Archive for February, 2013

Thence to a Lightness: the Madness of English 201

Friday, February 15th, 2013

I teach at a community college in Lower Manhattan. Whatever, it’s fine. Really. This isn’t going to be a post about grade inflation, or political correctness, or how the kids come out of high school not knowing anything. For the most part, the only disadvantage to teaching at a school full of inner-city kids when compared with the schools I’ve taught at full of suburban kids is that I can’t explain everything with Simpsons references. Admittedly, that took a lot of getting used to, but it’s my problem, not theirs.

Mostly, I teach English 201—the required intro lit class. The one where everyone has to write research papers about literature. I love teaching that class. My only complaint about it is the fact that it shouldn’t exist.

Seriously. Why should a bunch of people who want to be nurses or mechanics or EMTs have to write 15-page research papers on Shakespeare or Joyce? And I’m not stereotyping them when I say those are the jobs they want to have. I know because I asked them, and they told me. And then I busted them all for plagiarism, because my job revolves around forcing them to do something they are not capable of doing and then acting surprised when they can’t.

Hang on. I’m not saying Great Literature is useless, or elitist, or whatever. I agree that they should have to read these books, and I’m the first one to say that they’re all capable of understanding and liking them. No-one should graduate from college without being able to name at least one poem that they love, or being able to exit a party in embarrassment and then make themselves laugh by saying “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity, and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” Reading literature really does enrich everyone’s life, no matter what the person in question wants to do for the rest of that life. Writing about literature, however, is not the same thing as reading it. Not everyone needs to know how to do that. In fact, almost no-one does. We don’t make people who want to be professors learn how to take apart and rebuild an engine, so why do we make people who want to be mechanics learn how to review a body of scholarship, pick out relevant quotations, and format them properly as citations and sources in support of an argumentative thesis?

Yes, I know that everyone has opinions, and that it is a duty of education to train people to make sure their opinions are well-supported and develop a sense of where those opinions fit in along a continuum of the opinions of experts on the subject. But there is already a class where we teach people to do that—it’s called English 101 (at most schools). We already make freshman take a class where they write research papers about sociopolitical issues (abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, etc.) and have to incorporate and format quotations from authorities in support of their opinion. That’s fine. But then—for some reason—there’s almost always another required course right after that one where we make them do the exact same thing all over again, but this time with literature.

And that, in my opinion, is pointless for everyone who doesn’t want to be an academic.

The reason we’ve never stopped to consider this is that, deep down, we think that everybody secretly wants to be an academic. But they don’t, and for perfectly good reasons. All things considered, we’re the crazy ones, not them. And we need to let go of the egotistical idea that what we are trying to do here is “rescue” people from having to have jobs where they get their hands dirty. Lots of people want to have those jobs, the same way we wanted to be English professors. We’ve been acting on the assumption that everyone really wants to have our job, and that anyone who doesn’t end up with it has been screwed over by society. But that’s simply not the case. The vast majority of people, working-class or otherwise, would rather have a poke in the eye with a sharp stick than our job. It’s like the old joke where the reason the Boy Scout took so long to help the little old lady across the street is because she didn’t want to go.

Let’s take a step back here, and examine how we got into this mess.

1. We want to make people read literature.
2. In order to make them, there has to be a class where we make them.
3. If there’s a class where we make them, there has to be a way to grade them.
4. In order to have a way to grade them, we need to make them write papers.

The first idea is good, but by the time you get up to step four, what’s going on isn’t good anymore. We need to go back to the drawing board and figure out a way to accomplish Step 1 without ending up at the lunacy of Step 4.

When I say this is a tragedy, I mean that literally. That’s what a tragedy is: the beginning is normal, the end is horrible, and you got from the beginning to the end by a series of small steps that all seemed like a perfectly good idea at the time.

I keeping telling my students that literature isn’t a secret code that they have to figure out—that the only point is to enjoy it, the same way you do with a movie or a song that you like. The problem with that is, the way I have to grade their papers makes a liar out of me, because a paper that says “I really enjoyed this story by Raymond Carver or Isabel Allende” inevitably gets a lower grade than one that says “I figured out all the hidden references in this story by James Joyce or all the philosophical stuff in this one by Jorge Luis Borges.” So while you may not have to regard the study of literature as an exercise in code-breaking to have a favorite book, the students who do gravitate towards seeing it that way usually end up getting the best grades. I know, because that’s what I did as a student, and now I’m an English professor. But not everyone is like me. If everyone were like me, the world would be an utterly insufferable place in which to live, no matter how many great books there were.

And our attempts at inclusiveness have just made matters worse. Somewhere ’round about the 90s, we decided that required intro courses should reward directions-following instead of (or at least, more so than) rewarding talent. So instead of handing out good grades based on brilliant theses or eloquent prose, we started handing out good grades based on thorough research and correct formatting. That may be a fairer shake for people who weren’t born with big fat literature centers in their brains, but the problem is, it’s also utter madness. Because at this point, what you’ve got on your hands is a required course where the majority of a student’s final grade is based on their adherence to a set of skills that absolutely no-one besides an academic would never need—and the double irony is, anyone who is actually going to become an academic probably placed out of the course to begin with.

So all this accomplished was to significantly augment the craziness of the first series of steps, because now it looks like this:

1. We want to make people read literature.
2. In order to make them, there has to be a class where we make them.
3. If there’s a class where we make them, there has to be a way to grade them.
4. In order to have a way to grade them, we need to make them write papers.
5. If we grade the papers based on talent, it’s not fair.
6. So instead, we grade them based on adherence to a template that is useless to everyone but academics, which these students are never going to be.

I once taught at a college where, instead of a paper, the final for the required intro lit-based comp course was an exam—standardized across the sections, and required by the department—that obligated the students to memorize citation format. That’s right—memorize it. A sample question would look something like “Below is all the publication/copyright information for a piece of microfilm. How would you format an in-text citation to this piece of microfilm in MLA standards? How would you do it by APA standards?” No-one who isn’t an academic would ever need to know how to do this, and besides, anyone who is an academic could just look up how to do it in about ten seconds. There’s absolutely no need for anyone, including academics, to memorize it. But anyone who failed this exam failed the course, which they then had to take over and over again until they passed in order to graduate. Oh, and did I mention that this college was a hospitality trade school for people who want to be chefs and hotel managers?

How in the world did we get from “it is good for people to read books” to this?

Oh, well—we have no choice, right? Like hell we don’t. You know what I think we should do instead? Keep having a required intro lit course where we make people read books, but don’t make them write any papers. Base the entire grade on participation in class discussion. If some students want to write papers for extra credit, they can, but they don’t have to be research papers. That’s it. We read great short stories and poems, plus a play or a novel, and we all show up and talk about them, and no-one has to write a god damned thing. If you think that sounds too easy, and like a “joke” class, just remember why we’re in this business. We became English professors in the first place because we think it’s vitally important for everyone to read literature, right? Well, if that’s really what we believe, then why should we feel like a class where that’s all we make anybody do would be a joke?

Everyone would still be reading great works, they’d still have to prove they read them by talking in class, they’d get to read more of them because every day would be a discussion on a text with no days lost to technical lessons about how to write papers, and they could still be graded based on participation. The only difference would be that the students would actually have a chance of enjoying the texts, because they’d be reading them for pleasure instead of in terror over what grade they’re going to get on the writings they’d eventually have to do about them.

Oh, and we wouldn’t have to grade papers. Ever.