The Joys and Sorrows of Teaching Literature
Like many who become English majors in college and train to become teachers, I started out on the road to professor-dom simply because I LOVED READING SO SO VERY VERY MUCH. I read at the dinner table, I read during family get-togethers, I read in the car, I read under the covers with a flashlight when I was supposed to be sleeping. Reading was and is my addiction.
From middle school until college, I devoted myself to reading as many “classic” authors as I could: Dickens, Austen, Fielding, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Twain, Wharton, Ellison, Melville, etc. After all, I was also that kid who wrote out a timeline for her entire future, complete with the names of her future children and the date of her retirement (to the French Riviera, mind you). I had Plans.
And my mom enabled me. During the summer before college, we were throwing around ideas for my future profession, and I declared that I would be a Writer of Novels. We decided that I couldn’t really count on that for a stable income (since I wasn’t exactly churning out the prose like a prodigy or anything). I came up with a brilliant solution: I would become a Professaaahhhh of Literachaaaah to support my real passion for writing. Perfect. Great plan. What could go wrong.
I had wonderful English professors during college, which only solidified my determination to become an English professor. Seriously, you guys, I imagined reclining in my office chair, surrounded by walls of books, discussing literature with eager, brilliant undergrads, and casually writing articles and books when the fancy took me.
Yeah, I know.
Because I went to a small college, I never had any TAs (teaching assistants), so when I became one myself during grad school…well…shock, fear, disappointment, panic: you get the picture.
I found myself face-to-face with two discussion sections of college freshmen, waiting for me to tell them what they needed to know about The Turn of the Screw or The Yellow Wallpaper or Goodbye, Columbus. Pens were out, paper was blank, stares were blank/bored. Silence reigned in the classroom.
I seriously didn’t know what to do.
Of course, we had received some TA training, and I had sat in on other TA sections, but still. It was me versus them, and I finally had my opportunity to unleash my love of words and ideas on students whose minds were supposed to be open. To say my first couple semesters of teaching were a bit rocky would be an understatement. And by “rocky,” I mean uninspired, dull, frustrating, and anxiety-inducing, streaked here and there with interesting after-class discussions and a few interested kids.
It wasn’t the literature’s fault, or the students’ fault. It was up to me to make these kids see the beauty of Henry James’s sentences, or the twisted brilliance of Gilman’s famous story. But all I wanted to do was rant (as I used to to my family and friends) about my love of such-and-such a character, or my admiration of this or that writer. Gushing, though, didn’t move my students. And only then did I understand that reading a book and teaching it are not necessarily connected. The teacher must make connections. She must reach her students…somehow. Even if they are of different generations and have wildly different interests and outlooks on life.
There were times, though, when discussions of texts like A Raisin in the Sun or Frankenstein, became fun; when I had had enough coffee and some sleep and the students were awake and I found a thread that interested them. Those were good times- my students would surprise themselves with interesting words or images that they hadn’t thought about, or even noticed, before. Discussion would be buoyant, energetic, charged.
But then there were the times when I’d get all excited or giggly about a character or scene in a novel and my students didn’t get why I was acting so strange. I’d try to explain why I found the Yiddishisms in Goodbye, Columbus so brilliant, or why I was so deeply disturbed by the brilliant, encroaching prose of The Turn of the Screw.
And then there were times when a student would say, “wait, why do you expect me to keep these books after the semester ends?”
But there were also students who asked me for reading recommendations, or expressed their love for a favorite writer or series.
So it took a while, but I learned from my colleagues and from experience something that everyone eventually learns: that just because you love to read, doesn’t mean teaching literature is simply an extension of it. If you’re meant to be a teacher, that’s what you’ll do. But no one makes it easy for you. You don’t just live in a world of ideas and words- you have to deal with all of the administrative stuff that goes with it. You have to perform, entertain, excite, and grade grade grade and hold office hours and also read all those books you assigned.
I will always love the idea of teaching, and I’d like to teach again at some point in the future. But thankfully I was introduced to other literary spheres: publishing, blogging, reviewing. Working at a press, writing for Book Riot, and starting my own bookish blog have shown me that there’s a whole other world out there where you can express your love for this author or that book and other people will feel the same way. You can surround yourself with people as ravenous for books as you are, and it doesn’t involve grading (I loathe grading) or nudging students.
I suppose, after years of college and grad school, I was tired of using the jargon and writing so formally and losing my own voice in the process. I was tired of explaining why Melville was a genius, and just wanted to drool over Melville with other people who drooled when his name was mentioned.
What I’m trying to say is, teaching what I love wasn’t the dream I thought it would be. I learned to come down to the level of reality when necessary, and navigate the different spheres of my life according to my responsibilities. Even at my most frustrated moment, though, my love of reading never waned. And now that I’m fortunate enough to have time to read each day (without it being the middle of the night), my joy has only increased with the contemporary writers whom I’ve finally discovered for myself.
So even if you don’t become an English teacher, you can still teach literature by bombarding friends and family with your thoughts on the books you love and authors you admire. You can start a bookish blog or write for one. You can write your own novels. You can do whatever you want. As long as you keep reading.