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Teaching Literature

ISBN: 978-0-631-22624-6
176 pages
December 2002, ©2002, Wiley-Blackwell
Teaching Literature (0631226249) cover image


Teaching Literature is an inspirational guidebook for all teachers of English and American literature in higher education.
  • Written by leading academic, prolific author and cultural journalist, Elaine Showalter
  • Original and provocative reflections on teaching literature in higher education
  • Encourages teachers to make their classroom practice intellectually exciting
  • Wide-ranging - covers the practical, theoretical, and methodological aspects of teaching literature
  • Highly practical - employs real examples from real classes and careers throughout
  • Draws on 40 years of international teaching experience
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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgements.

1. The Anxiety of Teaching.

2. Theories of Teaching Literature.

3. Methods of Teaching Literature.

4. Teaching Poetry.

5. Teaching Drama.

6. Teaching Fiction.

7. Teaching Theory.

8. Teaching Teachers.

9. Teaching Dangerous Subjects.

10. Teaching Literature in Dark Times.

Conclusion: The Joy of Teaching Literature.



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Author Information

Elaine Showalter is Professor of English at Princeton University. She has been a teacher of English and American Literature for 40 years and has taught high school students, undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and other adults in the United States, Canada, Britain and Europe. She has also directed a teaching seminar for graduate students. During 1998 she was President of the Modern Language Association of America.

The author’s publications include A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (1982), The Female Malady: Women, Madness and Society 1830-1980 (1987), Sexual Anarchy (1991), Sister’s Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women’s Writing (1991) and Inventing Herself (2001).

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The Wiley Advantage

  • Written by leading academic, prolific author and cultural journalist, Elaine Showalter
  • Original and provocative reflections on teaching literature in higher education
  • Encourages teachers to make their classroom practice intellectually exciting
  • Wide-ranging - covers the practical, theoretical, and methodological aspects of teaching literature
  • Highly practical - employs real examples from real classes and careers throughout
  • Draws on 40 years of international teaching experience
See More


"It is to Showalter's great credit that she has written a book that exemplifies many of the virtues she associates with literature: curiosity, empathy, compassion. It is also a deeply personal work. People say that reading literature does not make you a better person. True. But reading this book will make you a better teacher. And maybe make you think better of literature too." Times Higher Education Supplement

"Grounded equally in narrative anecdotes and in published scholarship, Teaching Literature is admirably accessible and reader-friendly... I'd recommend it to anyone looking to enliven his or her classroom". Literature and History

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Sample Chapter - Chapter 1. The Anxiety of Teaching

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Sample Chapter - Chapter 4. Teaching Poetry

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An Interview With Elaine Showalter

Q: What first inspired you to teach literature?

A: I have always loved to read, and when I learned about "close reading," it suggested lifelong intimacy with books; teaching seemed like a natural career. My first teaching experience was at a Quaker private school in Philadelphia, where I taught 9th and 11th grade English.

Working with these bright students made me understand for the first time that literature could be even more rewarding when it was shared and dialogic than when it was a private communion between myself and a book. I also learned that teaching, like writing, was an activity of total presence, much more exciting, alert, and creative (in my educational history) than being a student. Ever since, I've been trying to figure out how to make the experience of being a student as productive, intense, and energizing as the experience of being a teacher.

Q: What are the key issues or obstacles facing teachers of literature in higher education today?

A: For years, the humanities have seemed to be in crisis-falling enrollments, loss of prestige, low funding, no jobs. (It's like the old joke about the restaurant-the food is terrible, and such small portions!) There are as many explanations as there are experts, and a lot of them contradict each other too. I would like to find a way to make the teaching of literature more of an intellectual collaboration, and to bring teachers together in real or virtual space to think of ways to make literary study yield cumulative and progressive skills. Teaching those skills is our work--the task that gives our profession value--as well as our job-the task that pays our salaries. The intelligence, imagination, and ingenuity that now goes into devising research projects could also be applied to devising ways to use both traditional methods and new technologies to enhance and improve learning.

Q: What made you want to write Teaching Literature?

A: In 1998, I started to teach a seminar at Princeton on literary pedagogy for graduate students in English and Comparative Literature. I discovered a lot of stimulating books about teaching in higher education. But they were also very generic, dealing with broad questions of lecturing, handling discussion, grading, and so on. There were also excellent books and articles about teaching composition and writing. I was looking for a kind of text that did not exist, that talked specifically about the demands and practice of teaching poetry, fiction, drama, and criticism, but also related literary pedagogy to some of the central issues in learning theory. So I decided to try to write one.

Q: How do you think the book might help other literature professors, or teaching assistants?

A: As one of my graduate students said about our weekly seminar meetings, "they build esprit de corps; one never feels alone with one's problems, frustrations, and anxieties." For almost all my friends and colleagues, teaching is a private enterprise, which we conduct as best we can, but all too often we teach unto others as was taught unto us, for better or for worse. Obviously, there are many ways to be a good teacher; we don't all have to use the same methods. Nevertheless, teaching is an activity which profits from collaborative investigation, from shared ideas, and from open discussion of goals and techniques. I hope TEACHING LITERATURE will be a starting point for discussion and self-reflection.

Web Resources

Home page of Al Filreis

Award-winning Professor of English at the University of Pennylvania, who has many innovative ideas about teaching, and a very helpful website of links and materials.

American Association for Higher Education: Carnegie Teaching Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL)

Very useful website of a group working "with campuses of all types to build cultures in which the scholarship of teaching and learning can grow and flourish."

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

This website offers two excellent resources: an eLibrary of articles, and the Knowledge Media Lab Gallery, of electronic and interactive course portfolios.

English Subject Centre

The English Subject Centre, based at Royal Holloway, University of London, supports "all those who teach in Higher Education English" through running events, sponsoring departmental projects, and collecting and disemminating information, statistics, data, and discussion papers of relevance to English.

Syllabus Finder

Course materials for 100,000 courses from American college web sites, put together by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. The course materials for English and American literature are extremely rich.

World Lecture Hall

The University of Texas has assembled course materials for 1550 courses at American colleges and universities.

Stories From The Classroom - Interview with Dino Felluga

DINO FELLUG, Assistant Professor of English, Purdue University, Lafayette, Indiana

ES: What sort of training did you get as a teacher?

DF: Actually, I was trained by the person who ended up becoming my wife, Emily Allen, so I think I can say that the experience was properly transformative. She was a fellow graduate student at the time who, along with two other students, set up an orientation for new incoming T.A.s at the U of California, Santa Barbara. Outside of that properly mind-opening start, though, my training consisted of being thrown to the wolves, which is, unfortunately, the experience of many T.A.s at various graduate schools. Personally, though, I had the advantage of marrying the person who is the best teacher I've ever seen in action (someone who also then became my colleague at Purdue U, West Lafayette), which means I've had someone with whom to discuss teaching methods since I began, really. Our experience of sharing our stories about teaching with each other subsequently made us especially comfortable with opening our classes to others at Purdue, where we have a community of truly remarkable teachers, a community that I try to get involved in my classes-and in whose classes I participate-whenever I can. As you suggest in your book, teaching can be a truly anxiety-producing experience so it can make all the difference to have that sort of support and community. Since Emily and I are both nineteenth-century scholars, we can also really speak to the specific pedagogical trials and tribulations we each experience in our classes.

ES: Who do you consider the best teacher you've ever had, and what made that teacher great?

DF: I suppose my favorite teacher (beyond Emily) was Robert Gellately, a professor at Huron College in Canada (now the Strassler Family Chair for the Study of Holocaust History at Clark U), who teaches the history of Nazi Germany. What was great about the full-year class I took with him at Huron College-a course on revolutions-was that it also functioned to make the students experience a revolution of sorts in the way they thought about the world around them: the contingency of laws, the violence at the foundation of social systems, the relation between the power of the individual and the power of the state, et cetera. And yet, my perception at the time was that Prof. Gellately hardly ever spoke; he managed somehow (through perfectly posed questions and the re-orientation or re-statement of awkward student comments) to make us reach the conclusions he thought were particularly important regarding the very difficult works we read (Michel Foucault, Hayden White, Arno Mayer, Hans Mommsen, etc.). When I entered graduate school, my best teachers at UCSB managed to do the same (Garrett Stewart, Alan Liu, Julie Carlson) but what has stuck with me was how incredible it was that a professor could accomplish that high level of discussion in the undergraduate classroom. My goal in my classes ever since has been to reproduce that same level of student-centered discussion.

ES: One thing I find interesting about your teaching method is your use of discussion synopses, which you make available on the web. Can you say something about that?

DF: Well, one problem with student-centered discussion is that it can sometimes be disjointed. Students will go off on tangents and sometimes even de-rail discussion altogether, which you have to expect, of course, and find ways to counterbalance. The synopses allow me to provide a higher degree of-admittedly retroactive-structure to those discussions. I also try to cite the students by name, which proves to them that I really value what they say. They tend to respond, in turn, by being more excited about pushing themselves in classroom discussion. My goal is also to open the boundaries of the classroom, to resist the notion of the classroom as hermetically sealed.

ES: Can you say more about that? How can one go about doing that, and why should teachers be interested in breaking those boundaries?

DF: I believe that the main reason I do what I do is to provide my students with the tools to ensure their own freedom. That may sound overly grand, but it's a lesson that is brought home to me whenever I teach the Holocaust, a lesson that perhaps I first learned in Robert Gellately's class. Our goal as teachers of the humanities is to provide students with the ability to argue their own minds, to be heard. Without that ability, any human is open to losing his/her power before others. I try to illustrate this point through the trial format. In my class on the Holocaust, for example, I have my students put Adolf Eichmann on trial (again): the class splits into prosecution and defense councils; each side prepares its case over a few classes; and we then conduct the trial, usually with a guest professor as judge.

Through this exercise, students learn the importance of a strong, well-structured and well-executed argument; they also learn to appreciate the ethical, juridical, and moral aspects of critical thinking (and, by extension, of a university education), for they cannot help but acknowledge in the process of defending or prosecuting Eichmann the hidden ethical stakes behind the construction of strong, well-supported argumentation. As I seek to illustrate in not only my teaching of the Holocaust but also my teaching of English classes generally, there is, then, an inherent ethical dimension to all pedagogy oriented toward the teaching of writing and argumentation. It is this ethical dimension that speaks most strongly in support of protecting the writing-intensive classroom, which is threatened by the desire of many universities to adopt business principles to extend education to larger numbers at lesser costs. It is also this dimension that speaks to the students' responsibilities before others, that alerts them to the effects of their learning beyond the classroom.

It is because of this ethical side of pedagogy that I encourage my students to open the classroom to the world outside. The last class on the Holocaust that I taught at Purdue was one that allowed me-more than any other-to pursue this idea of an open classroom, thanks to a generous grant for the class from the Lilly Retention Initiative at Purdue (a grant that is designed to improve the pedagogical experience of the best incoming freshmen at my university by creating more intimate, experimental classes for those students). That grant allowed me, among other things, to set up a field trip to Chicago (where the class visited two Holocaust memorials); to invite visiting speakers (including Robert Gellately himself, actually); to stage a public production of Bertolt Brecht's Private Life of the Master Race on a campus stage; and, finally, to create an interactive, public memorial at the end of class. In that last exercise, the students came up with their own memorial design, tying black ribbons to the trees in Academy Park on campus, coupled with an invitation to the Purdue community to remove the ribbons as an act of remembrance forpast injustices and as a commitment to fight injustice in the future. What opened the eyes of my students is how readily the university community responded to each of the public events they were involved with.

A great class gets students to see the rest of world outside the classroom in new, exciting, transformative ways. The internet provides yet one more opening out to the world, a way for students to believe that learning does not only occur during the 50 minutes of a class period.

ES: Is the teaching of nineteenth-century literature not very different, however, from the teaching of the Holocaust?

DF: On the one hand, yes, of course; on the other hand, the ability to analyze, to argue, and to discuss with others is the same regardless of topic. I even import the trial format when I teach Milton's Paradise Lost in a class on the epic that I often offer at Purdue-except that Milton's God and Satan end up being the two characters on the witness stand, with God and Satan usually played by the Miltonists and Romanticists in the department. The exercise allows students to think about how ideologies change over time and how literature can continue to speak to radically different cultural purviews (e.g. the "perverse" re-interpretation of Satan by the Romantic poets). The teaching of theory also allows me to address "revolutionary" ideas even as I'm simultaneously bringing students up to speed on, say, scansion or l'explication de texte. Whenever I teach, I consider it my duty to prove to students that what they're learning has relevance to their lives outside the classroom. That's the case whether I'm teaching Night and Fog or The Ring and the Book, whether I'm teaching postmodernism or poetics.

Stories From The Classroom - Teaching Literature - Some memories and Methods

Though I didn't realize it at the time, from my first days as a teacher, all my classes were perforce student or learner centered, because my first job was teaching conversational English, four classes of thirty students each at Wakayama University (Wa Dai for short) in Wakayama, Japan. It was the only way you could teach a conversational English class. In 1950 I had signed on for a three-year hitch as a short term teaching missionary under the auspices of the Methodist Board of Foreign Missions. Of the group of twenty or so short term missionaries that year all but three were sent to mission schools, some to middle schools, some to high schools and a few to four year colleges or universities. I was one of the three sent to a secular institution, one of the newly invented prefectural universities. My job at Wa Dai was to teach conversational English to classes of freshman and sophomore students. Reading (literature), grammar, and composition were handled once a week by an excellent Japanese faculty, the real sensei. Our group of new teachers had all taken a crash course in TEFL methods (teaching English as a foreign language) under a Dr. Kitchens out of Columbia University's Teachers College. That two week cram course was the only education course I would ever take. Dr. Kitchens was a disciple of Charles Fries of University of Michigan, the pioneer educator in the field of TEFL. The one thing we learned that summer was that there was no way one could teach conversational English and not center his teaching on the student. Unfortunately, none of the lessons we had that summer taught us how to break through the cultural barrier of traditional Japanese teaching and learning.

It was one thing, a very nice thing in a way, to have your students rise the moment you entered the classroom and remain standing at attention until you bowed, formally acknowledging their greeting, but it was an entirely different, and not a very nice thing, for these same students to remain completely silent when asked to respond to a simple question. Nothing in Japanese classroom culture had ever allowed a free interchange between kiyoshi and gakku sei, teacher and student. Each of us had to devise a method for breaking that polite but stony silence. So long as they responded in unison, they would willingly perform pronunciation drills, repeat sentences and intonation patterns. Singly, they were silent. The icebreaker came when I, desperate for a "conversation," impolitely, approached one student in the middle of the room and asked him to repeat a sentence after me. When he somewhat painfully repeated the sentence along with the appropriate conversational response that I had printed on the chalkboard, I replied in my rudimentary Japanese, "Taihen kekko desu," which roughly translates as "very excellent." Inoue sensei, my chairman, had asked that I not use Japanese in the classroom, explaining that the regular instructors spoke excellent Japanese, and they had been warned by Inoue sensei that I would not use Japanese in the classroom. My slip so amused them, so startled them, they suddenly began to volunteer. Now, I had broken the rule, and somehow I had removed myself from the lofty plain and had descended to theirs.

At the end of the class, when I asked-in English-if anyone had a question, one brave student raised his hand and said, "Mr. Giriran [that was the closest he could get to Gilliland that first day] do you speak Japanese?"

I answered, again in the forbidden tongue, "Hai, kere domo, sukoshi dake, taihen sukoshi." Which I took meant "yes, but very little."

Then he asked me to say something in Japanese. I was so pleased that one had broken free of tradition that I replied, "Gomennasai, o-benjo wa, doko ni arimasu ka?" It was an expression from the first lesson in our World War II U. S. Army Japanese language handbook we had used in our early language training before shipping out for Japan, and it translates: "Excuse me, where is the toilet?" It came several pages after "I would like two beers, please."

Bathroom humor being universal, they all laughed loudly. When the brave one replied in English, with quite explicit directions, I headed for the door as though the question was genuine. The laughter increased. My exit coincided with the end of the class, and as they all filed out, now smiling, no longer the sober countenanced crew that had entered, each one bowed quickly, thanked me in English and passed on. From that day, I had little trouble getting each to respond to any question, to practice conversational gambits, and even to boldly go where no Wa Dai student had gone before: to attempt the pronunciation of my name, Gilliland. Humor had worked easily because it had grown out of the lesson and because I had integrated it into the pattern I so laboriously established; it was not just a joke tacked on to the end of the class, though in future I would resort, and have resorted, to such tactics many times.

Wa Dai, in the three years I taught there, had no duplicating services, few typewriters, and no formal texts, which meant I had to write all practice conversations on a chalkboard, but using a combination of hand signals and facial expressions I learned how to get the class singly or in unison to repeat sentences after me. Conversations grew out of stories I told about myself, short stories I read aloud, or questions I asked them about Japan and the area in which we lived. I discovered that holding open house twice a week gave the interested students two more hours or more of speaking and hearing English. After a full semester practicing my own methods of TEFL, I asked Inoue sensei if I might teach a literature class, in English of course, to a small group of the advanced students whom I had often met and had spoken to at my weekly open house and who professed to being English majors and future teachers of English. I explained to Inoue that reading and learning about contemporary American literature and culture would help them to speak better English. He agreed that the to learn a language well one had to understand the culture of the language, and vice versa.

For a full semester, I had been helping Inoue sensei, the authorized Japanese translator of O'Neill's plays, translate Desire Under the Elms. He had asked me when we first met if I could clear up some of the problems he was having with O'Neill's use of American slang, and I had readily agreed. While my Japanese was too rudimentary to give him Japanese equivalents, I could give him American English variants of the difficult passages. I knew the play well. Less than a year before I had read it, but it meant re-reading the play and concentrating on the language itself, in other words very "close reading" ala Brooks and Warren and the New Critics. Reading the play and discussing it in detail with the sensei that spring whetted my appetite for teaching literature, for getting out of the conversational rut of pronunciation drills and practice sentence frames.

I had neither majored nor minored in English on my BA, had, in fact, taken only the required two years of English, one year of freshman composition, one year of sophomore literature, in my case a semester of introduction to poetry (Brooks and Warren, Understanding Poetry) and a survey of world literature. But reading had been a passion from my earliest days in school, and my two years in the infantry during the war and the occupation had consisted almost entirely of garrison duty, reading those little paperback Armed Services Editions, hundreds of titles of classics and commercials, precious trash as well as treasure. Then in the period between my graduation from the University of Texas and my teaching English conversation at Wa Dai, I had discovered the writings of Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, and Alfred Kazin and had come under the influence of my sister Jane and several of her friends, all of whom had majored in English. Nothing I had read before that time had been so illuminating, so interesting as my course of informal reading that year under their direction. Also, in the USIS Library in Kobe, Japan, I had found works by Van Wyck Brooks, Maxwell Geismar, Irving Howe, Malcolm Cowley, Joseph Warren Beach, Granville Hicks, M. D. Zabel, and others, all of which introduced me to a way of reading and thinking about reading I had barely touched on as an undergraduate. For as long as I could remember I had been reading the "greats" purely for purposes of appreciation, entertainment, and diversion. I was so diverted in fact that my original major, science, sank down the drain after my freshman year. As far back as high school I had been devoted to American writers like Cather, Lewis, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, K.A. Porter, Ellen Glasgow, Steinbeck, Saroyan, George Sessions Perry and, more recently, William Faulkner. Much of what I had learned about life in America beyond the Gulf Coast and piney woods of East Texas I had learned from these "greats." It seemed to me that teaching the 20th century American novel would do for my students just what it had done for me, broaden and deepen their understanding of America and its culture. When Inoue sensei agreed to let me offer the course in the novel, I immediately went to work poring through the works of Spiller, Parrington, and the others I have just mentioned, but chiefly I went to Alfred Kazin's On Native Grounds, which was a revelation to me at the time. I had never been so excited about what I was learning as I prepared for the class. I had asked myself, "Is this what English teachers really do?" Leaning heavily on these works and returning to the novels I liked best, I built a course outline and ordered inexpensive Modern Library editions for my students. It was a glorious adventure, particularly for me, who had never read a novel or short story for the purpose of studying it, only for pleasure and diversion. Reading Trilling, Wilson and Kazin I learned that the highest pleasure grew out of knowing the deepest roots. On Native Grounds was a treasury of ideas, and it served as a model for understanding literature in a context other than my own narrow world of Corpus Christi or Beaumont or Austin, the latter, until my years of service in Germany and Korea, having been for me the wide-world.

The purpose of the course was learning to read the American language. Critical theory would come later for my students. In my undergraduate literature courses I had learned how to read closely for form and meaning, and had brought to each of the courses a knowledge of anthropology, psychology, history, even science, my first major as an undergraduate. Teaching conversational English had taught me how to focus on the individual student and how not to depend on formal lectures. Though I discovered I enjoyed telling stories and talking about literature, I understood that one of my stated goals to Inoue was to get the students to reach beyond conversational English and to discuss ideas in English. At the beginning of each hour and a half class period I would introduce the background to the novels and novelists, more in the form of an informal talk than a lecture. As I talked about the assigned work, I would write new words on the chalkboard, stop and make sure the class knew the meaning of the new vocabulary then move on. By avoiding assignments in secondary sources in literary history and criticism, because there simply wasn't enough time, we were able to concentrate on the novels themselves. From the beginning I decided to use no more than a quarter or a third of the class time for my "lecture" or talk about the author or the period. Each student selected one novel to study and to present to the class. I would talk about the background of the novel and the author but would limit my talk to specific topics, which I announced ahead of time. The Wa Dai library in the fall of 1951 had few resources in American literature, which was a blessing. It meant the students had to concentrate on the work itself. Outside of the regular class period I acted as a tutor, meeting individual students in my home to discuss the passages that they found difficult, not by translating them into Japanese, a task beyond my abilities in Japanese, but by suggesting alternative readings in English just as I had been doing with Inoue and the plays of O'Neill.

By the end of the year Inoue had published his translation of Desire and it had gone into production on stage. The summer after I arrived we had "finished" Hairy Ape and Emperor Jones and had begun work on The Iceman Cometh, a work which we continued to examine until it was time for me to return to the states and begin work on a master's in English. My sessions with Inoue were ideal preparations for my classes with the advanced students, for they taught me how to read from the perspective of a foreign student of English. I could have had no better preparation for graduate school or for my later job as an instructor than the three years learning how to center my teaching on students and learning how to read closely. In my year as a teaching assistant at The University of Texas, a year devoid of any instruction in teaching or even any meaningful mentoring, I leaned heavily on the classroom experience I had at Wa Dai and my work with Inoue. In my second semester as a TA I even taught a survey of literature course designed for foreign students, and in it I used everything I had learned while teaching the novel course during my last two years at Wakayama and while working with Inoue sensei. More than anything I concentrated on teaching students how to read, and in doing that everything I had learned in my freshman English came to bear. But at no time was I aware of a theory of philosophy of teaching. By first learning how to teach literature to non-English speaking students I had discovered the importance of eschewing all theory and doing what worked, and that was close reading for form and meaning along with understanding the cultural, historical, and psychological context of the work and the writer's imagination. Because my students were all foreign students I took very little for granted in their understanding of perspective or context, and as I had been required to do with Inoue sensei, I had constantly to explore ways of finding variant readings or "meanings." My first teaching job after getting my MA was at Lee College, a junior college in Baytown, Texas, and I discovered that the "theory" of teaching literature I had developed my first four years at Wa Dai and UT was immediately applicable to my classes at Lee. In the years that followed at Lee and later Cochise College, I had little reason to change the basic pattern I had discovered, but not invented, for myself.

Not long ago I sat with Jeff, a former student, and watched with fascination while he discussed with one of his students a paper the student was writing on Whitman's "Noiseless, Patient Spider." It was a good paper from what I could see and hear, detailed, insightful, and original. I was envious. When the student finished, I asked Jeff if he had a theory of teaching, and if so could he state it briefly. He had recently completed all but his dissertation for a PhD in English at one of the California universities and was far more current in literary theory and teaching theory than I. He thought for a moment, then admitted he was probably still using the New Criticism approach of close reading for form and meaning but was mixing it with anything the work itself seemed to require, but chiefly he said what he did depended pretty much on the student and his or her background of experience and preparation. He asked why I had asked, and I explained how I had never found a formula or theory that worked for all, that any theory of teaching was at best Heraclitean. It's always changing. Instead of not being able to put your foot into the same river twice, you find you can't really stick your nose into the same novel or poem twice. It never sits still. "Thank God," he said, "it's different every time." I wasn't surprised; he was after all a former student. I've rediscovered it every year since that first class in the 20th century novel I taught at Wa Dai.

Stories From The Classroom - The Jim Richardson interview
PROF JAMES RICHARDSON, Department of English, Princeton Univ

ES: Jim, you have taught courses in poetry at Harvard and Princeton, as well as being a poet yourself. Could you say a bit about the Development of your teaching career?

JR: I did my Ph.D. at the University of Virginia on the Renaissance, and originally specialized in 16th and 17th century poetry. Then I shifted to Victorian poetry, on which I've done much of my scholarship. When I came to Princeton, I taught Romantic, Victorian and contemporary poetry as well as leading poetry workshops in creative writing.

ES: You yourself were an undergraduate at Princeton. Did you have professors whose teaching inspired you?

JR: I was happy being a student, but I was very shy and didn't speak in class until my senior year. I thought anyone whose class you could say something in was great. I was amazed by the Renaissance specialist Thomas Roche, who convinced me that a person could survive into adulthood unabashed about loving things-not like a parent at all, but like an extremely young grandparent. Tom was funny, passionate, and kind-even then his saintliness showing! Dick Ludwig got me started writing poetry, and Ted Weiss took care of me for years after. My single best course was with Victor Lange, who taught four of us a seminar on modern German poetry. I can't remember much of it now and I can't even read German any more, but I was galvanized by his energy and intellectual vigor. Richard Howard was another electrifying teacher of poetry.

ES: Did you have any training or preparation to be a teacher yourself?

JR: Absolutely none. When I was in graduate school at UVA, teaching was something like death: I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t want to think about it too much. My first course was "Introduction to Shakespeare;" I was usually pretty good in the first class, but then I didn't know what I was doing. I had no idea how to prepare a course or a class, and in the early years I was so despairing that I considered dropping out and becoming a flea market glass dealer. I drifted from semester to semester, sometimes good, sometimes bad. But I am married to a great teacher (Constance Hassett, Fordham, English) who has won many teaching awards, and I have learned a lot from her.

ES: How do you see yourself as a teacher now?

JR: I am the opposite of a born teacher; I think conscientiousness and a sense of humor are my best assets. But I have gradually figured out how to teach poetry in ways that help both undergraduates and graduate students understand and enjoy it, and overcome their panic about its technicalities. In a poetry workshop, I feel completely natural; no anxiety there. I am focused on the students and their poems, and my job is to facilitate an atmosphere for them to discuss their work. A survey course is different, because poems have to be placed historically, and there is not as much space for close reading or listening. In a survey course I have to keep telling myself that the point is their learning, not my ideas, not even the overall coherence of the course. I have to keep reminding myself just to listen to the discussion, endure the silences, get people to think. The students who sign up for a course just in poetry, rather than a literature survey, are already different. And I much prefer teaching genres to teaching histories.

ES: Can you describe the way you teach a course on poetry?

JR: I'm now planning a new course for sophomores called "Introduction to Poetry." What we're up against with these students is their peer education. They have always thought they were baffled or puzzled by poetry. It seems like a game of codes to them, and they are attracted but scared. So I want to show them that they already know something about poetry and metrics, and that they can handle lyric poems. I'm likely to start with Dr. Seuss, with the pleasures of poetry. We'll read aloud in unison, "One fish, two fish/red fish, blue fish"-basically alternating stresses. Then I'll ask them how they knew where to place the stress. The rule is that when one term stays the same and the other varies, you stress the varied term: one, two, red, blue, rather than the noun, as you would if it were one hat, two bicycles. But of course they stress correctly without “knowing” the rule. And we talk about how Dr. Seuss has metrical rules, whether conscious or not.We also talk a bit about the pictures and how they help. Then we'll go to a more complex Seuss poem, like "My hat is old/My teeth are gold,” with its Charlie Chaplin pictures, and different metrical rules. I ask them how they know the poem is ending–one way is that he violates his own rules of rhythm and lineation at the very end.

Of course, I never noticed what a third-grade teacher once told me-that at the bottom of the page there's a little mouse, and because he's looking left, you know you should stop. If he were facing to the right, you'd turn the page to continue. The next step might be nonsense verse: 'The Hunting of the Snark." And then quatrains, starting with 'Mary had a Little Lamb," and moving to "O western wind,' Wordsworth, and lots of modern variants. After that we'll do metaphor as riddles, moving up to "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” and Emily Dickinson. That's about the first month of the course. Among assignments I might give is to unwrite a poem-take out all the imagery and rhyme and meter, and then explain the differences in meaning and affect. Or to change the meter of a poem, and see what difference that would make.

ES: I like the way you turn poetry into a form of active, student-centered learning rather than a set of definitions.

JR: But at the same time, I'm doing what Northrop Frye or Andrew Welsh analyze as the "roots of lyric"-"babble, doodle, and riddle."

ES: And what about teaching advanced undergraduates and graduate students?

JR: In my seminar on 'Lyric Poetry," we still start with Dr. Seuss. But we move to Derek Attridge's Rhythms of English Poetry for technical matters in the first half of the course. They learn to scan with his system, and we do 100-150 lines of Pope together in class, keeping statistics on variations in beats, caesuras, and punctuation. Then in the following weeks, we'll do the same with Wordsworth, Milton or Thomson, showing the statistical differences in sound. Of course, any scansion system has limits, and can't be separated from syntax. But scansion is a way of making people pay attention long enough to see what they are supposed to see about the poem. By the end of the first half of the course, the students know as much about metrics and scansion as anyone in the world, so they don't have to worry about them any more. The second half is about metaphor, and that's much easier. All students have some panic about poetry, and graduate students have professional panic; but when we've worked together they can begin to experience the pleasures.

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