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Writing Across the Curriculum

 

Holloway Hall

Playing Favorites
Karen Shaup
English Department


Don’t tell my students, but I tend to play favorites – not with the individuals attending my classes, but with the poems, plays, and works of fiction I have carefully selected to populate my syllabus. In the crowd of assigned reading, there are always the texts I love, the texts I like, and, inevitably, the one or two texts I dread spending time with and teaching. There are no texts I dread teaching more than the poems of Robert Frost.

As a first year undergraduate, I enrolled in a class dedicated to Frost, and we read everything he committed to paper. We spent the first weeks of the semester examining his longer and lesser-known poems, like “Snow,” “New Hampshire,” and “Paul’s Wife.” During the same semester, I was also taking courses on Walt Whitman and modernism in the English Department; I got Walt Whitman, I got Wallace Stevens (or so I thought), but I didn’t get Frost. Compared to the energetic lines of Whitman or the explosive experimentations of the modernist writers, Frost seemed to me, as I confided to a friend, kind of boring. It wasn’t that poetry wasn’t my thing – it was! – but Frost, I felt, didn’t speak to me.

In the literature classes I teach now, my students tell me that there are certain writers they like better or relate to more than others.  When students are working on writing assignments, I encourage them to bring drafts and ideas to my office hours, and I tend to ask students to describe why they have chosen a certain text or passage for the assignment. The answer is inevitably the same: I can understand it better than the other passages, or I like it because it is easy to understand. Yet, despite students’ confidence in being able to immediately grasp the meaning of a passage, their papers are almost always the same: underdeveloped and inattentive to the language of the text. I agree with Joseph Campbell that we should all “follow [our] bliss,” but lately I’ve been encouraging students to choose as a writing topic something they do not initially relate to or even like. My hypothesis is that if a student starts the assignment with the notion that the meaning of the text is not immediately within reach, they might begin to formulate more critical responses to works of art.

In the Robert Frost course I took as an undergraduate, my experience of writing a paper on the poem “Directive” started with confusion; I didn’t know what to do with it. With lines like “And if you’re lost enough to find yourself / By now, pull in your ladder road behind you” and “Drink and be whole again beyond confusion,” the poem seemed to be mocking my inability to find an avenue of interpretation. The process of making sense of the poem was a difficult and challenging task that occurred over my first Thanksgiving break. I spent that long weekend camped out in my parents’ living room, telling anybody, human or canine, passing through how much I disliked Frost and how much I was suffering. I complained so loudly and for so long that my dislike of Frost is now part of family history. Yet, I was determined to do the assignment well. When left alone with poem, I began to work with it rather than against it. I copied it out by hand, I circled words, and I wrote a lot of sentences that did not appear in the final draft of the paper. In other words, I put aside my initial reaction to Frost and performed the strategies recommended by the professor of the course. It was the first time I had to really work at understanding a poem. The experience of discovering meaning in a poem that I didn’t like produced a sort of intellectual pleasure I hadn’t experienced before. This feeling was something new.

I’m worried that my students miss out on the chance to experience this variety of intellectual pleasure when they choose writing topics based on initial judgments of liking or disliking a text. While I hope to inspire my students to read more and to enjoy what they are reading, I also want them to practice responding critically to works of literature. As I discovered in the Frost course, it can take a text that seems initially confusing or even boring to provoke the kind of work necessary for building a critical interpretation. My experience of writing the paper on Frost as an undergraduate did not produce in me a desire to become an avid fan of Frost’s poetry; Frost is still not a favorite. However, the excitement I felt in the process of making sense out of a text that seemed to be at first incomprehensible remains one of my favorite memories of college coursework, and the experience simply made me a better reader. I know my students have favorites too, but I am going to keep encouraging them to write essays on their least favorites.


 

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