Teaching to Subvert

Perhaps it’s because I finished reading bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress last week or maybe it’s just because I started teaching Contemporary Literature this past week, but I’ve been thinking about teaching as subversive this week.  Given that I come from the liberal arts, these thoughts are not that surprising, but I have a feeling I would approach teaching this way, regardless of the field.  I think teaching, by its very nature, is subversive, and teaching literature is even more so.

Let’s start with literature.  At some point in every class I teach, I talk about how literature is trying to push against some idea in society.  For example, we just talked about Doris Lessing’s “To Room Nineteen” on Friday, and we discussed the role of women in England in the 1950s and 1960s.  We put Lessing in line with Woolf and Chopin and Gilman, but talked about how she was going farther than they were.  In one sense, Lessing is clearly subverting Woolf, in that she shows a woman who has a room of her own, but it’s not enough; on the other hand, Lessing echoes Woolf several times in the story in a way to show that she is building on Woolf.

This week, we’ll talk about John Barth and Donald Barthelme, who seem to be subverting the very idea of literature itself.  They begin to raise questions about the purpose of literature and how we even define literature (does it need a plot? for example).  We’ll continue that discussion through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Slaughterhouse-Five (which subverts a lot more than just literature).

Besides the subjects literature deals with, simply reading literature seems subversive in our culture, in general.   According to an article in The Atlantic, 23% of Americans didn’t read a single book in 2013 (latest data I could find).  28% did read 11 or more, which is pretty good, but that still means that a three-fourths of Americans read fewer than one book per month.  Those who read fiction also is on the decline, as this MarketWatch article points out that 56% of Americans read fiction in 1982, but only 46% in 2012 (poetry is down from 12% in 2002 to 6.7%).

In a culture that tells us faster is better, we shouldn’t be surprised that fiction and poetry has a shrinking audience.  We can’t really read that type of literature on a smartphone while waiting for a friend at a restaurant.  Reading like this requires a commitment most people aren’t willing to make these days.  If you tell someone you sat down for four hours on a Saturday and read part of Zadie Smith or David Mitchell’s latest novel, they might ask if you were bored or didn’t have anything better to do.

Along the same lines, our culture pushes us to consume more and more, and literature doesn’t lend itself to consumption.  Literature lends itself to reflection, to spending time with one author’s thoughts for hours and days, to entering the consciousness of another person (real or imaginary).  While people do collect books, most readers consume the experience of the book, not the object itself.

Teaching is much the same way.  We want students to spend time with important questions, to slow down from the rush of the world and think about who they are and who they want to be.  We remind them that ideas from hundreds of years ago still matter greatly, that they should not rush to the next thought without spending some time with what has come before.  We want them to be able to think through the marketing clutter aimed at them, to see the manipulation companies use to get them to buy their products, to live their lives as nothing but consumers.  We want them to see that their lives have a purpose beyond buying the latest clothes or cars.

I’m not talking about pushing politics or encouraging students to agree with us when I talk about subversion.  I’m arguing that we should help them understand themselves better, that they should be able to see the world as clearly as possible.  They can then make up their own minds about whether or not they want to be defined as a consumer who fits a demographic or an individual with a mind and a soul.  I’m hoping for the latter, of course.


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