Thursday, August 26, 2010

What does it mean to put text on trial?

I have begun this blog, because this is my second academic book. And I'm doing things for this book that I am not sure the discipline of English allows me to do. Which is why it's so much fun. I love books. I adore literature. And I love teaching. I even flatter myself from time to time, by saying that I'm pretty good at it. At the very least I teach literature better than I can aim an M-16, which I learned when I failed my Army qualifications twice in a row at Fort Leonard Wood. If you need me to hit a jihadist 175 meters away with an M-203 and nail him within the five-meter kill radius of a fragmentation grenade, you would probably do better to look elsewhere. But if you need someone to make sense of Walt Whitman using a New Testament scripture, clips of America's Next Top Model, an overhead projector and three blue magic markers, I'm your man.

So why have literary study and the literature classroom become so dreary? Why is it that whenever I have those great classroom moments -- those moments when my students and I are stumbling into a brilliant insight -- I am more often than not engaging in something unprofessional? We aren't following MLA guidelines, or we're reproducing the dominant ideology, or we're violating the gods of "close reading" (a term used by other scholars akin to believing in God or being a tax-paying citizen), or we're constructing a straw man argument, or we're being insensitive to some constituency that's not even in the classroom, or we're being "facile" and misapplying some theorist. Dear God, I know that English is a discipline. I know my favorite philosopher, Michel Foucault, has made it clear that disciplines do this: They regiment and tame our bodies, often by first regimenting and taming our thought process. Disciplines brainwash and castigate us. Which explains why literary study so often feels like a drag, unless you do something that the profession says you ought not to do. But if this is all the matter of discipline, why can't it at least be as fun as marching in formation and chanting the Army cadence, "Drive on, first platoon"? Why has the literature classroom become so laborious?

If anything should be laborious, it shouldn't be the profession of teaching literature, since the scholars and students who flock to English classes are a motley but lovable tribe of hedonists, daydreamers, slackers, and drama queens. If only as a profession we could admit that we aren't Engineering majors and we don't fit in with business models, we might let literature breathe and everyone could be a lot less annoyed when they engage in the heavenly act of reading.

Therein lies my book. Two classroom scenarios play a central role in this book. The first is a negative one, the second a positive one. To get to the second, though, you have to get through the first, so you understand the underlying tension in literature classrooms.

Let me begin by asking you to close your eyes. Wait, no, don't do that, because then you can't keep on reading. Just concentrate. Picture this: A literature teacher stands in front of 32 college students. The teacher talks about a Great Book. Not just any old thing you'd pick up at the drugstore, some "classic" or "masterpiece" that the teacher has studied, strenuously, for a third to a fourth of his life. Maybe he has stubble because he was too busy thinking about this book to shave. He probably voted for Obama. He takes the notion of progress very seriously and believes, intuitively, that teaching literature is part of bringing about social change, if not on a massive level, at least in some small way. He loves the book he's teaching, and thinks it affirms what he believes. He's an idealist, even if he scoffs at the notion of being naive.

And his students are there for a bunch of reasons, many of which do not have to do with loving the book as much as the teacher does. Some are there because they want to be creative writers, and they tolerate other people's writing only to the extent that they think they can find a few gimmicks to pilfer. A few are there because there was no other class with available seats at the time they needed. Some are there because it's a requirement. One or two confused Coolidge Hall and Coleridge Hall, and should actually be in Engineering 259, not English 492 (they'll figure it out soon enough.) Then a bunch thought the teacher was cute but gave little thought to what he actually had in mind, academically speaking.

So with this uncomfortable asymmetry between a teacher who loves what he's teaching, and students who wonder what the big deal is (I mean, really, Macbeth, a good play?), one must a semster make. Therein lies one of the great secrets that pedagogues are desperate to unlock. This is not a universal problem, for there will always be those students who love reading and enjoy the classroom experiences. For around 75% of a class, however, the instructor has to find a trick. Calgon won't help.

One of the typical standoffs in an English class occurs when students, who are struggling to connect with the Great Book, grasp onto the thing most immediately accessible to them--which is usually their judgment of characters' moral decisions. If iambic pentameter is too arcane, the student wants to talk about whether the Shakespeare protagonist did the right thing or not. And the teacher, who suddenly sees the object of his painstaking intellectual labor reduced to a commonsense judgment call that anyone off the street could have decided, feels his expertise threatened. His reaction may be to reach further into what he knows better than the students know, which is aesthetics, a general and disputed term that refers to the artistry of the language in a text, its delicacies, its subtleties and nuances which can only be understood fully through sustained scholarship. The students, confronted with complex aesthetical questions they cannot digest, retreat further into what they know as well as the teacher knows, the commonsense moral compass earned through experience and intuition. I call the latter realm ethics, for it is a matter of judgment that, while fair to philosophize, is also fairly easy to understand through the lens of people's past experiences.

Too many impasses between students and teachers are impasses of aesthetical versus ethical concerns. The two realms are hopelessly interlocked and impossible to divorce. But when the scholar wields expertise against the student's intuitive moral judgment, it becomes undeniable where aesthetics and ethics do not overlap, where they answer to different imperatives and follow different standards.

Which brings me to the second scenario, the positive one that grows out of the first one. I found myself in one such standoff, in the fall of 1999. I assigned Bone Black, the memoirs of Bell Hooks, and found my students resistant to talking about the book's aesthetic form. They wanted, instead, to discuss whether the narrator was a good person or not. The semi-seasoned professor, already further along in life, feeds on nuance, while the students, still at the tender edge of adolescence, rely on the timeless youthful addiction to black/white, good/evil distinctions. "The appetite of the young," my old mentor Diane Christian said, "is moral." The young often prefer clarity in ethics and hate hypocrisy, while people in midlife find comfort in ambiguity and make peace with hypocrisy to survive. Aesthetics, the ambiguous world of beauty and craft, collides with ethics, the world of moral certainty.

To break us out of the impasse, back in 1999, I surrendered and held a mock trial. "Fine," I told the class. "If you want to make everything a question of right and wrong, then I'll give you a trial." They had to pick a character from the semester's reading to put on trial. They chose Scarlett O'Hara. And I gave them free reign to judge her with as much scathing moral scrutiny as they could muster. With one catch: They had to argue their case against an opposing side, and their peers would judge.

A strange thing happened during that first trial. The students suddenly owned the literature. Moral questions that appeared simple at first glance transformed into highly complex matters as the conversation unfolded. The students became passionate. As they struggled to bolster their case, they ended up relying on ambiguity and discovering the craft of language anyway. Through ethics they arrived at aesthetics and found the two inseparable. All this they did, without me having to nag them at all.

No course could be composed entirely of trials, of course. One must balance these spectacular moments with the usual weeks of lecturing and note-taking and take-home essay assignments. But trials, when placed strategically in a course schedule, accomplish a great deal. Between 1999 and 2010, I will have held a total of 40 trials, ranging from Helen of Troy and Pandora to Mrs. Gaines in William Wells Brown's Escape and Billie Holiday. The students decide the crimes and how to articulate guilt. The defenders must pick apart the language, not in legalese, but through their commonsense understanding of moral questions. Prickly philosophical problems, such as the perennial "do we judge the defendant by the standards of today or the standards of her time?", arise and enrich the learning experience. The students learn, invariably, that ethics are complicated and moral complexities are inevitably lost in aesthetic ambiguities. They also learn they can own the literature and mine enormous wisdom from it, without being prodded.

And so on this blog, I will be working through Putting Text on Trial. The next posting will be the full text of an article I published in France, corresponding to the first chapter of the book (its theoretical overview). Then I will work through each of the forty trials I oversaw, from Scarlett O'Hara in 1999 to Roxy from Puddnhead Wilson in the spring of 2009.

I invite whoever can't sleep and arrives at this lonely website to join in and comment.