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Teaching Melville’s Texts, MelvilleS Texts Teaching MARTIN BICKMAN University of Colorado,Boulder Id-timers may remember a questionnaire I sent to instructors for the 1971volume on teaching Moby-Dick that I prepared for M U . In it I asked a question that was variously applauded, disparaged, and ignored: “How does your vision of the book affect your classroom teaching of it?” In editing this special issue of Leviathan on Teaching Melville, I have tried to keep this question before us because i continue to believe that the best way to enliven our teaching is to reshape it consciously,deliberately,and imaginatively in the light of whatever qualities in Melville’s texts initially triggered our own enthusiasms and commitments. Often our ends forget our beginnings, and our first excited responses become dampened and attenuated by the time we confront beginning readers of Melville. We are astonished to find that the very books that were incandescent for us meet with a kind of yeah-whatever apathy of our students. We find an uncomfortable mismatch between the power of the text and our engagement of it with our students. Students often view what we hope will be a life changing experience asjust another hurdle to jump over on their way to something else. As student Aaron Zlatkin says in this issue of his peers: Students are traditionally too busy worrying about “making the grade,” or pleasing the instructor, or just getting by, to be able to recognize the symbolism in a text and apply it to their own lives. For them, the basic necessity is not shelter or food, but rather approval. For instructors, it is often easy to forget that the most important function of literature is to invoke-emotions, memories, and new ways of thinking about the meanings behind these things. You would probably be encouraged to remember some basic symbolism: the coffin set up as a life buoy, the eagle pinned to the mast. But what you have been required to remember and what you really think about these powerful images of life and death, are almost always two different things. Certainly you would not even think about looking for other symbols from the text not included on the quiz review sheet. Ironically,you have to graduate from high school or college, free yourself from the spurious confines of requirement and standardization, before you can read the L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 5 M A R T I N B I C K M A N text in a fresh way, and maybe even find a connection to your own life therein. Zlatkin is generous in acknowledging that part of the problem lies with the students themselves, but we have to remember that it is we instructors who structure the class and that more by our actions than anything we explicitly say we convey a sense of priorities. Every time I hear one of my colleagues complaining about that ubiquitous student shooting up a hand to ask “Will this be on the test?” I have to wonder who is giving the test in the first place and what kind of emphasis is put on this activity. Of course, this colleague would reply that the institution compels this behavior, and he or she would have a point. It is not that we are sadistic or dull or insensitive; rather, the very medium through which we work, the basic structures of our educational system , often do as much to block the intellectual and emotional grasping of literature as to foster it. The letter cramps the spirit, the form constrains the process, as when we teach a complex, subversive, fluid writer like Melville in classrooms that are authoritarian and routine, arenas where students are pitted against each other for the best niches in society. While the careful reading of literature is best fostered in a communal, cooperative atmosphere, conducive to responsiveness and divergence,we often find ourselves in classroom spheres formed more in fright than in love, with a stress on convergence, competition...


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