Why Literature? Or Any Discipline?

why.pngIt strikes me that we can lose sight of the whys of our disciplines. Or, perhaps more commonly, we can see the whys (why we we teach it, why students should study it, why it matters) so clearly, so obviously, that we lose sight of the fact that many others—particularly our students, particularly particularly students who take our classes to meet general education requirements and have no intention to study any further in our discipline—may not see them, perhaps even at all. So what are the whys? How do we name them and communicate them?

To answer this for my own discipline, I’ve been researching recent apologias for literature, defenses of reading or teaching literature written since, say, around the turn of the century. Quite a lot has been written on the question. (I’ve included below my bibliography in progress. If you know other texts I might add, please share them with me.) I don’t know if there are also this many in other disciplines, but I assume that the abundance I’ve found has a lot to do with the perceived crisis in the humanities. As I work through these books (and the essays I’ve not listed), I see a commonality that may be so broad and so obvious that we could easily skip past it but that I think could and probably should be an important focus in our teaching: we believe that the discipline (of reading literature, in this case) matters for students’ lives. How it matters varies according to the apologist. That it matters remains constant.

recent essay describes efforts to reform general education curriculum at several prestigious universities. Faculty at Harvard are asked to consider the following three questions:

  • What does my area of inquiry have to offer of value to the society or culture at large?
  • What does a student, who might otherwise have no further education in my area of inquiry, need to know in order to appreciate this value?
  • How, in particular, will knowing these things help a student to think differently about his or her ethical decisions or approach differently his or her contributions to civil discourse and action?

These questions make assumptions, warranted I think. The disciplines matter beyond themselves, for students’ lives. What would our teaching look like if we held the question of purpose always, or at least regularly, before our and our students’ eyes? Would the focus of our assignments change? Would we focus more on some content than on others? Would the skills we ask students to develop be different?

My friend and colleague Matt Huett proposes we continually ask our students, “Why are we here?” We have to ask this, he says, much more often than we realize. One small strategy might be to directly communicate why to students in writing. For example, here’s a version of a statement of purpose for my World Literature course:

In this course, we will read literature from around the world, including short stories and poems from Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and other places. As we read, reflect on, discuss, and engage with these texts, I hope you will take away three things. First, I hope you will come to care more deeply about the stories of others around the world. Second, I hope you will learn to recognize similarities, differences, separations, and connections between yourself and “others” in the world. Third, I hope that you will develop reflective, contemplative reading practices and dispositions. Growing in these three areas can contribute, sometimes profoundly, to your ability to love, understand, and make a difference in the world.

I’ve begun writing statements like this for all my syllabi. I want the statements to go beyond—that is, deeper or higher than—the official and often technical “learning outcomes” for the course. I want the statements to get to the why of the course in grander terms. I make sure to return to the statement throughout the semester, including asking students to reflect in writing on how they are or are not accomplishing the purposes of the course. I also strive to make the course assignments and assessments actually live up to the purposes, a high bar indeed.

Why do you teach what you teach? Why should students study what you teach? How do you help them see that?


Apologias for Literature

Ahrens, Rüdiger, and Laurenz Volkmann, eds. Why Literature Matters: Theories and Functions of Literature. Heidelberg: Winter, 1996.

Alter, Robert. The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.

Ammons, Elizabeth. Brave New Words: How Literature Will Save the Planet. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010.

Arbery, Glenn C. Why Literature Matters: Permanence and the Politics of Reputation. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2001.

Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. New York: Scribner, 2000.

Bruns, Cristina V. Why Literature? The Value of Literary Reading and What It Means for Teaching. London: Continuum, 2011.

Calvino, Italo. Why Read the Classics? New York: Pantheon Books, 1999.

Edmundson, Mark. Why Read? New York: Bloomsbury, 2004.

Felski, Rita. Uses of Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2008.

Gioia, Dana. Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture. Saint Paul, Minn: Graywolf Press, 2002.

Gregory, Marshall W. Shaped by Stories: The Ethical Power of Narratives. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009.

Iversen, Stefan, Nielsen, Henrik Skov, and Alber, Jan, eds. Why Study Literature? Aarhus N, DNK: Aarhus University Press, 2011.

Jacobs, Alan. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Jusdanis, Gregory. Fiction Agonistes: In Defense of Literature. Stanford, Calif: Stanford Univ. Press, 2010.

Lesser, Wendy. Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

Miller, J. Hillis. On Literature. London: Routledge, 2002.

Parini, Jay. Why Poetry Matters. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Roche, Mark W. Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Schwarz, Daniel R. In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century. Chichester, U.K: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

Socken, Paul G. The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age? Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press, 2014.

Sumara, Dennis J. Why Reading Literature in School Still Matters: Imagination, Interpretation, Insight. Mahwah, N.J: L. Erlbaum, 2002.

Ulin, David L. The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time. Seattle, WA: Sasquatch Books, 2010.

Zunshine, Lisa. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006.

Image by Eric (CC-BY-ND 2005)


2 responses to “Why Literature? Or Any Discipline?

    • Kisha, I loved your post! Thanks for sharing it. Very meaningful and very concrete whys for your students.

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