I read—then I lay down the book—& say—what right have I, a woman to read all these things that men have done? They would laugh if they saw me.
[The common reader] is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole—a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing.
You know the scene, the scene of your students reading Woolf. If you are not (yet) teachers, you can imagine it; you can recreate the scene of your own first reading of Woolf. At least for those of us far from the scenes of elite education, there is (at first) the confusion, bewilderment in their (our) eyes, the sense of reading on quicksand, the fear of speaking uncertainty, the resistance to uncovering bafflement—the resistance, period. Think back on To the Lighthouse, you, your students, virginal [End Page 101] readers. What is happening? Where are we? Who is thinking? Who is speaking? What time is it? Where (oh where) is the voice that will make sense of these shifting and sliding voices, moving sometimes even within a single sentence from one center of consciousness to another? The whirl dizzies, the vertigo of reading Woolf for the first time.
We might think that in this postmodern media age—with the multiple, split narratives of a Northern Exposure or L.A. Law, with the visual montage of startling juxtapositions on MTV, with fragmentation of unitary authority in the competing voices of media anchors whose personalities are more news than the news—that our students would feel right at home with the disruptions of a Woolf text. That most of them do not is a sign of the normative power for the printed page of traditional conventions of representation established by the novel, especially the nineteenth-century realist novel.
We all have our strategies for teaching Woolf, for breaking down this initial resistance, for calming students down, for urging them to take up the challenge. We may contextualize: by setting the scene of Edwardian and postwar England; narrating tales of Bloomsbury, the Stephen household, the marriage to Leonard, the love for Vita, the incidents of incest, the bouts of illness; by staging the grand entrance of modernism; by theorizing the feminist and the feminine. We may show slides of impressionist, postimpressionist, and cubist art or present parallels in filmic technique. We may begin with some short stories—"A Mark on the Wall," "Kew Gardens," "The New Dress"—to build up a careful craft of reading that can be adapted for the longer texts. We may introduce Woolf's textual practice through the voice of the theorist in "Modern Fiction," "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," and A Room of One's Own. We may exhort the students to climb the mountain of textual challenge: the view at the top is worth it, the effort ultimately exhilarating (you can do it; you, the little engine that could). We may lecture or split the class into small groups, each with a task to perform and report. We may "brilliantly" synthesize or sit in the silence until students begin to speak. We may encourage impressionistic responses to what they think they did not understand. We may lead them to unravel a passage, piece by piece. We may dramatize: pound the desk to mark the heartbeat and the tick-tock of the lighthouse beam.
Our strategies, of course, differ by the context in which we teach (where is our classroom? who are our students? how large is the class?); by the kind of course in which Woolf appears (a course on modernism? on women's writing? on the novel? on the short story? the essay? on British literature? on feminist theory? on just Woolf herself?); by our pedagogical principles along the spectrum of authority; and by the various critical methodologies we...