Making Room for BIG Books

Despite what some students might think, a semester is really short!

All instructors know the feeling of wanting to cover more material than a semester can actually hold. As a result, perhaps especially in survey or genre courses potentially covering centuries of literature, we often opt to teach shorter-length works or excerpts from longer works. While this gives us the satisfaction of “covering more ground” and the assurance that students will (hopefully) complete assigned readings, doesn’t a BIG part of literary study involve reading BIG books?

While I don’t have a rigid definition in mind of what constitutes “big” or “long,” I generally mean works, usually novels, of 400+ pages.  I know people have different educational experiences, but when I reflect on both my high school and college careers, I realize I didn’t read many “big” or “long” works at all. It wasn’t until graduate school that I was regularly assigned long novels in my classes.

Throughout college, I found that most of my long novel reading was non-assigned. If my instructors mentioned important canonical works in class, I often made a point to find them in the library and read them during my free time or during winter/summer breaks. BIG BOOKs

There are certainly still self-motivated students who read a lot on their own time, but they’re not necessarily reading “big” books. Also, many students, despite the desire to read more, really don’t have the time to do so between taking classes or working.

If experience and training in reading “big” books is essential to the development of English majors, and average English majors can’t fit “big” books in on their own time, then it’s important to make room for “big” books in our courses whenever we can. I try to incorporate at least one long novel into each of my literature classes.

Of course, making room for a 400+ page novel is easier said than done, and both instructors and students have their concerns. While I speak on behalf of common instructor concerns below, I interviewed several former students who read “long” novels in my classes to get a better idea of their perspectives (I paraphrase much of their commentary below for the sake of format).

Instructor Concerns about Course Objectives: I have a lot of historical ground to cover, so can I replace several shorter works with one longer work and still convey historical developments? It’s also important for my class to convey stylistic range and authorial diversity, so can I really afford to sacrifice any voices?

My Response: Meeting course objectives is generally non-negotiable. In survey courses or courses where diversity is an essential objective, including a “big” book may not be feasible.  However, I usually only include one long novel per applicable class, so there is still room to include shorter length works and diverse range of voices.

Instructor Concerns about Pacing: How much class time do I need to devote to a long novel? How much reading can I expect students to complete for each class? Will my students even read a long novel through to the end?

Student Concerns about Pacing: How long are we spending with this huge novel? Will I have enough time to read, or will I have to skim? Will the language and style be readable or difficult? Will the subject matter be hard to understand? If we’re only spending two weeks on it, how much of the material will we actually cover during class? Is it worth putting in all the time to read a huge novel if we’re only spending a couple weeks on it?

Response: Several semesters ago, I considered including Moby-Dick in a genre class on the novel. A seasoned colleague told me not to bother. He said, “It’s too long and too old. No one will read it.” I think it’s unfair to assume that students simply won’t complete an assigned work just because it’s too long or too old. We all know that students don’t always complete readings, even when they’re short and contemporary.

Moby Dick

Upon talking to students, I’m most compelled by a frustration they share. Many students are not, despite popular belief, frustrated by a large quantity of reading, but by the disproportional amount of class time devoted to discussing a large quantity of reading. Students are practical about their time, and I can’t blame them. When students invest a lot of time in reading, they want to see a return on that investment by discussing material comprehensively in class. It makes sense that students will invest more in a text that takes up a month of class time rather than a week.  As my students explain, regardless of length, it’s frustrating to read something that goes unaddressed during class.

The ability to complete readings successfully is dependent upon slow pacing, which prevents students from rushing or skimming through a narrative and feeling “mixed up” or “hazy” on points during discussion.  When more class time is devoted to a work, students are not only more likely to finish reading but also to have a stronger comprehension of what they read.

Additionally, the students I interviewed expressed enthusiasm about having extended class time to think “more deeply” about a work, cover “more territory,” and explore “diverse perspectives” during discussion. Even in advanced classes where strong students could reasonably be expected to complete 200-300 pages of reading in a week, it’s unlikely we could do more than scratch the surface of those 300 pages in a week’s worth of discussion.

In matters of pacing, instructors also need to consider the language, style, and density of the material. For example, I usually spend four to five weeks on John Steinbeck’s 600ish page novel East of Eden, but I usually spend six to seven weeks on an older work like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, even though it’s about 150ish pages shorter than Steinbeck’s novel.  While students find that Steinbeck’s narrative is written in readable and mostly conversational contemporary English, students find that Cooper’s long-winded language and convoluted writing style slow down the reading pace.

East of Edenlast of the mohicans

Instructor Concerns about Placement: Where should I position a “long” novel on my syllabus? Is it better to start or finish a class with a “long” novel?

Student Concerns about Placement: Will I have to read a “long” novel during the busiest parts of my semester? Will I feel overwhelmed with all the work I have to do?

Response: I have positioned long novels at the beginning (for reasons of historical chronology), middle, and end of courses, and my experiences have been most successful when placing long novels at the end of a semester. I discovered insight as to why through student interview. As I’ve already addressed, reading “big” books isn’t exactly common practice for most students, so seeing a “long” novel assigned in a class can be feel overwhelming and intimidating. Therefore, throwing students into the “deep end” of the “lengthy literature pool” at the start of the semester isn’t ideal.

Students also disclosed a preference for starting with shorter works, not only to build up reading “endurance” and confidence, but also to get comfortable with the dynamics of group discussion in a given class.  Students are usually comfortable with reading practices and class dynamics by mid-semester, but it’s best to wait until after the chaos of midterms to start a long work. Also, students noted that while they are busy at the end of the semester, most exams and papers are due after classes end. Slowly working through a long novel in the final weeks of a semester, therefore, can feel more “therapeutic” than “taxing.”

Instructor Concerns about Value: Will assigning a long novel be worth it? Will my students really gain anything from the experience?

Student Concerns about Value: Will reading a long novel be worth it? Will I really gain anything from the experience?

Response: When I asked students how they felt after completing a long novel, they agreed that the overall experience is rewarding.  One student noted, “I feel accomplished when I finish a long novel; there is some sort of pride rooted in the ability to complete a task that at first seemed daunting and almost overwhelming.” Another student noted, “After finishing a long novel, the initial feeling that follows is relief. Then, accomplishment–I actually completed something!…If a novel is special enough, something about me changes afterward.”

BIG BOOKS 3

A BIG part of making sure a BIG book is a BIG hit is generating enthusiasm about the experience throughout the semester. It’s important for students to think of a long novel at the end of the semester as a “grand finale,” not a “final punishment.” Additionally, it’s important to stress that the group will work through the text slowly and that, as the instructor, you’ll be there to walk them through it all. These kinds of consistent prefatory remarks will help students feel (at least) a little better about a task that for many will be a totally new experience.

Do you teach “big” books? If so, what “big” books do you include in your classes? Where do you position them, and how long do you spend with them? How do your students engage with “big” books?

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Reflections on Teaching Style in Short Stories

PALS Note: We are kicking off the new year with a guest post from Larry S. Su, who is a professor of English at the City Colleges of Chicago. Su shares his approach to bringing students’ attention to style in fiction with William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” as an example.

When discussing a short story, students usually understand the literary elements such as conflicts, characters, setting, point of view, theme, and style. Often style comes last on the list, and when it finally gets its turn for discussion, the class is almost approaching its end, leaving little or almost no time to analyze the author’s use of language, thus leading to students’ neglect or ignorance in this very important aspect of the story. However, style is an integral part of the story. Without a good understanding of it, students’ understanding of the story’s other elements is hampered. In this short essay, I’d like to share some of my experiences in teaching style in short stories.

Style is often described as the author’s characteristic way of using language to create literature. It is the writer’s habitual use of certain rhetorical patterns, including sentence length and complexity, word choice and placement, and punctuation. The definition does not sound complex; however, it is not easy to do an analysis of style in a story. Other than the lack of time as mentioned above, there are three other reasons why style is often under-discussed. The first is students’ lack of interest. To discuss style is not as interesting as discussing the story’s conflicts, characters or themes. It seems that students are always invested more in discovering and debating what happens in the story, how the characters engage in conflicts, and what the story tells them, than in discussing how the author puts words and sentences into best use for thematic and stylistic effects. Second, as native speakers, students often take language for granted. They often do not pay much attention to how literary language is different from the colloquial language. Even if they notice some differences, they often gloss them over. Third and the most important, students do not have the terms or vocabulary to discuss style. The limited knowledge they have about grammar and punctuation is not enough to help them appreciate the author’s literary language and be able to discuss its effectiveness and creativity.

barn-burning

Look at an episode from William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning”:

The nights were still cool and they had a fire against it, a rail lifted from a nearly fence and cut into lengths—a small fire, neat, niggard almost, a shrewd fire; such fires were his father’s habit and custom always, even in freezing weather. Older, the boy might have remarked this and wondered why not a big one; why should not a man who had not only seen the waste and extravagance of war, but who had in his blood an inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own, have burned everything in sight? Then he might have gone a step farther and thought that that was the reason: that niggard blaze was the living fruit of the nights passed during those four years in the woods hiding from all men, blue and gray, with his strings of horses (captured horses, he called them). And older still, he might have divined the true reason: that the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being, as the element of steel or powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion. (239)

Here is how I draw students’ attention to the passage’s stylistic features: This passage has both the boy’s observations and reflections. While the observations are from the boy’s perspective, the reflections are from the point of view of a much older Sartoris who is sophisticated enough years later to interpret his father’s proclivity for fire. The majority of the passage is on the older Sartoris’s meditation on his father’s addiction to burning other people’s properties. To accommodate such a perception, the words are formal and in places abstract and philosophical. For example, the fire is described as “neat,” “niggard,” and “shrewd”; the fires are his father’s “habit and custom always”; in his father’s blood there is an “inherent voracious prodigality with material not his own”; the fire is the “living fruit of nights” to help his father to pass the four years of the Civil War; the fire speaks to “some deep mainspring of his father’s being…the one weapon for the preservation of integrity.” Such words, chosen with precision, aim to explain why fire is important to his father’s being and how he develops that character in his life. In other words, the fire is in his genes. He lives by it and will perish by it. Notice the elevated status of words like “inherent voracious prodigality,” “divined,” “being,” and “integrity” and how they help to capture his philosophy of life and his practice of it.

Syntactically, the sentences are long and complex with many clauses and phrases as modifiers, showing again Faulkner’s effort to use as accurate words and appropriate syntax as possible to reveal the father to readers. The passage uses three subjunctive clauses in a row: “The boy might have remarked,” “he might have gone a step farther,” and “he might have divined the real reason” to show discrepancy between Sartoris’s current status of mind and his future mental capability. Namely, as it stands now, Sartoris, young as he is, is not able to understand his father’s behavior, but when he is an adult, he will be able to make the connections and understand his father’s real motive for burning barns. This cluster of subjunctives shows in gradation Sartoris’s growth of intelligence and his final understanding of his father. Through his older and mature eyes, the readers can also gain understanding of his father’s complexity. This is Faulkner’s masterful use of style in action. Commenting on the mixed consciousness of the two narrators, James Ferguson writes, “The tensions between the awareness of the boy and the information supplied by the authorial voice undergird and emphasize the conflicts between youth and age, innocence and sophistication, intuition and abstraction, decency and corruption, all of which lie at the core of the work” (96). Thus the two perceptions and styles complement and enrich each other, helping readers to gain a deep insight into his father’s psyche.

Faulkner also uses several figures of speech in the passage. For example, he personifies the fire as “neat, niggard, and shrewd,” a characteristic similar to that of his father who, before he commits his last burning, is “still in the hat and coat, at once formal and burlesque as though dressed carefully for some shabby and ceremonial violence” (249). Faulkner also uses several similes and metaphors to compare Abner’s desire for burning as “the living fruit of nights…the deep mainspring of his father’s being…as the element of steel and powder…as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity.” Such similes and metaphors make specific and understandable the abstract qualities of Abner. The images of living fruit, mainspring, steel, powder and weapon get deep into his father’s psyche: His strength, pride, resilience, and power. The passage as a whole stands out as a testimony of not only Abner’s multidimensional and complex personality but also Faulkner’s masterful command of style to bring Abner vividly to readers.

The detailed analyses I outlined above should be practiced in the beginning weeks of the semester so that students know how to conduct a stylistic analysis. Here I offer five suggestions:

First, read it aloud: Short stories are written not just to be read silently; they should also be read aloud so that readers can better appreciate the author’s use of syntax, rhythm, rhyme, tone, and irony.

Second, instructor-led discussion is very important: As has been mentioned before, students often lack experience and practice in discussing style of a particular story; therefore, it is important for the instructor to demonstrate by many examples how to conduct a stylistic analysis of a short story, how to select certain sections of the story for a close analysis of its diction, syntax, and use of the figures of speech. Such discussion and practice should be conducted daily in the discussion of the story. Or at least the instructor should lead students 3-4 times so that they eventually know the steps and can do the analysis themselves.

Third, analyze the style of a particular work: Choose a story that you particularly like and analyze its choice of words, its use of sentences—length, variety, complexity, simple, compound, complex — and the creative use of language such as simile, metaphor, personification, symbol, etc. Discuss how style is an integral part of the story and helps readers understand the story as a whole. Such exercises seem to take students away from the heated discussions on the conflicts, characters, and themes; students might show lack of interest in the beginning, but they really call students’ attention to the author’s style, and once they understand its importance and master the skills to do stylistic analysis, they actually enjoy it.

Fourth, assign compare and contrast exercises on style. Choose two writers that are similar or different in style. Stand them side by side and make a chart of their similarities and/or differences in word choice, syntax, and creative use of language. Suggested writers of similar writing styles can include Anton Chekhov, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, or Carver; writers who focus on the exploration of characters’ inner worlds can include Nathaniel Hawthorne, Willa Cather, and Faulkner. Writers who push language to its limits and exploit its liberty and creativity can include Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison. Writers with contrasting styles can include Faulkner and Hemingway.

Fifth, use creative writing exercises to practice style: Either imitate the style of a particular writer or design assignments that give students opportunities to practice style. For instance, “Barn Burning” is mostly told from Sartoris’s point of view. How about narrating it from the father’s point of view? What kind of sensibility, diction, syntax, or tone should be used? The same can be done with “A Small, Good Thing.” What if it is told from a third person omniscient point of view when the narrator is given the privilege to get into the emotions of the couple and is able to describe in explicit details their devastation and loss? Or design a creative writing assignment to ask students to describe a college campus as seen through the eyes of three new campus community members from different groups. Use words and sentences that are appropriate to their educational levels and range of life experiences.

Contributor Bio:
photo-4Larry S. Su, PhD, is professor of English at the City Colleges of Chicago teaching American literature and composition. The literature courses he has taught include Survey of American Literature, Appreciation of Novels in English, Early 20th Century American Literature, Contemporary American Literature, and Introduction to Literature. He has published seven academic articles, two book reviews, and over a dozen essays.