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From Dissection to Enjoyment:
Unlearning Literary Analysis

by Suzanne Malakoff

Unlearning Literary Analysis
Photo (c) Shutterstock

Once upon a time, a teacher stood in front of my 10th grade English class with a copy of The Old Man and the Sea hugged to her chest and asked, “Who can tell me what Ernest Hemingway was trying to say?”

A couple of hands went up, somewhat shyly because we knew the drill. As students were called on to suggest what the author was trying to do with this story of a man battling a fish, posing their observations like a questions, as if they were seeking approval, the good sister shot them down, one by one, with, “No, that’s not it. Who else would like to try?”

This wasn’t the first time that we had sat through an exercise like this with this teacher – nor was it the first time we had experienced this approach to learning. But it was the first time that I spoke out against tired teaching methods.

Because I was bored and frustrated, and because I was 15 and discovering myself, I stuck my neck out and asked, “Sister, how do you know what he was trying to say? Did you ask him? Did you hold a séance and ask him?”

Before she was able to correct me, another bored and frustrated 15-year-old, one who had been pushing out from authority longer than me said, “The guy was hungry and needed a fish to eat and the fish had instincts to survive and not be eaten. Big battle – end of discussion.” I’m grateful to my classmate for drawing fire away from me; her parents were more liberal than mine and she tended to weather flack from teachers better than I.

However, I’m not so grateful to the high school teacher who helped build a wall between me and enjoying literature classes and made me immune to discussing books in depth for many years – I never have been grateful for that “gift,” unlike my mother seemed to think I would be after I grew up.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated approach to teaching literature; I encountered other teachers like this one who were armed to the teeth with literary experts and critics to back what they had concluded about great works. Their expectations for class requirements were satisfied with the unimaginative papers I wrote that paraphrased the “experts.”

At university, when I needed to take classes to satisfy basic requirements, my experience with studying literature at a more advanced level involved professors on the fringe of retirement who believed that only the British wrote well – maybe Americans if they wrote before the Second World War. And the bibliographies of experts that came with every syllabus were short, restrictive lists. These instructors were entrenched in stale ideas, and many of us found our way around reading anything required or even suggested.

Fortunately, my love of reading survived those experiences, and I continued to lose myself in well-told stories. The university English Department even had a positive effect on my reading – I read anything but works by British authors and only post WW II American authors. My reading took me all over the world and into the current century.

However, I stayed clear of book groups and any higher-level literature classes and didn’t ever have much to say about books I had read. I let the surface story be enough and kept any thoughts about deeper meanings to myself. That way, I didn’t have to suffer if I came up with the “wrong” answer.

Then, late in my university student career, I discovered an experimental college right on the campus I had been haunting for a couple of years. Instructors taught their classes in small groups in their offices, which were big enough to hold couches and coffee tables in addition to desks and filing cabinets. Discussion and idea sharing was not only encouraged, it was expected, with room to stay quiet if that was your nature.

Perhaps in the spirit of experimentation, I signed up for a class called simply “Kafka” knowing full-well that Kafka is often considered difficult, weird and inaccessible. The course description promised we would read aloud and relate the author’s works and life to our own. Maybe I was trying again to become myself, and something about the expectation of this class challenged me.

The class was taught by a man named Don whose unkempt appearance made him look like he lived among the stacks of books in his office. His skin was pale (all day in the library, no time to get outside) and the hem of the light jacket he wore daily was loose at the hem (he probably didn’t even realize). His organizational skills were negligible, but he could reach into any cluttered bookshelf or to his even more cluttered desktop and find what he was looking for.

Don had a very unusual approach to university level literature – he read to us. No teacher had read to me since, I believe, the fourth grade. Writing of any kind makes more sense when it is read aloud. Humor and nuance that might be missed by your inner voice come alive when you hear the words read by someone else.

When Don read aloud to us, he used his arms to act out the actions of the characters; he came up out of his seat when he was excited, his fists slammed down on the table in front of him when he wanted to make a point and made us all jump. He stared us down as he read, as if to say, “This author is talking to you; how does that make you feel?” Some days we came out of class feeling like we’d been on a carnival ride – we were anxious to come back for more.

We all immediately dubbed the campus administration building, where we had all done battle with admissions and financial aid, “The Castle” after Kafka’s tale of bureaucracy. Don was delighted. “Then the story makes sense to you!” he exclaimed. “You and Kafka understand each other.” We were delighted too, and Franz Kafka became a real person with a unique way of expressing himself, one which we could understand. Our life experiences were the key.

Our only assignment in addition to reading was to journal. We were to write or draw or cut and paste articles and pictures – whatever it took to help us relate to Franz Kafka.

It was my nature to stay quiet in classroom discussions – easy to do in high school classrooms, unless pushed too far, and even easier in university classrooms that numbered from 30 students to lecture halls full. But in this class, through sharing our journals and because of Don’s approach, I came alive. I discovered I had so much to say about what I thought the authors had to say to me.

I had to learn to yield to let others have their say. I had to learn that we could disagree with each other without disapproving of each other, that we could express opinions in ways that respected the thinking of others and that it worked both ways. In short, I, and many of my fellow students, after years of being talked to by teachers, had to learn to be part of a discussion.

Don set the example as he sat in the midst of his students, leaned forward on his chair and took in every word that was offered. He frequently responded to our thoughts with things like, “My god! That’s incredible! I have never looked at Kafka like that. How did you get that out of what you read?” Our experiences and our observations were all valid. Occasionally, he would challenge us: “Show me the passage you are talking about – read it to us.” And we could, and we did, and we argued, and we even changed our minds about our first impressions.

At first, I waited for Don to tell us that we had had a lot of fun, but now it was time to get serious and look at what the author was really doing, according to the experts. But he never did.

He offered further reading – long, long lists because there is so much wonderful writing out there that it was difficult for him to leave anything out. His lists weren’t just of literary analysts and critics; often he included authors who used their story-telling to comment on someone else’s. “Writers talk to each other,” he told us.

Digging into authors and their works became a hunt for the treasures within us, and it was repeated with discussion groups (they weren’t really classes) around two centuries of Russian authors and finally James Joyce – many works that I never would have approached on my own because I believed they were all too difficult.

The Russian authors, according to themselves, intended for their works to be shared through reading to each other. It makes sense, given the long Russian winters – it helped pass the time.

In fact, part of the syllabus for a class called “Winter, Writing and Dostoevsky” suggested that during the winter break, before the term started, we let our houses or apartments grow cold (we were all students living on student budgets so that was easy), wrap up in layers of blankets and sweaters and read one of the assigned books. “Bury yourself deep in a Russian winter,” Don wrote. He encouraged us to get together over coffee or tea or vodka and read out loud from books we would be exploring over the winter term. And we did.

Don was trained to be a teacher, but in spirit, he was a guide and a gift-giver. Books were his joy and his life, and he passed that on successfully to many of his students. I actually left university with a degree in writing and literature.

Years later, after I had my children, I realized that what Don taught us is what happens naturally when books are part of learning about the world around us. The journey he took us on in an effort to connect us with books and their authors is a journey my children have been on from the beginning, although they have traveled free of the need to get the answer right. Their insights on books are amazing, never wrong answers in need of correction.

Before our children could read, my husband and I read aloud to them, as many parents do. We still read aloud, even though we can all read on our own and often choose to. Reading aloud to kids is the best way for them to learn to read. Reading aloud clarifies confusing passages, helps define unusual words, highlights the humor, makes it easy to cry – and creates discussion.

When we read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and the books on pioneers and “early days” living that followed, my kids wanted to eat and read by candle light. They began to take an interest in my hand-operated machinery hobby, and we sewed, and spun and wove and hand-ground wheat and coffee. We learned how much we appreciate our modern conveniences. And we felt a little closer to the writers we had enjoyed.

Books on faraway places make you want to travel, but that’s not always possible, so learning more through related books has become part of satisfying our children’s curiosity. Together we have learned about the geography, topography, culture and politics of many faraway places through stories we have read. We collaborate to build “further reading” lists to take on the next trip to the library.

My sister, an elementary school teacher, once looked at my kids gathered around a pile of books and said in surprise, “They’re using indexes and cross-referencing. Most kids can’t do that at that age.” She named a grade when most kids “are ready” to learn that skill.

We didn’t wait for the right age or grade. Our children learned to use indexes before they could read because they watched me and their dad, often from our laps or next to us on the couch, hunting through an index of a book we had just pulled off a shelf to answer the latest question or to find information for ourselves. We never explained that process of exploring or gave it a name, and we have never assigned an exercise that would require them to prove they had learned and could use that process.

Occasionally, if I don’t watch myself, I end up sounding like one of my high school teachers, using pointed questions to dig for answers, but my kids don’t let me get away with it. If I ask them what they think of a book they are reading, they clam up. If I try to direct a discussion, they are reluctant to join in. They seem to sense when I am genuinely curious and when I am trying to “teach.” I’m glad they do. Talking about books should be a conversation you have with people you enjoy.

My children make the effort to learn more about characters they have encountered who are drawn from real-life or history. They draw pictures based on images from books and talk about books or passages that remind them of something they have seen or done recently. They are motivated to create these activities and others like them; no one needs to hand them assignments. Reading anything is allowed.

My son Aaron loves any comic book or collection of cartoons. Reading alone is difficult for him, so reading aloud to him is essential and he is the most likely to remind us that we need to read together more. Eli prefers nonfiction that centers on wildlife. He started with dinosaurs and is now into dragons (he claims they are real, but endangered) and big cats. Natasha goes for any novel from serials about horse-loving girls to “classics” that family members have told me are beyond her. We let her decide for herself. If she’s not ready for a book, she sets it aside to try again later or we read it together.

Without any prompting, one of our kids might entertain us with what a teacher in a classroom would call an “oral book report.” I dreaded those when I was in school and the free form my children use (more conversational than presentational and more full of their lives than quotes from the book) wouldn’t have earned me a good grade.

Recently, the kids came to me with a question (all three of them, like a committee that had prepared): “How come the main character is hardly ever funny or very interesting?” What a wonderfully simple way to ask a question that I was used to hearing in heavy literary terminology. I think I even wrote a paper on this particular “device.”

We had quite a conversation, sitting around on the kitchen floor, about what writers do that led to how stories get written that led to the kids wanting to write their own stories.

I often wonder why any style of teaching or any philosophy or method of learning that encourages learning from life is often labeled “experimental” when it’s been proven over and over again that natural learning works.

My children will never have to unlearn what my high school teacher taught me. And they might not be as surprised by people like Don, even if they thoroughly enjoy a lively discussion like the ones he fostered.

Suzanne Malakoff lives in Olympia, Washington, USA with her husband, Jan Cnossen, and their three children, Natasha, Eli and Aaron. This was her third article for Life Learning Magazine, published in 2006.

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