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Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 311-318

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Let Teaching Take Its Course

David Swerdlow

[Works Cited]

Literature and Lives: A Response-Based, Cultural Studies Approach to Teaching English. By Allen Carey-Webb. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 2001.

Almost ten years ago, while my department was in the process of dumping a standard, coverage-driven curriculum for English majors, one of my senior colleagues said, "Instead of teaching literature, we ought to teach students." Well before the phrase student-centered had reached our halls, this pithy comment stunned me, not only because it made such raw sense but because it had come from a devoted New Critic who had never read Pedagogy of the Oppressed. If he could make the shift, so could the rest of us. With his help, we began to take literature off the pedestal that we (even the recent Ph.D.'s in my department) had so greedily built and maintained. On the table, literature could become an active part of our students' lives, and vice versa. Allen Carey-Webb's Literature and Lives has a similar ambition. Like my colleague, Carey-Webb is successful because we see him coming to his position without noticeable pretense. Perhaps they both came to their positions out of frustration experienced in classrooms marked not only by deference to the teacher's opinions but by a kind of apathy, nonchalance, or even defeat that is disguised, so dangerously, as deference.

Carey-Webb's most effective tactic may be to demonstrate through a series of course stories how it is not only possible but pleasurable for teachers [End Page 311] to grow and change in their profession. This position can be reached only through humility, risk taking, and hard work, all of which he exemplifies as he narrates his teaching life. Wisely, Carey-Webb admits that his own story is intended to stand as an example of how one might live successfully as a teacher using a response-based cultural studies model to teach his literature students, and not as a handbook for teaching specific courses in contemporary world literature, gender studies, postcolonial literature, and so on. The result is a gently subversive text that forwards, through nonthreatening stories, a theory-based approach to teaching students in a literature course.

The word theory in my last sentence (even in its adjectival function) gives me pause. For years I could not say the word theory to my colleague without eliciting his disgust. Like me, he is a white, male poet with a Ph.D., and I once understood (and secretly shared) his distrust for a discipline that not only allowed but seemingly enjoyed a phrase such as the death of the author. He wanted to create literature, while theorists seemed bent on death and dissection, even autopsy. When I reminded him that his New Critical approach was a theory (and pretty good at dissection and ideology itself), he looked at me as if I were a traitor—and, of course, at some level I was. And so was he—otherwise, he would never have reformulated the phrase teaching literature to teaching students. He would never have agreed to a curricular overhaul that did away with period- and author-based survey courses in favor of a context-based curriculum that emphasized student participation and skill development. One could imagine him penning the following words, put forth by Carey-Webb (23):

I had always told my students that sometimes one has to get out of the world one is living in before he or she can see it clearly, but it was surprising for me to discover that I was a fish that didn't know that it was living in the water—until I was hooked and hoisted into the air. Looking back at the water, so to speak, I came to realize that traditional literary theory and approaches had created the lake I was swimming in. I had been repeating my own literary training without knowing there were other options. Now I was discovering new literary theories, especially those that fall under the heading "cultural studies...


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