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Clarissa's Blog

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

Teaching Woes

Next semester I’m teaching:

1. my signature Hispanic Civilization course (in English), which is always fun

2. Intermediate Spanish II, which will be great because I only have 9 students (the course is offered off sequence) and I can REALLY teach them to speak fluently in such a cozy group

3. And the course that I dread teaching. It’s the second part of Advanced Spanish called “Introduction to Reading Literature.” I taught it once, and it was a complete and utter failure. 

What we are supposed to do in the course is spend the first month reviewing grammar rules (again! for the 6th semester in a row!) and dedicate the rest of the semester to reading entirely unconnected literary texts from the textbook. A short story by Borges, a poem by Quevedo, a short story by Clarin, a play by a Mexican playwright from the 1990s, a poem by Vallejo, a short novel by Unamuno. 

My problem is that I don’t know how to teach literature out of context. Of course, I’ll ditch the stupid grammar overview, that’s the easy part. But I can’t talk about works of literature when they are ripped completely out of the historical, regional, chronological, and cultural context. Call me old-fashioned, but I think context matters. And I don’t know how to teach St John of the Cross without talking about the Spain he knew, the culture that nourished him, the terror and the ecstasy of his religion. I don’t get how one can skip from Lorca to the realists to medieval moralists and then all the way to the Mexican revolution. 

So I’m stumped. This is, incidentally, the reason I was having trouble in grad school. I don’t see a work of literature as a closed world that is fully self-sufficient and detached from surrounding reality. I’m simply a very different kind of literary critic. I hate the idea of anybody being “a universal writer.” 

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2 thoughts on “Teaching Woes

  1. Well, forget the grammar review. They can have a grammar reference assigned, and grammar issues can be discussed as they come up in context.

    A textbook like Aproximaciones a las literaturas hispánicas isn’t too bad insofar as its coherence is on structure. You look at different types of narrations and narrators, plays constructed on different dramatic principles, etc. The choices are actually quite strategic when you actually look at it.

    I’m tired of textbooks though and the course is often one of the first in which students have read any fiction. So my objective now is just to introduce the experience of reading literature. I just have them read interesting short or short-ish things in different genres, organized around a theme. Novellas work well.

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  2. Jonathan Mayhew on said:

    There is not only one kind of context. You can group texts thematically and by influence, or in micro-units that share the same context. I second the recommendation of Aproximaciones. You can read San Manuel Bueno martir against the backdrop of Spanish mysticism.

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