one Shakespeare play per year from the start of high school - two comedies, and the last three years, tragedies. The first tragedy was Romeo and Juliet, which is probably easier to access than the Big Four Tragedies, not least because of having seen Leo and Claire act it out with guns. It worked for us - we learned to dance around acting out Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing and have fun with the silliness of those plots, even to love the words, before we plunged into the heavy business. And by then we were well prepared to find out that R&J, Macbeth and King Lear had even more mass-market appeal - more sex! more drama! more scandal! definitely more death!

What's not to like?

But yes, good teachers definitely made a difference. We were very lucky.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I always wonder why they don't teach Shakespeare's comedies rather than Hamlet and such. Sex, pairing off, dealing with homosocial/homoerotic issues? What could be more important?

Heh, I think you may have just answered your own question :) I suspect the only reason high schools teach Julius Caesar is that it's very easy to teach without talking about sex.

But then, comedy in general always seems to get short shrift -- I remember getting the impression, around seventh or eighth grade, that books only counted as Serious Literature if someone died in them. I think Tom Sawyer was the only book we read in junior high that wasn't depressing.

Ceirseach -- Yeah, Shakespeare in high school is awesome if done well. If done badly ... well, my ninth-grade English teacher described R&J as "a stupid play about two stupid kids who disobey their parents and kill themselves," so I would just as soon she didn't teach it at all.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I am so with you on the happy endings (one reason I'm a medievalist, I think). The boy books/ girl books thing still happens in college; young men really do not take to Jane Austen. I'm wondering, though, about teaching JA alongside one of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe books, about an English soldier in the Napoleonic wars. If you reify the his/hers experience (of life/ of lit) do you get good discussion? Or would everyone be unhappy?

Miss Utsch said...

Hey I just wanted to say thanks for posting this, I enjoyed reading the excerpts and your opinion about them. I have no answers of course, I just got my first teaching job (9th and 10th grade) and I'm buried under seating charts, special-needs accommodations, and simply surviving the first week... but I suspect someday I'll have enough of a grip to contemplate those very thoughts about literature and curriculum.

Maybe the problem with bringing contemporary YA lit into the classroom is that is DOES become so gender-specific. I think there are a few authors/series that transcend, but isn't most of the YA being printed very heavily either "romance" based or "action/thriller" based? I was in a YA section at Borders tonight and there doesn't seem to be much appealing in between...

And yeah, happy endings for curriculum-based reading would be nice... I don't think I've run into one yet... I'm trying to decide which would be the lighter pre-Christmas read: Death of a Salesman or Of Mice and Men....

Fretful Porpentine said...

Dame Eleanor -- I wonder if a big part of the "guys don't like Jane Austen" thing might be about lack of context. I mean, to get Austen, you have to have some idea why young women's reputations matter so much, and why holding out for love is an act of rebellion, and why they don't all just get a job. I suspect female students are more likely to have a much keener sense of the power of social expectations and restrictions from their own experience, even if they don't know all the historical specifics.

Miss Utsch -- Hello and welcome! I'm glad someone who can speak from a high-school teacher's perspective has posted.

R said...

I always find those pieces annoying too, without the slightest idea of what to do about it. But two things stand out, for me, in these kinds of discussions:
1) the idea that the sole purpose of reading is identification with "relateable" characters; and 2) the idea that love of literature/books is somehow *opposed* to the "dissection" process. The first one just makes me think about all the books I read with male protagonists and laugh. For the second, I wonder if more creative writing assignments might help; I know that for me, the thing that made studying English start to click was being told that writers have to make choices to communicate meaning and that we try to figure out what those choices are, and this made sense to me because I spent my free time trying to make those kinds of choices in my own writing. All of a sudden, it was like Shakespeare and Hawthorne and Fitzgerald were doing the same thing I was (a million times better, obv, but still), and I could think about that without getting either intimidated or frustrated.

R said...

Oh--and as for the lack of happy endings, I am *still* traumatized by _Ethan Frome_. That book is my absolute touchstone for depressing, and I have no idea who thought it was a good idea for the syllabus. And I say that as someone who has grown to quite like Edith Wharton.

I think the only happy endings I can recall from high school are the ones to the Austen novels we read (I *did* go to an all-girls' school, so Austen was a big crowd-pleaser).

R said...

Okay, one last comment, and then I swear I'll stop. (Sorry, this is one of those issues I think about a LOT, while wondering if--if books matter to me the way I say they do--I should be trying to teach high school, not aiming for a PhD and becoming a professor.)

Anyway, I've read the article, and perhaps the answer in this case is simpler. Schnog quotes a student's email:

"Because I like science fiction, my Shakespeare, my Fitzgerald, my Dickinson are Haldeman, Asimov, Herbert. They dare me to think and question my beliefs" (emphasis mine).

Maybe the problem is that students aren't seeing--aren't being shown?--that that's one of the things that the classics do, just as much as speculative fiction. One of the first "wow, poetry does stuff!" moments I remember having was from Dickinson's "Much madness is divinest sense," which is all about standing starkly apart from society's ideals. Hamlet isn't just a black-clad emo prince; he's also struggling with questions of honor and loyalty. Etc.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Hey, no need to apologize -- some great food for thought in your comments, and I would respond at greater length if my brain didn't feel like mush at the moment.

Horace said...

late to the party, as usual, but Willow and I had this same discussion about this same article. Since Willow grew up in the same neighborhood as Nancy Schnog's school, and taught high school within the Post's beat, there was plenty to talk about too.

One thing that's missing from the critique of Schnog here is not only is this a gendered problem, it's a classed one too.

Incidentally, what all this gets at, I think, is largely a problem in teacher training, and the kinds of norms secondary English teachers are asked to conform to, norms that range from text selection to essay topics to in class methods. They norm is in fact rote and uninspired.