Literary Hegemony in a Nutshell

Carl Deakins

After graduation, I found myself wanting to establish better habit of reading. In order to prepare myself to teach English to high school students, I thought it would be difficult, yet benefit for me to commit to my own independent readings. On top of that, I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to read just for the sake of reading.   

Much of my college career I spent reading for the sake of response. This means I was trained to decipher texts for the goal of speaking in class or writing a paper. And although I tried to intentionally stay away from jejune or pithy analysis of the assigned reading, I inherently kept gravitating towards reading for the sole purpose of getting the “right” answer for the class. I admit this was a difficult process to stop because so much of my grade depended on saying the “right” thing in class.  This practice can skip over the discipline of attending to the formal components that give rise to insights. Often, I found classes to be a struggle between professors trying to valorize and legitimize the insights gave by students while also pushing them towards noting *how* they came to those perceptions.

 This tension in part is a result of taking literacy for granted. At Bates, I frequently found myself learning far more tangibly about a specific subject matter in 200 level courses than in seminars. Though I imagine that the mark of a good seminar is leaving questions unresolved, I have found seminars particularly to take for granted the capacity of the students and instructor to read critically. Reading is difficult but essential (some might even say fundamental). Additionally, the mark of a good reader is not just their ability to physically read words on a page but the capacity to understand the argumentative dynamics of interpretation. This skill is not one to be taken for granted. Practicing reading makes classes flow .

As a current teacher in Philadelphia and a former student at Bates, I am readily aware of how imposter syndrome silences necessary work on basic skills. Students who feel confused on a subject or skill will regularly not voice a concern for fear that it reveals them as dilettantes. This will cause a room of silent students to passively listen while confident peers jump immediately to interpretation. This so-called jump elides the lack of a common language. Patterns of behavior convince participants both that interpretations are the most worthwhile form of reaction to a text and that clarifying questions are not worth asking. Class participation can quickly erode to a stultifying hierarchy  where students who can effectively receive praise, even if they talk to no one in particular.

These dynamics manifest with distinct subject tendencies. Despite protestations of professors, and at times students, discussions of literature can quickly move far away from text. I’m not really sure what to make of it, but neither the putatively trite discussions of whether or not certain characters were appealing or formalistic explanation seem particularly popular in the lingua franca of literary hegemony in a nutshell.