Everything I Need to Know about Teaching Literature I Learned from Winnie-the-Pooh
I’ve been a full-time college instructor of composition and literature for just over two years now, and in that time I’ve taught 17 classes (now working on my 18-21st classes this semester) and read an awful lot of pedagogical theory. But I think my favourite pedagogical philosopher has to be A.A. Milne, the creator of my favourite little character in all of literature: Winnie-the-Pooh. In grad school, I often aligned myself with Piglet (it felt awfully hard to be brave being only a Very Small Animal), but I’m now seeing more and more wisdom in all the characters of the Hundred Acre Woods. Let me walk you through what I mean.
If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.
I was really not prepared for how many times we would have to discuss a theme or idea before it became common classroom parlance. But you know, it also took me two-plus years to learn all the acronyms at the college where I teach, and I still mess half of them up on a regular basis. Most not-listening isn’t happening out of malice. And whether the fluff in the ear is exhaustion or worry about other classes or a mild case of the not-giving-a-damns, it’s almost never about me.
It’s okay to wing it.
One of the advantages of being disorganized is that one is always having surprising discoveries.
I used to plan these obsessive lectures, with long, detailed notes. I would write everything in — even the corny jokes I was going to make — and plan not only for the questions I was going to ask but for all the possible answers I could foresee. Can you spell Control Freak, boys and girls? One day in my second semester of teaching a 4/4 load, the wheels fell off the bus and I was panicked. I’d marked all night, I was exhausted, and I had a class to teach armed only with my copy of the novel, my margin notes, and about three ideas I wanted them to take home. I walked into class and, terrified, began to just ask questions based on the questions I had posed to the text in my margin notes. We had the best. discussion. ever. And I never looked back.
There is a book for everything.
Then would you read a Sustaining Book, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness.
Books are comforting. I probably don’t need to tell you that; you’re reading Book Riot. But sometimes I forget that I am, for the most part, teaching 18- and 19-year-olds who are having VERY BIG MOMENTS and for whom the books I choose surprisingly turn out to be their own Sustaining Book. Of course, this isn’t literary criticism, but it’s a way into the book, and sometimes that’s a great start.
Sometimes the essay murders the idea.
When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.
I have these marvellous conversations with students about texts where they can really see deep, thoughtful interconnections of ideas. They leave my office and I sit there, in a trance, because all of a sudden I’m thinking about the text in a whole new way. And then I read the essay from the same student, and I feel like I’ve been hit by a train. But you know, thinking Thingish Things is hard work and takes quite a lot of practice; writing Thingish Things down and retaining their Thingishness is an order of magnitude larger again. So I now try to build in lots of chances to discuss Thingish Things in different ways before the essay approaches, hoping some of the Thingishness can shine through.
Leave my pretensions at the door.
It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?”
Most things academics say, especially to first-year literature students, could stand to be simplified and clarified. This isn’t about dumbing down but rather creating access points into the text. I remember as undergraduates, my husband and I were, in separate classes, frustrated with the concept of postmodernism, until one of his professors described it as, “The Big Fuck Off.” Ahhhhhh, that I can get! Okay, now lets dig deeper. So we start with lunch, and we move on to the history of the baguette. Eventually.
Literature is more than the intellectual.
“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”
I have been humbled on more than one occasion by a student pointing out a totally surface, obvious reading of a text — that brilliantly shatters my hyper-complex theory of the text’s meaning. Grad school trains us to think one way, but it’s not the only way to approach texts, and the fresh eyes and ears of someone eagerly engaging with a text for the first time can spark such a fruitful conversation.
Rome wasn’t built in a semester.
Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.
Every semester, I teach two sections of literature and two sections of academic writing. My students are unlikely to become either master close-readers or master essayists in a single semester of academic study, no matter how awesome I am. I found this disheartening at first. But now, starting my third year of teaching, I’m just starting to hear from those early students about how they eventually did get why paragraph structure matters or how to read a poem. I’m starting to understand that first-year English is about planting seeds and giving them just enough care and attention that they’ll be able to sprout when they’re ready.
Do you have a favourite Winnie-the-Pooh quotation to live by?