Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.

There is something I have heard so many times in my career that I suppose it qualifies as a truism: never teach your favorite books.  Some have suggested that students will always find a way to cheapen the experience of reading that masterpiece; others have claimed that making work out of what you love will kill your love for that book.  To such people I have only one thing to say:

 

Bullshit.

 

When I started my MA, I wanted to focus on Medieval literature.  And at Boston College, I had the opportunity to study with some amazing Medievalists, whose passion for the literature was evident.  But they were not alone.  And for all the problems I had at BC (perhaps for another post, but certainly not this one), finding passionate people to work with was not one of them.  So after my first year, I realized what I had to do, and I decided to change my focus for the PhD.  Much as I love Chaucer, the Gawain Poet*, and Beowulf, never once did I sit down to read them just for fun.  In fact, I can distinctly remember reading Chaucer and eagerly waiting to finish my work so I could re-read Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard.  Why, I asked myself, am I not focusing on the Beats?  And though I eventually wrote my dissertation on historical fiction, my application letters to PhD programs were focused on the study of Beat literature and Ecocritical theory.  But that’s not the point.  The point is this: I eventually realized that if I’m going to spend time on a PhD, I should spend that time on what I am most passionate about, what I love most.

 

What I most want to share with my students.

 

Truth be told, I feel sorry for those people who believe we should never teach what we love most.  I picture them clutching that precious book to their chest, and then locking it away in a safe before they go to work, fearful of ever sharing that book with others for fear of losing that special bond, convincing themselves that students will never love it, never “get it,” never see what they see in those brilliant pages.  I feel sorry for them because one of my greatest pleasures is introducing students to my favorite books.  I have already posted about the semester I taught Moby-Dick, something I never would have tried had I not passionately loved that novel (a love that has not yet begun to fade).  This semester, for my class on the Beats, I have the great good pleasure of introducing students to Visions of Gerard, in my mind Jack Kerouac’s masterpiece.  Honestly, I couldn’t imagine loving my job quite so much if I consciously avoided my favorite novels.  How could I teach historical fiction without James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers?  Native American Literature without James Welch’s Fool Crow?  African American Literature without Percival Everett’s Erasure?  Well, sure, one could teaching those courses without those works.  My point is, I can’t.

 

I am lucky in that I have many friends who share my belief.  And I am consistently inspired by their passion, even if I don’t share their love for certain authors, books, and films.  And I’m glad they share their passion with their students.  Because I have never found it true that we lose our love for the precious when we ask others to read it (or when we spend time producing scholarship on it).  In fact, I have found the reverse to be true: teaching and writing on my favorite books only leads me to love them more.  And part of this is that my students always force me to consider things I haven’t yet, often by asking questions I’ve never asked myself, or making connections to other texts I would never have considered.  And knowing that there’s always something more to discover means never getting bored.

 

And I loathe boredom.

 

So I’m already looking forward to next semester’s class on The Modern American Novel.  Because I get to expose students to the exquisite prose of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, the profoundly moving account of immigrant life in Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, the deceptive simplicity of Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time.  But mostly, I look forward to watching them struggle with William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.  And if they are anything like me, their first response to the novel will be to throw it against the wall.**  And that’s just fine.  It won’t ruin my love for that book one bit.

 

 

*Yes, the Gawain Poet.  Not the Pearl Poet.  I will start a barfight over this.  Don’t poke the bear on this one.  🙂

**The Sound and the Fury, to this day, remains the only book I have ever literally thrown against the wall.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.

  1. I hear you and agree. The love for the literature is the drive to teach it.

    But do all professors in colleges in the US have full freedom to pick the entire curriculum themselves, say for instance programs that are to prepare students to be teachers in high school or middle school?

    In Norway, teacher education programs, for instance, have an almost and to some degree predefined curriculum. Of course literature classes at university that are created from scratch by the professor also naturally exists, but I get the impression (from elsewhere too, not just your post) like all classes in the US are up to the teacher teaching it? Is it?

    Academic freedom is nice, though.

    • Hi Jannike!

      I teach at a university with a large Education program, and most of my students in any given semester are Education majors working toward K-12 certification. We do have requirements with respect to learning outcomes (a phrase I hate, by the way), but we don’t have specific requirements for what must be included on any given syllabus. So, for instance, all Education majors specializing in English have to take a course in American literature, but if they take my class, I have complete freedom over what I can include on my syllabus.

      I can’t speak for all classes, for all schools, and their various requirements, but there is generally a degree of academic freedom with respect to course design. I know of some schools that dictate more than mine does, but I haven’t taught in such a program.

      • Hi Jim!
        And thanks! It is interesting to compare the differences. Sounds like there is more academic freedom in most cases over there. There are different approaches here too, but I feel the trend is leaning toward less freedom in such programs.

  2. Great post, Jim! I tweeted it, even though I disagree with you about the Gawain-poet. You knew that, though…

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