Each year I’m fortunate enough to be able to offer my Y10 students a short enrichment course that lasts 6 weeks and which I title, after Bob Eaglestone’s superb book, Doing English. The aim of this enrichment course is to get the students thinking much more conceptually about literature and its study, asking questions such as:
- Where does the study of literature come from?
- What is literature?
- What is the canon?
- Who decides what is literary and what isn’t?
- What relationship does literature have with politics?
- Why are some texts excluded from the canon?
- Why so much Shakespeare?
Running this course is one of the highlights of my academic calendar and provides a wonderful opportunity to immerse myself, and, hopefully my students, in the literary hinterland. It is a chance to explore the disciplinary world that exists at the margins of the curriculum, those ideas, concepts and topics that feed into our core teaching; no less valuable and enriching, even if it happens not to be within the chosen curricular circumference. Like a curricular cartographer, the hope is to map routes out of the curriculum, detours that can be navigated and explored.
In this post, I wanted to share with you one of the lessons I teach as part of this course and how I’ve adapted it for remote learning. It is a lesson I absolutely love and one I look forward to teaching each year.
So, which is most literary?
The lesson begins with this task waiting for the students as they enter:
I begin by explaining in a little more detail what I want them to do, before then sharing my screen and showing them where to find the texts in the Class Notebook. I then quickly introduce each one as factually and neutrally as I can, and then stress that, of course, in order to complete the task they need to think very carefully about what we even mean by something being literary.
I then, without further discussion, put them into breakout rooms and give them 10 minutes to discuss their initial, immediate thoughts, with the eventual aim being to rank the texts via a Microsoft Form. The aim, here, is to explore what assumptions already underpin their perspectives about what it means to be literary, and why one text might be conceived as more literary than another.
Here then are the 6 texts that the students now have access to and need to rank according to their ‘literariness’:
After 10 minutes to discuss with their partner the order of ‘literariness’ they think is most appropriate for these 6 texts, they then rank them using the below Form:
Once I can see all answers have been submitted, we then come back together as a group. At this point, and without actually having looked at the responses themselves, I try to guess what I suspect the ranking will be:
- Shakespeare’s sonnet
- Dickens’ Bleak House
- Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow
- Goldsmith’s Traffic
- The Times
- The washing machine manual
We then look at the actual submissions, and each time I have ran this lesson I am usually pretty much spot on, as you’d probably expect. It might be I have The Times and Goldsmith the wrong way round, but almost 100% of the time Shakespeare is top, followed by Dickens and Williams and with the washing machine manual always at the bottom. The students always find this a fascinating party trick (how did you know?!) to which I respond with this big question: why do we think it is that we all seem to have a similar understanding of what defines literature? Why is that? Isn’t that fascinating, that we all seem to intuitively know what is literary and what isn’t? Why?
But, What Even is Literature?
With these questions ringing in our ears, I finally arrive at the central question of the lesson: what is literature? What do we mean by something being literary and something else non-literary? I pose these questions to the class, and having just gone through the process of interrogating their own assumptions, it invariably turns into a detailed, fascinating and richly conceptual exploration. Indeed, I am always amazed by just how rigorous the students are in their thinking, just going to show that when we have sky high expectations of the material and ideas students might be capable of engaging with they very often ascend to those heights.
We explore, for instance, what we expect from a literary text and why Shakespeare’s sonnet seems to meet that expectation but, say, a washing machine manual doesn’t. And why is it we seem to all have a similar expectation? I might ask, for example, for a certain student to defend or extrapolate why they decided on the order they did or perhaps to try to tease out the ostensible differences or divisions between two of the kinds of writing on the list.
This is also a great opportunity to play devil’s advocate, a role I uphold with great relish. A student might propose, for example, the entire concept of ranking literary texts is unfounded to which I respond, with mock indignancy, but surely we can all see a Shakespearean sonnet is better than the washing machine manual? Coming to my aid, another might then say ‘well, yes I suppose it is because look at how well it’s crafted’ to which I say, perhaps mischievously, but is it? Could you point to the precise moment one becomes literary but the other doesn’t? And so the conversation continues, probing and playing with the assumptions that underpinned not only the original decisions that were made, but the very concept of ranking the texts against one another.
At this point, I introduce the idea of the literariness of literature being defined as something that is internal or external, as explored with Eaglestone’s Doing English:
We discuss the idea that perhaps a text is designated as literary because there is something within it, a quality that is internal to it, which makes it so. Or, perhaps no such internal attribute exists and maybe what we describe as literature is a product of external factors. By this point in the lesson, whilst not using this exact framework, it’s almost certain both of these positions have already been broached and touched upon in some form or another. I might then ask which of these two positions seems to make most sense to the class based on our discussion thus far.
If time allows, I often like at this point to introduce the ideas of the Russian Formalists, which has always struck me, at a personal level, as an interesting way to frame and characterise our thinking of what we might mean by literary and non-literary language.
The Case of Goldsmith’s Traffic
At this point in the lesson, I pause on the specific case of Kenneth Goldsmith and his work of conceptual literature, Traffic. What seems like a very long time ago, I taught English Literature at undergraduate level and Goldsmith featured on one of the courses I taught, titled ‘Contemporary Literature’. It was a fascinating course, made all the more fascinating by the fact we spent a 2 hour seminar discussing, literally, traffic reports. Of course, as Goldsmith would argue, the aim isn’t really to read the traffic reports, but more to think about them and what the existence of such a text might suggest about the very object of literature. For the maybe 10 minutes we would have left in the lesson, this is precisely what we do: think about Traffic and what it suggests.
To begin, then, I play them a clip of Goldsmith famously reading an excerpt of Traffic at the White House as invited by President Obama:
This introduces a discussion as to whether this text is literary, given it is, after all traffic reports. If students say yes it is, then, again in the guise of devil’s advocate, I ask what separates this from, say, the washing machine manual. Would the washing machine manual be literary if also read at the White House? Is the author of this text Goldsmith or the original radio broadcaster? We eventually, and usually, meander our way towards the idea that Traffic becomes literature by the virtue of the circumstance and context in which it is read and performed, thus challenging the very concept and demarcation of literature itself.
The lesson concludes with me introducing the idea of the canon, the focus of our next session, and specifically the way in which the canon as a construct seeks to enshrine and codify a certain accepted view of what constitutes literature. I end with these words from Toni Morrisson and ask the students to ponder them over the course of the week, especially in light of this lesson’s conversations:
And thus concludes this lesson, a lesson I love.
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