Sometimes in my English classes I give out reading lists of about fifty titles from Homer to Joyce. The student appreciates the thought, but wishes to know why it should be necessary to face another and unadvertised requirement. It is not really a matter of disagreement; in fact, discussion of such work and its ends is, in Southern California, often quite soulful. But there is a kind of Newtonian law in teaching that no student who needs extra work ever wants to do it. So that this mode works beautifully, but only for those who do not need it. (Those who are most anxious to work from such a list are high-school teachers who occasionally meet with me. Maybe there are second acts in American lives.)

I try to sprinkle lectures with the names of books and those of critics. I have each class keep a running list of these allusions, and I keep books in my office to lend. I make an effort to place books in their historical periods, although this takes away a lot of time that might be used for study of the text. I note also that these are the most popular classes, the students feeling evidently that they are getting a return not previously paid on their investment. The simple provision of historical information, or that about writing, fills a large and empty space.

Allusiveness is good for the soul of the instructor, since it may so easily be mistaken for intelligence. But it has limited effectiveness. Sometimes it is hard to explain what the Victorian period was, or what the difference between classic and modern is. Some things are so large that they cannot be explained in a class; they depend on dozens of books which have not been read. Right now, even the commonest allusions escape notice. Everyone has his favorite example—mine is about Elizabethan censorship and the student who wanted to know whether Julius Caesar was annoyed at his characterization by Shakespeare. There is eventually a point of no return in education, for which even remedial teaching is useless. It takes a number of courses and several years to provide basic information about history and writing—anything less is emptying the ocean by buckets.

One interesting thing about the allusive method—that is to say, about broadening and thickening discourse by reference to ideas, to scholarly progress over the years, to historical context, to common experience—is that it can be resented. Students are now remarkably sweet-tempered and it is often a pleasure to deal with them. But they feel hopeless and resentful about the impractical ends of education, about what they do not know. A course is a unit of credit without relationship to other things. Like the rest of us, they want no surprises. They want to pass with as high a grade as possible and to get on with it They have a positively Runic understanding of course requirements, and are as uneasy about transcending them as any of the Trobriand Islanders would be at uttering a false syllable during a rite of exorcism. Freud put it nicely for civilized man in Totem and Taboo: “All direct or indirect contact with this dangerous sacredness is therefore avoided, and where it cannot be avoided a ceremonial has been found to ward off the dreaded consequences. The Nubas in East Africa, for instance, believe that they must die if they enter the house of their priest-king, but that they escape this danger if, on entering, they bare the left shoulder and induce the king to touch it with his hand.” The requirement neutralizes those other dangers of knowledge to which we have been subject since Genesis. It changes knowledge from a mystery to a unit.

There isn’t a prayer (so to speak) of my research being directly useful to most students. Some of it can be worked into courses but most of it is just something else that I do. I hope that is a healthy attitude, because I recommend it. I teach courses (and am grateful for the freedom to do so) in what I read. Over the last year that has included Shakespeare, the 19th-century novelists, Scott Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. I find it exceptionally useful to teach new courses, useful both to students and to myself.

The largest addition to any of these courses is writing. It can no longer be assumed that upperclass-men know how to write: in more concrete terms, that they have been given writing assignments in high school, that they have taken a required course as freshmen, that anyone has ever explained to them either how to form a sentence or how to cite a reference. In fact, you can pretty much bet that they have never learned how to do a footnote. You can also bet that no one has ever spent five minutes with them in a university library. They don’t know the difference between the Cambridge Bibliography and the Koran.

A senior course on Jane Austen and Dickens will have to have certain hours set aside for teaching writing. One begins by (as gently as possible) destroying all previous attitudes about introduction, body, conclusion, etc. It is now late in the day, and students have to learn to think. What one teaches at this stage is how to be intellectually aggressive.



I should first say something about the place of writing in an upper-division reading course. Such a course at my campus of the University of California lasts for one quarter or ten weeks. There are three lectures each week because the university no longer has money for teaching assistants to give discussion sections. There will be an average of about sixty students in each class—not large for an Ivy League school, where literature is an attraction, but substantial here. The problem of writing is also a problem of scheduling, since there can be only thirty classes in a course. A certain amount of reading has to be forgone in order to talk about writing; and most talks with individual students are about writing since it is the most difficult thing for them.

In essence, every course becomes in part a remedial course. This is not what the bureaucracy had in mind when they approved the concept of remedial education—the official attitude is that extra courses in writing, staffed by specialists, would handle illiteracy. For many reasons that is unrealistic. One of them is that students won’t attend such courses if they can help it. Another is that the courses are not staffed by writers, or even by general faculty, but often by decent and good-hearted graduate students who are in a bit over their heads. So, as I say, every course becomes de facto a remedial course.

Students seem to like the lecture well enough, but they are by far most interested in the sessions devoted to writing. One reason for this is that they recognize writing to be essential for success—but of course there are other reasons. They resent what they have missed; they want a sense of style now that they are away from high school and it is safe to have that; they find it difficult to articulate their own thoughts; and finally, no one has ever done this with them before.

As to the tactics, I start by arguing that they should begin any paper when they have something to say, and end it when they don’t. No introductions, no conclusions, no summary, no paraphrase. Any argument has to be somewhat brutal, concerned mostly with evidence. Possibly the most important thing I do is have students think and write in paragraphs. Their schooling has suggested that a declarative sentence is the equivalent of a thought, which is not true. It is only the outcome of a thought, which is based upon deduction, comparison, analysis, and a dozen other intellectual modes. In order to arrive at a thought about a book one has had to read, judge, compare, and do myriad other things before even the simplest judgment is arrived at.

A paragraph is the embodiment of that process. It begins with almost anything, by saying, for example, that Jane Eyre is the greatest study in literature of an inferiority complex. This may not be strictly original, or even right, but it gets you off the mark in a hurry. Now the paragraph has to go somewhere, to prove that it is in fact the form of a thought. A second sentence might mention that throughout the novel Jane is described as “plain,” “small,” and “insignificant,” and that she thinks of herself in that way. So does Mr. Rochester—although he rather likes her eyes. The next sentence might compare Jane to the magnificently endowed Blanche Ingraham (“A strapper—a real strapper, Jane: big, brown, and buxom”), and the sublimely dopey Georgiana Reed who gets the comeuppance all beautiful blondes deserve. Then some kind of connection of appearance to personality. Finally, a conclusion that actually concludes—in this case that to the Romantic imagination spirit, soul, and feeling matter more than appearance. So, goodbye to all those merely beautiful heroines of the past, and welcome to a century of the clumsy and nearsighted Dorothea Brooke, the pock-marked Esther Summerson, and the plain, small, but not at all insignificant Jane Eyre.

The most important tactic is allowing students to do their papers over for credit. By now the writing component of the course is at flank speed, and I am surrounded by lots of papers with not very good grades. We talk these over—I grade papers by rewriting them, essentially; that is, by taking each sentence and showing how it might otherwise have come out. And the student now has the option of doing the whole thing over within a week or so: which appeals to a sense of sport as well as self-interest.

I have graders, and they are very good: graduate students who need the money and who work in excess of their stipend. They aren’t bound by contract to attend lectures but they do; nor do they have to consult with students, but they do that too. I do part of the papers and they do the rest. One important thing about the results: although the whole procedure of doing papers over for credit was designed to get students to raise grades of C to B, almost no C student ever takes advantage of the offer. Almost universally it is the good students, B or even A, who do their papers over.

Nearly all office hours are spent talking about writing. That is because reading is only an assignment, while writing gets a grade. And for a much larger reason: the course in Shakespeare or Dickens becomes a kind of remedial enterprise. The original intention of the curriculum may have been to pass on knowledge of certain texts, but the reality is that another purpose must be served.



Education is the Platonic form of which teaching is the reality. Cardinal Newman wrote The Idea of a University within a very few years after Dickens described how schoolboys might actually act at Mr. Creakle’s school, matching their acquiescence to his stupidity. Matthew Arnold’s vision of culture was expressed at roughly the same time that George Eliot showed some cultural possibilities in the human form of Mr. Casaubon. The idea that educational designs and human actuality might have something of an adversary relationship is much older than our academic novels. It goes a long way back, at least as far as to the 1590’s when The Taming of the Shrew appeared. The first scene begins with Lucentio, who is not exceptionally bright, telling his servant Tranio that he is ready to begin “A course of learning and ingenious studies” centering on virtue and philosophy. He is really setting himself up in a play in which Petruchio, who never went to college, is going to give people an awful lot of lessons in those two subjects. But it’s the face value of his ideal which matters at this point, and Tranio, who is not a gentleman and therefore better informed, has an answer for that:

Mi perdonato, gentle master
I am in all affected as yourself;
Glad that you thus continue
      your resolve
To suck the sweets of sweet philosophy.
Only, good master, while we do
This virtue and this moral discipline,
Let’s be no Stoics nor no stocks,
      I pray,
Or so devote to Aristotle’s checks
As Ovid be an outcast quite
Balk logic with acquaintance
      that you have,
And practise rhetoric in your
      common talk;
Music and poesy use to quicken
The mathematics and the meta-
Fall to them as you find your
      stomach serves you.

The thought goes all through Shakespeare who believed—or at least who wrote about—the difference between good ideas and their practice. Philosophy may be sweet, but it does need some acquaintance with reality. The same acquaintance, one imagines, that course catalogues should have with teaching as it actually occurs, against the grain.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link