A Fledgling Teacher Reflects on His Methods

In chapter three of her book, Teaching Literature: “Methods,” Elaine Showalter posits several techniques to bring to the classroom. As a fledgling teacher, some of her suggestions resonated with what I’ve done so far, while others have me re-considering my future conduct. One of the methods that Showalter advocates is showing students models. She writes, “In assigning papers, we can xerox or make available in the library examples of outstanding student papers from the past, or even papers we have written ourselves. Proving models of good writing, and allowing time for students to discuss them, can help establish realistic goals” (55). Using models is something I’ve used in my own teaching, and it was nice to see it reinforced by a more experienced pedagogue. Giving students a strong sense of what’s expected by not just making available, but discussing a strong model can mean the difference between grasping a potentially new concept like close reading, and greeting their graded work with disappointment and confusion. She also mentioned a professor who has her students actually grade a sample paper based on given criteria. This kind of practice seems like it could students some insight into their teachers own process when looking at and evaluating their own work.

Showalter also has her students complete profiles on her course’s software, where students can present personal information and a photograph, and teachers with computer-equipped classrooms can certainly make use of this. Not only can this aid the teacher in learning more about their students (as well as matching names to faces, which some certainly find troublesome, especially with a larger group), but also to instill a better sense of proper conduct in the college classroom. I’ve heard from other teachers about students posting profile pictures with derogatory hand gestures (see “the bird”), and a student I had last semester insisted on using an unflattering picture of Bill Cosby in lieu of his own, which considering the allegations recently leveled at him, carried a very negative connotation. Making it clear to students that their profile on the course page should present an air of professionalism could definitely help them as their college and future career runs its course.

Another method that Showalter espouses is not granting students the opportunity to revise graded work, instead asking them to learn from their mistakes and apply them to their next assignment. She writes, “Although some teachers allow students to rewrite papers and resubmit them, for both practical and pedagogical reasons, I am against it… I recommend instead that TAs encourage students to set clear goals for the second paper and have them apply in that what they have learned from criticism” (59). At the behest of a professor I respect very much, I’ve allowed my students to revise their work beyond the ‘final’ grade, often giving them a window of about two weeks. What I’ve found, however, is that I often end up granting them too much leeway, operating under the assumption that a simple show of extra effort is worth more points, with the result being a paper that is perhaps graded a little too high for its quality. I’m strongly considering adopting the more realistic policy of having students take my criticism and apply it to their next paper, since it seems more reflective of real-world expectations and saves me the added work of helping them through another revision.

Discussion questions: Of the three theories that Showalter details for teaching literature, subject-, teacher-, student-centered, and eclectic, which do you think is most effective? Perhaps a synthesis of two or more? Which of these would you use to describe your own teaching, or how you intend to teach in the future?

Works Cited

Showalter, Elaine. “Methods of Teaching Literature.” Teaching Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003. 42-61. Print.



To Heck With Syllabus Day

New pencils, mark-free textbooks, and clean spiral notebooks typically mark the start of a new semester for college students. The excitement of another beginning is obviously shared throughout campus as students and teachers alike await a possibly successful semester. But what makes a semester successful, and how does one ensure it will be successful? These are questions all teachers experiment with and according to Elaine Showalter, the answer starts with the very first day of class. “In the real world of the semester, the first class offers a never-to-be-recaptured moment of excitement and opportunity. This is your chance to preview the best material you have” (46). The “you” she is speaking to is, of course, the teacher but the student especially benefits from this mode of pedagogy.

Although, the title to this post claims to get rid of syllabus day entirely, I (and Showalter) am only suggesting to further its significance by not ending class early with just syllabus the material. Classroom and student expectations are an absolute must when it comes to first day material, but what if the literature class expanded beyond syllabus day? By expanding I mean to say, include the planned material for the course. Start reading a book as a class, ask students what they want out of the course, or even engage in an activity that incorporates the novels at hand. It goes without saying that some teachers have already implemented this kind of approach, but I have definitely taken classes where the syllabus was read out loud and then the students were sent home for the day. How does that get students eager to learn? I, and many critics, argue that it is a simple mistake that can easily be changed.

Works Cited

Showalter, Elaine. Teaching Literature. Indianapolis: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. Print.


Questions to Consider:

If, according to Showalter, getting students excited about learning is not entirely up to the teacher, how else can students be encouraged?

How could we incorporate Lynda Barry’s methods into the first day in a literature classroom?

“In the real world of the semester, the first class offers a never-to-be-recaptured moment of excitement and opportunity … I think a literature course should begin, on the very first day, with a sample of the most stirring, memorable text you plan to read.”

Elaine Showalter (Teaching Literature, 46)

The first day of class in a literature classroom is one that goes unused by most. College educators have identified this issue and it has been circulating discussion for some time. As a result, The National Council of Teachers of English have provided various examples of what other college professors do on the first day of their class:

What Works for Me: First Day Activities 

In addition, here are some journals that have also covered the first day class:

Defining the Variable

Unlike some other literary experts, Elaine Showalter in Teaching Literature, insists that we do not need to be able to define literature in order to have the ability to teach it (21). On the flip-side of this statement, do students need to be able to define literature in order to understand it? I can recall being asked on the first day of one of my intermediate literature classes in my undergrad to spend five minutes writing down my own, personal definition of literature. Yes, I had taken at least four literature classes prior to this one, and yes, I had read and understood all of the novels assigned for each course. Yet, I found it astonishingly troubling to write a definition in accordance to my experience of what literature was. It was more than just text. It was more than just the idea of the novel. I understood what literature was to the extent of my education at that time, but I could not place my understanding of it into words.

Using Showalter’s argument and my own experience as a placeholder, a literature class does not function the same way other college classes do. In biology, a student must be able to define osmosis and even use the process of osmosis in experimentation. In addition, they may also fill in the correct multiple choice bubble on a test that answers the appropriate steps in order for osmosis to occur. The pedagogical methods in which a student learns osmosis may slightly vary, yet; the actual definition or process of osmosis remains constant. We can take out osmosis and insert the FOIL method in algebra, and the outcome will be the same. The FOIL method never changes and thus, all students who understand the FOIL method will give you nearly identical definitions of it. Literature does not work in this way. Ones definition of literature will be based on their experience with literature. An individual with a PhD in literature and specialization in Medieval British Lit, may be considered an expert of what literature really is. This person may never have read The Picture of Dorian Gray, Midnight’s Children, Alias Grace, or The House in Paris, and yet they are an expert in literature. They do not necessarily need to read Alias Grace – an Atwood novel published in 1996 that highlights female struggle and Neovictorianism – in order to form their expertise of Medieval British Lit, or even literature in a more general sense. However, another PhD literature scholar, focused on Feminist Lit will have most likely read Alias Grace, and will look at the specific text, along with most others differently than the Medieval British Lit scholar. It is arguable that if we were to ask the two individuals -both experts on literature – to give a definition of literature, that their answers will vastly differ. Canterbury Tales and The House in Paris are both literary texts, yet, “being a literary text” is nearly the only similarity that they share. In this sense, how can we ask a teacher or a student to define literature if literature itself is the variable?

In most cases, when an individual enters a literature class (teacher or student) no two people have read the exact same literary texts. Thus, literature is the variable in its own pedagogy and the student or reader is what remains constant. Therefore, a definition of literature is nearly meaningless because of the degree in which it varies. A single definition could never suffice for all of the literature in the world. In this light, an understanding of literature is what teachers and students must strive for. We should take privilege in being a discipline that is not definition based. Osmosis will be forever attached to its definition. Literature changes and evolves through time; it is never constant the way that osmosis is. Thus, an understanding of literature is what should be most important, not a definition.

Works Cited:

Showalter, Elaine. “Theories of Teaching Literature.” Teaching Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003. 21-41. Print.

[A]nything can be literature, and…any belief that the study of literature is the study of a stable, well-definable entity, as entomology is the study of insects, can be abandoned as a chimera…Literature, in the sense of a set of works of assured and unalterable value, distinguished by certain shared, inherent properties, does not exist.

– Terry Eagleton, “Introduction: What is Literature?”


Is it necessary to define literature before one is able to teach it? While scholars such as George Levine might make this claim, Elaine Showalter asserts that such definitions often “mean[] entering a long dark tunnel from which few teachers, let alone clear ideas about literature emerge” (21).

Is this one reason to focus on method over content?

Works Cited

Showalter, Elaine. Teaching Literature. Indianapolis: John Wiley and Sons, 2003.

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