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Monday, November 28, 2005
Warning: The subject of this post is probably not quite what its title promises.
I've been thinking about this subject off and on ever since Dr. Virago's great post on teaching religious texts in the literature classroom, but I've been thinking about it even more since getting this most recent batch of papers from my survey students.
The question is: how do you get students to understand that writers from different periods sometimes have values that are, uh, different from ours? Even if those writers can otherwise often seem fairly modern in their sensibilities?
One paper, in particular, nearly sent me over the edge. It was ostensibly about the role of women in Canonical Work (although in point of fact it wound up being more about sex and sexuality). Now, there's definitely some freaky stuff in there, and the author's treatment of sex is occasionally bizarre or uncomfortable-making--but that's mostly below the surface. On the surface level, there's really nothing in the work's depiction of women that would be out of place in many a Victorian novel (or, for that matter, many a 20th-century movie or pop song).
But. This kid just couldn't deal. He couldn't get past what he perceived as the work's sexual double standard--and so intent was he on proving that the work was hypocritical that he completely ignored the repeated evidence that the male characters actually do get punished for their sexual trespasses (albeit in rather different ways than the female characters). Worse yet, with each seeming inconsistency, he would write, "this doesn't make sense," or "this seems unfair," or, worst of all, "this doesn't make sense to a modern reader."
Finally, I wrote on his paper, "THIS WASN'T WRITTEN FOR THE MODERN READER!"
It's the more frustrating, because there are really interesting things to say about the work's treatment of sexuality--but in order to say them, my student would first have had to think for a moment about why the author depicted men and women the way he did: what values that depiction illustrated and what kind of message he might have been trying to send to his readers. And. . . he just couldn't do that.
Really, it's cultural insensitivity on a par with going to a foreign country and saying, "Eww! Why do people EAT this stuff? That's just stupid!" Or, "What a dumb kind of toilet! Why don't they get with the program and join the 21st century?"
The question then is: how does one forestall this kind of reaction? In the classroom--as I wrote in response to Dr. V's post--I try to emphasize both the foreign-ness of a given work or period and its modern relevance, and I like to think that I often succeed. (After we've read a fairly steamy poem aloud and worked through it, I'll ask, "does it surprise you to learn that this was written by a clergyman? Why?" And then after we hash that out, "is there any way that this could be seen as a deeply Christian poem?")
I really do think that the authors I work on are pretty wacky, and I love their wackiness and the quirks of their particular belief systems; encountering an unexpected way of looking at God, or sex, or civil government in the works of several centuries ago is a large part of the fun of what I do. And I want my students to find these things surprising and new, too. They may certainly challenge and criticize the works we read--that's my business too, after all!--but when they challenge them, I want it to be from a position of comprehension, not automatic and presumed superiority.
I wonder, though, whether this is something that I have to state explicitly to my students, in my syllabi or on the first day of class--or whether it's only a spiel (or harrangue) to be kept in reserve to deliver as occasion warrants.
link | posted by La Lecturess at 9:16 PM |
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