Academic Exchange Quarterly Spring 2005 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 9, Issue 1
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Gose, Ph.D., is the Blanche E. Seaver Professor of Humanities and Teacher Education
The author credits much of the success he has had in teaching the novel to his adjustments to the “realities” of teaching. Is it realistic to teach the novel as if one’s students are going to become English teachers? Is it realistic to teach a novel that is beyond the capacities of the students? Is it smart to plod through a novel, when the joy of reading a novel is in reading it at one’s own pace? And what if the students expect worksheets? The author offers some tips, some “caveats,” for creating the opportunity to have success in teaching the novel.
I have taught English Literature for thirty-six years and my favorite genre is the novel. According to student evaluations I do this extremely well. I think my “edge” is that whatever does not kill you makes you stronger. Silas Marner tried to kill me when I was fourteen years old. To have hopes of becoming an English teacher one presumably needs a high level of success in High School English. My future career nearly ended with George Eliot’s Silas Marner. For whatever reasons, including immaturity, I could not fight my way through that text. And given the propensity of English teachers to spend weeks on a single novel, it was one of the worst periods of my academic life. I have made a point to remember that. That memory alone has made me a more empathetic teacher.
My second strongest memory as a student of the novel was reading Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country (which I see has recently made Oprah’s Book Club) when I was in college. I had allotted what should have been sufficient time to finish the book, but in savoring the book, I found myself reading it at a very deliberate pace…so much so that it was my only time as a student that I had to rush to the library to read in Master Plots on how the story ended, rush to take the exam, and then rush back to my dorm room to finish the book. I do not fault the professor for the timing of the exam, but I am forever reminded of the significance of coming to love reading literature.
I mention these two stories to suggest that the key to teaching the novel successfully is adjusting to the social and educational variables that set the context for teaching the novel.
Have you considered that if you are teaching the novel in a High School English class, it is unlikely any one of your students will go on to become an English major (much less an English teacher)? Have you considered as you make your teaching preparations that you already know more about the novel than any of your students are likely to want to know? Have you wondered why it has been reported that college graduates do not read a book the first two years after graduation?
I think that the implications of these questions is in preparing to teach a particular novel with regard to 1) working to help one’s students connect with the novel; 2) emphasizing the aspects of the novel that educated people (rather than English majors) need to know; and 3) doing everything possible to make the reading of the novel such a good experience that the student is more likely, rather than less likely, to continue to read novels. While my experience has been that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing style in The Scarlet Letter is challenging for students, I have found it fairly easy to get students to identify with the issues of guilt and the cruelty of peer pressure. While some of the details may be forgotten the power of the red letter “A” and the characters of Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth remain a part of the consciousness of most educated Americans. I have also found that the more difficult the novel the more important it is to work quickly, that students understand that this is a “first” reading, that they will have a working knowledge of the text, that this is surely a book to which they will want to return to again.
1. What if the novel to be read is beyond the capacity of the students? This is perhaps the most perplexing problem faced by teachers. On the one hand one hopes that the student can stretch to meet the challenge. However, if the challenge is beyond the capacity of the students, the teacher must either hope to 1) teach something else; or 2) help the students as best s/he can. For example of ways to help, William A. Glasser (2003: p. 25) discusses the advantages of giving students certain information up front of their reading of the novel. He says, “The point remains that an advanced knowledge of the happenings taking place within a literary work may actually enhance the essential experience conveyed by the work.” Brett C. McInelly (2003: p. 20) describes the advantages of having students study the historical context of a novel. He has his students write a “context paper” where students “peruse a variety of primary sources, such as newspapers and periodicals, in an effort to recreate the historical and cultural contexts from which a particular novel emerged.” He has found that this project aids students in understanding.
2. How do students best learn? Elliot Eisner makes a distinction between the “staircase” model of teaching and the “spiderweb” model. My complaint as a student was that my English teachers were far too devoted to the “staircase” model, working step by step, chapter by chapter through a book. Certainly the implication of Gestalt Psychology is that this is a very artificial method of approaching a work. As Ernest Hilgard explains,
“According to the Gestalt Psychologists …our experiences depend on the patterns that stimuli form, on the organization of experience. What we see is relative to background, to other aspects of the whole. The whole is different from the sum of its parts: the whole consists of parts in relationship.” (Hilgard, p. 19)
If Gestalt Psychology is correct, we first need a grasp of the whole against which we test the particulars. Such a “whole” comes best by first making a complete reading of a work. The alternative, “spiderweb” model offers more flexibility for teaching something as long as the novel without feeling that one has to march through a novel.
3. Although they are both epic poems instead of novels, I have long felt that the use of the staircase model has ruined the teaching of both The Iliad and The Divine Comedy. Only when one understands why The Iliad necessarily ends with the burial of Hektor can one look back on why Achilleus is the hero; only when one understands Dante’s Trinity can one begin to understand Dante’s confusions in The Inferno. The problem becomes how the teacher creates “the time and space” necessary for students to have the time to read an entire work before it is analyzed.
Teaching the novel is always impacted by the students’ “social class”. Jean Anyon has identified how social class influences the curriculum. In working class schools students do a lot of work sheets; in middle class schools students, metaphorically and literally, work the formulas and check their answers against those in the back of the book; in affluent professional schools students work on creative projects and self expression; in social-elite schools students read difficult, original material, discuss it, and write essays about it. Regardless the social class orientation of the teacher, if it at odds with the expectations of the students, adjustments will have to be made. Personally I like to have a conversation with my students about their expectations and to explain the social significance of their answers. We need hard working citizens among all of the social classes. The kind of work students do in school is very much a preparation for the kind of college they might go to and the kind of work they will do in the economy. I admit that my personal preference is for the kind of education associated with the “social-elite” schools—discussion and essays. However, I am also absolutely fine with worksheets, with multiple-choice exams, with creative projects. I admit that I do encourage all of my students to consider going on to college, and that I want them to be prepared to be successful at whatever kind of college they will choose. I want them to know that if they want to go on to an “elite” university, they will need to become adroit and the discussion/essay format. But that is certainly not the only way to approach grades and assignments.
James Herndon blames “Noman.” The voice of tradition sits on our shoulders telling us that there are approved ways of doing things, whether they work or not. After thirty-six years of relative success teaching the novel, I find that I still occasionally feel guilty about my failure to plod through a novel page by page, giving quizzes to make sure students keep up with their reading, and then giving them any number of assignments about the novel to make sure they worked hard enough. But I soon get over such insecurities and find ways of occupying our time in class so that we have time to read a good book, talk with each other about the experience, and find the process very satisfying. And I hear from my students that they do continue to read novels after graduation.
Anyon, J. (1980). Social class and the hidden curriculum of
work. Journal of Education, 162 (1),
Eisner, E. (1985) The educational imagination.
Herndon, J. (1985) How to survive in your native land.
Hilgard, E, (1962) Introduction to
McInelly, Brett C. (2003). Teaching the Novel in Context. Academic Exchange Quarterly. v. 7, i2, p. 20 (5), Summer, 2003.