Say “Classic Class Clash ten times fast. I’m going to start this discussion post a little differently, with two stories about my experience as an English Literature student. The first happened to me while I was in my tenth grade English class.
I hated that English class. The teacher was pretty monotone, and it seemed like she didn’t care a thing for the topic she was teaching. On top of that, the books we read all seemed boring, and completely irrelevant to tenth-grade Ryann. Toward the end of the year, we read To Kill a Mockingbird, and, because things were winding down, my teacher said that we would watch the movie adaptation for fun, and to give us a break before finals. I thought, “Great! I can kick back and relax for a few class periods.” So, when she started the movie, I pulled out a book (I believe I was reading Fire by Kristin Cashore at the time), and started reading. At this point, my English teacher, in my English class, told me not to read, that I would get more out of the movie adaptation of a book I had already read, than I would out of “whatever fantasy nonsense you’re reading now.”
To be fair, this wasn’t the first time I had pulled out a fantasy book when I probably should have been reading Death Be Not Proud or Lord of the Flies, but I was still flabbergasted, both by the fact that she thought I should not be reading in an English class, and the blatant disregard she showed for anything other than “the classics.”
Fast-forward a few years to my sophomore year of college. One of the requirements for an English degree at my school was to take a class that focused on the writings of a single author. I had the amazing opportunity to take a class that studied only Tolkien’s work; we read some of his poems and short stories, Letters From Father Christmas, The Silmarillion, and The Lord of the Rings all in a single semester (it was A LOT of reading, but I loved it). One of our assignments was to do an in-depth character or scene study, and present it to the class. I chose one of my all-time favorite literary scenes: Eowyn facing down the Lord of the Nazgul. The focal point of my essay and presentation was the verbal battle taking place between to two characters, even as a physical battle raged around them. I argued that Eowyn first defeats the Nazgul in this verbal debate, which then allows her the upper hand needed to defeat him physically. I learned more about language, how it has been used, and how I could use it from that one assignment, than I had learned in my entire academic career until that point.
Together, these experiences led me to this question: What is the purpose of an English/Literature class, and can’t we better accomplish that goal with a wide variety of books, rather than just the “classics?” Based on my experience, I assumed Literature classes were meant to teach students how to conduct literary analysis, and the value and necessity of literary techniques such as setting and characterization, or rhythm and form in poetry.
If that is the case, you will be hard-pressed to find a better example of setting than Lord of the Rings; Tolkien is well-known for using long-winded descriptions of every single form of plant-life found in his world. But, putting my love for Tolkien aside, wouldn’t a fantasy novel arguably be the best representation of setting, because world-building in fantasy is often so necessary? Or wouldn’t a John Green book be just as good a representation of characterization as Oedipus Rex, because the very plot is centered on the characters’ frames of mind?
And that also goes for poetry. Slam poetry is often the most rhythmic form of poetry, because it is meant to be heard! I could give you list after list of poetry that was written within the last decade that does amazing things with form and will be more relevant to what students are facing now.
Because, at the end of the day, that’s what it should be about: students relating to literature. They can’t fully understand literature if they can’t relate to it first. Students won’t really have passionate discussions about books if they can’t relate to them. They will never develop a love of reading if they can’t relate to a single book they’ve read. And, if I were an English teacher, and one of my students left my class having learned nothing but a love of reading, I would consider that class a success.
Thanks for reading!
What about you? Any class horror stories of your own? Or maybe a class that helped grow your reading love? What do you think should be the purpose of a Literature class? What books would you like to see taught in classes? Let me know in the comments below!