What Students Expect To Learn About Books

Photo provided by Tanner Pruitt

There is a standard pedagogy from which teachers seldom deviate when it comes to teaching students about novels. Whether it is The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness, or The Hunger Games, there are elements of stories that English teachers everywhere are positively expected to ingrain in their students. Themes, character development, symbolism, and historical context are all de rigueur, and with good reason. The experience of reading any book is enriched by a thorough understanding of it, and English teachers are paid to make sure that their students extract meaning, not just words, from novels.   They know this, and teach accordingly. Rarely, if ever, are students asked what they expect to learn from these novels. A question, I think, worthy of an answer.

Students know when teachers assign them a book, it is not for pleasurable perusal. They correctly infer that their teacher has a greater purpose in the book’s assignment. Students already know what the teacher is going to teach them about the book, and it’s likely that this is why they often respond so negatively to assigned literature. They know, too, that they are more than likely going to be taught the standard gamut of information after they spend half of a class period talking about superficial details that are given away in plain text. In the modern push toward engaging students in active learning, it’s frankly quite shocking that students are still taught in a manner so primitively routine.

According to Ernest Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” of writing, a writer should only include those details that readers cannot be presumed to know. Thus, only the tip of the iceberg must be made explicit, and time can be saved by not reminding the reader that the sky is, as he or she is hopefully aware, blue. Shouldn’t it follow that novels ought to be taught in the same fashion?  For every minute of instructional time that is spent reviewing a novel’s plot or the action thereof, there is a plethora of facts surrounding any worthy novel that justify it being taught. Students can read, and this fact alone substantiates the assumption that they can decipher the bulk of what is written in a novel. When students expect to be taught what they can easily learn for themselves, they quickly lose motivation to actually read their books.

Perhaps their inclination to read the literature given them would increase if students were taught why a particular book was chosen. This is probably the single biggest missed opportunity that I’ve seen in English classrooms over the past 12 years. Don’t get me wrong about this; I’m not talking about the social commentary of Huckleberry Finn or Animal Farm, or even the cultural clout of classics like Romeo and Juliet or The Great Gatsby. What students want to know are the reasons why they are taught other books, those without such obvious claims to fame. They will certainly be more apt to read if they feel that they are doing so for a purpose that extends beyond the use of a book as a tool for teaching literary devices. Students hope in earnest that they will be taught the je ne sais quoi that makes books like Catcher in the Rye, A Farewell to Arms, Beloved, and miscellaneous minor titles worthy of class time.

It might be best to view negatively that students have expectations about what they are going to be taught with each novel that they are assigned, and it’s worse that their expectations are often accurate predictions. The prescience a student has who knows he can learn all he needs to know about a book by sitting in class listening to his teacher’s recapitulation of the story is a telling symptom of what is wrong with the way books are taught in schools today. The excitement, necessity, and  much of the value of reading the literature become lost once it is turned into a mere instrument for teaching literary devices and techniques. On top of that, a novel is stripped of its all-important relevance to students when the teacher can’t or doesn’t explain why it’s  being taught. Until students’ reasonable expectations about the pedagogy in English class match their hopes for what they might learn about literature, I contend that a problem exists in English class’ predictability.

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