what do we do, anyway

Three related questions -- one a long time ago, two today:
  1. In an elevator, late in the evening at an MLA convention, a bewildered drunken couple obviously in the city for vacation, not realizing that they'd be sharing the hotel with several thousand literature and language professors, accost me and ask "what is it that you people do anyway?" (I first mumbled something about it's a conference, we read papers -- getting blank stare in response. Then I said we meet to talk about teaching, and he at least nodded because that made some kind of sense to him.)
  2. Today I was talking with a friend who's reading Middlemarch who asked "what is it I'm supposed to be looking for? how do I know when my ideas make sense?" (my answers on that later)
  3. George Williams has posted one of his goals for his blog: "making clear to people who are not scholars of language and literature what scholars of language and literature do for a living." His excellent post, with good links, responds to a variety of conservative attacks on the profession of English (at, for example, Erin O'Connor's and Joanne Jacobs's sites) in part by pointing out that although the right wing likes to criticize what they think is happening in college classrooms, there are very few accounts of what it is that we actually do, or should do.
I don't usually visit the conservative academic-bashing sites because I'm not really interested in rehashing age-old debates that I don't really see as debates (i.e., the status of "the" canon, etc). But George is right that the rest of us who blog do have an opportunity to claim part of the conversation by representing what it is that we do. Of course I model that every day in the classroom, and sometimes talk about it in conversation with non-academics. But, for the record, here are some of my thoughts about what it is that I do:

  • I introduce students to ideas, texts, and modes of analysis that they have not encountered previously (how to read a poem; how to read a Victorian poem; how to write a persuasive essay describing an interpretation of that poem; etc)
  • I introduce students to texts that they may find beautiful, troubling, perplexing, sympathetic, difficult, annoying, exciting, or any other sort of response. I don't limit, praise, or criticize their response; I focus on teaching them to articulate and explain that response by reference to specific passages of the work in question and/or other relevant texts.
  • I teach my students skills (of research & analysis) to understand the language, form, and cultural context of works from other historical periods and/or cultures.
  • I introduce students to concepts in history, philosophy, art/aesthetics, politics, religion, geography, scientific thought, and anything else that is relevant to the particular text under study so that they can have a richer understanding of both the pool of allusions within the text and the culture which produced the text.
  • I teach my students to listen carefully to the interpretations of others -- whether the comments of their peers, the published scholarship, or my own comments -- and to engage in dialogue with those different interpretations. A text only gets richer and more complex once you've explained why it means what it does to you.
  • Because many of my courses deal with materials from the 19th century, I also introduce students to the basic history (political, economic, cultural) of the period so that they can begin to draw connections and make distinctions between that historical moment and our own.
  • I introduce students to the many different functions literature played in 19th-century society, and encourage them to make comparisons to the functions of literature and other forms of art and popular culture today.
  • I don't presume that my students will remember particular poems or novels ten years from now -- maybe a couple will, maybe a couple will actually have recommended a book to someone else, or re-read it years later. But what I do hope they take from my class:
    • an increased interest in how texts work;
    • an increased ability to analyze any text -- literature, advertising, political speech, television, film -- to discern not just its overt message but also its rhetoric and its larger cultural implications.
    • a belief that reading, writing, and communicating ideas are worth the time it takes.
I'm sure there's more but that's a start.