TEACHING THE CONTEMPORARY: CHALLENGES AND METHODS

This post is inspired by two presentations offered yesterday during the sixth TELLC (Teaching English Language, Literature, and Culture) Department workshop, a series of meetings which I have been organizing since 2014 (see the Sharing Teaching Experiences notebooks at http://ddd.uab.cat/record/132688). My colleagues Felicity Hand and Andrew Monnickendam dealt with the issue of how we are supposed to teach contemporary culture and Literature from extremely different but complementary perspectives and here is my chance to comment on both.

Felicity’s presentation was focused on the most recent edition of the third/fourth year elective course ‘Postcolonial Studies’. She shared with us her worry that, to begin with, it is hardly possible to offer undergrad students any meaningful introduction to a completely new field based on a selection of just three or four volumes. Since, however, students do not seem willing to read more, what other methods can we choose to expose them to a much wider-ranging experience of the subject taught? She had opted for class presentations (in groups of two) on any aspect of the postcolonial world but this had led to a bit of chaos since many students had failed to check with her in advance the suitability of their topic (as they were supposed to do) and their understanding of the concept ‘postcolonial’ did not totally overlap with that of their teacher. Besides, although they were supposed to speak about today’s world, some referred to past issues or events.

I teach contemporary fiction and film, and share with Felicity the preoccupation with how to select any relevant texts in the midst of so much abundance. When I teach Victorian fiction, I do not feel the same anxiety because there is a far more limited list of works which students are supposed to know about (and can read with their still limited command of English). But when dealing with living authors it is truly hard to decide who to include, much more so when the choice is limited to a maximum of five and can be down to three at most. An obvious solution is abandoning classroom close reading for traditional lecturing, and taking it for granted that students will read independently the set books. That’s how I was taught Spanish 18th and 19th century Literature over a year in which our lecturer never addressed any of us by name in class. She just droned on, though her droning, I must say, was quite interesting. The other solution I have used, and will continue using, is similar to Felicity’s –using class presentations by students– but on the basis of a closed list. I’m about to start a course on the American documentary (under our ‘Cultural Studies’ label) and this is how it’ll work. We have no set texts; instead, all of my 45 students will present each two documentaries in class. They’ll write next a factsheet, with a short essay considering how the USA is represented in the films, and we’ll produce a joint e-book. Presumably, they will read each other and will feel interested in seeing at least half a dozen documentary films.

I grant that in this way the students will not get deep insights into any of the films they will hear about but at least they’ll hear about 90 films. I also grant that listening to your classmates can be boring, but a) I have the experience of having taught an MA course in this way and it was fun indeed!, b) students are anyway bored in class, and much more so if they just listen to the same person for 90 minutes. If (or when) I teach the electives I’ve been thinking about for a while (one on non-fiction, another on autobiography) I will use the same approach. And if (or when) I teach the new compulsory fourth year course Contemporary English Fiction, I will also rely on this method but in this case, since students are already used to reading novels, I’ll train them to write reviews –a critical practice much necessary but that we never include in our teaching. Working on a closed list, incidentally, is still hard when dealing with the contemporary for not even 20, 30, 40 or 50 titles can be enough. If we assume, for the sake of my argumentation, that the contemporary is the 21st century that’s already 20 years of writing –now try to choose just one volume per year and you will see how difficult that is.

Andrew’s presentation was, as he called it, ‘abstract’. He took as his departure point Lionel Trilling’s classic essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” (1961) to consider how we understand Modernity today, also to reflect on whether the problems Trilling pointed out have changed. I have not been able to read this short essay because it is not available online, legally or illegally, always a sign that it is at risk of disappearing from view (yes, there are copies in my library…). There are many online pieces on it, from academic analyses to blog posts, in any case. Trilling, Andrew explained, was very much reluctant to teach Modern Literature, as his institution, Columbia University, finally asked him to do after much dithering. This reluctance sprang from his impression that students feel too much at home in the present world and would, somehow, produce smug, self-congratulating, vapid work on the contemporary which would, besides, belittle the importance of History. Hence, he devised for them a gruelling reading programme which comprised the intellectual foundations of Modernity: they had to read Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Freud, Nietzsche, etc in the first semester before addressing any Literature at all.

Andrew didn’t not describe the students’ reactions but raised the issue of what is meant by Modernity, and whether, as Trilling suggested, teaching it leads to falling into a dangerous ahistoricism. He unfairly blamed, I think, the rise of identity politics after 1990 for that. In my view, it’s the other way around: identity politics destroyed a view of History in which minorities had been absent because hegemonic patriarchal circles had decided that the Culture produced by them was universal. In fact, the teaching of Modernity started by Trilling and company is what set the ball rolling. Students used to be monolithically male, white, and middle-class but when students started being more varied and we were taught about Modernity, which we were living through in person, then the question arose of why our identities were missing in the teaching of the present, call it Post-Modernity or whatever. Then, the slow process of bringing back from oblivion all the authors that were not male, white, and middle-class started. Methinks that Trilling and company were not interested in that still ongoing rescue.

Anyway, if, as Andrew argued, the keyword to understand our own Modernity (post-post Modernity?) is cruelty, and perhaps anxiety, can we teach the texts that express this irrationality from a rational post-Enlightenment point of view? Can our academic pedagogy in the classroom and our academic rhetoric in our writing truly make sense and illuminate our own Modernity? I wonder about that. My new doctoral tutorees of this year have chosen topics that perhaps demand that we break down standard rhetoric: one wants to write about humans as animal prey in fiction, the other about climate-related anxiety (yes!) also in fiction as a sign of our times. I think that this will require, funnily, a return to the academic essay in the personal way that Trilling and company practised it, and not a continuation of the rigid scholastic methods introduced with theory in the 1990s (see my previous post). I’m also thinking that perhaps my inclination to expose students to as many titles as possible is a way of approaching our own Modernity by acknowledging its formidable noise and granting that it cannot be reduced to a single sound. Welcome to fuzzy academia!

In the question time following Andrew’s intervention, our colleague Carme Font raised a very interesting issue: we should teach each historical period, she said, not as what has survived from the past but as its own Modernity. In this way, she suggested, we would stop worrying about our own Modernity, which would simply be placed along a continuum which our students could more easily recognize and learn about. This makes perfect sense to me, at least I do try to present the British Victorian Age as the product of cutting-edge technology and a rabid sense of Modernity, and not at all as a quaint time of impossible crinolines and dishevelled Dickensian urchins. Still, I worry very much about the smugness which the “attitudinizing present”, using Trilling’s words, has brought to our classrooms. The students’ presentism is harder and harder to fight because it is fuelled by the social media, which reject all authority and thrive on a cacophony of voices. By authority I mean here the person who can offer a wider-ranging vision of the times, not someone who imposes their opinions. I find it particularly difficult to teach students where they belong in History and that their generation is not the centre of the universe, but just a tiny notch (like mine) in the few millions of years Homo Sapiens is spending on Earth. Modernity, I would insist, is not a confirmation of presentism but the opposite: an awareness that the generation that represents it now will be superseded soon by other ways of understanding Modernity. This will happen increasingly faster: reading this week about Billie Eilish (aged 17) I have come to realize how old one can be at 30 (Taylor Swift’s age) and how forgettable at 60 (Madonna). That’s Modernity for you: a sense of the quick passage of time and of how History’s present peak time is always rushing forward.

By the way, TELLC 7, which will hopefully be held next January 2021, already has a title borrowed from a student’s comment on one of our courses: ‘It was supposed to be fun, but it’s overwhelming’. This is a feeling I share at all levels about what we read, teach, and think about in our cruel, anxious Modernity.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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