Student: I’m really struggling. These books are weird, and I don’t understand them. Why do we have to read such strange things?
Me: Which category of general education is this world literature class fulfilling for you?
Student: The multicultural one.
Me: It’s supposed to be weird. If you didn’t feel disoriented, I wouldn’t be doing my job. Hang in there. It gets better.
The broad scope of time periods and national literatures included in a survey of world literature means that on most days of the semester, the instructor is leading the class in analysis and discussion of a text that is outside his or her area of specialization. I had the above conversation with a student in the second week of my world literature survey course after we had been reading anthologized excerpts from Wu Cheng’en’s The Journey to the West and Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone (or, The Dream of the Red Chamber).
What I did not tell the student that day was that I felt the same way the first time I read The Story of the Stone. Cao Xueqin embeds the common tale of a love triangle within the complex social politics of the eighteenth-century Quing Dynasty and connects the lovers, Baoyu, Daiyu, and Baochai, to a mythological drama. The resulting novel, with edits and emendations by later editor-authors, stretches to one hundred and twenty chapters and includes a cast of characters in the hundreds.
When I teach this text as it is excerpted in The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Shorter Third Edition, I begin with the familiar dynamic of the love triangle, asking the students to compare these lovers with other love triangles in literature and popular culture. I then guide the students into the more unfamiliar territory of the culture that constrains the behavior of these lovers by parsing the mismatch between the characters’ expectations for the behavior of others and their actual behavior. As the students and I look at a map of the enclosed garden in which much of the novel is set, we begin a conversation about freedom and constraint that will continue throughout the semester. Finally, we engage with the cosmic drama that influences these lovers and consider whether they have been free to make choices at all.
In teaching this novel, my goal is that students will gain the ability to approach something unfamiliar and, rather than recoiling from or criticizing that unfamiliarity, be able to find an aspect of the text to which they can relate. From there, they will be able to explore the unfamiliar text more deeply. This pattern for engagement with texts is repeated throughout the world literature survey, but I hope that it can also be a useful set of algorithms for interacting with the unfamiliar outside the classroom in an increasingly globalized world.
More generally, my teaching philosophy is based on the pragmatic acknowledgement that most of the students in my classroom are there because the composition, literature survey, or language course is an obligatory gateway to further study. Having registered for them under duress, students often come to these general education courses unready to engage in classroom interaction, with so much baggage that it impedes learning.
Over the course of my teaching, I’ve seen student baggage in many forms: Students who think that books in English class only contain the musty musings of dead white men. Students who fear papers covered with red ink because they believe they can’t write. Students who experience critique of their argument and style as a direct challenge to their identities. Students who care so much about being correct that they cannot risk speaking for fear of being wrong. Rather than directly challenging this baggage, I simply have the audacity to let the students see my love for my content, so that my passion can spread to them.
Academic reading and writing are complex tasks that can be intimidating when viewed as monoliths. My courses are designed to guide students through the processes that make up these tasks, and to build an inventory of skills that can be practiced, learned, and generalized beyond the course. In my composition courses, students spend much of our face-to-face class time actively engaged in the writing process. As we practice conducting academic research, students develop skills related to articulating research questions, searching for resources, examining bias, and creating annotated bibliographies and lit reviews. These skills allow students to position their work within the conversation happening in our classroom and in the broader academic world.
A typical class meeting might include a short presentation of an invention or revision strategy, sufficient time for students to practice this strategy independently while I circulate through the room, a conference with a partner to share what each accomplished, and a whole-class discussion of the strategy and its potential usefulness. As students learn to see the structure in the texts they consume and the texts they produce, both their critical thinking and their creativity improve, and the students set their baggage down.