Literary Studies … how (not) to …

Starter – a post which started a thread over at Scribophile…

  • D Gestalt   What novels have you studied? What do you mean by studied? How did you study them? Smile.   D

I read the replies, and found one with which I could empathise. The replies and the thread starter got me thinking.

I have actually Never “studied” any novels – at least, not Really studied any. Sure, at secondary school we were assigned novels to read, and sometimes (wow!) permitted to watch a black-n-white movie of a few of the novels. And we would be asked to write a “book report”.

And that was it. The only two novels I remember reading for class are Lord Of the Flies, Christmas Carol and Great Expectations – LOTF I never finished, and I only remember CC and GE from the movies.

No in-class discussion of character, plot, conflict, resolution – neither as generic terms for study nor within the context of a particular novel. We were on our own. And, as either the school never sent reports to parents or my parents never let me see any, i never had a clue whether what I was doing was what was wanted or not. We were left to our own devices.

And as serving behind the counter at the family dairy (corner drug-store to US readers) was much more enticing a way to spend an evening than study, literature study was the minimum – just read it. Or read it until I got bored. Then back to the dairy a.s.a.p.

Then, Teachers’ College, and one major was Victorian Children’s Literature. It was a study more of the physical environment of NZ’s Victorian settlers’ way of life than it was a literature study, but we were expected to read or have read many book s which the convent school had never put in front of us.

I faked it – admirably, in terms of results. Disgracefully in terms of ethics. In the on-campus book store I spotted a large green leather (yes, I said leather) bound and gold lettered tome – A Compendium of English Literature. Within its pages were all the “great” books ever studied in a school or university – complete with overall synopsis, and a chapter-by-chapter synopsis, defining the most significant character flaws or action or relationships, ad a quick summation of its comparison against other books by the same author. Oh yes, and also black ink sketches of the climactic scene.

All that year I never read a single novel for study. I simply read the Compendium brief, and used it for my contributions to in-class discussions.

My reading focus was the theory and how-to’s of Teaching – hell, that was why I was at teachers’ college – not for literature or Art, or Social Sciences at a tertiary level. I was there to learn how to Teach these. But the majors classes did nothing to teach us how to teach pupils (or students for those expecting to work at secondary or tertiary institutions.

I learned how to Teach in one class in my third (final) year. The lecturer pretty much turned the course curriculum over to us student teachers, and we spent whole sessions discussing what we’d seen work well or badly while observing “real” teachers or had experienced while on practice. I also learned something of the most importance – I wanted to teach Children, not only subjects, and I learned that by honing the skill of observing children – at play, in class, interacting with each other or with a teacher; I learned to read body language, expressions, and cultural behaviour in our multi-cultured nation.

Literary study – I learned how by teaching it. Distributing a class set of novels, and reading them aloud in serial to the class, so poor readers never got left behind. Augmenting the novel with background facts from history, or poems or short stories on the same topic or theme, or portions of books by the same writer, and asking them questions they could answer without having to struggle with out-dated Victorian language.

I kept a store of Classic Comics in the classrooms, and would hug myself in delight when a lad who’d just ‘read’ the comic would look for the novel on the school library shelves.

When the NZ curriculum changed for all subjects, I was in a school where I taught Years 7 & 8, so I’d have pupils in Year 8 who I’d taught in Year 7. So every two years we would recycle a particular set of novels to study. One year’s theme was Children in Hardship, and it included (among others) House of Sixty Fathers, The Silver Sword, and a pupil’s own choice from a carton of on-loan hard-times related books from NZ’s national Library School Service

The following year’s theme was based on a curriculum requirement for students (Students? At age eleven to twelve, these are pupils, not students!) to examine how a story can be related via more than one channel of communication. My novel was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I found and bought, at $2-oo each, a book about Oz, the movie and Lyman Frank Baum’s other Oz books. I had a vcr of the 50th Anniversary of the movie Wizard of Oz, with Angela Lansbury as narrator, and I had the School Services of the National Library send me a carton with as many books about LF BAUM or of his Oz world books as they could pull off their shelves. Most times, the carton would be complemented with books about other fantasy worlds, or on other themes but which had also been made as a movie.

I would tease the class with Lansbury’s documentary, then they would have to read the novel (the reading age made reading it to them unnecessary) and discussing chapter by chapter. Then They would be given access to the carton of National Library books (they’d fight for a BAUM book) and the non-fictional $2 books.

Only when we had looked at every source would I reward them with the movie – which would be stop-started every time a pupil spotted a difference between the movie and the book, Questions would fly – Why aren’t her shoes diamond? Why isn’t Munchkin land blue? And the answers would always come from another pupils who’d read and studied that very matter.

My favourite point of discussion would be the Wicked Witch of the West, as played by Margaret Hamilton vs the original actress choice. It was a good teaching moment to point out how important it is, when writing a story, to make sure you create a “really good baddie” – one who makes you dive under the couch to hide.

I am smug in saying , as this class was the Junior department of a full secondary school, English teachers of the upper classes would always be able to tell me how well my pupils were at literary studies.

And so, by teaching literary study, I learned how to study literature. But it still hasn’t changed my taste in reading material. Victorian literature is still a “walk past quick” section of the library or book store.

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