The Meaning of a College Literature Class — During a Pandemic and Always

English departments are increasingly under pressure to justify their existence. But have the eternal lessons of great books ever mattered more?

The first day of class has an immemorial feel to it, an air of familiar routines eternally renewed. It’s just about noon on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, the start of spring semester. I am standing at the front of the room behind a table with a lectern on it. The 34 students, all freshmen, are seated in rows before me. They’re expectant, a little nervous. Me, too, though I have had a lot more practice at hiding it. Having reached the midpoint of what I like to think of as 47th grade, I’m closing in on a hundred semesters as either student or teacher. That’s a lot of first days of class.

The classroom has windows that open, a door that closes, heating, chalkboards and chairs with attached desk arms for the students. That’s all I need from it for this class, a section of a required course known as Lit Core, the one literature class that almost all of the university’s undergraduates take, regardless of major. Except for the occasional writing workshop during which I will project paragraphs from student papers on the classroom screen from my laptop, we won’t be taking advantage of the room’s advanced technological capabilities this semester. The way I teach it, Lit Core is as basic as you can get: Humans pay close attention to books and one another.

Time to get down to first-day business. Going over the syllabus, I explain that in Lit Core we work on the fundamental skill of extracting meaning from language, and we do that by making interpretive arguments — together in class discussions, individually in writing — about the elaborately worked language of literature. There’s nothing cutting-edge about what we’re going to do, and I haven’t tried to pick the most important novels and short stories for us to read. I just picked works that fit the general theme I’ve chosen for the course, stories about misfits, and that are resonantly expressive enough to reward the effort to interpret them.

I ask the students to introduce themselves each in turn to the group, beginning the process of getting everyone accustomed to speaking up, which I require. I won’t lecture much in our class meetings. Mostly I will frame analytical problems for us to work out together. How does the opening scene of this novel set up the ideas it will explore and the ways it will explore them? What’s the effect of this word choice, that image, these repetitions? We’ll get stuck, get ourselves unstuck, get stuck again, go around, keep trying to perceive the relationship between how a text is put together and what meanings it makes available to us.

This is not sorcery, though it can feel that way to many people who have sat in English classes and wondered — admiringly, resentfully, suspiciously — how those who seem more confident about interpretation come up with the things they say. But there’s nothing mysterious about the analysis of literature. Think of it as an exercise in pattern recognition. You notice things — word choices, imagery, details of setting, references to other works and to events and ideas outside the text, the narrator’s point of view, the sequence in which the story unfolds, echoes and variations, and so on — and you try to discern some ordering logic that emerges from those patterns. I think of interpretation as a creative act in which we go into the text to gather the materials to make something: a persuasive argument about what meanings we find there. I’m agnostic about what particular meanings the students might want to argue for; I just want them to do it well. We’re practicing a craft somewhere between art and science, like cabinetmaking or cultivating a vegetable patch.

That craft is basic equipment for living for any citizen, any worker, any thinking person. We swim in a sea of language, and very little of it means only or exactly what it says: “Thou shalt not kill,” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” “Mistakes were made,” “We think of our company as a family,” “Build the wall.” To function in the world we need to understand how meaning moves on the surface of the words and in the sometimes murky depths beneath that surface, and we must attend to form — to how something is said — to get at the fullness of what it says.

The scene we’re getting ready to enact every Tuesday and Thursday for the next 15 weeks may feel timeless to me, but it’s not. My colleague Dayton Haskin, who’s writing a book about the study of literature in American universities, tells me that give-and-take discussions of literature in English began happening in only a few college classrooms in the late 19th century. They were early exceptions to a prevailing model in which professors lectured and called on students to recite, and those students often read about literature, rather than directly reading the works themselves. The conversational model that feels natural to me caught on very gradually over the course of the next century, driven by broader changes in how we think about schooling, knowledge and authority. The now-widespread institution of a class in which undergraduates talk about literature didn’t begin to become normal until after the 1960s. What we do in the classroom has a history that connects it to the world beyond.

My class is as basic as you can get: Humans pay close attention to books and one another.

I can feel the forces at play in our own historical moment pressing in on our classroom, leaving their imprint on our little commonwealth. To get to Lit Core the students have had to survive a college admissions process that has mutated into an all-consuming campaign resembling an arms race or running for Congress. On the other end, after they leave Lit Core and make it through the rest of college, they will graduate into a job market short on actual jobs and long on unpaid internships, contingent and insecure labor, and the assumption of parental assistance.

These increasingly forbidding pathways to and from the classroom are part of a deep shift in the social lay of the land. In this country we’re moving from a familiar and somewhat fluid tripartite class structure — working, middle, upper — toward a more rigid and binary one: haves and have-nots. The cost of college, which includes the cost of doing what it takes to get in, has soared as the middle class has continued to hollow out, and as greater numbers of international students willing to pay full freight have come to American campuses. That cost is increasingly out of reach for the have-nots and those who feel themselves sliding in that direction. Most people with whom I went to college in the 1980s expected to rise up past their parents’ high-water mark as a matter of course. A lot of my students, including well-to-do ones, do not expect to ever get anywhere near what their parents have. My students are more consistently professional about school than my college cohort was, and also a lot more anxious.

As the middle class shrinks and it gets harder for young people getting started in adult life to wriggle up through the tightening passage into the magic circle of the haves, English and other disciplines in the humanities have come under increasing pressure to justify their existence. The facts don’t really support the notion that they’re somehow less practical or valuable than other disciplines (English majors’ lifetime earnings are similar to those of their peers who major in STEM subjects, for instance, which underscores the silliness of arguing that “there’s no job called English”), but the numbers of majors and tenure-line faculty in the humanities are indeed declining at many schools. That’s not all bad, as I see it, since in my experience the shrinkage in English majors has come off the bottom: The quality has gone up as the quantity has gone down. Still, the decline has encouraged talk of a crisis of the humanities, and questions in particular about the role of literature in the college curriculum. Why should students pay through the nose to spend three weeks on “The House of Mirth”? Shouldn’t they be tripling down on science, technology, engineering and math instead? Why require the study of literature at all?

And, of course, there’s yet one more life-alteringly potent force just coming into view on the horizon, still far from the classroom but closing in on it. On Jan. 11 the first confirmed death attributed to a novel coronavirus that recently appeared in Wuhan, China, is announced, and official news of the first case outside China comes on the 13th, the day before our first class meeting.

As we start into our work, using chapters from a textbook to put analytical tools in our shared kit and trying them out on Stuart Dybek’s short stories, the throughlines that give the semester shape and momentum begin to take form.

Our developing encounter with the literature provides one of those throughlines. From Dybek’s dreamlike Chicago neighborhood stories, some of them written when he was the same age as the students are now, we move on to Edith Wharton’s novel “The House of Mirth,” a classic realist tale of an entrepreneurial beauty who must marry to keep her place in New York’s high society but can’t bring herself to choose among the available options. She’s caught between working the system and the notion that there has to be something more than working the system. Then comes Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which despite its college setting will be a stretch for many students, who have to reckon with Spanglish, Elvish and a slippery narrator whose obsession with his own manhood provides the key to the story he tells about his heroically abject frenemy, Oscar.

The community of inquiry in the classroom takes shape as we grapple with these texts. Especially in a class organized around discussion, it’s the level of the floor, not the ceiling, that most dictates the strength of the group. Even if you get lucky and have two or three great English students in a class, they can’t carry a weak group, and it’s more likely that the gap between the standouts and the rest will breed resentment. The capability and willingness of the typical student in the room sets the tone, and I have nothing to complain about there. It’s a good group, competent and willing. The prevailing norm where I teach is that students take the work seriously, want to do it well, and find ways to be interested in it. I don’t take any of this for granted, and I don’t ever lose sight of the fact that it makes my job much more satisfying.

My role includes framing our analytical tasks, putting tools in our shared tool kit and demonstrating their use, and modeling an attitude that balances purpose and openness. Attending to the nuts and bolts of my own technique means asking “if ... then” questions to help knit together interpretive threads (“If we accept Nate’s point about X, then what do we do with Grace’s point about Y?”), using the more inviting “and” rather than the forbidding “but” when we stress-test an argument (“I hear several voices saying X about Chapter 4, and now we need to figure out how that applies to Chapter 5, which on the face of it doesn’t seem to support that reading”), and otherwise making sure we get all the juice out of what everyone has to say.

One way I can feel myself getting older is that I am gentler and less forbidding with my students than I used to be. My attitude has shifted over the years from “We all die alone” toward “One for all and all for one,” in part because my own kids are now the age of my students, whose inner lives paradoxically seem a little less opaque to me now than they did when I was closer to them in age. Like a parody of an Italian American man of middle years, I find myself thinking, “Hey, they’re basically good kids.” And they are basically good kids — typically more diligent and dutiful than I was at their age, and, despite being on average a lot richer than I was, less carefree and optimistic.

The freshmen in Lit Core belong to a club that the 18-year-old me would not have been invited to join. As a college applicant I had uneven grades, displayed little sign of enterprise or accomplishment, needed financial aid and had no legal extracurriculars to speak of. And yet I was still admitted to a number of well-respected schools that could provide me with a fine education, name-brand prestige and connections, and a sufficient push toward a calling and a viable middle-class life. Transported to the present, that 18-year-old me would get slaughtered in the ramped-up competition for spots in the entering classes of selective — or even not-so-selective — colleges and universities.

Reducing education to vocational training is a mistake, and to dismiss “liberal arts degrees” as impractical because there’s no job called “English” or “history” is to misunderstand how education shapes a life.

The freshmen arriving in Lit Core have for the most part aced adolescence: earned top grades across the board, as well as honors and AP credits; piled up credentials via arts, sports and clubs; started a soup kitchen or raised money to fight cancer; and in a hundred other ways demonstrated achievement and potential — including moving heaven and earth to achieve high scores on standardized tests that don’t tell us much about them that we couldn’t have guessed from their Zip code and parents’ incomes. Their presence in my classroom is typically the culmination of a decade-long campaign to hack and claw through a grueling, perverse and unfair admissions process that wastes much of the effort and resources that both applicants and admissions officers put into it. The system’s broken enough that something resembling arranged marriage would be much more efficient and probably produce outcomes that are just as good or better.

And, at least from my perspective as a former undergraduate of the 1980s, the titanic additional quantities of time, capital, strategic maneuver and worry expended by families to get students into today’s college classroom don’t produce a better result. The quality of what happens in the classroom may be a little better than before in some general ways and a little worse in some English-specific ones (fewer people in the room read a lot of books), but on balance it’s probably a wash.

The students stake out their roles in classroom discussions. Some take the lead and others react, some talk about what they understand and others about what they don’t get, some ask questions and some answer them. I encourage all this variety of approaches because it makes for richer discussions. As they say in the world of boxing, styles make fights.

Individual personalities start to emerge. Marshall, who usually sits far to my left, comes out swinging. In early class meetings he raises his hand when others are still hesitating, and he doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to guess what I want and giving it to me. He’s willing to try out ideas and admit to perplexity, to treat our conversation like the workshop it is. He’ll say something like “I don’t know exactly what this means,” and then he’ll give us something to chew on: “It seems like the old lady controls everything, because when she stops drowning cats the men go wild and the neighborhood falls apart.” A varsity hockey player enrolled in the School of Management, he comes on as a regular guy who doesn’t think of himself as a literary intellectual but happens to think this stuff is interesting. He cools off a bit as the semester goes on and others begin asserting themselves, but his interpretive gameness helps get us going at the outset, when it matters most.

Mina, who sits midway back to my right, takes a couple of weeks to get warmed up, and she tends to wait to speak until we’ve wrestled with a topic for a while. Her comments are often fully formed interpretations: I see this and this and this detail, she’ll say, and I connect them to this theme we’ve been talking about, and here’s how a key passage we talked about supports my point, and then here’s another passage that we haven’t talked about yet that looks like it doesn’t fit what I’m arguing, but if you look at it this way you can see that it does. When she has weighed in on a topic, it feels like we’re done with it.

Sometimes I catch other students nodding along as Mina speaks or shaking their heads appreciatively when she’s done, like guitar freaks absorbing a monster solo, and some are plainly intimidated by her. But there’s nothing otherworldly about her chops. She does the reading, she pays attention to what others say, she uses the tools we’ve put in the toolbox to build sound analyses. It’s not casual brilliance; it’s resourcefulness, preparation, clarity. She’s a virtuoso because she practices, not because the muses anointed her with miraculous talent. I remind the class to take notes on what other students say, not just on what I say. “It doesn’t get more insightful just because I repeat it,” I tell them. “Your peers have things to say that you will want to remember — when it’s time for the final, and beyond.”

My insistence that all students participate in class discussions isn’t just some kind of touchy-feely inclusiveness, nor is my insistence that they bring the reading in hard copy and shut off all electronic devices some kind of aggressive old-fashionedness. Rather, it’s a recognition that the class works better for everyone if we’re not dragging along silent or distracted partners, and of what’s special and valuable about what we’re doing. Students are essentially paying for two things in a humanities class: the admissions process that produces the students in the room, and the hiring and promotion process that produces the teacher. Everything else they can get at home, online: They can do the reading, study scholarship about the writers and their eras, post opinions and even watch lectures about literature (most of which are bad, so far, but if you dig you can find substantive ones, and in time there will be more).

What happens in the classroom — humans paying attention to books and one another — may seem rudimentary to a fault, but it’s a vanishingly rare and precious experience. Most of the people in the room will never again gather regularly with other people to think deeply about something they have all read, uninterrupted for 75 whole minutes by text messages, emails, buzzes, beeps, dings, klaxons, flashing lights, tempting links, breaking news alerts or GIFs of naked mole rats dancing.

Our discussions usually start with observations, which we build into analytical arguments. For instance, in a conversation about diction — the choice of particular words and phrases to tell a story — in “The House of Mirth,” some students notice recurring business talk about credit, speculation, interest and capital in Wharton’s account of Lily Bart’s career in New York’s high-society marriage market. Others notice hunting and military imagery — “She began to cut the pages of a novel, tranquilly studying her prey through downcast lashes while she organized a method of attack” — and the language of natural science with which the novel explains Lily’s increasingly desperate social situation: She’s compared to a “waterplant in the flux of the tides” and a “sea-anemone torn from the rock.” Seeking a larger pattern, we begin to see a tension between the efforts of Lily the entrepreneur-warrior-hunter to actively determine the course of her own life and the extent to which she’s portrayed as passively in the tidal grip of large impersonal forces. We don’t all agree on which of those forces might be most powerful. Money? Desire? Different social expectations for women and men? But we don’t have to agree. We’re trying to understand how the text thinks and works, what kind of readers it asks us to be, the tools and opportunities it gives us to make meaning.

This is not an esoteric skill reserved for the privileged few who can afford to indulge themselves in enhancing their enjoyment of made-up stories. Reducing education to vocational training is a mistake, and to dismiss “liberal arts degrees” as impractical because there’s no job called “English” or “history” is to misunderstand how education shapes a life (and also to misunderstand the liberal arts, which include science and math), but college does cost a lot, and you do need to make a living when you get out. Apart from the degree as a credential and the way that college embeds you in a network and perhaps even does you some good as a human being, what you actually learn how to do there has become essential to competing in the postindustrial job market. Whatever your major, a college degree indicates that you are good at learning, an ever-more-important meta-skill as careers increasingly feature many different jobs rather than long-term stable ones. And the degree indicates that you can assimilate and organize complicated bodies of information, analyze that information to create outcomes that have value to others, and convey that analysis with purpose and clarity.

Such analysis can of course lead to making and doing things, but performing the analysis is itself an act of making and doing. Whether you honed these fundamental skills in the study of foreign policy or Jacobean revenge tragedies or the solar system is usually secondary, and less important than in what company you did the honing. What matters most is that you pursued training in the craft of mastering complexity, which you can apply in fields from advertising to zoo management.

So, no, “because it makes your life more, like, beautiful, man” may not be a good enough reason all on its own to study literature (though, in fact, such study does significantly increase your capacity to process truth and beauty). This strikes me as a better one: Literature offers not only a bottomless repository of ideas — inspiring, awful, useful, funny, hateful, perplexing, terrifying, thrilling, generative, ever-multiplying ideas — but also endless opportunity to refine your analytical chops in an encounter with some of the most complex artifacts our species is capable of producing. It’s at least anecdotally interesting that the last three governors of the state where I live and teach have all been English majors (Charlie Baker, Deval Patrick, Mitt Romney) and of the three before them one majored in American studies (Jane Swift) and another in classics (Bill Weld).

We come out of spring break with momentum built up and the end of the semester swinging into view up ahead. A semester is like a shuttle flight in that it doesn’t have much middle. You’re taking off and reaching altitude and getting settled in, and suddenly it’s time to put up tray tables and return seat backs to the upright position in preparation for landing. This time, it’s an emergency landing on a remote stretch of highway. The virus has been making its way to us in great leaps, but we’ve been slow to react to its approach. Then, all of a sudden, it’s among us, and the university moves courses online and closes dorms. There’s a scrambling pause during which most students hustle home, a few who remain on campus go to ground in university housing specially prepared for them, and faculty get up to speed on the art of Zoom. Then we’re back at it again.

Everyone’s trying extra-hard to be accommodating, friendly and engaged, and the students are touchingly relieved to still be in school. But it’s different, and not in a good way. I realize just how much my ability to manage a productive conversation depends on physical cues. I rely on reading faces and body language to know who’s getting it, who’s into it, who could use a nudge, whether we’re ready to move on to the next thing or should gnaw on the current problem a little longer. And in modeling how to take an interest in something and channel that interest into rigor, I use the form of my physical attitude to express the content of the intellectual attitude I want the students to try out. How I carry myself in the actual room — how I use posture and gesture and other aspects of presence to convey my own thought process and confusion and pleasure and purpose and confidence — does a lot of the work of showing how I carry myself as a student of literature.

Pick your cliche for discussing literature on Zoom — especially with 35 participants, which forces me to toggle between two screens. Slow-dancing in hazmat suits comes to mind. So does turning around an aircraft carrier, because it seems to take forever to do things online that in person could be done with a quick glance around the room, like determining who among the students whose hands are raised wants to respond to what another student just said. And it’s not just that the tiny rectangles on the screen don’t convey enough information; they also convey bad information, false positives. Is that disinterest I’m seeing? Skepticism? Pixelation? Or just the inherent physical and emotional flattening effect of the camera? I don’t score boxing matches if I’m not at ringside, because on TV it’s much more difficult to gauge the effect of punches and even to tell which of them land truly flush.

I cut some texts from the syllabus and add brief informal writing assignments to help make up for the added difficulty of carrying on a conversation. I could try further adjustments to mitigate the disembodied impersonality of being online — splitting the class into breakout rooms on Zoom, employing the social e-reader platform Perusall to let them collaborate in marking up the reading, running chats and other such forums, trying out alternatives to Zoom — though I’m not convinced any of it would make that much of a difference.

Moving online during the pandemic has afforded me insight into what I do as a teacher. In addition to conveying skills and content, I figure out who’s in the room, where they’re coming from and what they can do and what they’re interested in doing, and I try to strike a balance between helping them reach extant goals and showing them some new things to aspire to. It’s easier to see that process operating in advanced classes, where students are more likely to have already defined objectives for themselves, but it happens even in a required freshman literature class. Over time I’ve come to appreciate more deeply the importance of the one-on-one teaching that happens in office hours, hanging around before and after class, on email, and in my responses to drafts and papers, but even in meetings of the full class the one-on-one dynamics move beneath the surface of the collaborative effort. I’m trying to help each student find a way to go from where they are to where they want to get to, and often that means introducing them to destinations they did not have in mind before they signed up for the class.

Did my students get what they came for, or at least what I wanted them to get out of the class? Are they ready — or readier than they were — to swim in the sea of language in our stormy times?

Most of that is harder to do on Zoom (and also in person when masked and socially distanced), but it’s not impossible. Some one-on-one aspects of teaching actually become easier when we move online, like conversations during office hours, which I now hold at all times of the day and evening, whenever students want to talk. The pandemic also generates added incentive for all to make sure that meaningful teaching and learning does continue to happen. Students and their bill-paying parents start asking, reasonably enough, whether online college is worth the high price they pay for college in person; and as the economy tanks in the spring, the post-college prospects of graduates look even grimmer than they did in January.

Graduating seniors may be even more freaked out by the pandemic than freshmen. Not only has the big finish of their college careers disappeared in a cloud of acrid smoke, but so have many of the entry-level jobs for which they were hoping to compete. Seniors send me wry, fatalistic updates from their old bedrooms, to which they have retreated without much prospect of moving on to what they had previously imagined as exciting new chapters in their lives as independent adults. They’re feeling less like entrepreneurs, warriors or hunters and more like waterplants than ever.

Through late March and April and into early May, students show up on Zoom from their bedrooms and basements, from the kitchen table with a parent or sibling or roommate passing through in the background on the way to the refrigerator. A couple of them who stay on campus hunker down in eerily isolated dorm rooms to which the university has assigned them, some get sick and recover and come back, several take advantage of the university’s grade-amnesty offer and switch to pass-fail for the semester. But, except for two who drop the class, they all keep showing up, and we get on with our work.

We finish “Oscar Wao” and move on to a final unit of comparative readings: Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson on the counterculture, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jack London on outsiders in the city, Flannery O’Connor and Vladimir Nabokov on weird journeys. The students write and rewrite papers. Both the increased professionalism and the heightened anxiety of freshmen these days lead to plenty of action before a paper gets turned in. Many more students than in the past ask me questions about the assignment, try out ideas or send me a draft. Even if some just want reassurance, all this iteration tends to head off disasters and produce more thought-through arguments. A handful of students in the class decide to major or minor in English, but for many this is their one experience of a college literature class.

Did they get what they came for, or at least what I wanted them to get out of it? Are they ready — or readier than they were — to swim in the sea of language in our stormy times? It can take advanced close-reading skills to parse the super-compressed meanings of dueling slogans like “black lives matter” and “all lives matter” or the familiar sequence of what Anthony Fauci said, what the president’s free-form Twitter poem with 17th-century capitalization said about what Fauci said, what Fauci said and didn’t say about what the president said, and how all manner of commentators gloss the meaning of what they said. Are the students more prepared for meaningful employment, citizenship, difficulty and joy because they’ve arrived at a deeper understanding of the struggles of Dybek’s neighborhood kids navigating the passage to the wider world, Wharton’s warrior-waterplant or Diaz’s doomed nerd idealist and his toxic amanuensis?

I think so. I hope so. Lit Core online is less efficient, energetic, fun, humane and rewarding than it is in person. We get less done, and there’s more of a sense of just getting through it. But the essence of the class and why it matters hasn’t changed. The building of analytical skills in class discussions and in writing and revising papers, the routine of putting tools in the kit and testing their use, the mechanics of trial and error and reinforced practice — that’s all still happening. Reading through the pile of papers and take-home finals as I do my grading at the end of the semester, I can see that students are making interpretive arguments about meaning founded on literary evidence better than they did in January.

Like bars, libraries and boxing gyms, school is at once different in every incarnation and the same everywhere. Just as every library is an outpost of the Master Library of All Time and Space, every bar a sweetly imperfect copy of the One True Universal Bar, and every boxing gym an avatar of the Mystical Body of Boxing Gyms, every school I’ve ever been to — from the university where I teach to a kindergarten in an orphanage in Huangshi, China — is at once a unique place and a branch office of a world-spanning enterprise called School. In person or online, plague or no plague, Lit Core is school, and school in any substantive form is infinitely better than none at all. I do not labor under the delusion that I’m an essential worker, so I’m resigned to teaching online until the pandemic abates to the point that in-person college does not pose an unreasonable risk to public health. But the work still feels essential — and, though I know better, timeless.

Carlo Rotella is a professor of English, American studies and journalism at Boston College. His most recent book is “The World Is Always Coming to an End: Pulling Together and Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood.”

Model: Richard Simms/CESD Talent

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