Author of the forthcoming Virtue, Passion, and Moderation in Shakespearean Drama and numerous articles, Unhae Langis teaches at Slippery Rock University near Pittsburgh, PA. She is presently working on a book on Shakespeare and happiness.
At my school, I teach English 210 – a general education course required for graduation. Formally, its objectives are to teach students how to interpret literature, support their interpretations with textual evidence, and to come to appreciate and enjoy the role of literature in their lives.
My course puts a special focus on bridging literature and life, books (from Latin liber) and the aim of liberal studies. In the words of educator Edward Beckham: “to liberate us unto ourselves, to liberate us from oppression and privilege, from unexamined assumptions, from passivity in the living of our lives.”
I try to get my students to see that literature can enlighten and empower them in their personal and civil lives and deliver them from the brutality that often breeds from ignorance.
Most students enter the class thinking that nothing could be more remote from their here-and-now existence than “literature”— that the class will involve some dusty “classics” that couldn’t possibly relate to the 21st century world and the day-to-day experience. The key is involving students—many of whom would characterize themselves as non-readers and some as never even having read a novel—by choosing certain texts. As student Shane Boydell puts it: “[It is] attention-grabbing reading, not the boring put-me-to-sleep kind that schools make you read as a curriculum.”
Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation provides the framework for examining human actions in life and in literature: human beings are driven by three tiers of motivators: survival (safety and physical sustenance), social success (belonging and esteem), and transformation (self-actualization).
During the semester, we explore these through stories, essays, poems, and plays. We read how literature is a reflection and dramatization of the very struggles we encounter in our own lives. Literature, as Professor Alex Macleod states, is a way for us to “compare notes on how others have approached and experienced the challenge of human life—the potentialities, hopes, frustrations, joys, and sorrows.”
Course participants hone critical thinking skills, self-expression tactics and obtain an increased awareness of how literature expands a person.
Brody Travers: [L]iterature is important because it allows us to learn about other ideas than our own or those of the people immediately around us. Without new thoughts and fresh ideas, we would never have stimulus for change or growth. Part of growing into a mature adult or developing a personal identity is experiencing many different points of view and deciding which you feel represent you best and which you want to be known by.
Fallon Kosinski: I’ve become more energetic and more driven to accomplish my goals…. I most definitely want to fulfill my potential. I think the literature we read in class formed my desire to flourish in life.
Nathan Rihely: I’ll admit, I did not believe that I would grow as a person just by taking this course. I felt as though it was just another English course and that I would be able to get by, just by going through the motions. However, I felt the need to be involved. Literature doesn’t offer technical knowledge to further yourself in career goals, but it can aid you towards valuable self-knowledge about how to lead a more meaningful life. Interpreting literature isn’t about the story between the front and back cover; it’s about the story beyond the cover of the book or play.
Chris Penco: I am more in touch with my emotions than I can remember, and most of all I feel my moral code is at an all time high. I try to keep an open mind about every situation that is thrown my way. Keeping all options open, I feel it gives me the best opportunity to accurately assess the situation and make the right decision, for the right reason, for the right end, [Aristotelian ethics that I taught in reference to the literature] and doing the right thing when no one’s watching [citing one of our texts, Topdog/Underdog]. I will do everything within my power (and beyond) to leave this world a better place than it was. I will not be part of the problem.
 I am indebted to Provost William Williams for this reference.