Christopher Schaberg recently received his Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Davis, where he wrote a dissertation on the textual aspects of U.S. airports. In August 2009 he will join the English Department at Loyola University in New Orleans, where he will be Assistant Professor of Contemporary Literature and Critical Theory.
My favorite part of teaching literature is getting students to really linger on short passages. I like to teach students how to enjoy the liveliness of language, how the sounds and shapes of words can come alive on a page; and in turn, this liveliness affects how we think about life off the page.
To study literature with attention and intelligence requires a slow pace that is difficult to maintain: it demands re-reading, asking the same questions over and over, and as my mentor Timothy Morton once put it, “daring to be dumb.” The literature classroom is a sort of protected zone in which these increasingly rare activities can thrive. What I love about the literature classroom is that I get to sit around with a group of other minds and work together with textual matter, and to see how far we can slow down without stopping altogether. Such perpetual deceleration results not in final truths, but in inquiry without end. I’m more confused than I have ever been about what literature actually is, and I’m thankful for this confusion: it lets me approach texts afresh and be spontaneous when my students see things I had not seen or even imagined in a text.
About a year ago I started a blog called “What is literature?” This basic question is one that I return to again and again in my classes, and it is a question that strikes me whenever I notice literary allusions in films, in magazine articles, or in other pieces of cultural ephemera. In my blog I try to keep a record of these literary problems that pop out of culture at large. My blog, which I maintain in a minimalist but consistent fashion, has been a fascinating experiment that has challenged me to write in new ways: more aphoristically, less argumentatively. I often end up writing in the form of cascading questions.
I decided to teach an advanced composition course in which everyone in the class (including myself) would create and write on our own blogs—and we would read and comment on each other’s work online, not on paper. This class was a success not only because the students generally seemed to like writing ‘posts’ rather than papers or essays, but also because the medium fostered dynamic textual interactions between students. In other words, on a public blog one simply cannot write for a single reader (i.e., the professor). The online forum requires accountability on behalf of one’s use of language; suddenly, that old retort about ‘audience’ is starkly real.
One of my students received comments on a post from readers on the other side of the planet—and thus a local university writing class was transformed into a truly global exchange of ideas. I suggested to my students that as long as they took their blogs seriously as formal writing platforms, they could learn lessons as valuable as if they were writing paper essays.
On the one hand, I appreciate the old space of the literature classroom, which privileges a present community, the semblance of immediacy, books, and a tolerance for slowness. On the other hand, I have experienced the excitement and success of new media, which hinges on hyper-mediation, personal space, digital technologies, and fast connections. The question is not which is better, but how to balance these two forums—since this is the double realm we find ourselves in for the time being.
Some argue that books are rapidly approaching extinction (at least in their present form), and that therefore we should be the guardians of the ‘real’ while we can. Others suggest that books are simply being repackaged—and possibly being made even more widely available while using fewer resources—by devices such as the Amazon Kindle and the iPhone. Could one maintain the feel of the slow literature classroom if all students were holding such electronic reading devices? I am not sure, but I would be willing to give this a try.
I admire N. Katherine Hayles’s model of “Google Jockeying,” through which she designates one student every class to operate a computer and call up images and texts that correspond to the live discussions. This seems to be one way to bring together the old space of the humanities classroom and the new media technologies. I think it is our duty as instructors to keep up with medial developments while also maintaining the at times counterintuitive praxis of deceleration that a literature classroom can uniquely accommodate.