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Reflections on Teaching Non-English Literature

written by: Eric W. Vogt•edited by: Tricia Goss•updated: 9/11/2012

This reflection piece is for teachers of literature, in a foreign language or not, either contemporary or period literature. It is also for aspiring professors of literature, for the parents of these ambitious souls and for counselors who may wish to gain some insight into the so-called ivory tower.

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    Teaching Literature

    Teaching literature of any period requires a mastery of interpretive skills and draws from a number of other disciplines. The front loading necessary increases as one goes back in time: the present becomes history. Changing tastes in, and definitions of art, the insights of social science, linguistics, poetics and rhetoric also grow increasingly unfamiliar. Cultural and intellectual surprises abound for students when they read Renaissance and Baroque literature.

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    What I Have Learned

    Over the years, I have made intellectual inroads into other areas and periods of literature, which often convince me that all literature study is comparative literature and inherently cross-cultural, to use a popular term. The art, literature, music, architecture and other intellectual and artistic creations of the Middle Ages through the 18th century remain touchstones for my research in other areas. They inform and enrich my perceptions.

    In the process, the expansion and integration of other disciplines have made my intellectual life more interesting for my students and me. Whether I teach “period literature" or “contemporary literature," my task is to expose students to the literature of a Hispanic culture, in the language, to (usually) non-native speakers with disparate language skills. Challenging as this set of circumstances sounds, it is not impossible.

    The complexity of pedagogical tasks involved in teaching literature in its original, or native language requires professors to shift creatively from various linguistic registers and respond to gaps in students’ preparedness. In the case of my specialty, Golden Age literature, students are challenged to approach texts written from a worldview for which people today, even Spanish-speakers, have lost the key to understanding, without a guide. I am that guide. I do well as a cultural Sherpa.

    What do I do when it is obvious that they yet have little knowledge or life experience to enable them to comment meaningfully about, say, a Golden Age sonnet? I attempt, as gently as possible, to learn what they are ready to learn, then gauge it against what they need to know about the subtexts of culture and history so that they can begin to make meaningful observations that will positively reinforce their eagerness to learn more. Unlike the same students in a science class, when studying literature, students usually enter the class assuming that they come already equipped to judge the readings.

    For instance, unless they recognize that Venus alludes to “love" and Mars to “anger" or “war," they will not apprehend that a poem is not about the gods, but about human emotions and the complexity of romantic love. Therefore, a class in Renaissance literature necessarily requires much cultural and historical frontloading.

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    Challenges and Rewards

    A literature professor is, whether willingly or unwillingly, a walking, talking, interactive footnote, history text, encyclopedia, cultural ambassador and period dictionary. This is true even for professors of contemporary literature. The challenge does not lie in knowing the categories of footnotes. They are a matter of knowing one’s material. The challenge consists in becoming sensitive and anticipating the degree of depth one’s “footnotes" should provide for each new group or for an individual student.

    As students become more linguistically proficient, their language classes grow smaller and more student-centered. This is wonderfully and rightly appealing to their egos, is self-reinforcing, creates community and is nurturing and affirming. However, literature is a content area. When linguistically advanced language students find themselves unprepared to process more than “just" language, and language not written with them in mind, but for native speakers, they can feel as if they have been thrown into ice water after a steam bath. Thus, a literature class becomes more teacher-centered than students often like.

    To offset this discomfort and nurture their love of literature, I find ways to bring the focus back to them, to make literature real, using various hands-on, experiential works. One example is letting them use the real quill pens I cut from the large wing feathers of local raptors and seabirds as I discuss the implication of this low-tech writing system on textual transmission. Another has involved cutting up a poem and having them reconstruct it – to teach about meter and rhyme.

    Do I live in an ivory tower? Not at all. The constant pedagogical challenge is to demonstrate the on-going relevancy of literature per se in the present – and that requires being engaged in the here and now.