Sixty years ago, J. D. Salinger tried teaching. In 1949, long before he became famous, he gave a college writing class.
The experience was a painful one for Salinger and he chose never to repeat it. As he told New Yorker editor William Maxwell, who made the teaching story part of the Book of the Month Club Salinger biography that accompanied the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, "I went, and I enjoyed the day, but it isn't something I'd ever want to do again."
"I got very oracular and literary. I found myself labeling all the writers I respect," Salinger confessed. "A writer, when he's asked to explain his craft, ought to get up and call out in a loud voice just the names of the writers he loves," Salinger went on to explain.
In this season of commencement advice, Salinger's comments on teaching seem especially timely, and they have been given new life with the recent publication of an essay on teaching by University of Virginia literature professor Mark Edmundson in the academic journal The Chronicle of Higher Education. In his essay, "Against Readings," Edmundson writes, "If I could make one wish for the members of my profession, college and university professors of literature, I would wish that for one year, two, three, or five, we would give up readings . . . I mean the application of an analytical vocabulary -- Marx's, Freud's, Foucault's, Derrida's, or whoever's -- to describe and (usually) to judge a work of literary art."
What Edmundson has in mind is not dumbing down teaching but ending the kind of teaching that robs a book of its fullness by shoehorning it into a critical category. "The teacher's initial objective ought to be framing a reading that the author would approve," Edmundson insists. "It all begins by befriending the text."
Edmundson wants students to have the pleasure and excitement of immersing themselves in a book or poem before engaging in a skeptical dialogue about it, and he points out that the critical essays most college and university professors write, while full of learning and hard work, tend to be narrow and unreadable. They are essays designed to show off the critical prowess of the professor and impress peers. "They could not conceivably be meant to provide spiritual or intellectual nourishment," Edmundson argues.
Edmundson's call for befriending the text may never be widely realized. At most colleges and universities professors win tenure by impressing their fellow professors with their insights, not by inspiring students coming to a book for a first time. But today with the expense of a college education leading more and more students to ask what they are getting for their money, the moment is right to rethink what good teaching means when it is built around students' needs.
Although Salinger never gave college teaching a second try, his own failure at teaching didn't make him cynical about it. Like Edmundson, he continued to believe that the right kind of teaching (teaching that wasn't "oracular") could change lives, and when it came to his own writing, he turned his fictional double, Buddy Glass, into a writer who teaches college with great devotion.
Nicolaus Mills teaches writing and literature at Sarah Lawrence College and is author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of age as a Superpower."
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