Reflections of a Literature Teacher- By Rachel Martin

Dear readers

I’ve been reflecting a lot on an issue these days and I felt like sharing my reflections with you.

As a Literature teacher, I’ve observed that there is what I can call a “Literature” problem in schools in my country.

I’ve pondered and re pondered over this for some time, then I started reading to try to find some answers to these questions that have been tormenting my mind.

I came across a book by Showalter (2003). (I strongly advise you to go through it).

What struck me in this book were the terms “unsettling” and “anxiety dreams” that are used to describe the feeling at the heart of Literature.

For Showalter Literature teachers are often going through an existential sense of quest, asking questions like “Why am I doing this?”

Well, I admit I’ve often asked myself this question too.

So as Literature teachers, we are humanists..

And humanists, I read, can be described as marginals…

We as Literature teachers, are obviously not at the centre of existence; we teach a subject that’s often considered as inferior to other subjects like science or mathematics for example..

So as a “marginal” these are the observations I made:

Literature is apparently considered a well-established subject at school and even in universities.

It has gained a significant place in language learning especially in or English Second Language (ESL) contexts although in some countries like China and Singapore, its value is suffering a decline.

Educational policy in Mauritius is (for reasons unknown to me) encouraging students to opt for Literature as a subject.

Yet for me and I think for many others too, one main dilemma is the difficulty of defining the term.

Ask a student or any other person to define literature and note his/her answer.

The most common definition you might get is: novels, plays, and poems. Can this be considered a satisfactory definition?

In fact, the validity of literature has long been questioned, especially what involves literariness.

What is literariness (Remember Foucault)? Who decides what text is considered literature and what text is not considered literature?

Literature is as you see, a vague concept.

And English Literature is a much vaguer one.

For years, examiners seem to interpret it as Literature written in English in England, then it widened to include American and other countries’ Literature in English.

Also, people believe literature is not primarily vocational or pragmatic.

It is therefore considered as either a “soft option” or an elite subject reserved for an elite few.

I’ve heard students ask these questions: What will I do will a degree in Literature? What prospects do I have?

Well, for me, again the first question asked should have been: Why am I doing this?

There is as you can see, an inability to define clear visions and goals for learning or teaching literature.

Many define their visions in what students will do or can do, like reading poetry or answering examination questions or even finding a job.

While examining the syllabus (c.i.e), I see that students are expected to master skills like evaluating, remembering and organising or to “do” Literature as scientists “do” science.

But tell me, do you really think we can we do Literature as scientists do science?

Examination questions ask for standard stereotypical responses.

But since Literature is subjective, for me it cannot be satisfactorily assessed.

It is much more than just developing skills although many students do literature merely to pass examinations, without seeing connections with their lives.

All this to say that I think teaching literature is not done in the right way.

I observed that students are taught to understand only particular texts and are often taught about the novel but not the novel itself and are thus unable to understand other texts they read.

For me a student of Literature should be able to read, understand and analyse any text given to him/her and not only those he/she is studying.

I am wondering why children are abruptly made to study canonical texts without any initiation or preliminary exposure to Western literature.

I am also wondering why some teachers use translations instead of original texts and why others choose simplified or modernized versions of texts.

Much else is then lost, isn’t it?

Logically, if you think students are not mature enough to study the original text, it means, he’s simply not ready.

Why not wait some years? Why teach him an abridged version? This makes no sense to me.

Or could it be that literature is not taught “for the sake of literature” but only as a tool to help students learn English as is the case in lower forms in Mauritius where the subject is not examinable?

Also, something that is really really bothering me and making me reflect on my identity as a Literature teacher is this:

Why are texts imposed on teachers?

It seems that authors listed in curriculum documents define what a teacher of English language “should” know (I mean should students know Shakespeare to be considered as educated? Should teachers teach Shakespeare to be “good” Literature teachers?).

I understand that while preparing the syllabus content, people (the curriculum developers) make “judicious” selection and careful evaluation of literary texts to suit students’ needs.

Who knows the students’ needs better than the teacher or the student himself for that matter?

For student (and for teachers too) literature then is likely to be defined as what someone else has nominated “worthy of study” or assumed to exhibit literary value.

After years, I still see the dominance of grand narratives or canonical texts in syllabuses worldwide.

Yet views concerning this are varied.

Many consider the canon an experience in high culture- unrelated to concerns of most people.

Others think they are maintaining imperial culture while teaching a canon dominated by white male authors.

Others perceive these texts as having an alienating and defamiliarising effect on students…

…while still others argue that unfamiliar texts can enlarge experience as strangeness can be illuminating.

Post-colonial theorists extensively questioned the necessity of a literary canon.

As a Literature teacher in a multicultural context, I’m constantly facing growing challenges to meet the needs of diverse students by bringing more relevance to the teaching of Literature.

I think multicultural literature empowers both teachers and students.

It exposes them to a variety of voices.

It allows them to see the world through different perspectives, while also fostering a positive attitude about other cultures.

I think teaching multicultural literature is an opportunity for teachers to exercise agency and make their teaching meaningful.

Also literature is deemed important in cultural identity and diversity and represents the cultural heritage of a country.

Therefore, I think one way we can integrate students’ culture into the curriculum is through literature.

Now even local literature is increasingly being prescribed in Canada, Australia and the US.

However, in Mauritius although there is policy about curricular relevance, no local texts are prescribed and examined.

I personally think both local and global literatures are important and students need to see themselves as both local and world citizens in this globalised world.

I think that the “prime motivator” for teaching literature is a passion and love for literature.

Is passion not an important part of a person’s identity?

But how can we, as Literature teachers live our love and passion with so many restrictions placed upon us..

.. and with the so called “curriculum makers” defining our identity as teachers.

Now the question I should rather be asking myself is: Who am I?

This is indeed very very “unsettling”.

What do you think?


2 thoughts on “Reflections of a Literature Teacher- By Rachel Martin

Add yours

  1. Rachel, I have long struggled with these problems as well. Most middle and high school English classes are literature based. Students in other ‘language” classes learn grammar, vocabulary and rote memorization in addition to the history and culture of the language they are learning. The activities are “fun” and useful. I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked, “Why can’t we just study English stuff?”

    Middle and high school students are often unprepared and unwilling to explore the deeply personal nature of literature, which, as you said, is often like a revealing dream. To me, the study of literature is the study of what it means to be human. We only get a very narrow view if we see the world through television sit coms and reality shows.

    When I was in high school — sooooo many year ago — I don’t remember reading a female writer as part of the canon. We did Sophocles, Shakespeare, Hess, Twain, Poe, Melville. All dead white men. The world is a better place now where we can read and celebrate Hurston and Adiche and Desai and Lahiri and Angelous countless other women.

    My answer to “why do I do this?” is because I have to — teaching kids how to be human is the most important subject in the curriculum. Period. And . . . teachers need to insist on becoming curriculum designers.

    Great read. Thanks for the questions.

    Liked by 2 people

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