As is likely the case with many literature study majors, I felt a deep connection to literature from a young age. Remember reading through every Grimms’ fairy tale that I could get my hands on at age 7. From there my love for literature only grew and I consumed any text I could get my hands on from ancient myths to modern novels. As my love for literature grew throughout high school, I began to consider careers that would allow me to pursue that passion and professorship seemed like the natural path to take. After an undergrad in English I went on to work for a masters in English Literature and embark upon the next step in a lifelong dream.
And then something happened. I realized that English academia wasn’t what I expected. I hoped for a community passionately engaged in the things that literature can do for students, how it can impact lives and inspire personal revelation. I found a community dedicated to impartial analysis, approaching literature in a surgical light. While I can see a value in the work of criticism, it wasn’t what I expected or desired. And while I had never seen the film until I began graduate school, maybe I was happily disillusioned with a Dead Poet’s Society ideal.
With these things in mind, I was interested to read “The Discipline Today” in Ellie Chamber’s and Marshall Gregory’s Teaching and Learning English Literature. Without dismissing theory Chambers and Gregory champion the idea that, “an education in literature provides the supplementary knowledge – supplementary to life itself – that there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun, no human circumstance that has not been faced by someone, somewhere, and that despite the real possibility of failure and defeat in life, good luck and victory are also possible. To study literature from the perspective of existential issues makes it live for students of all ages and circumstances” (23-24). This is the passion I have for teaching, seeing students connect their personal experience to a much broader human experience and encountering a personal edification.
So, how do we reconcile a divide between personal impact and theoretical approach, between connection and critique? While Chambers and Gregory address this problem later, they cannot reach a conclusive approach, perhaps because this issue may never reach a conclusion. Is it possible for scholars to foster both an appreciation, enjoyment, and internalization of literature while applying theoretical frameworks or must the two be compartmentalized? And should students be introduced to theory, or should we focus wholly on the personal development they can gain from studying literature? All of these are questions that I continue to mediate throughout my graduate program.
Chambers, Ellie and Marshall Gregory. “The Discipline Today.” Teaching and Learning English Literature. Sage Publications, 2006. Online.