The Illusive Sphere of the English Class

Marina Gallo's picture

I have always had a great passion for literature, progressing throughout my life from my childhood when I was captivated by picture books to my more matured love of reading that persists to this day. When I came to college and found myself faced with choosing a major, mylifelong love of books provided me with the obvious answer of an English major.  Unfortunately I found out too late that the major was not what I thought it would be.  I had imagined myself sprawled for daysat a time amidst heaps of novels, which, upon having read, I would dissect and debate in classes filled with my peer English majors.  I had pictured myself in classes filled with riveting debates and interesting arguments regarding the many novels our classes would explore.  This fantasized major was far from the reality with which I am now facing.  Although the major does involve a great deal of reading and relevant discussion within classes, there is another component of the major that is based in intensive critical literary analysis and theory.  I was shocked to find out that my dream major was far from what I had imagined, including different facets of literature and its structure than I had anticipated or found any interest in. 

Now I find myself in limbo.  I declared a major that I believed to be one thing, only to have it restructured with an emphasis placed upon literary aspects that do not interest me, leaving me in a major that I did not intentionally chose, and moreover one which I do not particularly enjoy.  Yet despite my ability to evaluate this new major, and to be able to know that it is not amajor in which I will find fulfillment or stimulation, there is nothing that can be done about the circumstance in which I find myself.  I will return to school in the fall for my senior year at Bryn Mawr College, and so, in regards to time alone, I don’t have the ability to change to a new major.  Infuriated by my lack of control over my situation which has placed me into an academic limbo, I have decided to look into the progression of the English major in hopes of some better understanding of the topics I have been forced into studying.  I will not only describe this change of focus within in the English major from it’s past to present, but will furthermore try to better explain how I believe the major should be structured in terms of the best possible results for its students.

There is a majors plit among the English professors at Bryn Mawr College, some clinging to the old teaching methods, while others pioneer new ways of teaching.  The old method involves reading texts and discussing or writing about them. The readings are usually considered classic texts that “should” be read by any English major.  Moreover the two formats of teaching differ as the professors of the old style of teaching discuss little to no theory, as opposed to the theory-infused teaching of the new style of English study. Personally I have thoroughly enjoyed my classes with the professors who teach using older methods, examining the texts themselves more than the theories associated with them.  Although I had several occasions in which I reread of some of the “classic” texts, I found that rather than being redundant to read time and time again, the texts themselves actually proved to be stimulating to read each time. I look back at how much discussion originated from one text over several readings, without taking any related theories into account, and find my support of the older teaching style to be further maintained.   I would rather read a piece time after time in order to fully comprehend it’s contents, leading to new discussions with each reading about the text itself, than to read a text with little understanding of its context but with focus on the fundamental theories it engages.  Ultimately I see this distinction as one between English teaching in which students and teachers examine and analyze important texts themselves, and the other teaching style that applies someone else’s theory to the texts.  

A number of the courses I have taken with Professor Briggs fall into the older category of teaching for the English major.  I took his course concerning eighteenth century classic poetry, which covered quite advanced poetry, some of which was even in olde English, making the literal reading of the poems a challenge. Professor Briggs carefully reviewed and dissected each poem with the class in order to alleviate confusion regarding the complexities of the language and more broadly the poems. This in-depth examination of the poems was the only way in which I could begin to understand the basic meanings of the poem, not to mention the connotations that our class was able to find over time.  Another course I took with professor Briggs was my College Seminar class. This class was focused on environmental issues, which are of particular personal interest to me, and utilized texts that were concise and comprehensive.  The readings were far more comprehensible than the longwinded literature laced with pretentious language that is often assigned within the English department. Since the contents of the readings were accessible without having to reference the dictionary for every third word, there was more motivation to complete all of the assigned readings, and subsequently a broader comprehension of the different issues and arguments. Each assigned text seemed to convey issues and arguments of great intellect, whose concise explanations were structured with uncluttered language, producing clear arguments which consequently helped maintain anenjoyable reading atmosphere.  In my opinion this type of writing seems ideal being that it has the ability to sustain a reader’s attention throughout an entire text, all the while providing valuable views and arguments.  Both of these classes focused their energy on the dissection and assessment of their texts, which despite their diverse formats of literature, both found similarly extensive comprehension through careful and wide-ranging analysis of the text itself. 

I find that some of the professors teaching under the new method of the English major tend to believe that theory is the only way to convey information (about the readings and their authors) to the students. I firmly disagree with any school of thought that bases all of its teaching methods on fundamental theories, since it neglects to directly examine the text, and moreover eliminates the potential for its readers to developtheir own theories for the given case. If one were to examine a theory, it could be basically defined as a system of ideas intended to explain something based on general principles.  It is often forgotten that theories are manmade and thus can (and most likely will) be flawed.  Theories are essentially an opinion supported by some chosen defenses and arguments, so it seems to me that creating theories within the classroom leads to a better understanding of the literature and its framework.  Not only will the process of creating theories be educational, but also the students will be able to use the social structure of their peers and professors in order to produce a theory.  It seems to me that if there is going to be a huge focus upon theory in regards to the English classes, then those theories should to be created within class through discussion and disputation of the topic at hand, rather than basing huge amounts of the class structure on obscure theories created on a single person’s value system, at some random place and time.  A theory created within a class would instead come from a familiar and collective source, providing the essential explanation and justification of the theory.

Confusion is a significant problem in English courses. If a student does not have a professor who is willing to go over the works read in class, the course can be incredibly difficult.  This is a dilemma in the English major at Bryn Mawr College because, recently, professors have included theoretical readings in addition to main texts, further complicating an already confusing set of readings.  Theoretical readings and criticisms pose problems because they are often trickier to understand than the main readings, both linguistically and in terms of content.  These complexities often require the professor’s assistance in order to comprehend the reading at the expected level, and thus the problem becomes clear.  The professors usually expect the students to already understand the reading, including not only its different arguments or principles but also the basic theories on which it is based, before the students meet for class. Rather than explain the theory, I have found that professors, usually go on to have a discussion about the theory with the fewpeople in the class who do understand it, while simply neglecting theirresponsibility to teach those students who need further help. Professors don’t necessarily understand their student’s lack of participation in a discussion,and will frequently write this student off as unmotivated or lazy, when in fact most of these students are simply confused and too embarrassed to ask for help in front of their peers.  If a professor taught from the assumption that there is little to no understanding of each theory, then they would be teaching each theory in detail, which would greatly alleviate this problem.  A relevant example of this took place in my English 250 course in which Professor Tratner gave the class a summary of every theory we had discussed.  It didn’t seem to make any of the students feel dumb or looked down upon, yet provided aid to those students who might have otherwise never learned the theory for fear of public humiliation.

Theory creates a change in the way in which I understand the texts. Though I have had to trudge though complex texts I didn’t particularly want to read, my love of reading always persevered and helped me get through them. When theory was hurled into the mix, I was totally thrown off of my game, and a lack of understanding began. For the first time in my life the enjoyment I had gotten from reading disappeared.  No matter how much I loved reading, I couldn’t seem to plod through the theoretical writings with any glimmer of pleasure whatsoever. Theories seem to transform comprehensive ideas into structured concepts and transform my understanding of the readings into complete confusion, leaving me to gain any pleasure from the readings and in a state of puzzlement.

Bryn Mawr College’s English department website describes its major as, “a program of study that expands their knowledge of diverse genres, literary traditions, and periods. Our students engage in a rich variety of forms and media, ranging from medieval manuscripts up through modern forms such as film and contemporary digital media. We encourage an exploration the history of cultural production and critical reception and also to examine the presuppositions of literary study.” That description seems exciting and engaging, until the sentence that says, “The department stresses […] the integration of imaginative, critical,and theoretical approaches.” Despite my efforts to the contrary, theory is not my strongpoint, and I have come to wonder if it is not Bryn Mawr College’s strong point either.  I contemplate this possibility because of the weakness of explanations presented by our English professors themselves.  More likely the truth of this seeming weakness, is the professor’s misguided belief that everyone already comprehends the theory, thus eradicating any reason to discuss thetheory in detail.  Famous theorists including Derrida, Foucault, Bhabha, and Hegel, among others are often thrown my way, habitually creating more confusion within my life.  One particularly confusing theorist is Bhabha, whose theory about the “third space of enunciation,” refers to something that is supposed to be, “ a space that was neither inside nor outside the dominant social and political order […] The space does not exist yet […] It is attempting to write words which while not making sense now will make sense someday.”  Where I find fundamental theories perplexing, theories of this magnitude of complexity are beyond comprehension without guidance. Guidance in the understanding of theory is vital for proper developmental understanding of the ideas with which the theories are utilized.

The newly modified English major seems to lean more towards readings of theory and critical analysis than ever before.  This illustrates a change in the structure of the English major.  I love reading and I crave the opportunity to learn how to be a better writer.  This love and yearning gave me the sensible impression that I could and would want to be an English major. Surely I am not the only student to still choose my major based on interests, as used to be what major choices were based upon.  Some students base their choice of major upon their specific strengths, for example a strong writer may declare a major in English. Despite the different levels of writing abilities that exist within the major, I don’t think students have the capacity to enter college being great writers, but instead they learn how to be great writers. This requires every teacher to try to improve his or her student’s writing. Whether that means having meetings with the student about papers or just incorporating a writing element into the classes, the involvement between the individual and the professors controlling the major would be helpful in the progression of strengthening each individual’s writing.

At Bryn Mawr College, as with many other colleges, students feel that their professor’s expectations for their work is dangerously obscure and undefined. The writing styles are not the same for every professor, thus students must spend valuable time trying to figure out what style of writing each particular professor likes instead of just sticking with a style, which could be used in every case allowing for a progression in writing, and having it be accepted by every professor.  If one universal style was used then the student could work on perfecting her writing rather than constantly trying a new style and never having the time to refine the one previously used. I think professors need to come together under each category of learning and decide what style of writing would be appropriate. Specifically within my English courses I have had to write in at least three different manners, once again showing this spectrum of writing as a limiting facet of development as a writer. I realize that the writing for English will differ from the writing for History, Psychology, or any other field for that matter,but at least once a major is chosen, a decided style should be as well. This style of writing structured within each category of curriculum respectively potentially allows each major to have its own structure for writing, with which the ambiguity of writing structures may begin to be eradicated, and replaced with structure.

A decided style could be argued against because professors want their students to be able to write using many different methods. While that would be harder for the students, it is understandable. To solve this dilemma I propose that there be a specific style for each type of writing. For example, if we need to write a critical analysis paper we should all be required to do it the same way. This method will eliminate confusion for both teachers and students. By laying out precise guidelines for each different style of paper professors would like from the students, they are eliminating the guess work and allowing the students to focus on more important details ofthe course. One problem that a lot of my peers face is that by the time we figure out what style paper the teacher wants, the course is almost over and our grades have suffered from our guess work.

If I were to redesign Bryn Mawr College’s English department, I would overhaul it.  As I have stressed throughout this paper, I don’t feel that the faculty is particularly cohesive.  As lack of unity creates problems with learning. Students become confused as to what to expect in the courses and how to handle them specific to each teacher. If the faculty worked together to form a mission in terms of how the students could best learn the subjects being presented, Bryn Mawr College would be an even better place to get an education.  A unified set of expectations needs to be established both for the teachers and the students.The teachers could know what to expect and thus set an even grading scale across the board for all papers. Having a more even grading scale would eliminate one professor being favored either because of the level of difficulty upon which grades are given, in turn allowing students to choose their classes not upon easy grading, but rather upon the topics in which they find their interest. This may seem unfair to the professor, but grades determine a lot in life, especially if the student is on scholarship or trying to get into graduate school. 

Similarly requirements can often be annoying, yet I feel as if some are beneficial to the students.  One particular requirement that I found to be especially helpful was the freshman-writing course, C-sem. The “purpose of the writing class is to homogenize; however, students who were schooled in private institutions need to change little to conform to university standards. Those who had less than exemplar secondary writing education have much more to learn.”  This seems like an accurate description in the way that the class is used as a means to teach the freshman students college-styles of writing.  I found my freshman writing class to be very useful, however short lived, and believe that it would have helped me if I had to take a writing class all four years.This would probably be vastly useful for English majors because that specific major seems to do the most writing. Peer review could also be implemented to supplement when the professor is unavailable to help the students. Peer review, “undoubtedly a proven tool to improve writing, as Lois Rubin points out: 'Many believe that when students collaborate, as they do in peer critiquing, they are more actively involved in their learning. Since people are social beings and writing has a social function, sharing writing expresses its social nature and gives students a sense of audience. Further, since peers are the most significant others' in the lives of young adults, peer critiques motivate students to improve their papers.'" Stronger writers can most assuredly lend their knowledge to weaker writers whereas weaker writers have to work harder to provide imaginative details, while gaining writing skills. 

Another aid of improving skills is one-on-one help. The professors need to put more time into helping each student improve personal writing or reading difficulties.  A mandatory weekly meeting to discuss writing the student has done is one way to help the student learn more efficiently. If weekly meetings are too much, the students can go to the writing center located in one of the libraries on campus.

I think the writing center directly correlates with the English major or minor, therefore it should be required as a tool in writing papers. No one is too good to have help on his or her paper and even if the student is a wonderful writer there is always room for fresh ideas. This center should act as another place for peer reviews in addition to the classroom. The website about the writing center says, “We can help you understand your assignment, generate ideas, support your argument, organize your essay, polish your writing style, and improve you grammar,” all of which seem very helpful in theory and the center appears to want to facilitate better writing. Only open Monday through Thursday, as well as and on Sunday, the center should be open more days and later at nights in order to accommodate the students differing writing schedules.

The last change I would like to make is regarding the library specifically in terms of the tutorial the librarians give. I have been in two classes in which a librarian came in to the class to teach the students how to use the library resources, through the website. I found it very helpful, especially when it came time for me to do research for papers. Not every professor has a librarian come in and not doing so is in my opinion a mistake. Nearly every professor wants his or her students to be able to find and use good resources, so this would be a perfect way to help the students ontheir path to great writing. An even more ideal situation would be if the librarian would come for one class during everyone’s freshman C-sem course. That way every student will have had the lecture at least once early in her career as a Bryn Mawr student.

The Bryn Mawr College education is obviously a valuable one. It has been voted one of America’s best colleges according to USAnews.com and other notable sources. I think Bryn Mawr College needs to continue the tradition of turning out bright minded individuals by improving their educational tactics. There is no way to stay on top unless we keep up with the latest teaching techniques. The only way to do that is by constantly trying to improve our school and the way our professors teach.  My scheme for improving Bryn Mawr’s English department appears to me to be a way to help keep Bryn Mawr College on those lists as well as a way to help students like me.

 

 Works Cited

 

 

"Bryn Mawr English Department."Bryn Mawr College. Bryn Mawr College. 12 May

 2008 <www.brynmawr.edu>.

 

Regan, Rob. "ChangingStudents, Changing Methods." New Comm Ave Literary Journal.

 2006. 10 May 2008<http://newcommave.com/regan1>.

 

Tratner, Michael. English 250Theory Course Map. Bryn Mawr College. Michael

 Tratner, 2008. 1-2.

 

 

Comments

Anne Dalke's picture

Bridging the gap?

Marina--

You begin this essay by describing your fury @ the lack of control you have over what happens in your English courses, and the frustration you've experienced @ being forced to study the sort of theoretical texts that you find so difficult and unrewarding. You end it by saying that the department needs to do a better job keeping up with the "latest teaching techniques."

But the techniques you've advocated throughout are, by your own admission, far more classical than they are contemporary: they are focused on traditional texts and based on traditional teaching methods (what Paulo Freire calls "banking," with knowledgeable professors depositing information in students who lack it); they employ formulaic styles and universal scripts for expectation. These ideas are very different than the sort of individualized/non-generalizable work that progressive education advocates.

You've identified a real, and troubling, gap here between what you want and what this department is offering; our own discussions (which are frequent; and we do feel that we share a mission) are increasingly focused on making our classes more meta-theoretical, making our students more self-consciously aware of what it means to theorize; but you are asking for us to do less of this.

How to bridge the gap? I'll share your essay with other members of the department, and let's see if we can work on this collaboratively....

Anne

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