Although I try to take regularly some of the teacher-training courses offered by my university, I find them, and the academic literature on higher-education teaching, generally too disconnected from my specific needs as a second-language teacher of Literature. The same applies to the bibliography on using Literature to teach English, which is not at all what I do. This is why reading Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature (2003) has been quite a breath of fresh air.
Showalter is herself a very-well known academic and part of the attractiveness of her book is that she’s gathered an impressive array of anecdotes, opinions and tips from other big names like her. Although the volume is slim, she covers plenty of ground, with a clear focus on the teaching of English Literature, something, as I say, quite unusual. As I read, I ticked mentally all the points she raised –yes, I do this (hei! writing a blog is recommended); no, I don’t do that (write out my classes). Some of the advice regarding the use of technology in class sounds hopelessly outdated (she speaks of video-tapes instead of DVD). Still, most ideas are worth considering in depth, from the strangely intimate nature of teaching (which is why we resist our colleagues’ presence in the classroom) to how our wardrobe may make an academic point (bright colours for feminists!).
However, for all the familiarity of the issues raised, a couple of things kept nagging me. One is that since there is no straightforward description of what happens in an English Literature class, someone who had never attended one would not understand the book at all. The other matter has to do with Showalter’s Anglo-American perspective. She speaks of 50’ lectures, of small group discussions lead by teaching assistants (TAs) and, frankly, this is not my world. (It’s funny, though, that just these days the Generalitat has announced a plan to employ 2,000 TAs in Catalan public universities, beginning already and although we have no tradition whatsoever in that sense.) Even the job titles are different and although I call myself a ‘Senior Lecturer’ I’m aware that my British colleagues might disagree and my American ones misunderstand.
I was first hired 21 years ago as an ‘Ayudante’ or ‘full-time teaching assistant’, although I assisted nobody and my duties were from day one those of any tenured teacher (which is why the transition to being tenured meant in practice no change except a ‘spectacular’ doubling of my scant salary). It’s funny but I can’t remember whether as a student I attended 60’ or 90’ classes, but, whatever the case might be, I teach 90’ classes for undergrads (rather 75’ if we take into account the 15’ breaks between classes) and 150’ to 180’ classes for postgrads. The 50’ lecture is unknown to me. And so are small group discussions (not in the MA, of course, where groups are to our perpetual anxiety only between 5 and 10 students). I’d like to see Elaine Showalter try to discuss a literary text with 150 students in class (as a friend has in Castilla-La Mancha) or even 20, which is more or less the lowest number for us in electives. Without teaching assistants, of course.
In my Department, Literature teachers don’t use classroom time to lecture except occasionally, whenever we need to give an overview of an issue. We believe that whatever a lecture can transmit can be found in the appropriate bibliography, this is why classroom time is based on very intensive close reading. Ideally, our classes should function like Anglo-American small group discussion, with the teacher asking a leading question, and students responding (enthusiastically) and contributing close readings of passages. It hardly happens, though, given the size of the groups, the embarrassment felt by non-native speakers of English asked to read aloud or voice their opinion, etc. We try again and again…
Showalter knows nothing, either, of the challenge posed by teaching Literature in a language which is not your own. I have to face every class not just the potential embarrassment that my ageing body or my poor choice of clothes may bring, but also my unreliable linguistic abilities. I’m sure every foreign English Literature teacher has been plagued, like me, by the fear of mispronouncing or misspelling words, not finding the right expression to express a thought, etc. If, as Showalter says, teaching is a little bit like adlibbing in stand-up comedy, just imagine doing that in a second language. The presence of exchange students that are native speakers of English can also be, or is to me, a constant concern (though I love having them in class).
Finally, I had to smile when I saw that Showalter had called her epilogue ‘The Joy of Teaching Literature.’ That sums it up.