on biography

As a literature teacher, I generally feel some obligation to explain to my students some key elements from the life stories of the authors who we are studying: not only because they expect it, and because the anthology provides some cursory information, but also because it helps me explain aspects of the specific historical period. Issues about access to education, class status, professional options for men and women, etc, etc, all come up when you're talking about the lives of individual writers.

But at another level I hate having to do this. Not because I believe in Transcendent Literature that escapes all place and time (in fact, quite the opposite) or because I'm a staunch Formalist/New Critic /Deconstructionist who only wants to look for linguistic patterns of meaning (that's part of what I teach, but not my only approach). The historical approach of my own work means that sometimes specific biographical contexts are relevant -- and sometimes not. I can pick and choose depending on the kind of question I'm trying to answer.

But in the classroom, any discussion of an author's life inevitably seems incredibly reductive -- 10 minutes, 20 minutes even, to explain a whole life? And worse yet, some students want to take whatever tiny smidge of biographical information I or the anthology have given them, and construct elaborate and usually patently misguided readings of the texts.

I don't think it's their fault, exactly -- our general culture still valorizes a Romantic model of artistic production that equates the text (or song, etc) with the author's own feelings and is very resistant to models of aesthetic signification that complicate or pluralize the possible meanings in a text. And, faced with a text that might be deliberately ambiguous in its "message" or alluding to various layers of literary history that my students are relatively deaf to, they fall back on biography as the explanatory model. Obviously, my job is to explain those multiple layers of meaning, and I think I do that fairly well in the classroom. But then I still get one or two papers that insist "Robert Browning wrote this poem because he was jealous of his wife's success" with absolutely no way of backing up their claim. Sure, I can treat it as a problem of evidence, which I often do in my comments. But it seems to me there's a larger question about literary pedagogy here.

So, if you're in a humanities field for which questions of authorship are relevant to the interpretation of texts or artworks: how do you deal with biography?