Dissecting the Frog

Found this wonderful reflection at the Circe Institute from another English teacher like me. I can really relate to Mr. Kern describes here:

I’m torn between opposing approaches: 1) to break the work down so that they see the structures and the devices and all the things that we English majors find so fascinating but most students find so mind-numbingly similar to biology, and 2) to simply let the stories be, to them do the work themselves and to simply be a facilitator. The first option is practical and concrete and I can quantify my student’s knowledge and assess his understanding. The second functions within the realm of mystery and is less easily quantified. On the one hand I can dissect the work, on the other I can observe.

My instincts tell me to go with the second option but the strangest thing has been happening when I do: the kids want the first option. My students don’t want to have to observe because observation demands patience and attention and time. Dissection, on the other hand, requires only a scalpel and something to clean up the mess later on. (Kern, “Flannery O’Connor On Teaching Literature,” The Circe Institute)

I found this to be true even more so of my kids in Louisiana than my kids here in Denver, though I am not quite sure why. The honors students, in particular, seemed to suffer from this empiricism-obsessed affliction (though not all of them). A lot of them hated reading “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” yet they did not recognize that Mr. Shiftlet was really talking about them:

“‘Lady,” he said, and turned and gave her his full attention, “lemme tell you something. There’s one of these doctors in Atlanta that’s taken a knife and cut the human heart‑the human heart,” he repeated, leaning forward, “out of a man’s chest and held it in his hand,” and he held his hand out, palm up, as if it were slightly weighted with the human heart, “and studied it like it was a day‑old chicken, and lady,” he said, allowing a long significant pause in which his head slid forward and his clay‑colored eyes brightened, “he don’t know no more about it than you or me.” (O’Connor, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”)

Mr. Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater observe Lucynell – rather like the doctor observes the human heart in his hand.
Source: oliviawhen.blogspot.com

Mr. Kirn, in his essay about this problem in teaching English, goes on to say that “literature isn’t science and I don’t believe it should be treated like it is.” Which I definitely agree with, and I could discourse at length about how our technology-obsessed culture is suffering from an appalling suffocation of our artistic and literary desires.

But then he says, “Literature is best learned through experience and experience is driven by observation and observation doesn’t cater to this instinct, this desire.” Notice his conflation of terms – and notice also his reversal of what one would normally expect. “Experience” and “observation” are associated with “literature” and “desire” — not science. I found that very interesting – especially in light of my own belief (discussed in this post) that reducing knowledge to experience is part of the very problem Mr. Kirn is describing.

He describes it very well here:

“For to examine only the parts of a thing is to examine only what that thing has, not what it is. If I want to know what a frog is I should go to the pond and watch it do, and be, and inhabit. If I want to know what a frog has I should dissect it.”

Unfortunately, so many of my past and current students don’t really care about the frog. Nor they do not care what the frog is. The struggling students often do not care altogether, about the frog or its parts, and the strong students often only care insofar as they can gut the helpless animal for the correct organs they need to pin onto their test for an A.

Maybe I’m being a little harsh here. I’m not blaming my kids. I’m not even blaming their parents. Maybe I’m blaming bad English teachers – or, perhaps, the culture at large. Or the devil who has taught us not to care anymore about being, but only about doing and having.

Yet Flannery O’Connor–whom Kirn is following in his article–is not entirely “impractical.” I think Regina kept her on her toes too much for that. I think Flannery would agree that you can’t just sit gaping at a frog–or a story–all day. You need to find a way to train your eyes to see it properly, and that does involve skills, tools, and all the rest of it:

The student has to have tools to understand a story or a novel, and these are tools proper to the structure of the work, tools proper to the craft.  They are tools that operate inside the work and not outside it; they are concerned with how this story is made and with what makes it work as a story. (O’Connor, “On The Teaching of Literature.”)

My recent lesson plans on reading strategies are my own attempt at this. So is my (in)famous unit on essays and my “Writing Fridays” (formerly known as “In-Class Essay Fridays”).

And–oddly–most of my students, at least in retrospect, respond well to these parts of my teaching. And I am very happy about this. And yet… These skills I insist upon so forcefully with my kids are indeed essential, but they are only meant to move my students toward the Real Thing itself. I do not know if I have done so well in helping my kids to contemplate the mystery in literature. I do not know if I have really been able to help them simply observe the story as it is–and perhaps hear the Logos speaking through the logos of the particular poem or myth.

source: nytimes.com

Flannery says, in her characteristically incisive way:

English teachers come in Good, Bad, and Indifferent, but too frequently in high schools anyone who can speak English is allowed to teach it. Ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning. In other ages the attention of children was held by Homer and Virgil, among others, but, by the reverse evolutionary process, that is no longer possible; our children are too stupid now to enter the past imaginatively. (“On the Teaching of Literature,” Mystery and Manners)

Some of my kids would protest her harsh characterization of them here. I think they would mention Harry Potter and The Hunger Games in an effort to refute her– a response which, unfortunately, speaks for itself. For as much as I enjoy Harry, and as much as I appreciate the fleeting moments of true greatness in Rowling’s enterprise, I know that Harry and Katniss and these others cater to my students–not the other way around. If my students do read on their own, I am happy, but I am not satisfied. They usually read the kind of book that bends over backwards to please and entice them–and judging by the Reading Autobiographies I had them write recently, they actually believe that literature ought to do this. As if a story owed you something. When really you owe the story something – your attentiveness.

If you prefer a “tame” frog that hops around after you and abhors nasty places like swamps, well, you don’t really like frogs at all, but toy frogs.

If you prefer capturing real frogs yourself and cutting them up so you can “understand” them, you understand only a very little about the frog. You possess the frog, so you can figure out what it possessed while it was alive– but not much else.

Or, you could go out to the swamp and wait and see if you can catch a glimpse of a real live frog doing real live froggy things. You may see one, and you may not– but either way you’ll understand the frog far better. And maybe yourself as well.