Thursday, March 6, 2014

Willa Cather: Teaching what you love

I've had the pleasure this week of teaching Willa Cather's My Antonia again in my American Lit II survey.  It's one of my favorite novels, one that I find deeply moving, beautiful, and beautifully wrought.  I'm not sure how many times I've read it--4? 5? more?--but I always come back to it and marvel at the effect such lean prose can have on a reader.  I should also say that, each time I get ready to teach this book or Marianne Moore's poetry (my favorite poet), I am reminded of advice I was given by a professor in grad school:  never teach books or poems you absolutely love.  I have never actually heeded the advice, but I have had  many moments when I wish I had.

I think that professor meant that the beauty of the thing you love will likely not be appreciated by those who you are teaching.  You will insist on it and show evidence--"look at this evocative passage . . ."--but fail to get most of them to see what you see.  You bring the work to a group of people who cannot possibly love it the way you do.  Some may come to enjoy it after their first readings; others will think it boring; and worse, still others will not care at all.  A chasm opens between your strong feelings about the text and their indifference, and that frustrates and angers you.  Why expose such a beloved thing to such rejection?

In part, I do it to show students a work of art that I think is superior.  But more than that, I do it to show students that it is possible to be passionate about literature.  I make it clear to my students that I love My Antonia.  I know they won't immediately, if ever--in fact, if I assign a large chunk of the novel, they will dislike it because they will associate it with too much work.  But some of them do like it, and in the course of the class conversations, come to understand more clearly why they do.  And that makes it worth teaching it.

When I was teaching at Auburn, I had a football player in one of my courses who enjoyed literature, and what we read in my course in particular.  At the end of the semester, he invited me to the "Top Tiger" banquet, an event that celebrated the academic success of outstanding student-athletes.  During dinner, one of my English department colleagues asked him what book he enjoyed reading most in my course.  The student said Henry James's The American, another one of my favorites.  I was stunned.  I never expected to hear any student--EVER--say Henry James was a favorite.  But he went on to talk about why he liked it.  I came away from that experience convinced that I had to keep teaching books I love deeply as well as others that I just think are important.

And so I am teaching My Antonia; things have gone only ok this time.  I'm not sure my students are reading much of it right now.  Spring break is one day away, and the weather has depressed us all.  The conversation about the book sputters and flounders often.  And yet, I find myself experiencing the joy of re-reading the novel, and speaking passionately about it to my students. 

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