At the end of my intervention narrating the experience of teaching Harry Potter on a round table (see my previous post) a woman asked me whether I’m not depressed by the thought that students are willing to read Rowling’s seven-volume saga but not (implicitly) better books. Marta Gutiérrez, one of the round table organizers, asked me to what extent the experience of teaching popular fiction is different (or specific). A third person asked me: what should university teachers do to motivate students to read the classics with as much enthusiasm as they pour into reading certain popular fiction?
First my answer to Marta: what made the difference in my Harry Potter course was not the content but the fact that all the students registered in it had read the books (in many cases, more than once; in some, many times). I am, like all my Literature colleagues all over the world, tired of forcing LITERATURE students to read… Literature. I don’t even demand enthusiasm but simply that students who have FREELY CHOSEN to take a degree in language and Literature come to class having read the books we discuss (ideally having underlined key passages and made notes). The Harry Potter elective was wonderful to teach because a) I didn’t have to ‘sell’ the books to anyone nor ‘force’ them to read, b) everyone knew the contents in depth. This way I could take discussion to much deeper levels than usual. How do I know who has read the book or not? Easy: non-readers make notes of basic plot points, particularly those towards the end of the novel. Yes, we teach novels in rigorous narrative order to give students a chance to reach the end before we do. Spoilers are a problem.
The other two answers are intertwined. No, I’m not depressed that students have read Harry Potter, as I see it’s been a beautiful experience (also for me) and I can never be sorry that people enjoy books. I don’t want them to have read something else instead, particularly because I’m very much aware than Rowling did manage to turn many children into very keen readers. I am, to be honest, dismayed rather than depressed by the situation in class. I have been wondering in the last weeks when I became the kind of boring old teacher during whose lectures students fall asleep, check their email or wassap, sit slumped as if they have run a marathon… I have started to hear myself speak and I realise I drone on, loudly, to cover up their silences. We teachers have started to refer to ‘the cobra movement,’ which is that moment in class when you say something connected to what students enjoy and they raise their heads collectively. Also, I have taken to calling myself a dinosaur and to imagine my university as a campus Jurassic Park, as I’m quite sure about my obsolescence as a Literature teacher in a world of non-readers.
I told the three ladies and the 120 students in the room that I do not think my job includes motivating students. These are adults over 18 who have chosen to pursue an academic degree in the Humanities. Their capacity to read well and for long stretches all kinds of academic and literary texts must be taken for granted, as must their interest in a subject of their choice. We, English Literature teachers, have had enough of students who tell us to our faces they don’t like reading and that they’re here to learn English –well, I was under the impression that reading is the best possible exercise to acquire vocabulary in a native or foreign language. And if you don’t like reading Literature fancy reading English phonetics manuals… As I explained, I am responsible for finding my motivation to teach and I will not be made responsible for the students’ motivation to read. I make sensible choices (like asking them to read Oliver Twist and not the very long Bleak House) and try to connect the Literature of the foreign past with our local present, but this is it. Well, I also try to be as professional as I can. They know this.
Next year I very much want to teach an elective monographic course on science fiction. I have chosen a list of novels and films with some students and I’m beginning work now on downsizing this overlong list to fit the limits of the semester. I find the syllabus very thrilling but I am as worried as if I were to teach Middle-English poetry for there is no guarantee at all that students will a) read the texts, b) like them, c) be willing to discuss them in class with energy and enthusiasm. I do look forward to teaching this course but, as I anticipated last semester, I know that the degree of student involvement I enjoyed during the Harry Potter course will NEVER materialise again. And I won’t complain, as I am VERY lucky that I had the chance to enjoy that.
I have conversations all the time with students about the matters I raise here but, as they tell me, the problem is that I usually talk with students who are keen readers (they are the ones who, logically, take coffee with Literature teachers…). For the non-reading students I must be a bore, a pest, an obstacle they want to forget as soon as they can. When I think of the nightmarish years I spent trying to obtain tenure and the constant effort that maintaining an academic career afloat entails… then I get depressed. Would things change, I’m often asked, if we taught English-language culture through audiovisual texts exclusively (films, TV)? No, I don’t think so. It’s something else altogether, a deep fault in the system.
So, students, you should know that we Literature teachers are worried sick there is no way we can do our job well. We need your collaboration, your participation, more effort and more enthusiasm on your side. You’re the young ones, not us, and this must show. I hate to think that my Harry Potter course will be the exception to remember not now, after 23 years teaching, but when I retire in 22 years… I know it might be hard to swallow but we need to know what’s going on and why you don’t want to learn from us, willing as we are to teach you. And, no, your motivation is not our responsibility. We have the duty to teach you, you have the duty to read, as simple as that.
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