Survey courses in literature vs. Bob Dylan

Stanley Fish’s column in the New York Times is probably the most prominent place where the world meets academia. After all, the world hardly reads The Chronicle of Higher Education and it’s sad these issues are otherwise largely ignored, beyond the annual college admission campaign. Getting into college seems to be extremely important, but the question of what college should actually be, now that is a conversation that that rarely happens. And it should.

Fish’s latest post is related to this existential topic, What Should College Teach? The answer to this lies in the inherent value we assign to higher education in general. It depends whether society expects it to produce independent minds  (liberal arts education) or provide practical skills (professional training).  With the trend going in the direction of practical skills and the growing popularity of majors such as accounting, it’s heartening to see that literature and foreign languages  are part of the obligatory mind-cultivation process that college is.

What kind of literature courses are the indispensable ones, though? Surveys covering an esteemed canon of  “Great Books”? Single authors, such as Shakespeare or Cervantes? Outside-of-the-cannon, but at least ones covering a specific chronology or diversity of genre? Topic-based courses?

Although he is flexible in this choice of core courses in literature, Fish seems to favors more specific courses at the expense of surveys. Writing, too. Actually, the poor teaching of writing itself is the crux of his post. But the inherent value of teaching literature is what interests me here. And what kind of teaching and learning (topics, approach, structure, etc) would help it fulfill the expectations of college education, such as acquiring critical thinking abilities and intellectual independence.

There are trends in teaching literature in college, too. Currently, the tide has gone from chronological and nation-specific surveys (say, medieval English literature) to specific trans-national topics (say, death and renewal in colonial culture) or non-canonical genres and authors (namely, Bob Dylan’s poetry or pamphlets and public rhetoric of the French Revolution).

These generational changes in interest and focus in the teaching of literature are understandable and welcome. And they have always taken place. They provide the necessary attention to neglected area of intellectual inquiry. And they also teach us new ways to see the world. But are they adequate in fulfilling their broader educational mission?

Some professors think that specific courses, say, those dedicated to a single author, give more time and chance to discuss details and understand texts and, as a consequence, develop multidimensional critical thinking on a subject matter. With their interest in non-canonical texts, they give the opportunity to think out of the box.

However, to shatter stereotypes you need to have them in the first place. Unfortunately, undergraduate students often don’t have  the canonical even if stereotypical basic knowledge college is supposed to build on, or shatter. Also, some professors who maintain that broad surveys may not afford the chance to delve into texts, but they help students develop a basic sense of orientation within intellectual history. They give an empowering overview of the broader context of culture. They are important in terms of the skills they can teach, not just the information they impart.

In an ideal world, I would require both kinds of courses.

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7 responses to “Survey courses in literature vs. Bob Dylan

  1. Dean noticed that article by Stanley Fish too, and mentioned it to me. Dean said, “would you look at that! All that talk in his earlier years about there being no actual texts but only the reader’s responses to them, (see “Is there a text in this class?” http://books.google.com/books?id=bYBso1t4ylcC&dq=stanley+fish+is+there+a+text+in+this+class&printsec=frontcover&source=bl&ots=k6DZIJN5qG&sig=ERAaLI_awPTABAqBv50jfZC3MaE&hl=en&ei=RiWqSsvLLY2TnQeQnPihBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1#v=onepage&q=&f=false
    and now he’s saying that we need standards?

    There’s a deep irony here. Twenty years ago, Fish claimed writing does not have intrinsic meaning, now he wants students to write more. Why? It doesn’t mean anything …

    Fish and critics like him did a lot of damage to the English department. Trying to correct his previous untruths and say, in a round about way, that he was wrong doesn’t cut it with me.

    Words mean something. Texts mean something. I would feel better if Fish stuck to his earlier claims, which made him, for me, one of the Enemy in critical thinking — but if he’s going to back off his earlier thought, he needs to explicitly say so, not just publish new, contradictory work.

  2. Well, he says he’s been teaching composition and writing all his academic life, apparently.

    What I was puzzled about was not his assumption that texts have meaning, which I thought he agreed with, but his practice of teaching sentences while pretending to teach composition. Sentences are not writing, after all.

    Yes, there is lots of irony in the fact that he insists in teaching “good” writing while claiming that the actual meaning of a text is not accessible to its readers…

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  4. I agree that both types of courses would be preferable. A non-English major in college, I had to take two English-department courses: a writing class and any other class in the department concerning the interpretation of literature. Both had a narrow focus, and I would have preferred to graduate with a better understanding of the canon of literature than I did.

    As far as writing goes, I understand Fish when he says that people do not know how to write sentences. On more than one occasion I have heard one of my peers complain about how teachers are too picky over grammar. My understanding of grammar is fairly good, either by intuition or by excessive reading; I know that all those grammar rules actually make sense. They should be followed, just as the rules of math must be followed to solve an algebra problem. It is unfortunately true, however, that it is possible to communicate verbally with bad grammar, whereas one can nearly never get the right answer with bad math.

    If I remember correctly, with Fish it is not so much that the meaning of the text is inaccessible to the readers, but that the meaning of the text is driven by the person reading it and his cultural/academic background instead of being contained within the text itself. Since readers and cultures will interpret the text differently, there is no “true” meaning in the text. The philosophical implications of this train of thought for the study of literature are tremendous and, to many, very problematic.

  5. Welcome, Suellen, and thank you for the comment!

    I have to say I haven’t had the chance to read student papers written in English, so I can’t say much about their little grammar catastrophes… However, I’ve heard that study of grammar has been largely abandoned in pre-college education. It’s sad and it really has to be remedied in college if high school has failed in that area.

    But he shouldn’t call those remedial courses he is teaching “writing courses”. He can call them what they are, grammar courses, but writing is something totally different. I just read an article today about the problems with paper-mill websites where students purchase papers to turn in for their classes. While the authors laughed at the mediocrity of those papers, their biggest problems were not grammar or even syntax. It’s their pretentious or helpless vocabulary, lack of connection between sentences and generally going in circles without the ability to construct a decent argument that makes sense. Writing is more about the paragraph than about the grammar of a sentence. If not about the whole text.

    Yes, I should have elaborated more to say that indeed Fish posits that every reader and society would interpret a text in a different way and that won’t be the “true” meaning implied in it by the author or the cultural context that helped produce it. I had a very brusque experience with that when, upon coming to this country, I discovered that classic texts have been given a very different interpretation here compared to the interpretation I grew up with. And classics are constantly re-evaluated, too. Most of the texts we revere as classic today were understood very differently in the time they were first written. Who knows what the future holds for that…

  6. Roger Conner Jr

    chronotopist says, “Most of the texts we revere as classic today were understood very differently in the time they were first written.”

    Is that really true? I would love to hear of some examples in which revered texts have “changed” to such a great degree…would “Macbeth” be so different to the audience who first saw it performed on the stage than it would appear to us today? Do we not hear today the same longing for one last chance at relevance and redemption, the desire for advanture, romance and meaning that Cervantes first intended with “Don Quixote “? It can be argued that interpretations have changed based on Fruedian theory, Marxist criticism, deconstructionism, etc, but the core meaning of the text still holds. This is why the great classics are still relevant today. The great classics are a display not of a narrow viewpoint, but are instead showcases of the expressive power of language when used correctly. This is what we should look for in great literature: The use of the medium of language to capture the human condition with all of its paradoxes and mysteries in a work of art to compel thought and reflection by the reader (or viewer in the case of theatre or cinema). The goal is expand consciousness in the reader. The argument is over what truly defines constructively expanded consciousness.

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