What do we do when we teach American literature?

“Scholars considering how the field might be revised are not considering alternatives to America as the field’s subject; rather most revisionary hypotheses are offered as improvements in our understanding of America…. To the extent that American literature teaching is practiced for the ultimate aims of forming student character and producing better citizens it incorporates familiar nationalistic aims. The much touted revisionary Heath anthology of American literature, for example, is a passionately nationalistic, patriotic document. No matter how radical or revolutionary the teachers’ aims may be, and no matter how deeply teachers feel these aims, if they hope to produce better Americans, a better America, or even just a better understanding of the real America, then the supposedly suppressed or overturned Whig project continues in full force.”

-Nina Baym, Feminism and American Literary History, qtd. in Judith Fetterly and Marjorie Pryse, Writing Out of Place: Regionalism, Women, and American Literary Culture 216-217

Can the act of teaching American literature ever be anything other than fundamentally conservative? And what do we do when the most compelling dollars-to-donuts justification for the discipline of American literature, the kind that speaks to legislators and administrators, is, as Baym so aptly notes, a conception of American literary instruction as an essentially nationalist undertaking?

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4 responses to “What do we do when we teach American literature?

  1. To the extent that American literature teaching is practiced for the ultimate aims of forming student character and producing better citizens it incorporates familiar nationalistic aims.

    Well, obviously this is conservative. But it presumes that the study of literature (of any nationality) makes better citizens (of that nationality) rather than better readers. That, I feel, is the more appropriate aim. The study of literature does not make for a better person (American), just a better read person (American). A good reader – which is not identical with being well-read – may well be able to consider the ironies of multiple perspectives. On the other hand, just as a good lawyer should be able to represent both sides of a case, a good reader may use that consideration to ends which may be malignant, viz. Iago. To this extent, Byam’s view would seem to be just as conservative. As much as she might wish the study of literature find an aim other than producing better Americans, the quotation does not suggest she has abandoned the idea that the study of literature should aim at the at the improvement of individuals in some other way.

    • I’m not sure I agree that teaching with the ultimate goal of individual improvement is necessarily conservative, although I do agree that close reading is not an inherently moral skill. But I don’t think the issue here is with the value of teaching literature, but rather with the justifications for teaching national literature as national literature. For me, the issue is whether teaching American literature in America can be something other than nationalist in its fundamental conception. Yes, I emphasize close reading and aim to produce better readers, but I do so by presenting a series of texts that are linked first and foremost by the claim that they constitute part of a national literature. And as part of the project of training my students to be better readers and writers, we necessarily consider the commonalities and points of comparison between texts, which often involves interrogating questions of nationality, race, gender, and privilege. My explicit goal might be to make my students better readers, not better citizens, but if I did want to accomplish the latter, I’m not sure the class would look all that different from its current conception.

      And let’s be honest, I do want to give my students an understanding of American literature and history that they may not have gotten in high school (at least half my class found Frederick Douglass’s narrative particularly compelling because they had no idea how terrible slavery was. We’re talking about juniors and seniors at a flagship state school). So part of the difficulty for me is admitting my own complicity in a nationalist project, which is compounded by the fact that I’m not sure how I would design a survey that wasn’t to some degree complicit.

  2. To return my original reply, I should have said that the Byam quotation (which is the extent of my reading of her) does not suggest she has abandoned the idea that the study of literature can improve individuals in some other way. My mistake.

    This seems to me to be conservative in the same way that she criticizes the idea that the teaching of American literature can form character. I lack her faith in literature in itself to make a morally better person. It can make a person more aware of difference, nuance and the sophistication of a culture, but what is done with that awareness is independent of the literature. So, yes, I agree; individual improvement is possible and a legitimate, perhaps even the ultimate, goal of the teaching of literature, but in and of itself literature and reading will not create better Americans, better feminists or better people. That (debatable) task lies with the teacher, and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise, especially by one who speaks of the continuation of “a supposedly suppressed or overturned Whig project” as both hold the belief that what a person reads, rather than how she reads, forms character.

    As for worries about complicity, there would seem to be no end. American literature is part of Western literature about which the same anxiety could be raised. At its most idiotic, one might then say we abandon the teaching of such literatures and so avoid the complicity. It is idiotic not only because an army of academics put down their pens and sticks of chalk, but also because the if the ultimate aim of teaching in the humanities is to make us aware of ourselves and so our cultural situation (often understood in terms of nations), then we as teachers fail. To teach the thing is not to support the thing. Any ideology is going to have hypocrisies. The good teacher will give her student the ability to spot and interrogate these. Perhaps the very good teacher also gives him the ability to be relaxed about those that have been resolved.

    • You’re right, of course, that this line of thinking can easily get out of hand. And certainly a good teacher will provide the tools for students to view the course’s objects of inquiry, including the concept of nation, critically. But though that may be my goal when I walk into the class, and perhaps even the goal the English department has in mind for me, I’m not certain it’s the goal the university or the legislature has for the course. The survey I teach is titled “Masterworks of Literature: American,” and it’s a university-wide requirement set by the state legislature. I’m pretty certain the idea they had in mind when instituting the requirement had a lot to do with producing better citizens who had been exposed to the great works of literature. That doesn’t mean I have to make that my goal, but that institutional framing can’t be entirely separated from what I do in the classroom. Nothing I can do about that, except perhaps keep it in mind and work to imagine ways the content of the class as well as the skills can be framed in ways that resist or at least challenge the implicit nationalist project.

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