[marginalia] Some Problems – Books, Authors, English Class, and Readings : : Mark Polanzak

In this first installment of three articles, draft editor Mark Polanzak sounds off about high school English curricula, literary culture, and reading events. Today, we hear him bitch about Beowulf

A Note From The Author
I see my job as a college writing and literature teacher as largely a mission to get college students to enjoy reading and see some value in writing smartly, despite their declared major. Each semester, a handful of students tell me, “No offense, but I hate reading…” I tell them, “None taken, I didn’t invent books.”

But it’s sort of shitty to hear that young people truly hate the act of reading, because I write, and also because it hurts to hear that others laugh at your pleasures. No offense, but your interests blow. Oh, none taken. It also hurts to be so uncool. To belong, in part, to the artistic/entertainment group that the majority of the population doesn’t give a rat’s ass about.

I blame my students’ distaste for reading on several things:
1) The crazy joke of our high school English curriculum
2) A smelliness in the bourgeois literary culture
3) The sadness of reading events
All of these need serious revamping and soon, or else we’ll lose even more generations of readers and plunge the publishing world into a darker pit than it’s already falling through at terminal velocity.


The Crazy Joke of our High School English Curriculum

I somehow became an adult who likes reading, despite my secondary and some of my post-secondary English education. Some of the things I remember reading in middle school and high school include Beloved, The Scarlet Letter, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Iliad, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Chinese Bell Murders, Jane Eyre, A Tale of Two Cities, Their Eyes were Watching God, Death of a Salesman, The Great Gatsby, Huck Finn, Night, The Awakening, The House on Mango Street, A Raisin in the Sun, Oedipus Rex, Heart of Darkness, Siddhartha, Madame Bovary, Ellison’s Invisible Man, The Sound and the Fury, The Bible, The Slave Narrative of Frederick Douglas, A Farewell to Arms, A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, The Bean Trees, Winesburg, Ohio, MacBeth, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Crucible. A cadre of these authors might look familiar. I hear that some high schools assign Catcher in the Rye, A Brave New World, Slaughterhouse Five, 1984, and other books that could appeal to a teenager’s mind, but I was never assigned those. I read them later, when I escaped the clutches of a punishing curriculum.

Reading the above list of books has horrific real-world effect on young people and on literature and reading as a form of entertainment and art. Many of those books are good, sure. But 95% of them are too damn difficult for a teen, too composed of characters and issues that have less than nothing to do with the teens reading them, too impossible, the language too archaic, too much complex symbolism, too little humor to nearly no humor whatsoever, and then the books are too freaking long on top of that.

Any person in his right mind would come away from this curriculum thinking that books are boring and hard, that he is a stupid reader, that literature is above him, that reading is a chore reserved for academics and intellectuals. I used to dismiss students who told me that they didn’t like books. Then I saw it as a good pedagogical challenge to get them to enjoy a book. But now, since this has happened so much and with such regularity, I’ve decided that these students are correct when they say reading sucks. Because if the only thing you were told to read was Beowulf and then got a C- on the essay for lack of originality in thesis, you, too, would develop a post-traumatic stress trigger response when presented with any perfect bound object.

When my students report reading something outside the curriculum that they enjoyed (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Carrie, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), they refer to them as “guilty pleasures.” We are making young people feel guilty for enjoying reading.

Of the books from my remembered English curriculum, I couldn’t tell you very much at all about any of them, except for the titles I read after I was out of college, the books I wanted to re-read when I knew how to read better and what to read for. I still find Faulkner extremely difficult, still take three times as long to read Shakespeare, and I am a way, way more capable reader than I was at 16 years old.

By contrast, early high school physics courses don’t start off unpacking Einstein’s equations in his theory of relativity. Early social studies and civics courses don’t begin by examining the complexities of the UN’s sanctions on Russia. Art classes don’t throw students into recreating old masters’ portraiture.

But, in English classes, we hand the youngest students the most difficult works and ask them to comprehend and analyze them with original theses by midterm.

We stick by this sort of chronological progress through literature, starting with classics and then Shakespeare and then 19th century novels. Given the way language and culture evolve, wouldn’t it seem appropriate to read something contemporary and work backward?

What if we assigned books that were wildly engaging, fun, relatable, and perhaps easy for teens? What if young people were showed that reading is truly a real pleasure without guilt? What if we started with Twilight for the 13-year olds instead of As I Lay Dying? The students would still have to write an essay, take a test, sure. But maybe then they would enjoy the process of saying something new about the book in a term paper, enjoy quoting the text and citing the source, actually talk in class discussion. Maybe the teachers could find ways to talk about character development and the themes and symbolism within the story (the book has them!).

Many teachers do tremendous amounts of work to get students to engage with the likes of Jane Eyre, to get students to say something, anything(!), to get students talking about literature. But wouldn’t it be great if a teacher could spend more time talking with students about what interests the students and then directing those interests in intellectual ways? Wouldn’t it be great to use something immediately engaging to students to show them how to deepen that experience with theme, symbol, metaphor, sentence-level style, societal allegory, cultural critique, emotional response? It seems that teachers have the tough job of doing just the opposite: helping students to scrape away the impossible symbolism, metaphor, language, political and class commentary, and style to find the story hidden, buried somewhere inside.

If you cringed at the admittedly somewhat cringe-worthy and largely spontaneous suggestion that we assign Twilight instead of something like Hamlet for teens, I offer three things to consider:

  • What is the source of the cringing? For me, it comes first from a dark place within me that is radically jealous of the success of Stephenie Meyer and the attendant judgment of her writing skill (though I actually haven’t read the books (but still somehow assume that the writing is subpar, because of its genre)). I am far too cowardly and too fond of my job as a teacher to admit to not liking Shakespeare, though I pretty much strain to understand, even now, just about everything in a Shakespeare play. Swapping Meyer for Homer would remove some of the prestige of being an English literature teacher (That’s what you’re doing?). Those are my dark inner rumblings about the proposition. I ask that you consider your source of cringe.
  • What do you think young teens should get from an English course? If you could wave a magic bookmark and guarantee that a student takes three things away from a course in English literature, what would those three things be? And are these objectives only possible to accomplish with James Joyce stories?
  • If Twilight is too far afield, then what about short stories from poor old literary magazines and journals? There are plenty that have fantastic yet largely accessible language and style about contemporary themes and relevant cultural topics. There’s a lot of good in McSweeney’s, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Southern Review, The Normal School, Hobart, PANK, The American Reader, Bellevue, AQR, VQR, Black Warrior Review, Creative Nonfiction, Gulf Coast, Third Coast, The Kenyon Review, Zoetrope, The Pinch, and many, many more, some that are online, free, and using new media. If not Twilight, then at least something that’s of the here and now, accomplished, cared for, relevant, something. My students hesitate to say anything in class discussion for fear that they’ll sound stupid, that they’ll reveal their own personal interpretation and feelings about a book instead of the right answer about the work’s meaning. Disabusing students of the notion that reading is a test of their abilities to figure out what the writer was thinking is the principle pursuit of my literature classes these days. Imagine if we listened to Beethoven’s fifth or The Beatles White Album in a music class, and the students were tasked: “Figure out what that means!” They might feel less free to simply experience music.

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