Friday, November 12, 2010

Beneath the Canon, continued

When I last wrote I was awaiting approval of my proposal for a new course using electronic texts.  I will be able to offer this new course during our coming Spring term (that runs from mid-April to late May).  I will ask students to purchase an Amazon Kindle, and we will use the vast catalog of out-of-print texts as the jumping off point for our reading.  This holds both promise and anxiety, and I will write more about this as I begin preparations and try to navigate the demands.

My seminar this term (for senior English majors) has been exploring the idea of canonicity.  At issue is, I think, the very real separation between personal and academic reading.  Put simply, we read differently depending on the context -- school reading, especially for English majors, demands a level of analysis that is uncommon when civilians (I can think of no other way to describe non-academics or non-English majors) pick up a book.  Students admit that pretty readily.  The question becomes how do we enhance an interest in "school" reading while preserving the level of interest and (even) enjoyment for readers.  A recent discussion of (parts of) Janice Radway's A Feeling for Books:  The Book of the Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle Class Desire got us all thinking of contrasting (read antithetical -- even enemy) approaches to reading.  One of the ideas that my students embraced is the way that non-academic reading allows for a full range of emotional reaction.  They love the feeling of getting lost in a book and allowing the text to take them over and push them to new experience.  And they say that the harsher, clinical reading that academics do is alienating at times, even when the analysis, in the end, brings them to a better understanding of the writing or a broader knowledge of literary history or context. 

In the past I have tried to address the separation of academic and personal by suggesting that students read for class using the same approach they use for their own reading.  I don't give reading quizzes.  I don't insist that the artifacts of a culture (the books that grow out of it) are the primary means of realizing the reality of a society or its internal relationships.  But it's still the teacher telling them this.  And it's still assigned reading.  So we are never quite able to suspend the rules of academic reading (and I am not sure that I would do that if I could).  I have also resorted in this class to asking students to read three books of their own choosing and to discuss those books (why they chose them and what they got from them) in a round-table format.  It certainly has broken the form -- last week's reading moved from The Scarlet Letter to Frankenstein to Dracula to Jane Eyre to Animal Farm to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to Angela Carter, H.P. Lovecraft, Albert Camus, and David Sedaris' Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.

So we struggle.  Have quiet moments.  And, from time to time, are able to realize the power of writing.  But students don't embrace academic reading (and I am not sure that I do at times) and are always a tad suspicious of the whole process.  So it goes.  Maybe their skepticism is for the best. And maybe the dance we do when we talk about reading keeps all of us a little more honest about intentions and results.  Maybe.

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