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ASK THE TEACHER

Humorous writing has its place in school

By Ron Fletcher
November 23, 2008
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Q. As a senior in high school who reads for pleasure, I find that many of the books assigned by teachers and the way they teach them take the joy out of reading. We're presented with characters and authors of questionable relevance in works that seem dated and deliberately difficult. So what are teachers thinking? Why don't teachers integrate books from more contemporary and interesting authors in the genres of memoir or pop culture analysis? Why not add a little David Sedaris as a break from picking apart the writings of Sophocles, Chaucer, or Melville?

J.P.
Milton

A. You've pinpointed an unfortunate irony that haunts many English teachers: unwittingly dampening the sort of joy they hope to demonstrate and deepen. It's difficult to imagine any literary works created for the purpose of classroom analysis. Yet when they arrive there, they're often dismantled for the sake of illustrating a series of literary terms and devices or reduced to a mere mirror of the culture, time, and place in which they were created. All the king's men cannot restore "All the King's Men" to its sublime whole after it has been ground through the gears of a typical classroom critique. Though that sort of work has value and lends itself to tidy lessons, it should take place after a consideration of the pleasures of the page. What's the value of marking assonance or alliteration in the margin absent the aural thrill of hearing James Joyce describe his protagonist's thinking as "a dusk of doubt and selfmistrust lit up at moments by the lightnings of intuition?" As teachers, we have to risk a bit of foolishness in demonstrating our excitement about diction, metaphor, or the perfectly placed comma. We're obligated to model the sort of joy we hope to inspire in our students. The disassembly-line approach to literature can prove deadening.

I agree that some light, humorous writing has its (limited) place on any high school syllabus. It's instructive for an English teacher to hear students make the case for Sedaris's humor and ironies, particularly when the gallows humor of Kafka or the bawdiness of Chaucer often requires a self-defeating amount of work to notice.

I'm guessing that many teachers see a brief and finite chance to make a case for serious literature, thus are reluctant to forfeit valuable time to writings that don't require scrutiny, labor, or their instruction. More, some of us feel threatened by the ubiquity of digital media and attempt to plug the dam with dog-eared copies of "Mrs. Dalloway." We need to accept that today's students often prefer screens to pages, surfing to perusing. We should try to meet them on their home turf and point out the limitations and lacunae of blogs, Wikipedia, or MonkeyNotes. Then take on a John Donne sonnet and explain how mastering its challenges leads to the sort of acuity that can help one knowingly navigate not only the Web, but moments much less virtual and remote.

English teachers should be in the habit of allowing students some time to read books or magazines they choose for themselves. Rather than pooh-poohing the student who picks up "Sports Illustrated," use that moment to recommend Roger Angell's writing on baseball or David Foster Wallace's essays on tennis.

With recent reports from the National Endowment for the Arts indicating that fewer than half of US adults will read fiction, poems, or plays after high school, teachers have to envision the fallout of that dystopian scene, meet students halfway, and get as creative as the writers they laud.

The bell tolls for teacher
The need to trim budgets in this unkind economy means the bell now tolls for me. So, after four years, the duration of high school, I need to say farewell. And thank you. Your questions, attention, and challenges have enriched my teaching. I hope my responses provided some sense, humor, and perspective for all of us caught up in the high school years. Aware that my view is one view, the audacity of the definite article in this column's title troubled me from the start. Well, "the" teacher is "a" teacher again, optimistic about the walking advertisement for education that is our president-elect and eager to complete The Great Hockey Novel.

Ron Fletcher teaches English at Boston College High. You can reach him at rfletcher@bchigh.edu or chat online with him Monday at noon at www.boston.com.

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