Teaching what is worthwhile in literature

Here is something else I know: the power of literature to “renew a sense of purpose in our lives” gets killed in literature classrooms — unintentionally, no doubt, but killed nonetheless.

This isn’t an indictment. Writer Richard Ford found himself teaching literature as a graduate assistant in 1969 and realized, “What seemed worthwhile to teach was what I felt about literature … [literature] had mystery, denseness, authority, connectedness, closure, resolution, perception, variety, magnitude — value in other words … Literature appealed to me. But I had no idea how to teach its appealing qualities, how to find and impart the origins of what I felt.” This is a difficult question.

With the guidance of his mentor, Ford discovered access to these origins through the formal aspects of literature, its elements. He discovered a way in by asking, What formal feature of any given text is most significant? Too often — and I have been complicit — students are not pushed beyond this noticing of formal features. More than a decade of pressure from the paradoxically-named No Child Left Behind legislation has only exacerbated the problem by privileging the easily quantifiable, the standard. Derrick Jensen argues that the process of standardization is one of turning the living into the dead. The standard for a fish, he points out, is a fish stick. What is the standard for a novel … Sparknotes? Cliff Notes?

Rethinking the Literature Classroom | Full Stop On teaching literature; includes discussion of a useful looking exercise.