Upon learning of my career as a teacher of writing, a former college professor wryly noted, “Composition is the armpit of the university.” As had also been the case when he commended Wallace Stegner as the United States’ greatest author, the former professor’s judgment was keen.
Certainly, teaching composition can be inspirational and gratifying. At the same time, it’s a profession of back aches, headaches, exasperation, and drudgery. However, composition courses are the substance of our department, and without them, we don’t exist. To put an even finer point on it, without the money generated by composition classes, a few other degrees and programs at our college would also cease to exist. Because we English faculty each carry a load of 150+ students and bend our necks over non-spell-checked essays for myriad hours each semester, smaller programs–say, welding or machining–benefit from the tuition dollars we generate.
Few things highlight the tight miserliness of my character more effectively than the look on my face when I consider a trades instructor whose entire teaching load comprises a two-student cohort.
Fortunately, I manage to right my attitude when I admit I couldn’t do what the trades instructor does, even with a mere two students (‘tho I daresay our college would get significant coverage in the local newspaper–“Finger Severed on College Campus!”–were I to become an instructor in the machining program. I’d create a one-woman publicity blitz, really). Nor could the trades instructor do what I do, for it’s a rare individual who can employ the subjunctive mood with the precision of a Swiss-style lathe. We each work to our personal strengths.
Also: I chose my profession, and I stay in it willingly, so I don’t have a right to kvetch.
I don’t always stay within my rights. Indeedy, I do kvetch, complain, and snark. These activities clear the professional sinuses. After a metaphorical horking out of the snot, I get back to cleanly inhaling my good fortune.
I do best at appreciating my job when I focus on the heart-moving students; every semester there are at least a handful of them whose personal stories make me cry in the kitchen as I debrief with my husband. I do best at appreciating my job when I remind myself of the autonomy and flexible schedule, two things that are instrumental to my happiness. I do best at appreciating my job when I take a break from marking essays, stretch a crick out of my spine, and think, “I am so damn lucky. I get to live a life of the mind, not the mines. Sure, it’s a life of the mind peppered with strippers and addicts and dealers, but doesn’t every inflated aesthete need that sort of counterbalance? It’s like I’m Valjean, my students are Fantine, and only a genius state employer could assign a salary to that kind of dynamic.”
And I do best at appreciating my job when I get to teach a literature class.
In our department, we generally offer three or four literature classes each semester. Since there are nine full-time faculty and five or six adjunct instructors, there’s not enough lit to go around. Thus, when it comes time to create schedules, we try to give each full-time faculty one literature class each calendar year. It doesn’t shake out perfectly, but for the most part, those without “release credits” (for doing other kinds of work for the college, in addition to teaching) will end up with nine sections of writing and one section of literature during the course of the year. In short, literature classes are the cherry on top of a towering sundae of cause/effect essays.
Even better is the fact that I have been able to teach literature courses online in recent years. Although many justifiably take issue with the online platform, I can make a firm case for the effectiveness of lit classes offered remotely, as there is no back of the room in cyberspace, which creates a class teeming with equal participation from all students; moreover, every contribution students make online must be supported with textual evidence–something that doesn’t happen in a traditional classroom, a place where three students do all the talking, and no one addresses the text when responding orally. Online literature classes are terrific, and they feed my teacherly soul.
But then. Both in traditional and online literature classrooms, sometimes students balk. Some students, usually of a fundamentalist or evangelical strain, refuse to read certain books because their perceived contents run counter to the student’s faith.
You can hear the echoing grate of my gnashing teeth here, yes? It’s fortunate I have a job that provides dental insurance.
I have had a student refuse to read The Red Tent because Anita Diamant had the audacity to re-imagine a biblically based story (“I will take a zero on all the assignments related to this book before I will pollute my mind with a fictionalized account of the Bible!”). One of my colleagues has had students in his Adolescent Literature class refuse to read Harry Potter due to the looming threat of Satan in those pages. These are but two representative examples of a larger trend.
It’s terribly difficult to respond to such students. If I were able to reel out my real self, the response would involve a skull-rattling shake of their shoulders, perhaps followed by a “Snap out of it!” slap across the face à la Cher in Moonstruck. After that, the offending student would be subjected to a three-minute finger wave about how true faith can withstand tests; how belief is strengthened when it considers conflicting ideas; how JesuseffingChrist the Bible as an historical text is already a work of fiction; how fantastical stories of wizards don’t create the black magic that lives in our hearts; how learning to think requires dancing with a capacious variety of viewpoints; how the whole point of college is to push our brains and values out of insulated walls and into challenging wilds.
I reel in my real self, though, because today’s community college students, shored up by righteous indignation and dislike of authority, do love to make an appointment with the dean. Instead, I give them a watered-down version of my reaction to their objections and then, with sadness in my psyche, type zeroes into the grade book or come up with alternate assignments.
In addition to the objecting fundamentalists, there are also the students of literature whose every analysis is rooted in “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” To a certain extent, I’m okay with those reactions because, at the very least, they indicate a connection to the text, and for students who have never read a book in their lives (which is often the case), being able to express “I didn’t like it, and here’s why” is significant. As the semester progresses, I urge students to stop using the first person pronoun in their discussions, for a move to third person point of view immediately boosts the quality of their responses. However, the majority of students aren’t ready to let go of “I”–they literally can’t see it unless it’s pointed out, which is a phenomenon ripe for psychological analysis (“So you can’t see yourself unless someone else notices you?”) and continue with “I think…” and “I liked…” all the way through the final exam.
Most important to me is that they justify their reactions and learn to examine and support their emotional responses. This is the toughest task of all. What I’ve discovered over the years, and I know I’m wielding a brush so broad I could paint a house with a single stroke, is this: retention and graduation rates at community colleges are abysmal compared to those at four-year universities and private liberal arts colleges. The primary reason drop-out rates are so high is that the backgrounds of many community college students make it so they crumple in the face of personal life crises. If an aunt dies, a student might go missing from an online class for two weeks. Last semester, I had a student get a gel shot in her hip, thus necessitating a ten-day hiatus from all online class work–during the days when her research paper’s rough draft, peer reviewing, final draft, and final exam were due. After not completing any of those major assignments in any appreciable fashion, she launched a barrage of messages, telling me how much she needed to pass the class. Apparently, she was able to work at the computer when it came to writing emails. She also was able to post a cute photo of her dog in the “Random Things” folder on the day she was to be critiquing her classmates’ papers. More than anything, she created in me a feeling of gratitude that she’s not my wife because I can’t afford the speeding ticket I’d get as I gunned my way to divorce court.
Both as an individual and a teacher, I find it important to acknowledge that the class continues regardless of what’s going on in the personal life, and if grief or health or meds or bad boyfriends or car troubles or nasty best friends or former addictions or video games or double shifts or evil roommates or tender stomachs or social anxiety or chronic procrastination or lost backpacks or getting fired get in the way, and the student can’t participate in class, then the student should withdraw from the class. If one’s personal life is melting down to the point of incapacitation, then the added stress of knowing one is failing classes should be removed so that focus can remain on handling the personal crises.
More often than not, though, the crises in students’ personal lives are actually just cases of “life happening,” and if they were better equipped to examine and support their emotional responses–skills that come from being students in a literature class, ironically enough–they could arrive at this realization: “My aunt died, and I will miss her forever, and I have a test tomorrow and a paper due Friday, so I can work on the paper in the car while we drive to Indiana, and I can ask my instructor if I can take the test early, after the memorial service, because it’s an online exam, and there’s Wi-Fi at the hotel in Indianapolis. Once I’m done with the test, I can go out to dinner with the family and reminisce about Aunt Mabel’s wigs.”
Truly, I realize compartmentalization isn’t that easy. It’s a skill learned over decades. To a startling extent, reading and responding to literature can help with the process. First, there is an emotional reaction. Beyond that, though, there is a moment of stopping, looking at the larger context, and asking oneself, “Why do I feel this way? Is my reaction valid? Are there other possible reactions? Would it make sense for me to adjust my thinking, given what’s on the page in front of me?”
Beyond the life skills that can be learned from literature classes, students also gain a deeper understanding of human beings and the human condition when they read stories and novels. Woefully often, though, they approach works with very limited criteria for what is “good.” They want happy endings. They want action. They don’t want long descriptive passages. They want likable characters. Were they to read blogs, I’d wager they’d say, “This post is too long. It needs more pictures. Maybe a numbered list.”
It’s my aim to ignore their criteria–gleefully–and assign to them works that are sad, slow, lyrical, full of prickly characters.
Right here, Gentle Readers, I am finally getting to the original intent of this essay. When I started, my plan was to crank out a short, quick post about a few books I’ve enjoyed, notable for their choleric characters. Approximately 2,000 words later, I’m still getting there. Ain’t that the thing about reading and writing, though? It starts with a word and an intention, and before we know what’s happened, we’re somewhere else entirely?
You know what else I never intended to do in this post? Get all meta on your asses.
Quickly, then, let me roll all my previous points about teaching and students and literature into a quick summary: I am never happier than when readers and writers embrace difficult.
Whether it be plot, setting, structure, or character, the best writing is like life: demanding, confusing, flawed, well-intentioned, untidy, and surprising.
Poor dead, bewigged Aunt Mabel never tolerated pap, nor should we.
Aunt Mabel’s wig would have been bobbing madly had she read the article “Novels Don’t Need to be ‘Nice’” in The Guardian, a piece that sums up everything I want students to know about reading fiction: “Why bother to engage with difficult, demanding characters when we don’t have to? This [attitude] is a great shame: it’s reductive, and antithetical to what literature is about … Literature, after all, is not some cosy textual coffee morning populated solely with friends we haven’t met yet: rather, it is a site where the full panoply of human activity may scrutinised – and this isn’t always pretty.”
It is with a gleam in my eye, therefore, that I present to you a tidy list of three books featuring nettlesome female protagonists. They are tough, reclusive, cynical, sardonic, unpleasant, charming, and exceedingly human. If you’ve been on a Nicholas Sparks kick in recent months, I recommend these reads as a counterpoint to the dreck you’ve been consuming.
1. Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willett: When I randomly picked up this book at the library, I had no idea it was a sequel. In fact, I read the entire book as though it was a stand-alone, completely taken by the crochety protagonist from the first scene when she slips in her yard and hits her head on a birdbath. Once I became aware of the book’s predecessor, I went back and read The Writing Class and Willett’s other novels. But Amy Falls Down is the best. The New York Times notes,”Essentially, Amy is a character who lives inside her head, and she needs to get out more.” That’s my kind of gal. Crusty. Solitary.
2. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine: The Boston Globe review deems this book’s heroine, Aaliya, “an utterly beguiling misanthrope” while The Wall Street Journal describes her as “affectionate, urbane, vulnerable and fractiously opinionated.” All I know is that I loved to read her.
3. Florence Gordon by Brian Morton: The New York Times describes Florence as a “congenitally difficult protagonist–so caustic and cold she even walks out of her own surprise birthday party…” While the book as a whole could do more, in terms of establishing Florence as the thinker and feminist she is purported to be, it still effectively portrays a no-bullshit woman who is unwilling to suffer nonsense.
So there you have it: a quick list of three books I’ve enjoyed! Yay! LOL! Thx 4 reading!
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