Sunday, November 14, 2021

Elaine Showalter's Teaching Literature: A Short Summary

Elaine Showalter's Teaching Literature: A Short Summary

What should be the primary pedagogical goals of/for the teachers of literature? The question has never been out of scholarly interest since literature was introduced as a subject in universities. The question has become even more important and central to teaching literature since B. S. Bloom introduced the taxonomy of educational objectives in 1956. Now, almost every field of learning faces the common question: What are the goals, objectives, and outcomes of what you are going to teach or learn? In this case, the teaching literature is not an exception. Elaine Showalter has also taken up this question in her Teaching Literature, a book that we can call Showalter’s Taxonomy of teaching literature.

Elaine Showalter has, through examples and anecdotes, tried to address the question in Teaching Literature, especially in Chapter-2: Theories of Teaching Literature. At the beginning of the chapter, she agrees that like the definition of literature, the goals of teaching literature cannot be universally defined: “If we can’t agree on a definition of literature, can we agree on the goals of teaching literary texts? Probably not” (22). To her, the inability to “articulate a shared vision of our goal that that can provide a sense of ongoing purpose and connection” (24) of teaching literature is one of the present anxieties of literature teachers. To ES, the goals of teaching literature have not always been the same. Different ages and movements have set different goals of teaching literature: to make “people better human beings” (22), “to moralize, civilize, and humanize” (22), and “to engage in a significant relationship with others” (23).  According to ES, these goals are still relevant to teaching literature. However, several literary and critical movements have defined the goals of teaching literature differently during the 20th century. New criticism set the goal to isolate “the texts from historical contexts and subjective interpretation” (23), during “the 1960s and 1970s, teaching literature became a political act” (23) and during the 1970s, teaching literature became a branch of philosophical inquiry about signification, representation, aporia, and ideology” (23). According to ES, apart from these explicit goals, the implicit goal that is always relevant is that literature is “important not only in education but in life” (24). On page 26, ES lists 12 explicit goals of teaching literature, which can be summarized in her own language: “Overall, our objective in teaching literature is to train our students to think, read, analyze, and write like literary scholars, to approach literary problems as trained specialists in the field do, to learn a literary methodology, in short to “do” literature as scientists “do” science” (25).

What are the methods by which the author advocates achieving these goalsI think an implicit answer to this question is found in the opening chapter of the book, where ES describes the seven leading anxieties that are commonly experienced by literature teachers. One must overcome these anxieties to become a good literature teacher. However, the explicit answers to the question of how these goals can be achieved are found in Chapter-2. She, at first, says that literature teachers are often baffled when they are “asked to describe our (their) pedagogical theory” (27). Moreover, teachers often are not consistent and conscious about the theory they apply in teaching literature (27). ES has suggested three theories or methods which are again subdivided into several approaches: “subject-centred theories, teacher-centred theories and student-centred theories” (27). Apart from these theories, ES also talks about creating a “personae or the teaching self” (38) in literature classrooms. 

Poetry, as a distinctive piece of literature, requires a special pedagogy, which is not or cannot be used in teaching other forms of literature such as dramas and novels. According to ES, for teaching poetry the instructors need “to combine a range of techniques and methods” 64). Teaching poetry also involves awareness about the audience on the part of the instructors. One must “ask herself about the intended audience of learners- beginners, advanced, majors, graduate students, dabblers, artists, scientists” (64). ES discusses how the three pedagogical approaches she has just mentioned (“subject-centred theories, teacher-centred theories and student-centred theories”) can be tailormade by the instructors to teach poetry well in classrooms. To say in brief, in the subject-centred approach to teaching poetry, the instructors have to decide how to teach “the subjects of poetics, metrics, and prosody” (65). They also should focus on the figurative language, genres and background of the poetry they will teach (66-67). In a teacher-centred approach to teaching poetry, teachers should read the poems aloud, which helps learners engage in the poems more. In a student-centred approach, students should be involved in poetry which is sometimes absent in a teacher-centred approach. In this approach, asking students to memorize poems also can be (a good pedagogical tool” (69). Sometimes, instructors even ask students to compose poems in their poetry courses. Thus, poetry demands a distinctive pedagogical approach to teaching.