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Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 177-183
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What I Really Teach When I'm Teaching Spenser
Judith H. Anderson
"What I Really Teach When I'm Teaching Spenser" sounds like a title sure to attract the cultural thought police, if not the vice squad. In using it, I have in mind a problem of quite a different order, what both learned journals and the popular press acknowledge all too casually as a decline in reading skills. If my experience is indicative, not all students, but the majority of students, do not read with the care and comprehension that we could assume little more than a decade ago. 1 While they are natively bright enough, they have not learned (or been taught) to pay close attention to the words, sentences, or logical sequences of writing. Perhaps more significantly, they are not aware in a conceptual sense that such features of their reading might be useful, interesting, even enlightening. (I will leave hanging the question of whether a conceptual sense and an ideological one are the same, except to say that I doubt it, despite some tantalizing overlaps at the gray edges, where one particular epistemological condition by default implies the absence of another.)
During the fall of 2001 I taught two upperclass undergraduate courses, one a survey from Beowulf to Shakespeare and the other the later plays of Shakespeare, and although I had taught these courses many times before, I was struck by the problems the students were having with the readings, and having more conspicuously than in the past. These arose largely from their desire to read only realistically—characterologically, so to speak—and not simply to ignore, but to want to ignore, alternative and especially complicating dimensions of significance in the hope that these unfamiliar, puzzling things would go away. Recurrent thematic words and the workings of metaphor are part of these dimensions, as are the larger considerations, such as genre, that shape the content of the form. Ill-informed efforts to read the characters [End Page 177] of Marlowe's Hero and Leander autonomously, psychologically, or novelistically come to mind, as do attempts to read Spenser's Una or Charissa in the same way: read thus, of course, Charissa becomes an egregiously mean mother to all those babes, and Una becomes merely baffling. To switch to a more complex, Shakespearean example, I think of students' difficulty with the focus on "mortality" in Measure for Measure, where Angelo is the antagonist with "snow broth" in his veins and Isabella, though a paragon of purity, is led into the "desperately mortal" prison world by her blood tie to the sinful Claudio, her brother. As these examples suggest, what I am getting at is, to a significant extent, the ability to think conceptually, which requires some degree of abstraction but is, above all, the ability to think symbolically. Again, to thinksymbolically! This is not an ability much removed from the ability to think at all in language.
Here, at last, is the good news. There can hardly be a text better designed for teaching and honing these abilities than The Faerie Queene, whether to graduate students, especially those who specialize in more recent or more realistic periods, or to undergraduate English majors of all stripes. In what follows, I have my eye particularly on the undergraduate course—usually some version of a survey—in which Spenser's major poem is introduced, but I think that what is at issue applies to any course in which this poem appears.
Because I want to teach reading symbolically in my undergraduate survey, when we get to the sixteenth century and then to Spenser, I teach the first book of The Faerie Queene. This is the book in which the poem itself, which I will term metonymically "Spenser," teaches us at once how to read and how vital this process is. I never take less than two weeks to teach book 1, and I often have to scant its very end to allow enough time to explore techniques of reading the early cantos. In...