On some of the theory of teaching literature

This post is a little different from the norm: it’s a short statement of what I think of the teaching of literature, its theory as much as its practice. If you’ve read much of my stuff here you’ll see where these ideas come from and how they apply to fantasy literature (I hope).

The teaching of literature is a simple thing, but it is about so many things that it appears complicated. Like literature itself. The first consideration is technical. It begins by teaching one to read, and continues in that way for the rest of one’s life. Practical considerations come first. What the characters do and how the plot runs, or what the poem states outright and whether it rhymes, these are the obvious foundational things. Often in a class these things will be assumed learned already. That may be true. It may not be. But beyond them the technical concerns are, for instance, how a poem rhymes – in an English style or an Italian one? How many syllables make up the bits and pieces that we regard as the building blocks of the poem? Does the story’s plot go from beginning to end, or does it flash around? Does it do so quickly or deliberately? Unless the film leaves it as a mystery, can we all agree that a certain character is dead and another is alive?

Keep going with this and you get to the basics of the simplest form of teaching literature – simplest because first. Is this statement a metaphor? Can you tell what it points to (like one of Donne’s love poems, in which a protractor stands pretty obviously for the bond between lovers)? Contrast that with Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, in which the “A” on Hester’s chest is a mystery and, incidentally, something some scholars call “overdetermined” – which means simply that it appears to be deliberately pointing at so many things at once that it is a symbol without a referent. A word without a meaning (one word points to one meaning as an idea is an oversimplification of how language appears to work when you pay attention to it, by the way. And I have to explain that simply to still be honest with you, because I’m the one who brought up the example in the first place).

It goes on with more than symbols and metaphors. Old English used something called “head rhyme.” It alliterates, which means that the beginnings of words, close together, start with the same sounds, usually consonant sounds (actually, two words that begin with similar vowel sounds are said to be “assonant” rather than “alliterative,” which refers only to consonant sounds). Old English poems valued a different kind of “rhyming.” We’re used to rhymes being at the ends of words. So in preparation of reading Old English poetry we would need to talk about all the stuff I just talked about.

A lot of the technical things taught about literature are meant to prepare one to go on to more advanced things. Those things tend to have to do, one way or another, with asking one question: “so what?” Why is this poem or play important? I don’t mean on the level of “why study it?” but instead, “I have studied it. Now what?” Some people will tell you that each piece of literature you study adds to your life. In the sense that it was an experience in your life, that is true. But then again, so was that expensive bill you had to pay or that date gone terribly wrong.

You might imagine that the answer to the question of “why” emerges, in some way, from the technical methods described previously. Yes. Literature is linguistic – which is pretty much the only thing that separates it from film, video games, and downtempo music (notice I didn’t say anything about quality – also notice that both film and video games probably have words in them). Literature uses language, and its methods are those of language. So a metaphor works, as we saw above, like a word does. Simply, a metaphor is a symbol that points to something else and that pointing makes meaning. Like the word “tree” pointing at a type of object. It only has meaning as a word if both speaker and listener know what the word means. A metaphor, too, only has meaning if the reader knows what it means (you’ll notice I didn’t include the writer there. Reading privileges the reader, and as readers that’s what we’re most interested in).

So – “so what?”   Well, symbols work because they are surrounded my so much interconnected meaning that they themselves mean something, like how “tree” is surrounded by other words that mean different things and the agreement of people trading words back and forth. A symbol in a book is surrounded by the rest of the book. That symbol is repeated and referred to so often that it gains a meaning, but it isn’t passed on as rote or simply as a single word. So the reading of literature is taking part in a “new” (to you) meaning-making thing. That’s why fans of the Lord of the Rings think of rings differently than other people. One ring, in particular, came to be a symbol as they read that book. Meaning has been created, and added to the way those readers think of the world. Literature is one of many things (paintings, movies, rap albums, sculptures, so on, so forth) that create meaning in lives. Our lives are all shaped by these meanings – and, perhaps more importantly, by other meaning-making symbols, outside literature and basic language-use. A symbol may be used to manipulate people or to inspire them (which may be a form of manipulation). So, on a simple level, learning to read literature more skillfully may help you deal with symbols and other meaning-making devices everywhere in your life.

But you can also use literature proactively once you are practiced at reading it well. If the things you read make meaning in your life and go on to shape it, and you can understand that process, as it happens and afterwards, then you can begin to shape your own life, willfully and purposefully. You can make your own symbols, or borrow those from books and movies and comics that you like best, then invest them with meaning in the way you learned literature does.

That is one philosophy of literature, and the one I use. It’s the one I teach with and the one I write with. It starts with words and symbols, and then ends with meaning and creation and the active shaping of what, for lack of a better word, we call one’s destiny.

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