Friday, February 05, 2010

We can change the story!

This morning, preparing breakfast for my four children, I listened in on the PBS Kids program they were watching. Super Why! retells fairy tells and other familiar children’s stories by inserting four characters called Super Readers into them. The Super Readers encounter a narrative problem they must solve. They go about finding letters which spell out a magic word. Then they apply it to the problem. Whyatt announces, “With the power of reading we can change the story!” And by this means the Super Readers solve the problem.

Just what exactly is this supposed to teach children? That sad stories can be brightened up by changing their endings? That Oedipus can escape his fate by magically transforming Jocasta into an ingénue? That Wilson’s shot misses Gatsby, and he runs off with Daisy, who isn’t really such a bitch after all? That Bigger Thomas’s range of choices is not limited to taking a job that demeans him or going hungry, despite what Richard Wright actually says?

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for encouraging children to read. And I guess pretending that reading is a super adventure isn’t the worst of all possible approaches. But speaking sheerly as an English professor, the last thing I need is more students showing up in my classes with the attitude that Nabokov once encountered at Cornell: “Student explains that when reading a novel he likes to skip passages ‘so as to get his own idea about the book and not be influenced by the author.’ ”

What is more likely to contribute to their self-esteem, though, than the message that children can change any story to suit their childish and transitory wants? God forbid we might teach them to submit to the story.


Amy said...

I had the same thought watching that show with my daughter this week. Doesn't she need to know that authorial intention matters? Don't worry, I teach her.

Amy, TAMU '03

D. G. Myers said...

Authorial intention?! My god, there is no possible way you could have graduated from A&M—unless you avoided all English classes.

R/T said...

Related to what you are talking about here, consider these typical comments from students in response to reading assignments in introductory literature courses: (1) "I don't get it." (2) "I didn't like it." (3) "I would have rather had a root canal than read another chapter."

When students offer those kinds of comments in classroom discussions, I suspect the students' mindsets are somewhat related to the problem you are highlighting: an unwillingness (or an inability) to submit to the text.

Tell me, if you would, how do you handle the student who uses either the first or second response? (As for the third response, there really is no rejoinder possible. That student won the day in the classroom.)

D. G. Myers said...

(1.) “I don’t either—not fully. Let’s work through it together to see if we can figure it out.”

(2.) “What didn’t you like? Let’s examine that in detail—to see whether the fault is the author’s, or yours.”

Amy said...

Ha. Not only did I graduate from A&M, I was named the top graduating English major in 2003; I won the English essay award, third place in the poetry contest, and the prize for best writing in the honors research fellows program. Berthold and Matthews would remember me as Amy Lepine.

I do know how to quote Foucault and Barthes, and I like to; but that doesn't mean I always agree.

I was in your 20th century lit class the semester of Bel Canto, The Corrections, Empire Falls, etc. We spent a whole class period once dissecting the cover and endorsements of a book. I thought, "What is this guy's deal?"

scott g.f.bailey said...

It's more of the rampant consumer culture poisoning everything it touches. We must please the buyer above all else. We must divert and amuse, but we may never challenge or bemuse. After all, they're laying down good money for entertainment, damn it. The sense of entitlement people have these days annoys endlessly.

D. G. Myers said...

Ah! You were in my course on contemporary literature in which I examine the previous year’s award-winning fiction from the English-speaking world. Here is the complete reading list from that semester:

Jonathan Franzen. The Corrections. 592 pages. Picador, 2001. (National Book Award.)
Yehoshua Kenaz. Returning Lost Loves. Trans. Dalya Bilu. 250 pages. Steerforth Press, 2001. (Koret Jewish Book Award.)
Yann Martel. Life of Pi. 336 pages. Harcourt, 2001. (Booker Prize.)
Achy Obejas. Days of Awe. 400 pages. Ballantine Books, 2001. (Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction.)
Ann Patchett. Bel Canto. 336 pages. Harper Perennial, 2001. (Orange Prize, PEN/-Faulkner Award.)
Richard Russo. Empire Falls. 483 pages. Vintage, 2001. (Pulitzer Prize.)
W. G. Sebald. Austerlitz. Trans. Anthea Bell. 304 pages. Modern Library, 2001. (National Book Critics’ Circle Award.)

Anonymous said...

Personally i think 95% of language-teaching is bad, mainly because it's theory-derived and most teachers just apply it by rote, regardless of whether it suits their temperament, or that of their students'.

Language games should be as concrete and unabstract as possible, i think (from my experience teaching English to German engineers). It would be far better to put children in a pit with a vocab book, three angry bears and a pack of wolves, and explain "when you learn to spell you will be released". They understand things like that, they can see why they should learn, you don't need to sigh and say wearily, "some people think it's just a good in itself, to be able to use language properly..." No - all you need as pedagogical aids are a pit, some bears, a pack of malcontent wolves, and the suitable course texts.

That way, when a student whines "I'd rather have root canal work than read another chapter" you can smile benignly and say, "how about another hour in The Pit?"

Eeleen Lee said...

with the Internet, PC games and other diversions, kids aren't allowed to develop an imagination these days