I don’t know why we teach literature. Not the most politic of statements by a writer and teacher of lit ????, I realise. But honestly? Can you teach a love for language, so that Mary Oliver’s poetry becomes a love affair for the image-besotted among us? Can we cultivate a passion for the way Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley reproduces the circular pattern of his journeys? Does any of this really matter when all the world seems to think that the only important ‘thing’ is a good job? Meaning: one that pays WELL. Teaching doesn’t count. Nursing is borderline. Plumbing, trash disposal, retail, and most service jobs? All ‘don’t count’: they aren’t prestigious and/or don’t pay well.
When I went away to college so many years ago, I had to settle for the college my father would pay for. Which wasn’t my first choice (that would have been Antioch, where they had what would now be called a ‘service learning component’ — working in your field, or another, doing good; a very Buddhist idea). Or my second — that would have been Stanford, where I was wait-listed, but might have been been able to get in after scholarships were decided.
No, I went where my father sent me. Where my extended family could ‘keep an eye on me,’ and where he thought I would be ‘safe.’ Meaning: away from radical ideas, and whatever. That worked out much like many decisions in my life, less than what I hoped for, more than I had any right too expect. But I still had dreams: an idea that somehow, I would grow. I would sit up late talking about how to change the world, and that at college I might even learn ways to do just that.
But I didn’t know that. I went off w/ all the best intentions of learning, not thinking about a job. I started out on a history scholarship, for cryin’ out loud! What ‘job’ (other than the one I still have, and love — teaching) would that make possible?
And I did learn. I changed majors 14 times (conservative estimate, honest) over the course of the 10 years it took me to matriculate. I immediately changed from history to anthropology, one of my ongoing loves, and then to English lit, next rhetoric, then to French, on to geology, to biology (that lasted about as long as it took me to figure out that I never would understand how to work a microscope — long enough to fail cellular!), a short flirtation w/ comparative lit, comparative religions, and back again to several of them. So, depending on how you count, somewhere between 14 and 18 times… Truth. I wanted to know everything. But mostly, I wanted to read. In any discipline, about almost anything. I wanted ideas, and intelligent conversation. And literature was the best of places to find them.
Still, I learned about rocks (geology was sooo cool!), and about ecosystems, and about cells, and how to dig clay from the earth & pulverise it myself & make it into a really ugly pot. I learned about logical fallacies, and French diphthongs & English etymology. Not to mention cellular structure, genetics 101, and sooo much more. Mostly, I learned how to think: how to oh so painfully! construct an argument. And find sources to back it up. And how to lay it out w/out rancour, hopefully.
When I taught youngers, my students would tell me they didn’t like literature. Or even reading. I believed them — who would make such a thing up?? They had no idea what a knife it is, for a book idolator, to hear that anyone wouldn’t love reading. But I’m not certain that their disdain for ‘literature’ isn’t really even worse, in some ways. What they associated w/ English lit classes wasn’t the reading, or even the discussion. It wasn’t the exchange of ideas I soaked in like the air I breathe. It was writing. And they hated it. My beloved conversations about text, and writing? They hated all of it.
When I was a very small girl — possibly as young as 3, certainly no older than 5 — I ‘wrote’ poems and stories on a small magnetic chalkboard of my grandmother’s. She’d been a teacher before marrying, and had a lot of ‘educational’ toys around. I didn’t know they were educational. I just liked them.
I made small books, scribbling in them before I even knew my alphabet. And then I made maps in the books, as if somehow that would see me somewhere safe. I wrote letters to my old ladies when we lived overseas, and thank-you notes for the presents they chose carefully. I wrote in locking diaries w/ tiny keys, and French cahiers blotted by leaky fountain pens, and on stationery in pastel colours. Writing wasn’t something I thought about — it was what I did. Now, it’s who I am. I write. It’s a rare day I don’t write.
Certainly reading & writing haven’t made me rich, or famous. But I’m pretty sure that they have made me a better person. They’ve helped me process and record my thoughts so that I can figure a way out of the tangled skeins of everyday experiences. They’ve allowed me to insert my voice, my own experiences & thoughts, into public conversations, and back up what I think with ‘evidence,’ with the support of far wiser men & women. Sometimes they have even made me happy. I can’t convince most folks of this (certainly not students!), so I rarely try these days. It’s enough if every so often, someone cracks open a new book, or tries to put words on paper or a brightly lit screen, and shares.
Perhaps that’s the whole struggle: just to begin. Just to conquer the fear of blankness — blank screen, blank notebook, unopened book. Certainly it’s a major reason I write — to think aloud, often about what I’ve just read. Most readers subvocalise: they read aloud in their heads. You can even pick this up on sensitive recording apparatus. Writing isn’t reading, but it’s very close. Reading what I wrote 20 years ago when my sons were young…before my doctoral studies is a way to have a conversation w/ that woman, to share experiences that may as well have happened to someone else...long ago & far away.
I’m lucky in that I’ve always been able to teach what I’m interested in, or what I want to learn. Which has also meant I’ve mostly read what I wanted — a pretty varied library. Right now? I’m gearing up to teach a seminar on the mystery (my favourite genre fiction), a workshop on writing & place, and a couple of presentations on specific books I like. Whether I’m able to communicate my own passions for these topics remains to be seen. But at least I know that anyone studying w/ me now is there because s/he wants to be. And that they read. For fun. That’s more than half the field gained!