How Should We Teach Literature?

Rebecca Schuman has published a very interesting article in Chronicle of Higher Ed about the prospects of salvaging the field of Germanic Studies from disappearing into oblivion. The article offers an impressive contrast with the poorly written, extremely predictable and painfully embarrassing stuff CHE has been publishing lately, so do read it.

What I like the most about the piece is that it outlines a project that used to be my own but that was almost completely beaten out of me in grad school:

So here is my new mission: I want to inspire everyone to see that although worthwhile as entertainment and edification, German literature also provides praktische Erkenntnis (practical insight) into more-successful living. For example, also in Faust, the title character’s deal with Mephistopheles brings into stark relief an important point about boundless ambition at any cost. And we can recognize Gregor Samsa, the cockroach-esque monster from Kafka’s Metamorphosis, as a cautionary tale of what happens if you don’t move out of your parents’ house. We can even take the descriptions of class struggle and the means of production in none other than The Communist Manifesto and recognize their part in the development of some of capitalism’s most successful (and worker-friendly) ventures: Costco, Trader Joe’s (owned by Germans!), and even that bastion of faux-hippie libertarianism, Whole Foods.

I also wanted to read and teach literature in this way. This plan horrified my professors, however.

“And here you go discussing the content of the novel again,” my thesis adviser would say in her best “and-here-you-go-peeing-in-the-middle-of-the-living-room” voice. “Stop talking about what happens to the characters and discuss the first-person narrator instead.”

I tried to master the art of discussing the first-person narrator without mentioning what that narrator was actually narrating but I was never very good at it.

“What matters about a text is not what it says,” a rising star of literary criticism with 2 books published in prestigious presses by the age of 30 explained to me. “What matters is that the text is a sort of a living body with bodily functions. The rhetorical devices used in it are bodily functions and you should concentrate on them.”

I wasn’t into metaphors as bodily functions all that much, so the prof called my research “pedestrian.”

“This story by Juan Rulfo has more adjectives than adverbs!” an elderly professor would exclaim. “While the other story has more adverbs than adjectives! And if Clarissa asks me once again why this is important, I will complain to the Chair. It is important because we are bringing the quantitative aspect into literature. How exciting is that?”

I didn’t think it was at all exciting, so the elderly academic did end up complaining to the Chair who scolded me gently for being intellectually rigid.

Still, I always hoped I was not the only person who cared what happened in a work of literature as opposed to concentrating exclusively on how the narrative was structured and delivered. I’m glad to see there are other people who are not terrified of looking at the content of a novel or a short story.

13 thoughts on “How Should We Teach Literature?”

  1. “What matters about a text is not what it says,” a rising star of literary criticism with 2 books published in prestigious presses by the age of 30 explained to me. “What matters is that the text is a sort of a living body with bodily functions. The rhetorical devices used in it are bodily functions and you should concentrate on them.”

    There is such a thing as taking a metaphor too far just to make complicated scatological jokes. Really, talking about the climax of novels has been done to death. I don’t think it’s enough of a giggle to sustain anyone through reading Freud in the original German, so I like Schuman’s approach much better.


    1. I once took a course on the Erotic Modernist Novel. All we talked about what the erotic nature of reading and how reading footnotes was like interrupting a sex act to answer the phone. An entire semester of that when we could be discussing the actual novels!


  2. Good job of beating the dead horse of structuralism. Almost nobody does anything else except read for plot and theme and subject matter, even in academic literary criticism. Of course Culler destroyed the adjective-counting approach back in the 1970s. I don’t know how a return to high-school level platitudes will save a field like German. I’m hoping the idea that Kafka will teach you to move out of your parents’ basement is tongue-in-cheek.


    1. “Almost nobody does anything else except read for plot and theme and subject matter, even in academic literary criticism.”

      – I know, it just had to be my Jewish luck. 🙂

      “I’m hoping the idea that Kafka will teach you to move out of your parents’ basement is tongue-in-cheek.”

      – Of course, there is no book potent enough to help one go against the parental mandate to be a dependent loser. 😦 😦 😦


  3. Mayhew, you must just be so livid that I’ve landed so squarely on my feet, and am so happy, and on my way to so much success, what with my high-school-level platitudes and all. I realize you and Clarissa are friends, but you’re no friend of mine, so I have no problem in pointing out that you are engaging, with that comment, in some fairly obnoxious FULLPROFsplaining, which Z has already quite rightly called out as borderline-abusive rhetoric. You are dismissing outright, as if they do not exist, Clarissa’s very real and actual experiences at YALE, an institution of the same level as the august one that graduated you, more than a decade *after* you finished the PhD degree. How can structuralism be a ‘dead horse’ if very living and prominent scholars at Yale are still excoriating someone for daring to want to talk to students about a novel’s content? Also, as to your outright dismissal of how I *dare* give a practical (and yes, tongue-in-cheek) bent to Germanics in order to get more butts in seats: most high schools in the United States don’t teach literature of any sort at all anymore, so getting beginning college students (and people who only have a high-school education, or people who haven’t read in years) interested in German literature in any way possible is actually an incredibly important venture. “High-school level” isn’t high-school level anymore. Maybe if you recognized that you’d be a better teacher–I’m happy to give you some guidance (an ADJUNCT, a mere lowly PLEB of an academic, advise a FULLPROFF in pedagogy? WELL, I NEVER). In my article, I explain the various reasons why the transition toward cultural studies and away from literature is unfair, unfortunate, and perhaps a product of class difference (and a contributor to it), and I am certainly in favor of blowing minds with the intricacies of Kleist’s Kantkrise, for example (the Kritik der reinen Vernunft being about as far from high-school level as you can get, übrigens)–but I have to get those minds into the classroom. Since your discipline isn’t going to die anytime soon, you might not care about those of us trying to save ours. I really wish you would.


  4. All my literature classes were taught in the way Jonathan Mayhew describes — reading for plot, theme and subject matter, with maybe some discussion of structural elements but really only as much as they shed light on those things (I remember a discussion of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and its diary-within-a-letter structure, but that was only a small part of what we did with that novel).

    But I only have an undergraduate degree, and I went to a state school. So I have no idea what may or may not be going on in the literature departments at more elite universities.

    Rebecca, I loved your article. Even though I was taught to read literature by engaging with its content*, I don’t know that my professors did much of the kind of tying what we were reading to what was happening in the world as you want to do. I think that would be a wonderful class, personally. You’d get a lot more student participation with that kind of discussion, I’d imagine.

    *It amuses me that this is a phrase I can write. To someone without a literature degree, it would be redundant. “Read literature by engaging with its content? As opposed to what, reading literature by engaging with what’s not on the page? Reading literature by engaging with the voices in your head? Reading literature by drawing pretty pictures in the margins?!”


  5. Counting adverbs and adjectives! It has never occurred to me to do that, and I even like to count things.

    But, oh, now that I think of it I HAVE seen someone conduct criticism this way! I’ve seen George Will subject the President’s speeches to this sort of analysis in a few of his columns. (This is the only one I can find easily).


  6. Well, Wittgenstein did insist the most important part of the Tractatus was the part he *didn’t* write…but yes, it is like when I first met my husband, and he said his approach to philosophy was to focus on what particular philosophers had to say. I was like, a-duh??!?!?!?! But it turns out that in his particular subfield (phil math, logic) most of his contemporaries did not view things philosopher by philosopher, but rather topic/problem by topic/problem. Knowing nothing about analytic philosophy at the time, I was absolutely floored that someone so smart would say that, but after getting to know his field for the last seven years, it makes sense.


  7. Ack, I just realized, mea culpa, I’m also guilty of the counting thing. In one of the chapters of my (academic) book, I count how many times Kafka uses the word ‘Landvermesser’ in Das Schloss (The Castle), but only because I needed to know each use’s context…to help me understand the motivations of the characters, and thus the plot, of the novel.


  8. Reblogged this on pan kisses kafka and commented:
    Thanks to Clarissa for highlighting this article, which has been removed from the paywall. In my graduate program, some courses were all theory and no content, others historical materialism, others cultural studies. My own academic work has some structuralist inflections, but also treats Kafka’s stories as if they are real. Thoughts on whether my approach to seduce more Americans to the Deutsch Side is valiant, or in the immortal words of FULLPROF, high-school level platitudes?


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