What is literature? Why do we teach literature? How do we teach literature?

I propose to share some of my reflections on these questions through this posting. I have been teaching English for a long time in the non-native context, India. So my experience is limited to my context. Readers are welcome to share their experiences. 

In India, we have been teaching English for a long time, more than 250 years!  Until recently,however, teaching English was understood as teaching English Literature. Beginning with Shakespeare and Milton, we would move on to the Romantic poets and then to the Victorian and Modern. The focus could be either on the historical development or on the literary forms. The texts selected for study would be mainly British. In short, we studied 'English Literature', not 'Literature in English'. Teaching was through scholarly discourses. Eminent teachers of the time were recognised as 'Shakespeare scholars' , 'Eighteenth Century Specialists', etc. Quite a few of these teachers could recite from memory long poems, soliloquies of famous characters from Shakespearean plays. The lectures at times used to have a hypnotising effect on students.

What is happening now? We no longer have those kinds of scholars, who can give discourses in the same way. I don't mean that we no longer have scholars. We have them in large numbers, but the kind of hypnotising effect that the scholars used to exercise in those days is no longer there. Literature is being taught and is being studied, but it needs a re-appraisal.

I shall begin with a distinction between 'Reading' and 'Studying' Literature. (I remember to have read this somewhere.) Is it possible to 'study' a literary text without 'reading' it? But what is happening today? How many of our students read the original works? And how many of our teachers do that? If literature is not being read in the sense it should be, how about studying it? Is not reading a primary activity, without which we can not hope to study?

It is said that there can be two kinds of readers: 'CASUAL' and 'SERIOUS'. A casual reader has been defined as one who wants a book to read. A serious reader is one who wants to read a book. Look at the subtle distinction a little carefully. A casual reader is happy with just any book, because he wants to kill his time, waiting at the airport or at the doctor's clinic. A serious reader is a little choosy about books. He wants a particular book to read. He reads for different reasons: psychological, philosophical or aesthetic reasons.  

Unless you are a good reader you can not hope to become a good student of literature. You need to be a serious reader first. A student of literature has to basically deal with three kinds of questions: What has the writer said? How has he said it? And why has he said it? We shall discuss these questions in the next posting. In the meanwhile, you can start thinking in your own way. In fact, that is the whole purpose of this. Right? 

 

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