Saturday, September 24, 2005

The Image of the English Teacher

"Robert Frost. Asshole!"

This, or something close to this, is what AJ, the son of New Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano says in a well-earned moment of exasperation in season three of The Sopranos. In the scene, poor AJ is laboring over an essay due the next day on, what else, "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." Soon, AJ's older sister Meadow walks in and offers her help. Meadow is in her first year at Columbia. (In a later episode, in response to her mother's complaint that she's getting a C average, she quips, "You try taking Intro to Semiotics.") Armed with a ready hermeneutic, Meadow quickly explains that the snow equals death. It's a death poem, she explains. With answer in hand, AJ goes on to write his essay.

I read the scene as a pretty accurate representation of what the public thinks about English courses. There is the idea that the poem can't simply be literal. Along with this assumption is the idea that it is then the critic's (or poor student's) job to unearth what the poem is "really" about, to fill in the other side of the equation. Snow=death. Most importantly, though, the scene dramatizes the student's subservience to the text. English courses are about the reading and interpretation of texts rather than getting students to produce writing.

Meadow is a sophisticated reader and writer, but she isn't really interested in thinking about the questions the poem invites readers to ask--questions that can't be met by plugging answers into some preset scheme. Nor is she interested in understanding how a poem (perhaps unlike any other genre) can embody a problem in language. Finally, she doesn't want to help AJ join a dialogue about Robert Frost, where there is something at stake beyond a narrow reading of the poem. But, hey, Meadow has got other stuff on her plate. I don't know that I could concentrate on Robert Frost if I had Tony Soprano for a father.

I'm not interested in offering an extended explication of "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." Rather, I want to think about how the public thinks about English. How do we do a better job of explaining what we do--both as scholars and teachers? The Sopranos scene led me to think about other popular representations of English instructors in film or television. I think they can be boiled down to two basic types: the anti-institutional Romantic (think Robin Williams in The Dead Poets Society) or the severe, rule-governed teacher who stands as an obstacle to the student's true love of literature and writing. As English teachers we are hopelessly outmatched. How can we compete against film and television?

I am reminded of Kathleen Blake Yancey's argument in her book Teaching Literature as Reflective Practice. She draws a distinction between the delivered curriculum and the lived curriculum. A mistake instructors often make is to think that what they deliver corresponds with what students are hearing. I wonder to what degree popular images of the English teacher that circulate in our culture serve to obstruct our efforts. A colleague recently had a student drop her course because she claimed it ruined her love of literature. This fits perfectly with the second image of the English teacher I described: the teacher as institutional obstacle to the student's love of language.

So how do we do a better job of explaining what we do? How do we compete with The Sopranos and The Dead Poets Society? Do we need our own television show? (Math has one, the show Numbers.) Because the public often fails to understand what we do, it makes it very easy to misrepresent our efforts to move beyond a current-traditional paradigm of teaching literature and writing. The public can cry, "We need to get back to basics, back to standards" without any sense of what we've been talking about for the last thirty years.


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At 10:24 AM, Anonymous joanna said...

Well, I guess I'll have to watch my grammar around you, chuckle chuckle,but seriously, let me ask you about a period of lit which you've never studied and insist that you must know the answer, and then let's talk about everything wrong with education these days, a topic that I know that you're thrilled to discuss during your downtime.
; ) welcome!

At 7:38 PM, Blogger Manorama said...

What a great post. I think it's a good reminder to periodically ask after you say something, "What does that mean? Is it even true to you?"

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At 10:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some students want more structure and will respond poorly to the Robin Williams type, and some free spirits will respond poorly to the other type. No one teacher can please everyone. In general, I think it would be good if we knew why it was important to study English. Is it to nurture the soul? Well, what's the soul? Is it to learn about ourselves? Well, why's that important. We live in a materialist age, and I find it hard to justify studying English in such an atmosphere. This would be a good topic for a post.

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