Showalter inspires conversation about teaching literature

By Karin Dienst

Princeton NJ -- After 40 years of teaching literature, Elaine Showalter has written a book that inspires the conversation about teaching literary studies.

"Teaching Literature," published last December by Blackwell Publishing, distills Showalter's insights about teaching and presents numerous personal anecdotes from colleagues and former students that demonstrate a variety of approaches to teaching in the field of literature. The book emphasizes finding ways of "doing it together."

The Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities also is the author of "Inventing Herself," "Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing," "Sexual Anarchy," "The Female Malady: Women, Madness and Society 1830-1980" and "A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing."

Showalter, who came to Princeton in 1984, is retiring at the end of this semester to pursue other intellectual projects (see box on page 6). She currently is teaching "The American Short Story" for undergraduate students and the graduate student course, "Literature and Gender: American Women Writers."

Showalter talked to the Princeton Weekly Bulletin about what it means to teach literature and what the future holds.

Why did you write "Teaching Literature"?

It was the book I wanted myself but that didn't exist, so I thought I'd write it. Every discipline has its own language and its own pedagogical needs, so I thought I would try to set them out. Knowing a subject well does not guarantee teaching a subject well.

What would you like readers to get from the book?

I hope it gives literature teachers a sense of not being alone. Teaching raises the most profound issues about how people learn, about freedom and control, about open-mindedness and didacticism. These are powerful ideas, and teaching makes them more concrete. In the humanities we tend to do it alone, but it is often more productive and satisfying to do it together.

I want to help readers understand that teaching is a skill that can be taught and learned. There are some real questions and real answers, and here's at least a beginning place to talk about this.

The book is full of personal anecdotes from dozens of faculty members and graduate students who teach literature, ranging from descriptions of anxiety dreams about a first class to approaches to presenting material and encouraging student discussion. How did you gather so many stories?

I read everything that I could get hold of. Some of the accounts are from academic memoirs but, disappointingly enough, very few of those are about teaching. More often people talk about other people's teaching. So I would pick up descriptions about what people said about their professors or colleagues. I also read an enormous amount in books and journals from professional sources about teaching.

In addition to that I interviewed about 25 of my own friends and colleagues at Princeton and in the United States and England. I also had hundreds of pages from graduate students in the Cotsen Teaching Seminar describing what had happened in class. I thought they would make great case studies for other people.

You started the Cotsen Teaching Seminar for graduate students in Princeton's English department to help prepare them for being in front of a class. How did that come about?

When I had the Cotsen fellowship in 1995, one of the things I wanted was to teach a seminar about teaching for graduate students. I named it the Cotsen Teaching Seminar and told students that, although they wouldn't get credit for it, I would write a substantial report on their teaching for their dossiers. I did that for three years, sometimes twice a year, with about 50 students overall. After that the department decided to give credit for the seminar.

I believe that a seminar in teaching should be a part of every graduate program in English, and I think it needs to be taught by faculty and not other graduate students. In teaching others how to teach, faculty also have the opportunity to reflect on what it is that they do. In our department the opportunity to teach the seminar has been rotated.

Why is discussion about teaching so important?

It's really wonderful to get a group of people together to brainstorm and to come up with so many ideas. You can get at some of your underlying assumptions, like who is really in control in the classroom? And when we say that there is free speech in a classroom, what really happens when somebody says something that violates your own ideas? The bottom line is that you want to create a space in which people can think and grow and articulate. A teaching seminar gives people an appreciation of complexity and an appreciation of fallibility.

What specific considerations are there to teaching literature?

A lot of people say it's impossible to talk about literature and pedagogy because the field is so diverse and so conflicted. And they say it's impossible because of the different status of teaching and research. I don't agree with that.

The point of the book is to ask, "What do you want to do with the material?" It involves thinking about literature as a problem. It's going in with a literary text and saying, "There are some questions to raise about this. How can we solve them, what tools should we use?" That's a much more active process than to go in the way I was taught and say, "Here are the dates of these writers, here's what you need to know about each of their works, and then take an exam and repeat the facts to me." That approach is more about what knowledge you can convey to students rather than how you can give them the skills to solve these problems on their own.

The literary genres themselves have a form and a history and an inner logic that quite naturally dictate certain approaches to teaching. In "Teaching Literature" I write about three theories or methods of teaching, which are teacher centered, subject centered and student centered. Most faculty aren't really conscious of what method they're using. Many people teach the way they were taught. I think that in practice people put together a combination of them.

But I myself believe that student-centered teaching is most effective because of the way learning operates. People often talk about teaching as if it's something you do independent of students. But you're not teaching unless they are learning; it's a two-way street. Going in to lecture is just one part of the equation. People learn much more when they are actively engaged in the material than when they are passive recipients. That's why I think student-centered teaching is ultimately what we're aiming for, and it's important to conceptualize subject matter in those terms.

You've regularly taught a popular course on contemporary fiction. How do you teach new material that challenges literary conventions?

In the contemporary fiction course I have the luxury of teaching only books that I love. For the period that I'm teaching, from 1960 to 2002, there are probably 100,000 novels that have been published and I get to choose 12 of them.

With contemporary fiction you get to explore problems and try to solve them.

The novel we did this year that was particularly interesting and meaningful for the students was Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything Is Illuminated." Jonathan is a member of the class of 1999. His novel has two narrators, both of them unreliable. It is influenced by magical realism and deals profoundly with the Holocaust and is written in an inventive language of a Russian trying to speak English with the use of a thesaurus.

Jonathan came to class and to a precept. It was a wonderful experience for the students, who are essentially his contemporaries, and for me it was an incredibly satisfying closure because it was the last time I'd be teaching that course and to have a Princeton graduate involved made everything come together. It was thrilling. Jonathan is brilliant, engaging and modest. The novel was his senior thesis. He was extremely open to talking about the writing process -- many writers don't want to do that -- and that was what really mattered. It was great and for all of us a particularly festive and powerful part of the class.

Princeton uses the lecture and precept format for instruction. How does that shape how you teach?

It is important to work out the balance between the lecture and the precept and to decide how to use each one. A lot of what I've done at Princeton is to think about how to make my lectures more engaging and more demanding of student thought and feedback. It's important to determine what to focus on and to think about how to pace the material.

For example, how do you break down long Victorian novels into lectures and precepts? You might be teaching the novel, and in the precept, students have only 50 minutes a week to talk about a particular book. That time is so short and so precious. So I would talk with the graduate students about which topics to engage with. In the precept you have to be willing to accept that your teaching is finite, and that you must give as much space to the students as you can.

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