We’re launching a new series that we’ve titled “Department Dialogue.” This series offers our professors a platform they can use to discuss English-related topics that are of interest to both faculty and students alike. Our first post in this series is brought to you by our literature faculty, who all answered the same question: what does literature mean to you?
I remember my excitement when I started my education in literature as an undergraduate as my professors introduced me to a whole world of great books and also a whole new set of ways to think about those books at the same time.
They showed me that analyzing literature from different critical perspectives blurred the line between pleasure reading and school reading and that thinking deeply about what I read could actually enhance my enjoyment of books. I hope to pass on this same idea to my students!
When I was younger, I wanted to be an actor. What I liked about it was imagining myself as a vehicle for someone else, possibly even from a different time period or geographical location, someone different from myself. I did do some acting, but I found that it wasn’t the memorizing of lines and moving about the stage that I liked so much as the mental acrobatics of placing myself inside of another’s experience. As a teacher of literature, I get to do some of what I liked about acting. I can read passages filled with beautiful language out loud, but then I get to really fall into them deeply and explore not only what a character is thinking, but all of the social, political and economic factors that might be influencing that moment on the page. And I get to do it with students!
Since I teach postcolonial and world literature, reading diverse texts is for me a way to salute the humanity of the other. It is a political act. Once you read a text from another worldview beyond your own and really inhabit it, you can no longer deny the humanity of that person and others like her. So, while it seems to outsiders like all we do is talk and write, I think our work in literature classrooms is critical to stemming the tide of misunderstanding and violence.
For me, literature education involves both the acquisition of critical thinking and writing skills and the synthesis of complex issues of race, gender, sexuality, class, and the myriad of other aspects of identity that make up who we are. Thus, my courses move fluidly between nuts and bolts lessons about how to craft a persuasive essay to discussions of the philosophical questions that literature raises. For example, in my American Literature Survey II class, we recently discussed William Faulkner’s novel Light in August through the lens of Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, a critical text that masterfully delineates the ways in which American writers make whiteness meaningful through their constructions of blackness. After we discussed the intricacies of race in Faulkner’s novel as a class, students worked in small groups to generate thesis statements about the novel, sharpening their initial thoughts into convincing arguments that will (hopefully!) become the foundation for their next essay.
My ultimate goal in these exercises is that students will see themselves as astute critics capable of making meaningful interventions in literary and sociocultural discourses. Whether my students plan to pursue teaching, professional writing, or one of the many other career paths open to English majors, I want them to value the study of literature as an opportunity to better understand the world and themselves.
I love teaching literature at Ball State! I feel lucky to work with such a talented group of literature scholars as my peers. I love to read and discuss the work of my fellow faculty members, and I learn a great deal from their differing approaches to teaching. It’s nice to work with colleagues so committed to their students’ success and with students who care so much about literature and its place in the world of ideas, students who are eager to contribute their own voices to the scholarly conversation. They all have something valuable to add.
And that’s good because, to me, that’s what literary study is – a conversation. One of my favorite YA authors, Mark Haddon, says, “Reading is a conversation. All books talk. But a good book listens as well.” And, I would add, a good reader is engaged with both the text and the world. What I, as a literary scholar, can give my students is a broader and more in-depth understanding of the terms of the conversation and a variety ways to enter into it.