Will There Be No More Literature Classes?

Here’s an interesting article about how and why we are seeing the demise of literature classes in our colleges.

In fact, my guess is that in a few more years there will hardly be literature around as a field of study.

The reasons for this are profound and worthy of a lot of exploration which I will be doing more of in this blog.

The Last Professor – Stanley Fish Blog – NYTimes.com

healthy humanities departments populated by tenure-track professors who discuss books with adoring students in a cloistered setting – have largely vanished. Except in a few private wealthy universities (functioning almost as museums), the splendid and supported irrelevance of humanist inquiry for its own sake is already a thing of the past

This is a subject that interests me a lot. This theme will be a big big part of The Reading Transformation Project.

At Santa Monica college where I work, the size and number of our Literature classes has fallen over the years while the developmental English classes (Reading Writing) where I work has continued to grow.

In developmental English classes there is a focus on skills over content. This lends itself to a factory model of education also called Taylorism.

Frederick Winslow Taylor, you may recall, was “the father of scientific management. Born in 1856, he pioneered the study of industrial efficiency, measuring (say) the movements of workers as they shoveled gravel, with the intention of shaving a half-second off each shovelful and thereby increasing productivity. Twentieth-century industrial bureaucracy—not to mention twentieth-century technowar—was Taylorism made real, with human beings functioning as machine-parts in an ideal factory universe.”

If you see a Reading textbook like the one that I am using this semester in my reading classes (Ten Steps to Improving College Reading Skills by John Langan)…you will see Taylorism at its best.

The book is neatly divided into digestable sections. There are pretests, review tests, and mastery tests. There are tests online. Answers are at the end of the book so students do not have to rely on the teacher in order to learn the skills.

Perfect textbook right? It’s even affordable (only $32 new).

The problem? There is no meaningful literature in John Langan. No mention of the rich literary heritage that has shaped the western mind. No Homer, Shakespeare, no poetry, not even any modern literature like Toni Morrison or Jack Kerouac. It is the factory model of education at its best. In other words, all skills and no content.

I wish that I had an answer to all of this and some direction for you but I don’t.

I’m caught up in the matrix of thought that characterizes the modern university/college just like anyone else.

It simply seems easier to just shut down my mind…give the students some WORK to do out of the textbook…then get out of the way.

This is what they’ve been trained to do coming out of the K-12. And isn’t this what I’m training them to do for the workplace anyway?

Or is there a meaningful alternative? Your thoughts?

Gary Dawson Smith


3 Responses to “Will There Be No More Literature Classes?”

  1. RJO Says:

    I’ve seen a lot of school reading and speaking texts from the early 1800s and they all are full of “good literature” in the usual sense. (Perhaps some of them need to be reissued!) Just recently I read something about Frederick Douglass having been inspired as a boy when he found a copy of “The Columbian Orator” — he studied it and practiced with it on his own, to develop his speaking skills. Google Books helpfully makes it available to us also:


  2. Gary Dawson Smith Says:

    Thank you for the interesting comment. I love your blog at the collegiateway. As you can see I’m inspired by the directions of your work.

    I totally agree. The way we used to educated students was through literature with a focus on some enduring themes that had universal appeal: fate, destiny, courage, hope, and justice. The very themes that are all over Plato and the great “Orations” throughout history.

    Now it would nice to introduce and then watch students devour this literature with the same zeal that Frederick Douglas did. Thank you for that link. I speak highly of Frederick Douglas in my classes.

    But we have a whole generation of students that discount the very value of reading especially literature of “old” that does not relate to them. I don’t say this in a demeaning way…I think that this is reflective of some larger cultural movements going on with the influx of engaging technologies competing for their attention.

    I look forward to reading through this Orator and thinking more of ways to get more literature into the lives of our students.

    Gary Dawson Smith

  3. Kevin Menton Says:

    Interesting post, Gary.

    Should English classes necessarily include “literature”? Are English Departments “literature” departments? Or are we really “writing” departments? Or a hybrid of the two? In other words, what is the PURPOSE of an English Department in the 21st Century?

    If we focus on literary interpretation–which I do think is a valid and fruitful activity–are we leaving students with the types of writing skills that will be most useful when the vast majority of them move on to other disciplines? I was speaking with a colleague from another department recently. I asked if essays were assigned in the class. The answer I received was “no.” Instead students are asked to do ethnographies, focusing on observation, summary, and analysis. Would it make sense to focus on skill sets that were “universal” and adaptable to a variety of disciplines/genres?

    The question becomes more complicated when we examine this question in the context of changing technologies/paradigms. I’ve been reading Pink’s A Whole New Mind (on the recommendation of both another colleague and yourself). In Chapter One, he examines the differences between the left and the right brain. Then, he points out that “reading and writing…exercise the brain’s left hemisphere” (18). As we move into technologies that merge words with image and design in new ways (e.g. web pages), if we accept Pink’s ideas, then simply focusing on literacy as reading and writing words is inadequate.

    Apparently the NCTE has considered this when drafting their latest definition of literacy: http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/21stcentdefinition

    At any rate, I think every writing class should be focused on IDEAS. But in what form? “Great” literature? I want to provide students with models to instruct and inspire them, models that they might imitate. I certainly think exposing students to great ideas is important. Then again, if the ideas are not accessible or compelling, then these ideas are not helpful. Interestingly, I think you were suggesting recently that Orwell’s 1984 wasn’t a compelling title whereas I was defending it. But when I look at the texts I’ve assigned to students recently, they are drawn from contemporary subjects and don’t delve into the “classics.” Perhaps, there is a way to synthesize classic literature with contemporary texts so that students can benefit from both?

    End lecture now.

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