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Teaching Literature Paperback – 25 Nov 2002
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"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
From the Back Cover
Teaching Literature is an indispensable guidebook for all teachers of English and American literature in higher education. Drawing on 40 years of international teaching experience, author Elaine Showalter inspires instructors to make their classroom practice as intellectually exciting as their research.
Showalter’s wide–ranging reflections address practical, theoretical, and methodological issues. She starts out by describing the anxieties of teaching literature and by outlining the major theories and methods circulating in the field. She then goes on to look separately at teaching drama, fiction, poetry, and theory, and to explore ways to teach teaching. Finally, she investigates the moral issues involved in teaching, and the practical ethics of handling touchy subjects, from sexuality to suicide.
Examples from real classes and careers are cited throughout, generating an unusual degree of authenticity and immediacy.See all Product Description
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For example, in the sub-section on leading discussion, Showalter lists the types of questions that an instructor generally wants to ask during a discussion. Instead of explaining each of the types, however, Showalter just lists them and mentions the book that they were taken from. The reader of Showalter's book would thus need to track down the original book that she got her ideas from.
Overall, this book does have some good ideas and it's always nice to know that other professors experience the same types of worries and fears at the start of each new semester. As far as as concrete advice goes, however, I felt like this book was lacking.
Helpful tips on grading, handling student complaints, becoming more active in teaching rather than lecturing, and accounts of failures and successes and stalemates in the classroom all make this a recommended read for TAs, beginning instructors, and veterans searching for inspiration and innovation. Taking the example of Wilbert McKeachie's insistence on active, student-centered learning (I have the 11th ed. of his "Teaching Tips"), Showalter urges teachers to forget about lecturing and to focus more on learning. Making assessments based on defined objectives may sound like educationalese, but as she admits, students and profs benefit from clear goals, set each day in class as well as for assignments and projects over the term. Too many instructors forget that students are coming to texts and insights for the first, not the forty-first time, and many comments here remind literature teachers to keep this freshness of the beginner's encounter with the reading in mind constantly.
What disappointed me was the sketchy nature of many of the chapters, of uneven length and depth. For instance, that on teaching fiction assumes that novels will be assigned; short stories are not mentioned. The common Intro to Lit course that combines a bit of drama and poetry with stories for those not majoring in English but taking a class as a breadth requirement gains no special attention. The vast majority of those contributing comments to the book also teach at colleges and universities catering to a privileged class, literally, and perhaps rooms full of more eager if not totally enthralled English or at least humanities majors who, for the most part, chose to take these courses for a degree in the liberal arts.
This lack of connection with the wider college experience, in which students are older, more harried by jobs and family and money responsibilities, and those who (as where I teach) are not only non-English majors but often non-English native speakers, or from the families of immigrants, is not considered at all. One comment is given by an MIT teacher, but his students, obviously not English majors, are considerably distant from those, often first-generation, students at the local community college faced with a required course in literature to complete with little or no comprehension of any but the rudimentary background or cultural contexts with which Prof. Showalter's Ivy League students will have most likely been familiar with, and probably enamored with, long before they entered Princeton's hallowed halls.
In one paragraph, the disparity between academic stars, the "frequent flyers" (such as herself I might add) and the rest of us, "academic drones," "freeway flyers" is noted. Otherwise, the present and future conditions under which many of us who have entered academia in far more precarious and more pragmatic decades than Bryn Mawr grad Showalter did, around the JFK administration, are not addressed. This segregation of those who can afford to study literature at leisure and those who have to cram it in among business or technical courses for their major and who are driven to finish school while working perhaps full time is left out of these pages. For all the lip service paid to the underclass--and those who struggle nights or weekends to get a degree so as to leave such limitations--by those from the overclass, these widening gaps get not a glance. What is the future of literature in a profit-driven, bottom-line, and heedlessly philistine culture that only leaves a literature class in many curricula to satisfy accreditation standards? What this book neglects most of all: how to teach literature to the less motivated and/or far less prepared students in many of our unhallowed, non-Ivied, institutions today. This mission that many who teach literature today must face is absent from this book, despite all the attention the tenured ranks and the more richly renumerated academic stars give to race, class, cultural, and political issues through the literature they teach and about which they publish so much.
The rest of us are left out of these chapters, but, despite this neglect, any teacher of literature can be benefit from some pages of this book. It should have been more thoroughly prepared for consistency in the various chapters, and expanded so as to give more solutions than it does list problems. For example, TAs list details of difficulties they face, but Showalter merely copies these, leaving remedies to them only generalized, and not given as particularly tied to the specific cases quoted. Still, for lack of a competing book geared directly to teachers of literature (as opposed to the many aids for composition instructors) an instructor does well by reading this. It's essential to be reminded--even if the prof remains untenured, exploited, and debt-ridden--that what's essential in the classroom, no matter where it may be, is that the student be not only graded but guided. We all need to be nagged that we who teach need to not lecture so often as we must remember to learn--all the more since we stand in front of a room full of prospective learners.