Posted by: kwhessel | November 13, 2010

Putting Literature to Work

The traditional literature class does much to perpetuate the image of a hermetic system.  The student, in almost every instance an outsider to that system, is to read a text whose value has already been established within the system, whether by a traditional canonically-centered ideology or by the myriad political or historical ideologies that variously motivate literary study.  The obligatory reading practice to be adopted relative to this text is one that is oftentimes foreign to students.  We demand: the value with which someone has imbued these particular pages exerts an occult-like control over the method of your engagement.  This is not a text that can be read from afar, or casually; it requires a scrupulous, an active, a restless and a difficult attention.  Close-reading demonstrations and exercises become the incantations that manifest the space of literary analysis.  Students enter into this conjure room, having struggled to adopt that practice, and unload the fruits of their labors in discussion.  They leave.  They refocus.  They return.  They pour their energies out into the open air.  Meanwhile they produce documents, exercises in literary analysis that are presumed to be of great value within the system, and of almost no value outside of it (the rarity with which students will return to claim end-of-semester work the following semester speaks to the degree to which they know this to be true).  At the end of the semester they are awarded a grade that evaluates their capacity to accommodate themselves to the expectations of the system.  They are sent on their way.  They are not asked to return, nor is it suggested directly that they take anything with them.  

I wonder if students don’t perceive the system to be one of alienating and frustrating stagnation.  We assure them that a community of scholars is actively debating literary form and history.  We make reference to documents that circulate within this system.  Yes, we exhort, the system is mostly closed, but it is dynamic, robust, and actively creative.  On occasion, the values and knowledge that it generates seep mysteriously into the broader cultural consciousness.  But the documents our students create do not circulate.  And the insulated walls of the classroom deaden the words of their collaborative literary-critical hymn.  Their access to the true dynamism of the system is limited to what they glean from its clerisy; their belief in that dynamism must be largely dependent on faith in the system itself.  This lack of access to the productive turmoil of the system surely calls into question the communicability, from within to without, of any generated value.  In the humanities, as is evidenced by the perpetual hand-wringing over the crises in the discipline, we are sometimes troubled to identify our product, the useful exportable value to be associated with our brand.  Sometimes we satisfy ourselves with intangibles: we teach critical thinking and reading skills; we preserve a sense of cultural heritage, however singular or multifaceted; our model leads not towards a product, but is based on a series of incremental recalibrations.  We are producing more well-rounded students, it is said, with a rich moral life and a more complex understanding of society and its histories.  Our product is not the knowledge, but the student.

Of course, to the student considering the value of a literature class and its accompanying textual productions, this explanation of the transmutation of value must seem so arcane as to be alchemical (or perhaps sacramental).  It is practically impossible to measure the contribution of a student’s work within a literature class to the process of his or her formation as a well-adjusted human being.  It probably appears somewhat presumptuous, as well, especially to those students not already committed to humanistic contemplation, when literature professors take credit for their critical thinking skills.  In the end, regardless of whether this explanation of the value of the English department is accurate, we probably have not done enough as a discipline to combat the perception that the literature class is isolated, a mystical enclave that gives up its deepest secrets only to the initiated.  True, there are ways in which the boundaries of the classroom have been rendered more porous by recent critical and pedagogical trends.  Discussion-based classrooms obviously do more to invite the student to import extra-literary concerns into the system.  The expansion of the canon and the onset of interdisciplinarity may also serve as figures for an inward breach of the system’s boundaries.  And classrooms that effectively integrate digital technology symbolically open the system to a torrent of information.  These techniques, if reasonably implemented, are all to the good.  But we should not rest at the establishment of the literature class as an all-consuming vacuum: boundaries penetrable from without, but rigid from within.  If I am not mistaken, what is necessary is a literature class which facilitates the student’s ability to transfer value directly and freely across those boundaries.

To this end I have been considering modifying my introductory Shakespeare for Non-Majors course.  The subtitle of the new course would be “Putting Shakespeare to Work.”  On the one hand, this course would continue to satisfy some of the expectations of a single-author survey.  We would read a variety of plays representative of diverse genres.  We would discuss issues of literary form and history.  And students would be assigned at least one short paper during the semester whose aim would be a close-reading of one of the plays.  The skills that our hermetic system demands are not without value; we just don’t always facilitate their egress into other contexts.  In order to more actively encourage an externalizing transfer of knowledge, the second focus of the class, put broadly, would be on the lingering value of the Shakespeare brand, and its exploitation for rhetorical and cultural gain.  Some of the plays would be coupled with modern film adaptations, from which we, as a class, would develop a number of ideas about the diverse cultural valuations of the idea of Shakespeare in our own time.  Accompanying our attention to films, we would read, for each play in the course, a text, taken from a non-literary or popular discourse community, which made use of some part of that particular play.  We would discuss the use of Shakespeare within that text, the rhetorical or textual work that he was doing, and evaluate its effectiveness.  As a final project, the students would not produce a typical research paper, or an extended close-reading; rather, they would be expected to produce a text that introduced Shakespeare into what might usually be considered a foreign context.  It might be something relevant to their chosen major; it might be an article for a trade or popular magazine they enjoyed; it might be a polemic or a letter to the editor; it might be a lab report; they would choose the context, but regardless of the chosen venue, the aim would be to render Shakespeare the texture for, and not the content of, the text that they produced.   The idea, finally, would be to encourage the use of Shakespeare, to push students to find ways to set him contiguous to a number of contemporary concerns, to carry him out into the “real world” and set him to circulating more broadly and doing good works.  I cannot export the value of the English department by myself, but my students could do much for the cause.  As a matter of fact, perhaps a more appropriate subtitle for the course might be “Putting Students to Work.”

I welcome in the comments below any suggestions about the practical implementation of such a course.  I’m currently looking for texts from non-literary discourses that make use of specific plays, so any suggestions towards such pairings posted into the comments would be much appreciated.  To my mind, the more diverse the texts the better: legal, political, journalistic, popular uses of Shakespeare are all welcome and needed.  Also, and this is somewhat in-line with Scott’s post from 10/6, any thoughts on how we might more effectively transfer the produce of the English department (or train our students to transfer the fruits of their in-class labors) are welcome as well.



  1. Kurtis, this is brilliant! I love the idea for your course, and will rack my brain for Shakespeare-using texts…but even more than that, I love the elegant way you pose the problem in the first place. You’ve gotten me thinking about ways I can “export the produce” of classes I teach! It is the eternal question. Thank you for providing at least one example of how to do so.

  2. Kurtis,

    I just came across your blog and wanted to say thanks for sharing your idea. In my masters program, I took a course on Shakespearean adaptation that brought to bear many of the questions you’re addressing, and I’m very interested in strategies for helping students apply literary study to their own interests. I would love to hear more about the ways you implement your idea.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: