How and Why I Teach Literature
Across the three decades I have taught at various universities,
I’ve been moved and sustained by a small number of considerations, most of which
no longer carry much weight (if they ever did) in those institutional settings.
Human beings have been doing unusual things with the same words they use for everyday communication for as long as they’ve been aware of this thing we call “language.” Maybe longer. We can only guess at what motivated the earliest users of literary language: the makers of myth and communicators of ancient story and legend. The building up of cultures and religions and big meanings out of those sorts of narratives had to have been a serious business in some ways, but pleasure could never have been far from the top of the list, either. Just look at the book of Jonah, whose serious message is carried by a comic gem of story, which beautifully caricatures the sober prophetic careers of an Elijah or an Isaiah.
The very serious authorities responsible for including Jonah in the canon of Jewish and Christian scriptures can never have really got the joke.
I would suggest, tentatively (and with an awareness of many honorable exceptions), that those who take up the professional study and analysis of what we now call “literature,” commonly in the institutional setting of the modern university, often stand in a comparable plight, for far different reasons. Chronically difficult issues of funding and administration have led those who manage university policy to emphasise research that attracts funding (no surprise here) as just about the only measure of academic success and preferment.
A piece of collateral damage in all of this has been the radical devaluation of teaching on the agendas of deans and department heads at universities around the world. They will all insist otherwise (particularly in their publicity), but it just isn’t so. A hiring committee, faced with making a choice between a inspired and inspiring teacher with an indifferent research record and a researcher with a strong track-record of landing research grants will choose the latter every time, with little serious regard for any evidence of his or her teaching abilities. They have scarcely any choice, given the material considerations they must address.
On top of these institutional issues, the last fifty or sixty years of literary scholarship in Europe and America and elsewhere have seen a succession of revolutions in what is now called “critical theory.” Each of these revolutions has made some sort of valuable contribution to our understanding of literary texts and how they work, but as a whole their various proponents have tended to emphasize a bewildering variety of abstractions and quasi-scientific theorizings that have called the whole traditional notion of “literature” into question. They have their reasons, but I have my own for resisting the urge to stand back and analyze literature as though it were pinned down on the anatomist’s dissection tray.
Across my own career as a literary scholar, I have found that discussing literature with students has been the best “research” I know or need to know. All of my most satisfying insights into those texts that matter most to me have taken shape in how I’ve learned to understand and communicate their workings to less experienced readers. The intense pleasure I take in such texts is my only reason for taking them up in the first place, and communicating that pleasure to others, as clearly and thoughtfully and engagingly as I can, the only sane and worthwhile thing I can see to do with them.
In institutional settings, the notion that literature constitutes a “subject” or a “syllabus” in which hopeful and anxious degree candidates must be assessed and sorted into statistically distributed categories of formal achievement is a very recent historical aberration. It is a necessary evil, since those institutions must somehow demonstrate that they are making making good and proper use of the funds they are allocated by public and private bodies and offer some valid measure of student progress. But necessary evils don’t become goods by being necessary, alas.
It is my almost constant experience—in the teaching of literature, at least—that the pressures and anxieties attendant on the most benign assessment scheme imaginable tend to narrow and choke off real, lasting learning. The deepest engagements with any literary text arise from an expansive, relaxed and disinterested delight in the dance of sound, word and meaning they embody. That delight, and communicating it to my students, has been my primary concern in all my dealings with those literatures, ancient to modern, I have worked with and taught. But the current temper of university administration has made it increasingly difficult—indeed, almost impossible during the last few years—for me to find any kind of university position where I can teach what I love in the way I most love to teach it.
It is for all of these reasons—and at the urging of many of my present and former students, to whom I owe an immense debt of gratitude for their continued enthusiasm and encouragement—that I have begun offering courses to the public under the banner of The Melbourne Literature Seminars. In a relaxed, non-institutional setting, I hope we can all share the delight, the wonder, and the sheer unadulterated fun of getting ourselves acquainted with some of the most beautiful, profound and entertaining productions of human verbal invention I have had the privilege to work (and play!) with.
That’ll do for a mission statement. Let these our revels now begin . . .