Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Thought on "Literature versus Literacy"

There were several portions of Thomas Leitch’s chapter “Literature versus Literacy” where I wrote “YES” in the margin, but perhaps my strongest “YES” response occurred when Leitch discusses the teaching of writing in college English courses. Leitch is absolutely correct when he states, “Even though students are typically graded almost exclusively on their writing, most English teachers [he is speaking of college teachers] spend little time teaching it, preferring instead to assume it is an adjunct to the reading we do teach” (13-14). I think this is common all the way through the post-graduate level: I had taken four MA literature seminar courses before (finally!) a professor asked the class, “Would it be helpful if I put up a few notes for you on how to go about organizing your critical essays?” Ummm, YEAH, that would be helpful. In fact, I still feel grateful for the American Lit professor who, during my junior year of undergrad, took the time to point out the passive voice habit I frequently employed in my essays; she then taught me how to make my arguments stronger and more concise. 

Leitch’s key point in this section is that teachers—and I think this certainly applies to high school teachers along with college professors—must always be cognizant of teaching students “how to do things with books” in tandem with reading the texts themselves (14). This is not to say that I feel we high school teachers don’t teach writing skills (anyone who, like me, has graded 90 9th grade research essays in a semester would become highly defensive at the idea that someone thinks we’re not slaving away at teaching the writing process); this point made me think more about teaching “how to do things with books” in deeper, more critically engaging ways. I discuss the texts a great deal with my students, and of course they have various writing assignments, but I would love to improve upon my own practice of demonstrating for students how to more effectively express their reactions to the text. I always talk with my students about how much they hate Gatsby’s  Daisy Buchanan, but I would love to help them actually produce something as a result of their strong opinions. Several of us have mentioned wanting to veer away from the standard practice of assignments that simply ask students to compare-and-contrast the film and the originary text, and that is my end-goal for this seminar:

Through our seminar, I have certainly learned how NOT to say, “This movie sucks! The book is SO much better!”—how can I guide my students to this understanding?

Ultimately, how can I teach students to work with the text—both the source texts and various adaptations—in an actively engaging, critical way?

 (I don’t expect an answer…well, at least not tonight).

1 comment:

  1. How about asking your students to "build a better Daisy" from the materials Fitzgerald gives them? Or asking them to write a page or two of her diary--or posthumous biography? Or, if you're looking at the film, stage a debate. Pit your students against each other. Or chart the problems they have with her then give them all the task to mount a defense of her. That's an argument. Or raise the stakes: how does the effect of the film depend upon this characterization of Daisy? Or ask them to re-cast the role, and defend their casting (including a consideration of the actresses'--or actors'--other roles). What if we made Daisy black? Or male? What would those choices highlight or complicate in terms of our reading of the text? How might those choices speak in provocative ways to a modern audience? r try a variation on today's "Taboo" activity: have your students talk about the film without referencing the novel--at least for a bit. Challenge them to turn their reactions against the film into a productive critique. And that can take the form of "here's where the film lost its way and delivered an effect that was strikingly at odds with the text." OR "Here's how this film reads this book, setting aside how we might 'feel' about that reading."