Tuesday, January 22, 2008

CitizenSE Teaching Manifesto, Part I: The Literature/Golf Mock(able)-Epic Simile

I have to admit to having been a bit intimidated by Craig Smith's recent decision to tag the humble proprietor of the obscurest blog on teh internets alongside such bloggy luminaries as Michael Berube, New Kid on the Hallway, Tenured Radical, and Sherman Dorn. When you consider how amazing Dr. Crazy's post that inspired Craig was--not to mention those in response to it by A White Bear, Aaron Barlow, Philosleft, and Craig himself, to name just a few--you have to wonder what you can add to the conversation. At least you do if you are me. So if you know where I'm coming from, you might be able to imagine how pleased I was to discover that the idea I came up with enables me to build upon one of my favorite CitizenSE posts in recent months.

Imagine, if you will, that a work of literature is like a golf course. Think of the process of designing and constructing a golf course as similar to imagining and composing a piece of writing. And think of how whether to play, which course to play, and how to play it can be compared to the kinds of decisions that go into whether to read, what to read, and how to read. What I am trying to get at through this opening analogy (writer as golf course architect, reader as golfer) is the notion that it is the experience (of reading, of golfing) that matters. What I like about the analogy is that golf's image as an elite and elitist sport corresponds rather well to the image of literature as an elite and elitist form of writing. (And if you believe Caleb Crain, reading may become about as prevalent as golfing this century.) For that matter, the humanities as a whole, like golf, still have a rather clubby image in popular culture--both are often represented as a luxury pasttime for the wealthy to dabble in, certainly nothing useful or productive or innovative to contribute to society. But that's a matter for another CitizenSE series....

Let's get back to teaching. Golf, like any sport, is neither a natural nor an instinctual activity. You have to learn how to do it, from many people, over time. You get better at it by doing it, again and again, though improvement is hard to come by and even harder to sustain. At some point, you may decide to become a serious golfer--you start playing more regularly, watching professional tournaments on television or in person, reading golf publications for tips and examples, researching equipment options, playing golf video games obsessively, betting with your playing partners, and so on. Eventually you may decide to become a competitive golfer--you start seeking perspective on your swing from a book, pro, and/or machine, getting your clubs fitted,joining a team and learning from a coach and your fellow players, playing in tournaments and learning from your fellow competitors, and so on. To extend my analogy further, serious golfers are like literature majors, competitive golfers are like literature graduate students, professors at teaching institutions are like teaching pros, and professors at research institutions are like touring pros.

Now, how does this mock(able)-epic simile help me answer the question of why I teach and why it matters? Sure, I love pushing the serious golfers and mentoring the competitive ones as much as the next teaching pro and am overjoyed when former students make a splash in academia. And I love teaching the occasional graduate seminar and sharing my limited experiences as a touring pro when appropriate with my master's students here. But what I love the most is the challenge of figuring out how to draw new golfers into the sport, helping beginners master the fundamentals and enjoy the game, and encouraging intermediate golfers to become serious golfers. That's why I teach so many introductory and general education courses here. I want all the students I teach to come away from my courses willing to consider acting on the idea that reading literature, like playing golf, can be a worthwhile and rewarding lifelong activity.

All well and good so far, but the reading literature/playing golf analogy has much farther-reaching implications, which require me to unpack some of the key terms I just used. What are some of the fundamentals of golf? Beyond obvious things like learning the rules and etiquette of the game, developing a consistent pre-shot routine, honing your grip, stance, alignment, and swing, and building your repertoire of shots, pitches, chips, scrambles, and putts, I have in mind analyzing and assessing the hole in front of you, imagining what shot you want to hit next in light of the course and weather conditions, figuring out what kind of swing you need to make to execute the shot, and learning how to focus enough to do it increasingly consistently, under various degrees of pressure and distraction, every time you address the ball. I won't try to give the literacy/literary equivalent of every one of these golf fundamentals, but I will point out that they all involve becoming more self-aware as a reader and more attentive to the text in front of you--its form, the genres and conventions it participates in, the allusions it makes to other texts and intertextual dialogues it enters into, and so on. Just as you get more enjoyment out of golf as you become better able to make solid contact with the ball and hit it closer to where you are aiming, so, too, do you enjoy reading literature more and appreciate what writers are doing better the more familiar you become with various examples of effective uses of rhythm, imagery, metaphor, symbolism, tone, point-of-view, irony, ambiguity, and so forth. The way I try to draw new golfers into the game, then, is to teach an integrated combination of reader-response, formalist, and structuralist techniques of reading and responding to literary texts in introductory and general education courses. I try to take students--many of whom, to the extent that they have been trained to read literature, have been trained to cherry-pick a poem for a metaphor or locate a story among four core themes (Man vs....) and write about it in a cookie-cutter 5-paragraph essay--and show them that there's a bigger and better rationale for understanding and acting upon the interrelation between techniques, strategies, and experiences of reading literature.

Here's where my teaching--and, I believe, the teaching of the vast majority of my colleagues in my department and across the country--departs most dramatically from the paranoid vision of the David Horowitzes of the world. I'm not trying to indoctrinate my students into what I consider to be the one best way of swinging a club, playing a hole, and thinking your way around a course. Sure, I'll demonstrate a few shots, show them clips of how various golfers have played a given hole, and give them advice on playing a particular course. But I can't play the game for them. What I can do is to try to give all my students the tools and the opportunities to practice making their own decisions on how, when, and why to play the game. Because I know from experience that each round of golf is different, even when played on the same course by the same person, I take for granted that every person is going to have their own experience on each reading of a literary text. That doesn't mean they designed the course; it just means they're following a fairly unique path around it. And it's worth their time and effort to keep track of their path, compare it to others', and reflect on the similarities and differences, not just to modify their techniques and strategies for the next round, but to get a better sense of the range of experiences and emotions golf offers, as well.

This is where the ambiguity in the term reading in my mock(able)-epic simile matters most. Reading is not just the personal and individual and private process of experiencing a text, it is also the social and collective and public process of sharing one's experiences with others. Sure, there's a difference between playing alone and playing with partners, random or regular, but both are forms of golf. Very few people, that is, are satisfied with stopping after having arrived as their own construals and interpretations of a text for themselves alone--they want to share their responses with others, out of confusion, curiosity, competition, and more. The dialogue and debate that emerges from this process of intersubjective responding can have multiple effects--appreciation of the nuances of the course/text and of the various ways to play/read it, a desire to seek out other courses/texts by the same architect/author, development of strategic and/or critical thinking skills, self-knowledge of various kinds, understanding of and empathy with others, values-clarification, community-formation, and more. But there's no guarantee that any of these things will actually happen for every single golfer/reader in every one of my classes. Making people write and read each other's responses can help, as can responsible and responsive comments from their peers and professor, but writing is no panacea, either. Unless my students discover they like playing golf and want to get better at it, all the best teaching in the world won't motivate them to benefit from the byproducts of entering into the discipline that learning to be a better golfer/reader requires. (In this sense, learning to play golf is like learning fencing or chess or dance or a martial art.)

If I were to stop here, no doubt you'd be justified in responding with some version of "So long and thanks for all the [Stanley] Fish." Sure, I think Fish is seriously mistaken when he concludes his recent New York Times piece on the uses of the humanities with:

So two cheers for critical thinking, but the fact that you can learn how to do it in any number of contexts means that it cannot be claimed for the humanities as a special benefit only they can supply. Justification requires more than evidence that a consumer can get a desirable commodity in your shop, too; it requires a demonstration that you have the exclusive franchise.

And I have problems with the way he answers his own questions here:

The pertinent question is, Do humanities courses change lives and start movements? Does one teach with that purpose, and if one did could it be realized?

If the answers to these questions are (as I contend) "no"--one teaches the subject matter and any delayed effect of what happens in a classroom is contingent and cannot be aimed at--then the route of external justification of the humanities, of a justification that depends on the calculation of measurable results, is closed down.

But I think he's onto something about the implications of his answers there and when he claims here that

the value of the humanities cannot be validated by some measure external to the obsessions that lead some (like me) to devote their working lives to them--measures like increased economic productivity, or the fashioning of an informed citizenry, or the sharpening of moral perceptions, or the lessening of prejudice and discrimination. If these or some other instrumental benchmarks--instrumental in the sense that they are tied to a secondary effect rather than to an internal economy--are what the humanities must meet, they will always fall short. But the refusal of the humanities to acknowledge or bow to an end they do not contemplate is, I argue, their salvation and their value.

This is something I'll take up later in a series on assessment, but my response is actually implicit in my playing golf/reading literature mock(able)-epic simile. Is there any good reason Tiger Woods made $100M last year just for playing golf superlatively well? Should we begrudge Lorena Ochoa her record-smashing $4.36M in winnings during the 2007 LPGA season? Although we might question the motives of the corporations that invest in tournament (and televised) golf and sponsor players, or critically analyze the systems that make up the golf industry and connect it to others, we can't ignore that people around the world are inspired by Tiger's and Lorena's play, want to watch them compete against the best in the world at what they do, and want to join in the fun. Just look at how many Korean golfers have come to the LPGA following in Se Ri Pak's history-making footsteps and you can see that playing golf well has real effects. By the same token, the readings of academostars as well as the less celebrated among literature's touring pros--the entire scholarly apparatus that Fish attacks for being too specialized, too insular, too detached, too exclusive, too arcane, too impenetrable--provide examples for analysis, assessment, emulation, modification, rejection and more by beginning, intermediate, serious, and competitive readers everywhere, not to mention other teaching and touring pros.

This leads me to another turn of the mock(able)-epic simile screw, one which returns me to teaching. Even in my introductory and general education courses, I want my students to understand that there's more to reading literature than developing and sharing readings of texts. Often I start with something as seemingly simple but actually complex as authorial intent, ouevre, and influence: what can we glean from the way a course is laid out about the options for play that the architect had in mind when designing the course? what do his/her designs imply about the state of the game at that time? what characterizes his/her body of work and how does it develop over time? what aspects of his/her predecessors' and contemporaries' designs were most influential on his/her own work? This is where issues of canonization arise: who are the most influential architects in history? which are the best courses? the best holes? the best tournaments? what courses should serious golfers play before they die? and why? And this, in turn, turns us to issues in and around the golf industry, from those who commission courses to those who maintain them to those who manufacture and sell and market and review the equipment necessary to make, maintain, and play them. In the same way that a golf course is part of a much larger set of institutions, so, too, is any work of literature.

Sure, you don't need to be concerned with all these issues to become a serious or competitive golfer, much less a teaching or touring pro. But you don't need to enter an M.F.A. program to experience their relevance personally; anyone who wants to get published today (or knows someone who has tried) runs smack into them (at least vicariously). Even people who are stuggling just to get the ball off the ground should know a little bit about where the ball and club they are using came from, the history of the development of these technologies, what swing options they have and the history of debates over and analysis of them, where what is in front of them came from and the history of the development of various hazards (rough, trees, sand, water), and what the experiences of those who have gone through similar and other struggles have been like. Of course it's still up to them to get that ball in the air. But they can better appreciate the difficulty, why so many people have exposed themselves to it, and what they can learn from it if what they are doing gets contextualized and if they learn how to contextualize what they are doing. So while I strive to teach my students how to play golf in my intro and gen ed courses, I also want them to begin paying attention to the history, sociology, psychology, economics, ecology, and technology of the sport. This is why teaching literature for me is a wildly interdisciplinary activity, not just limited to the traditional humanities.

Of course, the institution of literature will persist whether or not there remain any professors in the humanities left to research it or teach it. But that doesn't mean that the teaching of literature in college and graduate school by trained professionals is valueless or that nothing would be lost by its disappearance. Given the ubiquity of advice on playing golf, teaching pros will always have to strive to figure out what they can bring to their students that they couldn't otherwise or easily get themselves, how to design their courses to make the best use of the time spent together in the classroom, and modify their plans and strategies in light of what they are discovering about the actual students in the course. Research matters because it means that courses get played (books stay in print) or restored (through textual editing) or rediscovered (through the production of new scholarly editions of forgotten texts). When scholars find something of value in such courses for players today and teachers want their students to learn from the experience of playing them, on their own and together, touring and teaching pros can help shape the future of golf/literature.

To me, the question of why I teach is inseparable from what I teach and how. When I return to this series, I'll use my teaching from last semester and the upcoming one to show how my answers vary by course and how my courses fit together.

[Update: Reading around others who have responded to Craig's call, I eventually made my way back to One Flew East and discovered a gem of a book review on video games, literacy, and learning. Read the whole thing, as someone is reputed to have once said. My first response was, "damn, why didn't my colleague and I follow through on that crazy Video Game Studies Summer Camp idea we had back in 1999?" My second was, "why didn't Sloucho and I get our act together back in the early '00s and actually write that Video Game Studies book together?" It took until the third response to realize that the author of the book Aaron reviews is actually fleshing out the ideas I'm gesturing toward here about teaching and learning, but with respect to video games rather than golf.]

[Update 2 1/27/08: Here's a line from the rookie who was playing with Tiger Woods on Saturday at the Buick and, like the rest of the field, got smoked:

"That was one of the coolest things ever, no doubt," he said. "He was fun to watch but just kind of fun to compare myself against him, as well. It's inspiring and very educational. I recommend everyone try it at least one time."

The title of Doug Ferguson's AP article from which this observation comes says it all: "Tiger Puts on a Clinic at Torrey Pines."]


undine said...

I like this analogy. My analogy in the response to Dr. Crazy's post was that we were wine stewards.

The Constructivist said...

Heh, I would be the worst wine steward ever!