Tuesday, 24 April 2012

U is for Un-studying Literature

Back on D Day (no, not the one in 1944, the one at the beginning of this challenge) I wrote about Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and what I'd really have liked to say to the English teacher who made me study it. As I am totally lacking any U references at all, I thought I'd use this post to continue my rant.

About three days into my English Literature A Level, I realised I shouldn't be on the course, because that was the time I realised literature shouldn't be studied, it should be enjoyed.

I know... that's a mind-bending statement, isn't it? Well, no - not unless you're an English teacher.

Think about the writers we study:
  • Shakespeare
  • The Brontes
  • Thomas Hardy
  • Charles Dickens
  • Wordsworth
And, what do all these writers have in common? They were all popular writers. They weren't writing high literature - that's the mantel we've placed them on. They were writing prose that the common man in the street would find enjoyable. They probably didn't place too much store on the symbolism and metaphors used. They just wrote, the same way you and I do, telling their story in the most effective way.

So, this week, what I'd love to say to my English teacher is:

We shouldn't be doing this. We should be enjoying the books the way they were intended. We should think about the themes, enjoy the story, perhaps even consider the moment in history they are portraying - what better way to understand history than through the eyes of people who lived in it. Yes, these authors had important things to say about the world they were living in. They don't deserve to have their prose broken down into blocks of text for 18 year olds to pour over in sticky school halls, extracting every last significance out of every last full stop and semi-colon. Sometimes, Mr English Teacher, Sir, I'm sure they chose to describe the sky as cloudy because it just was, not to foretell something terrible in a hundred pages time!

45 comments:

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  2. That's what subconsciously pushed me to commerce, neither frogs to dissect nor worthy words.

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    1. I headed towards writing because I wanted to stay as far away from the innards of frogs as possible :-)

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  3. Hehe, I can just imagine my English teacher reading this. I remember having to write an Essay on Satire in Gulliver's Travels when all I wanted to do was enjoy Gulliver's Travels. I hated the essay and my enjoyment for the book at the time became "why did I pick such a stupid book".

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    1. Exactly. I don't there's a single person who enjoys a book more by reading line-by-line and analysing - the story is totally missed!

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  4. thank you! i hated overanalyzing in english. it was more trying to figure out what the teacher wanted us to say as they interpreted it...

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    1. That's so true - usually the teacher just wanted you to agree with them!

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  5. funny post and too true. I'm still scarred by The Red Badge of Courage. My English teacher wanted a paper that was almost as long as the book. Red is red. Um, it signifies blood? You know what I mean. Enjoying the challenge. The month is flying by.

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    1. There's only so much you can say about red/blood - I feel your pain.

      I can't believe we've almost done it!

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  6. I'm totally with you! Though I was really good at BS'ing the essays and getting excellent grades in English.

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    1. That was my downfall, I was very bad at BSing.

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  7. Amen to that! We'd enjoy the writing a whole lot more if we knew that we were meant to.

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  8. Well ranted! I can remember saying something similar to my English teacher during a poetry lesson. I can't remember who the poet was but I'm quite sure he never intended his work to be analysed in quite such absurd detail. My comment was met with a glare and an uncomfortable silence. I never spoke out on the subject again.

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    1. Oooh, I can really picture that scene!

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  9. I wrote a paper once about Wuthering Heights and how the weather wasn't symbolic. It was just the weather because the story takes place on the moors of Northern England and what did they think the weather would be like? I didn't receive a good grade on that said.

    That said, that became the basis for my own teaching platform when I was an English teacher. So just know that we're not all like the teacher(s) you described. =)

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    1. Yes, Wuthering Heights is the perfect example!

      I'm sure if that was your opinion at school you made a perfect English teacher!

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  10. This is the precise feeling I had in my English lit class. it was no fun when it was chore!

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    1. I'm glad I'm not alone - there were a lot of people who really enjoyed the class. There were aspects I liked... see tomorrow's post!

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  11. A friend of mine who did A level English with me went on to do a degree in English and for years I'd be recommending books to her and she just couldn't read them because reading had lost its pleasure. Shame, isn't it? Great post, Annalisa, and I completely agree. We all use symbolism etc without really thinking about it - Crazy to think of someone in the future dissecting it!

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    1. It is a shame. My devious plan is to write a book that ends up on the A Level reading list. Then I'll go to my local school when they're doing my book and explain exactly what was going through my head when I chose a green jumper over blue - ie. nothing, green was the first colour I thought of! :-)

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  12. I sort of have to disagree. But then I was an English major, so studying literature was sort of my field. But I do agree - books should be enjoyed and not just studied. I like it when I can do both the best.

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    1. It's interesting to hear the other side - at least books don't get ruined for you once you've studied them.

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  13. The writing/language was so different back then, it's hard to believe it was for the common man!

    There was a just great article in the New York Times about taking the pleasure out of reading. Let me see if I can find it.

    Here it is: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/taking-emotions-out-of-our-schools.html?_r=1&ref=educationandschools

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    1. Great link, Theresa, thanks. I love the way it highlighted how kids thought differently about the world after reading them - that's a great legacy for literature.

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  14. I share the same feelings and opinions of others who have commented. My English Lit professors turned what should have been/could have been a challenging and enjoyable learning experience into a chore, thus taking all of the fun out of it.

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    1. It's such a shame. Those teachers have the opportunity to share their love of literature but the system - in the UK there's lots of government interference - doesn't allow them to do so. Perhaps it's the 'teaching to pass the test' method that ruins literature rather than the classes themselves?

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  15. So many years later, I still resent my 9th grade English teacher (my class was actually on the 10th grade honors level) for how she insisted on making everything a symbol. For awhile, I was even putting stupid, meaningless symbols and allegories in my own writing for no freaking reason, just to have symbols in there. Of course, now it comes across as really forced and meaningless, and they're all coming out when I transcribe and edit it.

    I was always that weird kid who usually genuinely enjoyed assigned reading and finished reading the books way before everyone else in class, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. The straw that broke the camel's back for everyone was when that particular teacher turned one of her lessons on symbolism in Lord of the Flies into an all-out religious lecture. I wish I'd had the guts to do what a friend of mine did on her question about Simon and his Christlike attributes, saying she considered that an inappropriate question since she didn't study the Catholic religion.

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  16. Your comment sums it up, Carrie-Anne. You're spot on 'sometimes a cigar is just a cigar'. Some teachers do have their own agenda, too.

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  17. LOL, Annalisa! I have my BA in literature, so I was one of those people who tore works of writing apart and loved it. But I agree: I think there is a lot of overanalysis and searching for meaning in writing when it may not really be there. :-)

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    1. It takes a certain kind of person to do a BA in literature :-) Do you find yourself analysing EVERYTHING, even if you're reading for pleasure?

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  18. I have a BA in British Lit too! As a result of my in depth analysis of all the "greats" I still shudder when someone asks me, when discussing a book, "What do you think he/she meant by placing that comma there??" (Seriously, happened in a book club discussion...) I ran for the door. ;)

    Great post, and AMEN!!!

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  19. Hi Annalisa .. I think I was a poor pupil - or something didn't quite gel - because I'm not dumb now - so something went it ... but I was useless at school! Cheers Hilary

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    1. I was a great pupil until I hit 14, then suddenly I couldn't learn anything new. I recovered the gift eventually, but I think that's because I now focus on learning things I'm interested in, rather than the things I have to learn!

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  20. I loved in college when we were just allowed to read and enjoy without picking the pieces apart. That's where my love of literature comes from. When I graduated, I was appalled at how many classics I had never read. I took a lot of lit classes, too. So, I put down the sci-fi and read Hardy, Austen, the Brontes, etc ... and fell in love with just about all of them. I even read War & Peace on my own and loved it.

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    1. I have lots of gaps too that I'm trying to fill. My sister just read War and Peace, but she found it very confusing and skipped quite a lot. Now I'm not sure if I want to read it or not...

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  21. This was a great post, Annalisa. I try to both enjoy and study and I think it sort of works ...

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    1. Thanks Suze! I'm glad it works for you. Luckily, I no longer have to worry about studying!

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Please comment - I love a good chat!