Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Richard Miller's Writing at the End of the World: Am I a Horseman?

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of picking up Richard Miller's Writing at the End of the World, a book that voiced many of the concerns I was already having and further complicated my stance as an educator. I'd recommend everyone read this book.

Miller, a professor at Rutgers University, well-known for his blog text2cloud, examines writing, reading, and what it means to our world. As English instructors, we are often blinded by our idealism. We love reading and writing because we believe it is transformative, that reading can make people see the world anew or inspire them to be "good" (whatever that means). A glass bottle theory, Miller takes a cherry bomb and ignites it from the inside, shattering the illusion. According to Miller, neither literature nor writing is truly transformative. He writes:
we tell ourselves and our students over and over again about the power of reading and writing while the gap between rich and poor grows greater, the Twin Towers come crashing down, and somewhere some other group of angry young men is at work silently stockpiling their provisions for the next apocalypse. (5)
He cites serial killers and mass murderers like the Columbine shooters as evidence, and quite convincingly. Miller truly makes you question what the focus of a Composition classroom should be. In a world where people are in constant suffering, where relationships are pulled apart and people disconnected, where violence has become a far-too-used medium of expression, what is it that we want our students to do, to learn? Is it fair for us to continue to reproduce our own values, to deny the violent world at the expense of preserving the safety bubble of the academia? Miller thinks not, and I agree.

As a solution, Miller suggests that we turn back to the personal, not necessarily rants or memoirs, but the local, the real. "Pragmatic pedagogy" is the term he uses. Miller defines it as such:
[if] the students learn how to register their reservations about academic practice in ways that can be heard as reasoned arguments rather than dismissed as the plaintive bleating of sheep, if they learn to pose their questions about the work before them in ways that invite response, and if, finally, they learn how to listen to and learn from the responses they receive, they may well be in a better position to negotiate the complex social and intellectual experiences that await them just beyond the classroom's walls. (141)
Ultimately, Miller urges teachers to give up elitist visions of Literary Studies and Composition, and instead, encourage students to forge and fortify connections through the studies of the humanities. If we ignore this advice, I ultimately believe that academics will become one of the horsemen of the apocalypse, the ones who will drag the future generation down into the end of the world, as we will have left them incapable of dealing with the problems in their midst.

Here are some of my favorite lines from Miller's book:

"we no longer live in a world where human action can be explained. We have plenty of information; it just doesn't amount to anything" (8). 

"'composition,' which I construe to mean the art of putting oneself and one's writing together." (37)

"revision not as the act of tidying up past transgression, but as the ongoing process of entertaining alternatives" (50).

"The danger of the written word is, thus, its promise; the fact that it can't be finally and completely controlled means that it forever retains the power to evoke new possibilities" (194).

"The practice of the humanities, so defined, is not about admiration or greatness or appreciation or depth of knowledge or scholarly achievement; it's about the movement between worlds, arms out, balancing; it's about making the connections that count" (198).

Friday, April 1, 2011

Recovering Children's Literature

I have just come off of my panel at the 2011 British Women Writer's Conference on "Educating the Nineteenth Century Child." I presented on Augusta Webster's Daffodil and the Croaxaxicans: A Romance of History, in which I believe Webster has taken and revised the Alice model to support an image of child heroine as emerging New Woman. Before my presentation, came two wonderful presentations, Sandra Burr's "The Curious Case of Harriet and Lousia Beaufort: Questing Women, Inquisitive Texts" and Ashely Faulkner's "Christ Among the Doctors: Pedagogy, Pediatrics, and Divinity in Alice Meynell's Criticism."

At the end, when the floor opened up to questions, an audience member remarked that we (all three panelists) were all working on recovery projects. Though Ashley saw his process as a different kind of recovery than the work Sandra was doing, I think this very keen audience observer was correct in her statement. With that said, I believe it for a reason other than Webster's obscurity in the larger 19th century writers conversation or the out-of-print nature of Daffodil

It appears to me that the Children's Literature field, as whole, is typically a recovery project. What do I mean by that? I mean that when it comes to the canonical texts that we consider worthy enough to make it onto our syllabi and into conferences and journals, children's literature is usually at the bottom of the barrel. Sure, people will acknowledge they pleasure they had reading The Wind in the Willows as a child, but the idea of seeing it on a Global Literatures reading list or a British Literature survey seems nearly ridiculous. And because there is little space to study it, usually only those rare recognized pieces made "great" by antiquity, such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, are accepted in scholarly conversation, even in Children's Literature courses. 

Ironically, it was just a few moments ago that I had the delightful opportunity to eat lunch with several students and a well-respected professor from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The subject that enlivened us all, bridging the gap from one end of the very large party to the other, was children's literature. Everything from yesterday's presentation on books about mining for children to the wide-ranging influence of the Harry Potter series to books we probably shouldn't have read as children came up. Many of the books that were mentioned were not nearly as popular as HP, yet it was obvious that they had all made an influence in our growing processes and adult lives. As children, we are molded, especially by what we read. Even those works not consciously aiming to teach provide education, whether it be moral, intellectual, or creative.

Though I am an avid fan of "literature for adults," both for pleasure and for scholarship, I think it odd that we give so much attention to these "serious" works and so little to children's literature, which actually seems to have a much more impressive impact on the shaping of cultures. In writing about Webster's work for children, rather than her impressive poetry or plays, as well as Rossetti's children's literature, and Carroll's, my goal was only partially to recover women's writing that has been obscured by time. The larger, more ambitious goal is really for the field as a whole, working to recover Children's Literature from its marginalized position in the field of literary scholarship and reminding people why these texts are just as important as Eliot's novels and Browning's poetry.