I’ll admit it. I really, genuinely did not enjoy reading Darwin’s Origin of Species for my English class on “Imaging Scientists.” But even more embarrassing than my inability to appreciate the world’s seminal text on natural selection is the fact that I wasted my class’s time talking about my own dislike of the book. This feelings-centered approach to class discussions is unproductive, self-indulgent and, unfortunately, not unique to me – in short, something we should all avoid.
To be clear, I’m not attempting to argue that students’ kneejerk reactions to readings have no place in the classroom. I’ve been a part of many dynamic, productive discussions that began with my class considering whether a book or play had “worked for us.” There’s value in analyzing why we enjoy a text, and often even more value in parsing a negative reaction to one. These conversations work because they force us to move beyond the initial reaction (fun to read, hard to read, unsettling to read, etc.) and towards interpretations of the works themselves.
There’s a significant difference between this kind of discussion and those that refuse to move beyond students describing whether or not they enjoyed an assigned reading. Using a personal reaction as a starting point, we move away from what allows us to use our reactions as a way into a work; using a personal reaction as the focus of a discussion gets the conversation stuck on a shallow level that’s more about the student than the work.
And that’s lame. If we wanted to learn about you and your feelings, we could stalk your Facebook status updates or strike up a conversation when we see you in Paresky. But we come to class to delve deeply into the course material, something that’s theoretically a lot harder to do outside of the context of classroom time (at least that’s how I justify the College’s gigantic price tag in my mind). And though most Williams students are interesting and bright, it’s hard not to conclude that a discussion on how Darwin’s rhetorical devices work would be ultimately more worthwhile than one on whether Joe Schmoe ’08 had fun when he read Darwin last night.
When feelings-centered discussions do arise it’s rare for students to all agree on a common reaction, a situation that often produces long-winded arguments that could really be boiled down to “it sucked!” versus “it did not suck!” Because these exchanges are based on peoples’ feelings, they often devolve quickly into emotionally charged shouting matches that change no one’s minds. And really – do we want our class time to resemble one of those interminable Hillary-Obama debates?
Beyond the reality that such discussions tend to be repetitive, circular time sinks, they represent a troubling view of course material. By preferencing the question of whether we found a text enjoyable to read and then casting the parts we didn’t enjoy as weaknesses, we treat it as we would a consumer product. You know – this vacuum was too loud and didn’t reach the corners of my room. Because it doesn’t serve my purposes and made my life harder, it’s a bad vacuum, and thus I’m going to return it.
The problem with applying this kind of mindset to coursework, and literature in particular, is that the goal of most of these works is not merely to “serve our purposes” and give us what we want and help us have a good time. Sure, that happens sometimes and it can be fun. But books that give us a confusing time or a scary time or even a boring time can often be far more rewarding in the end. Delving into a passage so disturbing it’s uncomfortable to read (see: any time Humbert Humbert touches Dolores in Lolita) makes us analyze our assumptions about humanity more rigorously than merrily paging through an easy-to-grasp happy ending in an Austen novel, even if it makes us feel icky.
The “if you had fun, you won” view on books falls apart most spectacularly when we consider big, complicated tomes. I watched a number of my friends slug through the massive Gravity’s Rainbow last fall and can say with great confidence that they did not spend the entire process enjoying themselves. But while they found Pynchon’s masterpiece to be slow, arduous work that required reliance on a 383-page companion book, all ended the chorus singing the praises of the author and the experience of their reading. Their story illustrates the dangers in conflating a work’s quality with its immediate accessibility and enjoyability, something that discussions based on “it sucks” versus “it doesn’t suck” implicitly encourage.
I’ll stand by my earlier statements about having very little fun reading Origin, and I’ll perhaps even postulate that Darwin could’ve used a more thorough editor. But, really, I can admit that I got something out of reading the book (a lifetime’s supply of metaphors about ants, if nothing else), and that my whiny comments on my own reading experience are more suited for a Record opinions piece all about my thoughts and feelings than a classroom discussion on the book itself.
Sayd Randle ’08 is an English major from Arlington, Va.