Book Review: Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature (2003)

Beyond this internet space, I am in a face2face pedagogy reading group with some other instructors who are trying to rethink how we do what we do in the literature classroom, despite no formal training in teaching literature. We have read several books and articles that failed to provide what we are seeking. Excited by the promise of practical approaches in the introduction and let down by the bait and switch where the practical is lost to the theoretical, we were left with a what-just-happened-to-us sense of confusion.

Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about pedagogy as theory, and it guides much of my practice. But I want more. I want to see the practical. See it fail. See it succeed. See it step-by-step. See it provide unexpected results.

There have been some successful reads, though! Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature (2003) offers some very practical approaches for the literature classroom that maybe helpful to college level literature instructors at various stages in their careers, but particularly newer teachers.

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The conversational tone of the entire book, which is at times very humorous, and the personal reflections embrace and normalize insecurities connected to teaching. There is an element of brutal honesty—teaching is extremely challenging and should be—balanced with a positive outlook. Showalter relies heavily on the experiences and approaches of countless professors at various stages in their careers to provide a range of assignments and examples.

While Showalter has been criticized for the book focusing on breadth and being too anecdotal, I actually find those elements to be the most appealing. (I would also note that there is an entire chapter dedicated to theories of teaching and another to methods of teaching.) When she describes assignments she provides just enough information to send us in a direction for building our own version of the assignment for our own objectives without being overly prescriptive. Additionally, this approach poses some open questions without clear answers because those are variables based on each individual’s pedagogical outlook.

 

The most practical of the approaches to teaching literature provided are in the chapters broken down by genre. This is effective because each genre presents its own set of challenges in the classroom.

Poetry

Showalter presents some of the difficulties students have with poetry from literally understanding verse to questioning its relevance. However, poetry offers easy ways to directly engage students in learning because it is a genre that lends itself to creative assignments and hands on approaches. Suggestions for teaching practices include: the technical (heavy us of literary terms or manipulating a specific form to understand how it works), the historical (organizing courses by various genres of poetry to see their progression or situating poems concretely in the moment they came out of), the oral (reading aloud, or memorizing, or reciting), the lecture (as a way of teaching students how to move through a poem), the composition (the common place book creates found poems, writing poetry that imitates an author’s as an individual assignment or a larger portfolio reflecting the whole semester), and the comparison (compare a poem to a piece of prose on the same theme or compare a poem with song lyrics). All of these approaches focus on helping students become more comfortable with poetry and see it in many different ways.

Fiction

Showalter considers the different supplements instructors can bring to fiction in order to enhance student investment in the text and different course organizations.

There are reflections on the benefits and shortcomings of organizing course by author or by theme or by period or by subgenres. Along with these ruminations on type of content, there is a discussion of length and amount of texts. The concerns over the length of novels seems particular to student populations; for example, if students are employed fulltime and/or are parents, they number of pages they could read daily would be less. A solution is to slow down, teach fewer novels, and really develop students’ close-reading practices: daily journal entries that focus on a very small portion of the text can be used to change the way students read.

Some practical approaches involve using film clips for comparative purposes or to help students consider narrative approaches, thinking about the experience of readers and writers during the time of the texts publication (asking students to read by candle light for 10 minutes and reflect on the experience when teaching a novel from the 18th century), and treat it as though it were poetry or a play.

This chapter would be better titled Teaching the Novel because there is little to no mention of short stories. Instead, the main content of this section is structuring and treating a course on the novel as though it was a novel itself and the instructor is the narrator. The shortness of short stories makes them easier to manage in the classroom, and the layout Showalter provides for a course on the novel could be adapted to a class period or two for teaching a short story.

Drama

This is by far the weakest sections of the book. The most effective way of teaching plays is to perform them. The end.

Is drama under taught in English departments? Like everything, it depends on the department. But, the lack of space dedicated to and lack of approaches to teaching plays is a significant shortcoming of the book and makes me question drama’s status in the classroom, as well as the field.

 

Teaching approaches that focus on engaging students directly with the form and construction of the texts appear to be the most prevalent and productive based on all of those whose assignments were included in Teaching Literature. One of the implicit claims Showalter makes is that students’ discomfort with form can create barriers that limit how far they can go with the content of the texts. For more specifics, check out the book!

While many of these practices are already in practice in our classrooms, there are a couple assignments I will be borrowing and trying out with my students next semester.

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