Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Professional Blog, Mainly Directed At My Father

I talked to my father on the phone for two hours yesterday, yet we did not get around to the subject I am about to address here. So, to shave some time off the next call, I am going to put the foreward of what I want to talk about here. I'm putting it here instead of in an e-mail because someone else reading this may have an opinion also. But if not, that's okay. As is often the case, this blog is mainly for my father.

And here is the subject: Introduction to Non-Western Literature (the artist formerly known as "World Literature")

As I told you, I will be teaching this class in the fall. (For those of you reading this who don't know what I do for a living, I teach in the English department of a community college.) In the olden days, the course was World Literature, and it dealt with the old epics and things like that. Now, it is Non-Western Literature, and its purpose is to introduce students to the literature of non-western countries in order to give them insight into the relationships between people in our global community. A noble pursuit, and I will include it also. BUT one of the reasons I was so glad to get this class is that I've had a shocking amount of students, from the first day of class, ask if I would teach them Dante's Inferno. Only one of them wanted to read it because of the video game. The others had just heard about it, tried to read it, and found it too difficult without help. I tell you this to explain one of my reasons for designing the course to include some western literature and more of a focus on the old stuff than might be strictly appropriate.

Anyway, for all of you, here is the first part of my dilemma: I am choosing a textbook, and I very much want to teach out of the Norton Anthology of World Literature. I learned from the Norton anthologies, so their font and paper feels like "real" literature to me. They use good translators also. They are sometimes accused of being old-fashioned in their arrangements and choices, however. I can get around that, if I decide it's the case (but I won't decide it because I am so blinded by Norton love). What I can't get around is the fact that the Norton costs about $20 more than the other anthologies out there, and it's in two volumes.

I teach at a community college in a region that is suffering economically. Can I really ask my students to buy the more expensive textbook when the others have mostly the same works in them? The reason I want to have them buy the Norton is because those who are taking the class with me on purpose really want to know the epics. Some of them, in their individual Dante attempts, deliberately chose old translations to get a feeling of Literature with a capital "L," even thought that made it even harder for them to understand. I think they would love the Norton because it makes considered choices about balancing the beauty of language with accurate translation (I think)...but what of the people taking the class because they need another humanities credit and it's the only one that fits in their schedule? I'm not teaching English majors, for the most part, so they won't need to keep this book forever like we did. Still, I think it's worth it to have them read from the Norton. Do you? Or do you think I am letting my own nostalgia and bias interfere with this important decision?

And this question is REALLY for my father, but if you happen to have some insight, by all means, share it! So Daddy, you taught English at a high school with students the world expected little from, and often, they believed the world. The temptation would have been to bring in things "on their level," but instead you taught them Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare. And to this day, they come up to you at the grocery store and speak of these works as if they are the most common knowledge. How did you DO that?!

I partly know, as I was raised by you. I know that 98% of your secret is not to speak of literature as something we learn but something that is in our lives. To recite bits of it in the context of real life, whether seriously or humorously. To make it something we have together, do together, are together, not something we study. To always make time for it (or was it me you were making time for?). To make reaching for its meaning both a social occasion (I'm thinking of when you read me The Black Cat when I was about 10 years old) and an individual pursuit (like when you sent me off at 13 to read The Wanderer because it was good, and then I was proud to have something to say about it later when you asked me).

But how does that translate to a college classroom? How did it translate to a high school classroom? (Although, come to think of it, your high school students had you before I did.) How do you give them literature as a heritage, not a skill set? Because I think my students want that very much. Some of them are coming back to school after years of being away in jobs or the Army, and they want to feel Educated (capital E) besides just knowing things. Some of them are young, and came to our college because they cannot afford to leave home, or fear leaving home. But they want their minds to leave home, even if their bodies cannot. And some choose to be here with us, and I must not disappoint them in that choice. And so they deserve a big experience. I can't give them the relationship with literature that you gave me because I am not their parent, but perhaps I can give them a bit of the relationship you gave your students.

So, think how you did that, and that's what I want to talk about this week. I'll call you. My schedule is frantic, and you, as you remind me constantly are a retired gentleman farmer, a man of leisure, the lord of the manor.


  1. Wow. What good questions! I want to hear your dad's answer. I spent several years teaching English at a state college and at a small art college. I felt like I did a terrible job giving them literature as a heritage and not a skill set, even though that's what I wanted to do. I was woefully unprepared to be a teacher and I was very seldom able to translate my love for literature to an ability to inspire a similar love in my students who most often approached my classes as one more chore they had to slog through to get to their goal.

  2. Oh and I love the Nortons too and chickened out from choosing them for my class because of the costs.