Readers, Writers, Teachers, and Students: “the pointlessness of so much of it”

I wonder who I would have been, without those shelves, without those people and those places, without books.

I would have been lonely, I think, and empty, needing something for which I did not have words.

“Four Bookshops,” The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction, Neil Gaiman

After 18 years as a public high school English teacher and then 14 years and counting as a university professor (many years of which teaching first-year writing along with teacher education), I was sitting a couple weeks ago in our second workshop designed to help university professors teach writing, and I had an epiphany about teaching writing that I believe has helped me understand better why the teaching of writing remains so contentious.

Both the formal teaching of reading and writing—notably at the secondary and undergraduate levels—is conducted by one of two essential groundings: teaching literacy as a reader and/or writer versus teaching literacy as a hyper-student/teacher [1].

While my teaching and advocacy for teaching rests solidly in the former, I am not here suggesting one is better than the other, but that these two perspectives are at the core why discussing and confronting so-called “best practices” often comes off as a heated debate instead of a productive conversation.

I have noted often that many English majors, including those certifying to teach secondary English and those who attain doctorates to teach at the university level, are prepared to teach a very narrow version of literary criticism—mostly addressing fiction and poetry, and mostly through analysis of literary technique and writer’s craft. (See this interesting argument for close reading of multicultural texts that, I believe, recommending close reading by rejecting close reading.)

During the accountability era when what we teach and what students learn have been reduced to how students are tested, reading and writing have been reduced to artificial (as in how we address them in school and how we test them) forms: reading snippets of text to answer multiple choice questions (no real-world readers do this), writing from a prompt in order to be assessed by a rubric and/or against an anchor paper (at best a bastardization of real-world writing, but honestly, again, no real-world writers do this).

I will not explore this fully here, but we cannot ignore as well how the commodification of education has eroded the authenticity of reading and writing. Textbooks and teaching materials feed the accountability dynamic narrowly but also speak to viewing reading and writing as students and teachers, not as readers and writers.

A Case for Readers and Writers in Formal Schooling

I am currently reading Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction, and this adventure in a writer’s-writer offering essay after essay about his love affair with books, writers, libraries, and genre is both a pure joy for me as reader and writer as well as yet another journey into trying to understand better the teaching of reading and writing.

Gaiman is an incredibly successful writer who cannot resist constantly reminding his readers how his life as a writer grew from his love affair with books and writers, how bookstores and libraries were his sanctuaries.

His is also a testament to the power of a wide variety of genres and media in the life of avid readers and writers.

“The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography” and “What the [Very Bad Swearword] Is a Children’s Book, Anyway? The Zena Sutherland Lecture” are powerful essays about the importance of teaching literacy as readers and writers (and thus at least tempering teaching literacy as hyper-students/teachers) but also about how literacy is a journey, not something to be acquired or mastered.

To focus on the second essay noted above, Gaiman shares a story of his telling a joke to a fellow eight-year-old, a joke including the word “fuck”; the controversy that followed, including the friend’s parents removing that child from the private school, taught Gaiman “two very important lessons”:

The first was that you must be extremely selective when it comes to your audience.

And the second is that words have power.

This essay on children’s literature is also about children, as Gaiman explains:

Children are a relatively powerless minority, and, like all oppressed people, they know more about their oppressors than their oppressors know about them.

And then, Gaiman confronts formal schooling—reinforcing something I have found to be a pattern among some of the most well regarded writers (I have written and edited a number of books on writers, focusing often on Kurt Vonnegut):

For the record, I don’t think I have ever disliked anything as long or as well as I disliked school: the arbitrary violence, the lack of power, the pointlessness of so much of it….

My defense against the adult world was to read everything I could. I read whatever was in front of me, whether I understood it or not.

I was escaping. Of course I was—C.S. Lewis wisely pointed out that the only people who inveigh against escape tend to be the jailers. [1]

And here is where I believe the tension I noted earlier comes into play.

Again, I am not arguing here that teaching literacy as a reader/writer is necessarily better than teaching literacy as a hyper-student/teacher, but I am extremely concerned that the latter dominates formal schooling to an extreme that is harmful to both literacy and basic human dignity and agency.

Gaiman’s essays, however, shout to those of us who teach literacy that formal schooling and teaching literacy as hyper-students/teachers stood between Gaiman and works such as his wonderful The Ocean at the End of the Lane, that Gaiman has become a gifted and treasured writer in spite of his formal education (like Louise DeSalvo, Gaiman honors the coincidental lessons of libraries and bookstores).

I am fairly certain now that lumping all sorts of literacy instruction into a course called “English” is a really bad idea—teaching literary analysis is often at odds with fostering a love of reading, but being a teacher of reading and/or literature is simply not the same thing as teaching writing.

So much of my antagonism about how we teach literacy isn’t at us teachers so much as at the system itself—how formal schooling too often is rightly analogized as prison, how many of us have excelled in many ways in spite of our education.

As a lover of books, libraries, and bookstores; as a writer who views nearly every moment of this life through writer’s eyes; as someone who, like Gaiman, remains moment by moment aware of the “powerlessness” and “helplessness” of being a child or teen, of being a student—I make the case often that the teaching of literacy—reading and writing—needs less school- and test-only versions of reading and writing, but much more authentic reading and writing.

At the end of his contemplation on what makes a book for children (or adults), Gaiman returns to a point he makes early in the talk: “But then, you do not come to authors for answers. You come to us for questions. We’re really good at questions”

And it is here that I think we have a better way for formal schooling—the pursuit of questions with the joy and wonder of a child.

And I’ll thus end with a question: What value is there in rules, tests, templates, and requirements if in the end our classrooms have resulted in children seeking ways to escape “the pointlessness of so much of it”?


[1] Many if not most teachers and professors are hyper-students, having excelled at and achieved within formal schooling where literacy is reduced to tests, templates, and narrow views of what counts as “good” and “bad” language and texts. Once anyone has excelled in that culture, it is difficult to view it critically or to reject it for what avid readers and writers would call “authentic” literacy.

[2] On Science Fiction, C.S. Lewis:

They are as refreshing as that passage in E. M. Forster where the man, looking at the monkeys, realizes that most of the inhabitants of India do not care how India is governed. Hence the uneasiness which they arouse in those who, for whatever reason, wish to keep us wholly imprisoned in the immediate conflict. That perhaps is why people are so ready with the charge of ‘escape’. I never fully understood it till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple question, ‘What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?’ and gave the obvious answer: jailers. The charge of Fascism is, to be sure, mere mud-flinging. Fascists, as well as Communists, are jailers; both would assure us that the proper study of prisoners is prison. But there is perhaps this truth behind it: that those who brood much on the remote past or future, or stare long at the night sky, are less likely than others to be ardent or orthodox partisans.

4 comments

  1. andthepursuitoffeminism

    I totally agree with you that lumping all aspects of literacy into a course called English isn’t a good idea. I loved all my English classes growing up, but as a teacher, I find it hard to have fun and authentic writing activities without pushing it into its own unit, like “creative writing.” It’s hard to give students freedom to decide what and when to write, for a variety of reasons, but I wish/hope to find a happy medium where students feel they are writing about what’s important to them–not just another lit analysis essay.

    • Gerald Heverly

      I want to put in a plug for my favorite essay about school-as-prison: “The Six Lesson School Teacher” by John Taylor Gatto.
      I also think about one of those statistics that has stuck with me though I’m not sure what it means: Frank McCourt–he of the Pulitzer Prize–taught English at the best high school in New York City, Stuyvesant. In over 30 years of teaching McCourt reported that he had only one student who became a professional writer. There’s a lesson there, but I don’t know what it is.

  2. The Brawling Poet

    This is very thought-provoking, and, speaking as an English teacher of fifteen years, many of your concerns mirror my own. I have, however, developed a perspective of literary (or poetic, or filmic) analysis which focuses upon appreciation of the artform by observing cause and effect. In essence, we crack open the watch and observe the movements of the gears and the mechanisms within. This facilitates a deeper understanding of the artistry and skill involved in the literature’s creation.

    An anecdote: two years ago, a sophomore approached me after our film analysis unit. The premise of this study was and is to analyze cause and effect (after grasping the terminology of the medium) while studying various film clips of both the students’ and my choosing. This student told me that I had ruined film for him. I sat back, smiled, and asked him to elaborate. He said that after our film unit, he couldn’t stop seeing those devices and their intents, their impact on what he saw and heard and felt and thought as he watched. In essence, he said that his level of device analysis had taken over his enjoyment of the film itself. We had a talk, and I told him to give it a little time, that those insights would mellow with experience and become more natural.

    This was the only interaction with film that this student encountered for his four years of high school. Formally. On his own (and with a bit of periodic guidance from me) this student pursued film as a student of the form. As he neared graduation, he began to put his knowledge of those processes into place by making his own films. And in September he started his course of study in Florida State’s Film School (not an easy program to get into) with the intent of becoming a filmmaker.

    His knowledge and passion was intrinsic, and that started with the appreciation which came with analysis. I have since found that this perspective has created better, more critical thinkers who leave my class and flourish as artistic creators themselves: some of my alumni are now college literature professors, studio artists, actors, screenwriters, and yes, filmmakers. Some others have become doctors, archaeologists, business executives. There is a universality which can come with analysis: it helps to create lifelong scholars, something which our world needs as much as it does artists (not that one can’t be both!) While I certainly don’t recommend literary analysis as the sole focus of a literature class, I do believe that it can be an important part of it.

    Thank you for the post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s