Notes from the Literature Core Curriculum Trenches
Long, Steve, Academic Exchange Quarterly
Since sometime in the 1960s, when literary scholarship went into theoretical overdrive, we members of the college educational proletariat increasingly found ourselves in deeper and deeper distress. This is not necessarily because literary theory distresses us in and of itself, but because this shift in methodological emphasis has brought about a polarization of labor.
English departments designate graduate students and, in many cases, non-tenure faculty as the front line enforcers of core curriculum education while their tenured mandarin colleagues handle the teaching of the technical theoretical material. We graduate students and non-tenured faculty are the grunt workers of the academic humanities. We face the masses of students taking mandatory courses. It is usually we alone who separate the vast herds of non-select from the select.
The young teacher of "Modern Literary Perspectives 201" (or, for undergraduates, known as "arts elective #3" on the diploma check-off list) receives none of the benefits of grade inflation in the upper echelons of doctoral course work. There the curve begins at "A-" and extends to "potential for publication."
No, in the core curriculum trenches, Darwinism rules. The core curriculum literature curve begins at "functionally illiterate" or developmentally arrested, bulges into a large hump of "able to summarize a story plot, and then tapers precipitously toward "enjoy reading books voluntarily and able to make figurative connections between as many as three books read in the past." And this would probably be fine -- if the less talented students in the class admired the stronger students. The trouble is, however, that core curriculum literature in the academy allows very little common currency of admiration for students. As literacy rates and reading competence among high school students seem to fall, the greater the likelihood that students taking required literature classes see them as odd, archaic forms of torture. Students who don't like reading have difficulty reading. This seems obvious. What disturbs us who teach these students is how easily and quickly difficulty turns into dismissal. Failure of mastery causes pain and much more so as the object of mastery is seen as an absurd pursuit. To the mediocre undergraduate reader, the sophisticated undergraduate reader simply possesses a lucky genetic quirk or, worse, is "just weird."
As the semester proceeds, so does the testing and the sifting, and talented literature students are transformed by their peers into a hated minority, the teacher into a "far out" eccentric figure speaking in tongues, or a self-indulged tyrant. My hunch, based on my experience, -- is that most assessors of literature classroom effectiveness provide scant evidence that students have acquired a great deal of subject matter from the literature course, i.e., transferred "stuff' from the outside of their brains to the inside. It's rare, for example, to see a student's course evaluation mentioning his having "learned the crucial structural differences between Acts I and II of _Waiting for Godot_" or his or her having come to "distinguish between the rising action of a story and its denouement." More commonly, student evaluations discuss the teacher--the teacher's fairness, the teacher's love of the subject ... how much the teacher seems to care about his or her students.
It is easy to understand why literature teachers often end up mistrusting student evaluations--even teachers who get good evaluations--because they often have so little to do with literature and so much to do with personal presentation. Students forget (or never experience) the shaking of their philosophical foundations that the reading of a novel might cause; they remember the teacher's nifty pedagogical delivery.
Poor readers do not admire good reading, I think, for two primary reasons. First, literature itself has been "devolved" out of the class of essential education by our predominantly consumer culture. …