Newness for a New Year

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Emily Dickinson and the reason I teach literature

When I was a sophomore at Ricks College, I took a British survey course. I will never forget the day I made a comment about a Wordsworth poem and my teacher dismissed my comment with a quick "Wrong" and moved on to another student. I was infuriated. How could he discount my perfectly reasonable reading of Wordsworth? I quickly discovered that he taught to his own frame of logic and understanding and anything else was simply regarded as incorrect. Although at the time I had no idea I would ever be teaching a college literature course, I know that I subconsciously determined to never dismiss the response of a person sincerely trying to contribute his/her story.

I've been thinking about this concept as this new semester has begun. I tell this story each semester as I prep my students for how my classroom discussion works. Only today, I realized my simple, tragic beginning to the discovery of my personal teaching theory actually encapsulates so much more about why I really do what I do.

The first assignment in my Introduction to Literature course is to write a one-page essay on why they study literature. I wanted them to really examine why they were sitting in my lit class. I had once been given that assignment, and I enjoyed figuring out why I loved literature so much that I would want to study it. The question, however, has evolved for me: Why do I love teaching literature. I continue to ask myself why.

Well, as I walked to class today, I paid a little more attention to all the people walking past me. There is such diversity (although many people don't think there could be at BYU) in the stories of lives that pass us everyday. My students and I read an excerpt from Tim O'Brien's novel The Things They Carried during the semester. The story tells of the burdens (both physical and emotional) that a group of soldiers carry in Vietnam. Each time I read the story, I am vividly reminded that each of us carry burdens both physical and emotional. Sure we carry our clothes, bags, books, groceries, and so many other things, but we are also carrying worries, tragedy, strengths, weaknesses, joys, and sorrows. Those weights are often more burdensome than the tangible items in our lives. The diversity I see in my walks of campus deal much more with the invisible burdens being carried. There is no way I can possible know what those burdens are, unless I am told about them, but the literature I engage with regularly reminds me that the unseen burdens and weights of life exist. If I can learn to listen and appreciate the stories told across the world, then I hope to be better at listening to and recognizing the stories going on with people in my own life. I never want to forget the importance of the personal story--the reality of another person. I read literature because it makes me remember the humanity of people all around me--it makes the vague generalization become personal and poignant. If I can extend that ability to my students, then I think the world will be a more compassionate place. If they can learn to listen to the stories passing them every day, then I think they will become more sensitive to the humanity of us all.

As for the Emily Dickinson--
We studied her today in class, and I was reminded of her striking observations of the humanity she removed herself from and yet could not dismiss. Although she did not physically contribute to her society, she gave us all a better sense of what being human means. I have included a poem or two for your reading enjoyment.

IF I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin 5
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
and another ...

THAT I did always love,
I bring thee proof:
That till I loved
I did not love enough.

That I shall love alway, 5
I offer thee
That love is life,
And life hath immortality.

This, dost thou doubt, sweet?
Then have I 10
Nothing to show
But Calvary.


Dan Simpson said...

I don't know if you even want comments, as there are none so far, but I am kind of a blog poster, so I can't help it.

I liked this post a lot, mostly because your opening example reminded me so much of 10th grade english. I liked, and looked up to, my English teacher, and had enjoyed his classes a lot. Then one day, after class, I was talking to him about The Fellowship of the Ring, and another book I was reading at the time (I don't remember what it was, but it was no doubt fantasy), he commented, "People who read fantasy do it because they are too stupid to read anything else". I was, as you can imagine, stunned. So stunned, that I didn't tell him how ridiculous his comment was.

It was, and continues to be, a great lesson to me about opinion. I don't mind that lots of people don't like fantasy (or other things that I like), that is their perogative. But this experience reminds me to always try to phrase my opinions in such a way that they don't denegrate other's tastes. (Still a work in progress).

Breanne Grover said...

Thanks for your post. I welcome all comments. I like to hear what you are thinking about, which I guess would be the point of my initial post, right?

Dan Simpson said...

Oh, and kudos by the way. I am not a Dickinson fan (me and Alisa have disagreed about it before), but those two poems were truly beautiful poetry.

Alisa said...

So Dan and I had a discussion the other night about oppions and being right. Well, I have to say I win this one about Emily Dickinson.
I took a Shakespere class at Ricks. We were to read the sonnets, pick our favorite and explain what it meant. Well, I picked one and explained it. The way I read it was completly different from what my professor was looking for. She however, saw that what I said was reasonable from my perspective and liked that I was personalizing what I was reading. I guess most things come down to perspective. We all have a different perspective and need to remember that when looking at someone else.