There was a lot of thought-provoking response to my last entry (“On Portraying the ‘Non-Traditional’ College Student”), and so I would like to continue the discussion this week.
A number of people who posted, and some who contacted me outside of the blog, wrote letters to Atlantic Monthly about the article (“In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” by Professor X). I wrote one too. Editors will typically select a small number of the letters they receive – looking for representative ones, brief ones, ones that can be readily edited for the space available. So let me open this blog to those who want to post their letters here, published or not, once the July (but probably August) issue of the Atlantic Monthly comes out.
Now to this week’s entry. I am also going to try to tie in some of the response to my “The Personal is Cognitive: The Human Side of Learning” from the week before last.
What I would like to do this week is to think on paper about teaching – the art and strategy of it – and to do so by focusing on a single short story, James Joyce’s “Araby,” one mentioned by Professor X in his “Basement…” article.
“Araby,” the third story in Joyce’s Dubliners, has become part of the Western literary canon, a familiar entry in a zillion anthologies and syllabi. It was on the Humanities 1-B syllabus I was given to teach 30 years ago. Though a classic, it is arguably too much of its time, place, and language for many to connect with. Professor X writes that his students “fidget…yawn…and grimace” upon first encounter. I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering why Professor X didn’t select or substitute other stories.
So let’s think about teaching, using “Araby” as an object to turn and turn in our hands and heads, considering through it the teaching of literature – or any subject, for that matter – from a number of perspectives.
First, a refresher. “Araby” is set in Joyce’s dreary Early-Twentieth Century Dublin and is narrated in the first person by an adolescent boy who is thoroughly infatuated with the older sister of one of his pals. The boy’s language is rich, fervid, and his description of his friend’s sister is flat-out rapturous. Though he watches her from afar and only directly encounters her once in the story, “…my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.” You get the idea.
The defining moment in the story begins to develop when the girl, in that single encounter, expresses regret that she can’t go to Araby, the bazaar that’s in town, and our narrator, emboldened, says he will go and bring her something. After an agony of waiting for his drunken uncle to come home with a few shillings, the boy rushes to Araby, arriving at closing time. It is as dreary a place as the city surrounding it. He finds an open booth, eyes vases and tea sets, feels the few coins in his pocket, and realizes suddenly, painfully, the foolhardiness of his desire and quest. “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity,” the story ends, “and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”
So let’s say, I, you, or Professor X might want to teach “Araby.” There are a lot of questions to consider in selecting any piece of literature for a syllabus. Certainly, one’s own pleasure with the text matters – it enlivens the teaching – but there needs to be further justification, since teaching literature means reading a story or poem with others to some pedagogical end, a social intellectual activity.
Here in three overlapping parts, three cycles or lines of sight, are some of the things I might think about as I consider assigning “Araby.”
I’d ask myself what it is I want to achieve through teaching the story: what about literature and the appreciation of it, or about the structure of the short story, or about Joyce and his Dublin, or about symbolism and imagery, or about the cadence of a sentence, or about imagination and longing, or about conceptions of romance and gender, or….And I’d ask these questions if I were teaching “Araby” to a group of high schoolers or to a graduate seminar in English – though, of course, the specifics of what I did in each classroom would be different.
I’d intersect such questions with what I know about the students before me, high schoolers to advanced graduate students. Some of what I know comes from their location in the system: Were there prerequisite courses? What have they already been reading for me? And some of what I know is provided by their performance, by discussion in class, by tests or papers, by comments made in conference. And some of what I know emerges via relation, through what I try to make a respectful engagement with them as people with histories, interests and curiosities, hopes for the future.
That last point about considering the histories of the people in the class brings into focus another set of, not unrelated, questions, questions about the politics and sociology of what gets selected into literary canons, of what authors get read. So I’d be asking myself: Does my syllabus reflect in some way, to some degree the cultural histories and practices of the students before me, particularly if those histories and practices have typically been absent from the curriculum? There can be great pedagogical power here, and all of us who have taught literature have seen it: Students lighting up when they read stories with familiar languages, geographies, family scenes, cultural practices that they haven’t read before in a classroom. This point was made nicely in several posts. Given this perspective, and depending on who was in my class, I might take a pass on “Araby.” I know that when I first read the story as a college freshman, it seemed as flat and distant as could be.
But culture is a complex business, as is teaching, and a cautionary note was raised in last week’s posts. While being responsive to our students’ cultural histories and practices, we have to be mindful of how easily “culture” can be narrowed and reduced as we try to define it. Given the tendency in our society (discussed at other times in this blog) toward either/or thinking and one-dimensional answers to complex educational questions, the point is worth emphasizing. As expressed in one post, there is “no monolithic us,” no blanket African-American, or working-class, or Puerto Rican culture, and thus no ready match-up to writers from these backgrounds. Black kids won’t automatically respond to Alice Walker. How a story of hers is taught becomes a key variable. This seems obvious, I know, but it can slip away from us.
So maybe “Araby” shouldn’t be ruled out of court….
Which leads me to the third line of sight I’d take when considering “Araby.” And that is my own experience with the story: as an underprepared college freshman from a working-class background, as someone who later taught “Araby,” and as a middle-aged man reading it once again, just before composing this entry.
As I noted a moment ago, I didn’t like or get “Araby” the first time I read it. Though I had a terrific senior high school English teacher – a guy who turned my life around – and some wonderful teachers later in college, my college Freshman English instructor was awful. As I subsequently learned more about literary technique in general, and Joyce in particular, and especially as I had to eventually teach “Araby” myself, I came to appreciate it. And reading the story a few days ago – thinking back to my own adolescence – it touched me deeply.
I take a few lessons from this brief survey of my own time with “Araby.”
The first lesson has to do with how I missed completely in my freshman year the overlay of the story with my own experience. Like the narrator, I too lived in a sad and taxing place and sought release in my imagination. And, like him, I had a desperate and unrequited crush – in my case on a waitress in the Mexican restaurant down the street. My heart too picked up speed just walking past the front window, hoping that she was at the counter. The important point here, I think, is that we sometimes don’t see connection or relevance automatically, readily. This could be a place where artful teaching comes in.
Teaching also comes in, of course, in understanding literary technique, the way “Araby” works as a story: the structure of the thing, the boy’s hyperbolic language, the small touches that mean so much. I remember not getting the ending at all: how did we go so quickly from looking at vases and jingling a few coins in the pocket to the crashing “my eyes burned with anguish and anger”? But a little guided reflection on that ending would have revealed a powerful truth, surely known to me at 19, and, for that fact, to all the folks in Professor X’s literature class: that our hopes are sometimes dashed through the smallest thing – an overheard remark, a glance away, an opportunity missed by a minute or two.
If I did elect to teach “Araby,” I would probably be considering in hindsight what didn’t happen with me upon first encounter – which provides another way to think about how to open the story up to others.
I invite the readers of this blog to pipe in, to continue thinking with me about teaching – teaching a story like “Araby”… or any of the other issues about teaching raised in my last few entries.