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Survey courses in literature vs. Bob Dylan

October 23, 2009 by · No comments

By Ellie Ivanova Ponti

Stanley Fish’s column in the New York Times is probably the most prominent place where the world meets academia. After all, the world hardly reads The Chronicle of Higher Education and it’s sad these issues are otherwise largely ignored, beyond the annual college admission campaign. Getting into college seems to be extremely important, but the question of what college should actually be, now that is a conversation that that rarely happens. And it should.

Fish’s latest post is related to this existential topic, What Should College Teach? The answer to this lies in the inherent value we assign to higher education in general. It depends whether society expects it to produce independent minds (liberal arts education) or provide practical skills (professional training). With the trend going in the direction of practical skills and the growing popularity of majors such as accounting, it’s heartening to see that literature and foreign languages are part of the obligatory mind-cultivation process that college is.

What kind of literature courses are the indispensable ones, though? Surveys covering an esteemed canon of “Great Books”? Single authors, such as Shakespeare or Cervantes? Outside-of-the-cannon, but at least ones covering a specific chronology or diversity of genre? Topic-based courses?

Although he is flexible in this choice of core courses in literature, Fish seems to favors more specific courses at the expense of surveys. Writing, too. Actually, the poor teaching of writing itself is the crux of his post. But the inherent value of teaching literature is what interests me here. And what kind of teaching and learning (topics, approach, structure, etc) would help it fulfill the expectations of college education, such as acquiring critical thinking abilities and intellectual independence.

There are trends in teaching literature in college, too. Currently, the tide has gone from chronological and nation-specific surveys (say, medieval English literature) to specific trans-national topics (say, death and renewal in colonial culture) or non-canonical genres and authors (namely, Bob Dylan’s poetry or pamphlets and public rhetoric of the French Revolution).

These generational changes in interest and focus in the teaching of literature are understandable and welcome. And they have always taken place. They provide the necessary attention to neglected area of intellectual inquiry. And they also teach us new ways to see the world. But are they adequate in fulfilling their broader educational mission?

Some professors think that specific courses, say, those dedicated to a single author, give more time and chance to discuss details and understand texts and, as a consequence, develop multidimensional critical thinking on a subject matter. With their interest in non-canonical texts, they give the opportunity to think out of the box.

However, to shatter stereotypes you need to have them in the first place. Unfortunately, undergraduate students often don’t have the canonical even if stereotypical basic knowledge college is supposed to build on, or shatter. Also, some professors who maintain that broad surveys may not afford the chance to delve into texts, but they help students develop a basic sense of orientation within intellectual history. They give an empowering overview of the broader context of culture. They are important in terms of the skills they can teach, not just the information they impart.

In an ideal world, I would require both kinds of courses.

You can read other articles by Ellie Ponti on her blog.

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