It is my extreme pleasure to be taking part in this course not just as a student, but as a sort of teacher’s assistant whereupon I have been given the privilege of helping with lectures and reflecting on what it is to talk about and teach literature. English 102 at California State University Fresno is a course designed for the non-English major which aims to expose these students who otherwise may never take any other literature curses to “Masterpieces of British Literature.” Our course starts with Beowulf, includes sections from Chaucer, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (which I’m lucky enough to be taking the lead on teaching), Pride and Prejudice by Austen, some great English poetry by John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Seamus Haney (to name a few), and we end with Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro.I look at this list and can only smile, because I’ve already experienced these pieces multiple times. Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare no longer intimidate me, but it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t so long ago when they did.
So the question I must ask myself as this course plays out is this: what are the tools I take for granted that help me understand, appreciate, and love literature? The most obvious first step in beginning to understand literature is to understand exactly what literature is. What is it that makes literature different from, say, a check list for chores, a grocery list, or a diary entry? Knowing what makes literature literature is, at the most minimalistic, foundational. To no surprise, this was touched on the first day of class; as a class, we decided that literature was writing that was crafted. A good beginning, for sure.
As with any other discipline, an understanding of the language of the land is fundamental as well. For example, it would be extraordinarily difficult to talk about a piece of art when one has not the vocabulary to talk about the colors used in the piece (let alone how one color interacts with another and what that interaction might say or add to the piece). This is where a broader understanding of what makes literature literature will hopefully develop: what are the elements of craft in literature, why do authors choose to use specific elements of craft, and how do the chosen elements of craft help to shape the text into something that grows beyond the words on the page? IT is from these discussions, spread throughout the course as examples come up in the texts, that I help to help nurture a love for literature.