Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

Teaching Literature Is Possible


As I walked to class today (see picture), I was worried. Would the students understand the readings I assigned for today? Would they invest the effort needed to analyze difficult XIXth-century texts? Would they give up? Would they feel bored? Spanish costumbrismo of Larra and Estebanez Calderon is definitely not everybody’s cup of tea. And the vocabulary is difficult. However, during the lecture, I realized that our students are a lot better prepared for hard-core literature courses than we expect. We had a really phenomenal discussion, and everybody participated. The class lasts from 5 to 8 pm, and it isn’t easy to keep everybody’s attention at that hour. But the response to the readings was great. We laughed so hard that the walls shook. I got every student in the course to select a text among our readings for the semester, and now they will conduct part of each class meeting where these texts are discussed. This way, students get to create their own activities, moderate discussions, and feel responsible for a text of their choosing. There are 23 students in this class. In theory, a literature seminar should be much smaller but I want a bigger group because I’m trying to prove that there is massive demand among our students for non-gimmicky literature courses with a mountain of complex readings and a lot of academic writing. Of course, I now know why there is such a push to teach language instead of literature. Teaching language is extremely easy after you’ve mastered it. The past tenses are not very likely to change dramatically within our lifetimes. A discussion of a literary text, however, will always go in a new and unpredictable direction.


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15 thoughts on “Teaching Literature Is Possible

  1. Sister on said:

    Time to take down the Christmas tree. šŸ˜‰


  2. If all that’s taught in a language class is linguistic structures that are not likely to change in our lifetimes, that’s not much of a language class. Good language classes also have discussions that go in new and unpredictable directions. A teacher who thinks they’ve mastered language teaching and so that’s it, they’re done learning about language teaching isn’t much of a language teacher. Promoting literature classes and dumping on language ones is just as bad as the reverse, because it reinforces the false dichotomy between literature and language that plagues higher education language departments.


    • I’ve only been teaching languages for 22 years, so thanks for explaining how language classes work. šŸ™‚

      Of course, there is absolutely no comparison between the level of discussion in language and literature courses. I’m completely opposed to the existence of ANY language courses other than 2 beginners’ level and 2 intermediate level. Anything other than that is a complete waste of.everybody’s time. If people can’t speak / read /write / understand well enough to take literature / culture courses after 4 whole semesters of language, the instructors are not doing their job.


      • It’s an issue, though, for the allegedly harder languages. From POV of English Russian is supposed to be much harder than Spanish and Arabic harder still.
        So, you have more semesters working on the language skills, and from what I remember (from being at a university where such languages were taught) the pedagogical attitude tended to be more traditional, faculty more die-hard about not “letting” people read literature before they were “ready,” and so on.

        In my current survey of Spanish literature, a late junior or (here) early senior level course, people have heard of no major Spanish writers at all. If I had control over the language program they would have by now, because I would have used these texts to teach language and some cultural content, without getting heavy on the lit crit yet.


        • I was tired last night so I forgot to specify that, of course, I was talking specifically about my own department. This is an issue that preoccupies me obsessively these days, and I have a feeling everybody lives in my head. šŸ™‚


      • “Iā€™m completely opposed to the existence of ANY language courses other than 2 beginnersā€™ level and 2 intermediate level. Anything other than that is a complete waste of.everybodyā€™s time”

        I roughly agree with the proviso that z brings up of relative difficulty. If an English speaker starting Spanish needs more than four semesters to get to the point where they can stop with the grammar/conversation and start reading authentic materials then they’re either an idiot (or suffered from very poor teachers).

        An English speaker learning Chinese is going to need more time (for reading at least) because there’s no way to learn a few thousand characters in two years* (unless language learning is their sole activity). A learner of Arabic will also need more time (for oral authentic materials).

        Where I work we have bright students with an average of six or so years of the language still stuck with “textbooks” that lead them to nothing… beyond the next textbook in the series.

        *though I know of a Chinese learner who after two years of class followed my advice and picked up a cheap novel written for Chinese teenagers and was pleasantly surprised by how much he could understand (and how many unknown characters were understandable in context).


        • “Where I work we have bright students with an average of six or so years of the language still stuck with ā€œtextbooksā€ that lead them to nothingā€¦ beyond the next textbook in the series.”

          – Yeah, that’s exactly what I mean.


  3. I know people who have been teaching what they call “language classes” for far longer that do not really teach “language classes” since the linguistic outcomes are pathetic. Obviously, I have no idea how you personally teach, so this is not a critique of your classes, but of the “language classes” you describe, which do not sound like actual language classes to me.

    Arabic takes more hours than Spanish for English speakers to learn. The solution to this is not more classes, but more intensive ones.

    Literature/culture must be incorporated into beginning and intermediate “language classes” at a basic level in order for students to engage in more thorough analysis at higher levels, on the assumption that literary or cultural analysis requires more than just understanding the words in a text. This is why I personally object to the “language class” v. “content/literature/culture class” distinction, as it makes no sense to me and is not supported in the research for either language or content learning.


    • Including a couple of excerpts or a few poems into a language course to expand the vocabulary is a great idea and it is widely practiced. However, it is light-years away from engaging in actual literary criticism and creating a research paper in the discipline. See my most recent post for an example of what happens when people put into practice this idea that it’s enough to integrate a few literary texts into a literature course.

      The main issue with integrating literary texts into language courses is that fosters the belief that literature has to be useful, has to serve some “practical” purpose. This spells the end of literary studies and the end of critical thinking in the humanities.

      “This is why I personally object to the ā€œlanguage classā€ v. ā€œcontent/literature/culture classā€ distinction, as it makes no sense to me and is not supported in the research for either language or content learning.”

      – I don’t understand this. How can you object to existing reality? It is self-evident that my Golden Age course or my XIXth-Century Drama course are literature courses. There is no way to pretend there are anything different. All we do in class is discuss literature. Just like history courses discuss history. And pedagogy course discuss pedagogy. I see no possibility of pretending that my course isn’t what it is – a literature course.

      In the same way, the fact that I incorporated a few poems and a short story into my Spanish Beginners II course will never transform it into a literature course. Literature is completely secondary in this course. It is just a tool, like crossword puzzles. Nobody suggests we call this a crossword puzzle course because puzzles are used, right?


      • I am not talking about incorporating literary texts to expand vocabulary. I am talking about incorporating literary texts that have accessible language to conduct literary analysis. Yes, this will likely not be as advanced as at higher levels, the same way I assume your upper level literature classes are more advanced than your lower level ones. If your students are able to engage in critical thinking in literature classes, why deny them this opportunity in language classes?

        I don’t object to classes having a language or literature focus (or history or science or whatever), my objection is when it is exclusive, as seems to be the case at many universities (perhaps not yours, although this is how it sounds). For example, I assume you give linguistic feedback to students in addition to feedback on their literary analysis. I would also expect this in a history class. If literary texts are left out of language classes on the assumption that they are too hard, or only incorporated to give plot summaries and vocabulary, these classes will not prepare students for literature classes as they are supposed to. Getting students from language to literature classes is a common problem that will in my opinion only be solved through more integration and less division of the I’m not responsible for the language/literature part because I teach the other.


    • I know you are not aware of this šŸ™‚ but this blog is the worst possible place to bring up Georgetown. šŸ™‚ šŸ™‚ Their Spanish department is a pile of steaming shit. It has been overrun by horrible, insane, aggressive linguists who hate and persecute everybody who dares to whisper the word “literature.” I had the misfortune of interviewing for a job with them and they spent the entire interview being extremely insulting to me and to each other (“Oh shut up, you idiot!” “Idiot yourself!” “No, you are an idiot!”).

      I consider it to be the worst university in the country after Texas A&M.


      • What on earth does the Spanish department have to do with the German department undergraduate curriculum? It’s not even the same department. Nor does the link have anything to do with Georgetown as an institution. At least read the link (which specifically references literature classes as an essential element) before you decide it’s not worthwhile based on an interview with a completely different department. Obviously you can’t just dump a German curriculum on your Spanish one, but it is the ideas and methods that are important, and it specifically discusses the issues you are thinking about, albeit in a different context. It is an example that is easy to link to, but if you want more examples, search the LLBA for “language content divide” and the like.


        • “What on earth does the Spanish department have to do with the German department undergraduate curriculum? Itā€™s not even the same department. Nor does the link have anything to do with Georgetown as an institution.”

          – Georgetown is the most heavily linguistic university of all in the US. The document you linked to is so jargony as to be almost unreadable. That does not bode well.


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