Against the Ghettoisation of Literature


The Casualties of the Classroom

It’s no stretch to say that, for most students, the study of literature takes place inside a classroom. The space of the classroom, in my experience, tends to consist of four walls spruced up perhaps with some pictures or posters, and usually an array of desks facing some sort of instructor’s board. But this space, and indeed this particular spatialisation of learning, sends students a series of problematic signals about the learning process and where it unfolds.

The classroom space segregates what occurs inside it from the world outside. It induces students to compartmentalise their intellectual engagement with the materials of their studies. In consequence, it leads them to view literature as something to be dealt with only within these four walls, and to view mathematics as something to be dealt with only within those four walls, and to view other disciplines as things to engage with only within their four walls.

Of course, almost all teachers make use of one particular tool that enables them to ensure their subject matter makes its way outside of the classroom. That tool is called homework. But while homework occasionally serves the useful purpose of encouraging students to revisit something they have learned earlier in the day, which does dramatically improve students’ odds of retaining what they have learned, homework of the traditional variety still functions as little more than an extension of the classroom space. The only real difference between classwork and homework is that homework replaces the physical constraints of the four-walled classroom with constraints of a temporal nature — half an hour, perhaps an hour, but rarely more than that — and so intellectual engagement remains very much compartmentalised.

This is an especially acute problem for the study of literature because it is extremely time-consuming for students to develop a sufficient breadth of reading experience if they don’t read, or don’t read more than what has been assigned to them, outside of those four walls and outside of homework time. In effect, the classroom spaces and their home-based extensions not only segregate literary studies from life in general but also cramp the stuff of the discipline into a sort of intellectual ghetto. They stunt the flourishing of independent reading practices that need to become, for students of literature at an advanced level, habits and reflexes integrated into daily routines.

In the United Kingdom, where I currently teach, the regulatory authority for the education sector recognises student disengagement as a persistent and serious problem in the current state of affairs, and so it has prescribed teachers a means of addressing it in the classroom. Tragically, though, this takes the form of requiring teachers to produce and adhere to formulaic lesson plans so that each lesson begins with a “starter.” A starter is a quick, ostensibly fun, non-academic activity that basically takes it as given that students are disengaged from what they encounter in the classroom and then provides a temporary distraction from their own disengagement.

I can’t help but wonder what the study of literature would look like if we could find a more systemic way to keep students engaged in it — a way of bringing it into their daily lives so as to make it no longer some outlandish beast, entombed in a classroom, towards which students should direct their attention only after they have been goaded or tricked into doing so.

Other disciplines seem to enjoy more success than literary studies in their efforts to do this, to break through the boundaries of the classroom, although it may simply be the case that they make greater and more frequent efforts than literary studies does. In schools and institutes of higher learning, I often see hallways and foyer areas bedecked with posters that feature brain-bending mathematical problems or that lure the viewer into numerical pattern recognition exercises. On my Facebook feed, I am bombarded with posts about scientific discoveries and curiosities from websites like I Fucking Love Science, even though I don’t subscribe to any science websites. These sorts of things may represent only minor victories on the part of maths and science educators, but they are victories nonetheless. They infiltrate non-classroom settings, triggering the curiosity and reward instincts of their viewers in order to teach them something new or to hone existing their skills and — most importantly — to demonstrate that maths and science are not merely classroom activities but are, should be, and can be, an integral and not identifiably academic part of daily experience for many, many people.

How, then, can literary studies follow suit?