Ramblings, 08.10.15: Reading and teaching

Thomas More's Utopia (1516)

Thomas More's Utopia (1516)

In real life, while working on my PhD thesis I am also training to teach at the university level. It's still quite a strange, daunting prospect - teaching, and in higher education to boot. But I've been thinking a lot lately about how to teach literature, how to foster engagement with a text and inspire a love of reading. It's an immense task. Immense - UGH I sound like a smarmy twit. It is a big ask, though. Teaching, especially at the university level, isn't just for imparting knowledge. We're also supposed to be teaching young people how to think. 

This morning I helped with a seminar on Thomas More's Utopia, a book I hadn't read in over 4 years. When preparing for the seminar I had my undergrad copy of the book on hand, filled with my notes and markings from when I studied the text at Oxford. Unfortunately I didn't have the hard drive with my old essay on it so I couldn't go back to fully relive the experience. But it was still a useful exercise in perspective - my old notes are a great record of how I read as a student. The things I picked out as significant 4 years ago are vastly different from what I find most interesting now. And yet it was refreshing to read the book without any of the pressure that comes along with more advanced level of specialisation. 

I know one of the main challenges of teaching literature is avoiding a stifling pedagogy that suffocates any enjoyment of the text. As an academic I obviously enjoy the kinds of analysis that many students find overbearing, but in teaching I have to keep that bias in check. Seminars are wholly discussion based classes and there's nothing more exciting from a teacher's perspective than a group of students leading the conversation in their own direction.

It's so easy for me to fall into the role of a critic when reading - it's what I've been trained to do. Part of the reason I enjoy this blog so much is being able to revel in the pure enjoyment of a book and being able to share my love of books with other readers without any expectation to engage in the intellectual side of things. I'm now discovering that teaching can offer a similar kind of experience. I want to be the kind of teacher/professor who can foster a vibrant conversation about a book while also planting seeds for more rigorous intellectual thought. Today's seminar group found quite a few things to laugh about throughout our discussion, which is always a good sign that the students are enjoying the literature. 

Maybe I'm a bit of a sap. Ok I'm a HUGE sap. I just want to be Mr Keating from Dead Poet's Society!

Have you had any great English Literature teachers?