The first day of class in my literature course didn’t go well, and that’s putting it mildly. Students looked uncomfortable and terrified, refused to answer even the simplest questions, offered no reaction to my jokes, and stayed on the edge of their seats prepared to take off at any moment.
We, the professors, are to blame for this sorry state of affairs. We are so scared of our own area of expertise, so embarrassed by it, so apologetic about having chosen it, that this attitude always contaminates our own students. We are on our way to becoming a glorified language school and all we do brings this prospect closer to us. Like a person who believes s/he is ugly or stupid and communicates this belief to others, we transmit our doubts over whether learning literature is a worthy pursuit to our students.
And then we – the same people who dropped the word “literature” from the name of our department, who create one language course on top of another without having created a single new literature course for a decade, who “don’t have time” for research, who cringe with discomfort when assigning works of literature, who make endless excuses why students are still not ready to read a page in Spanish after taking language classes for 8 years – wonder hypocritically why on Earth the students are so reluctant to study literature. Yes, really, what a mystery.
It would be so easy to claim that big bad administration is to blame. That would not be true, though. None of the things I listed here were encouraged, proposed, or initiated by the Dean’s or the Provost’s office. We are doing this to ourselves.
I am done with this, people. I spent my childhood being embarrassed about loving books and hating athletics. I did not get 5 degrees in literary studies and publish 11 scholarly articles in respected, peer-reviewed literary journals only to find myself feeling embarrassed about loving to read once again. I am now declaring a battle against the belief that literature has no place at a university. I was part of the problem and now I will be part of the solution. If nobody wants to join me, I will be the solution.
And don’t think I’m just saying this. I have a top-secret plan that I have already started to put into effect whose goal is simply to teach literature and vindicate this pursuit. The plan is top secret because I don’t have the energy for yet another round of discussions (in person, by email, on Skype, on the phone) about how the students are not prepared and they will hate literature anyway so why undermine my career and spoil my life trying. My career is fine, my life is fine. Stop being so worried about the imaginary horrors that await me if I actually practice my profession.
To my colleagues everywhere I want to say this: stop feeling apologetic for what you do. Do whatever you need to convince yourself that you are not selfishly practicing a self-indulgent hobby but are doing something important. Do it now before you have apologized us all out of a field of learning and a career. You don’t need to prettify the teaching of literature or convince anybody it is useful. Just convince yourself already.