Friday, March 16, 2007

Response Paper: Elaine Showalter's Teaching Literature

One of our assignments for Professing Literature is to write a 1-2 page response paper to a chapter of an assigned reading and then read it aloud in class. My response paper was over Elaine Showalter's Teaching Literature. Showalter is a feminist critic who teaches at Princeton and wrote this mediocre guide to teaching literature at the college level. Here's my response to Chapter 9 of the book, "Teaching Dangerous Subjects".


Jenn Miller
Professing Literature
March 14, 2007

Response Paper to Showalter, Chapter 9

I have to admit that Showalter seduced me with the titles of Chapter 9 and 10: “Teaching Dangerous Subjects” and “Teaching Literature in Dark Times”. I was intrigued by the words “dangerous” and “dark times” which brought forth images of the Mighty English Professor, with her cape and superpowers making the world safe for literature everywhere. Showalter seemed to demand that we view ourselves as guardians of volatile knowledge and shining lights in times of dark. It is rather romantic stuff. But is that what we are, really?

I found myself both nodding and knitting my brow in consternation when I read these chapters. For one, she seemed to offer little of use besides vagaries (“underwhelming” returned again this week). Then the issue of suicide: my initial impulse was to say: hey, we’re not here to coddle students, nor are we here to be their counselors—perhaps cold-blooded, but I’m not a therapist—we’re here to teach literature. But then another thought occurred to me: we’re always going on about how literature is deeply connected to real life, and issues such as suicide and violence and sex are issues of real life that are often found in literature. Should we not expect our students to be affected by finding them in class assignments? And wouldn’t we want our students to feel they could approach us for help in their personal lives?

However, I’m still not sure that the English classroom is the place to teach topics such as suicide awareness—I remain unconvinced of the efficacy of a one-page sheet on suicide prevention—but it could be a place for students to deal with such issues. I’ve often used literature to work my way through personal problems, and I believe that I should provide the opportunity for my students to do the same. I want my students to trust me, but not feel that I’m leading a seminar on life issues—after all, I still have to teach English.

Then there’s the “other” issues, you know the things like violence, sexual language, and race. I wanted to point out to Showalter that you never know how students will react. You can assign an essay that you think will cause students to examine their own perspectives and they won’t even blink (or they’ll miss the point entirely), or you can plan to talk about a seemingly mundane short story that sparks massive controversy. You just never know; at least this was my experience.

This is important stuff—and one reason that I shied away from teaching high school. I wanted at least the perceived sense of having more control over the content of my courses, and that meant teaching sensitive material that is often censored in a high school curriculum. In the same light that giving students a space to deal with personal issues is necessary in the English classroom, then perhaps challenging their perceptions (in a constructive manner) is also a part of our role as English teachers. Teaching from a comfortable zone, staying with the “easy” topics, and avoiding sensitive material will do nothing to help students face a world that will constantly press them with uncomfortable ideas.

But how do we do it? Here’s where Showalter, again, lets us down. For example, Showalter points out that she believes “the professor’s behavior and tone are crucial in shaping students’ attitudes toward sexual language. If we are embarrassed, they will be embarrassed. If we are salacious, they will leer” (129). True, very true, but how? Instead of offering (much) practical advice on how, she challenges us not to be wimps—easy to say when you’re tenured and can easily maintain romantic notions of teacherhood from your dratted ivory tower. How are we to navigate these issues in our classrooms? Avoidance should be avoided, but it’s difficult to tread carefully when you never know how students will respond. Do we simply take a stab in the dark, and hope that we don’t get shoved out? Perhaps “dangerous subjects” are so because they pose a threat to ourselves as teachers as we attempt to guide our students through them.

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