Saucy date with wife of Bath will open eyes to joy of text

Teaching Literature

November 7, 2003

Do you ever feel isolated? Do you sometimes panic at the thought of lecturing to large groups? Are you ever stuck about the best way to teach a poem, play or novel? Of course, who isn't? Would you like a book that would help deal with all these problems and more? Too bad, it does not exist. But Elaine Showalter's Teaching Literature is the closest anyone is likely to come to writing one. Like great art it defies categorisation. It is a history of criticism, a report on the condition of the subject, a beginner's survival kit, a refresher course and a personal testimony to the joy of teaching literature.

What makes this book outstanding is its humility, intellectual honesty and, above all, its generosity. Showalter has gathered opinions about literature, what it is and how to teach it, from Diana Fuss of Princeton University to Andy Mousley of De Montfort University. If you want to find out how theory is taught at Bristol or poetry at Wisconsin, look no further. Packed with useful teaching tips and reflections on literature, it is that rare work: one that is useful in the seminar and inspiring in the study.

Some examples. If you are unsure about how to kick-start the first meeting of a new course why not give students, "a sample of the most stirring, most memorable text you plan to read"? If students are having difficulty in understanding how metaphors work, then get them to think about flowers in the modern world. Why is it that funeral flowers remain attached to the living plant but the flowers of romance are always cut flowers? And how about this for a way into Chaucer? Get the students to create a video-dating service for the pilgrims. "Hi. I'm the wife of Bath, proto-feminist icon." My favourite technique from the book is a skit on book one of Paradise Lost that produces the line "Beelzebub, I didn't recognise you. We are so totally fallen." "Thinking," as Walter Benjamin wisely observed, "begins with laughter."

Making people see the funny side is one way of teaching literature in "dark times". It is when we are personally affected by events that we appreciate how poetry, novels and drama are inescapably ethical and value-laden. US academics had to deal with all kinds of emotion after September 11 2001, their own and their students'. What is Moby Dick next to the horrifying spectacle of the Twin Towers? The claim that literature consoles is almost as cruel as it is stupid, but at some point those affected need to meet on "shared human ground" if they are to deal with the experience. This begs the question of whether literature does reflect some universal human nature. "Of course it doesn't," goes one argument, "it is a tool in the construction of national identity". If so, it is a pretty poor one. What does Jane Austen have to do with binge-drinking or Antony Trollope with robot wars? All literature is relative to the time and place in which it is written but that does not mean it has nothing to tell us about what it means to be a person or to engage in relationships. It is to Showalter's great credit that she has written a book that exemplifies many of the virtues she associates with literature: curiosity, empathy, compassion. It is also a deeply personal work. People say that reading literature does not make you a better person. True. But reading this book will make you a better teacher. And maybe make you think better of literature too.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

Teaching Literature

Author - Elaine Showalter
Publisher - Blackwell Publishing
Pages - 166
Price - £45.00 and £12.99
ISBN - 0 631 226230 and 226249

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