by Kelsey Healey
The last lines of Christopher Freeburg’s essay “Teaching Literature and the Bitter Truth About Starbucks” in my Profession book are now practically unreadable, so completely have I inked up the page myself. Upon reading those lines for the first time, I may have gotten a little carried away with the underlining and the starring.
Freeburg writes: “If we do not help them understand better what it is they are doing in our courses, then we undermine their potential success and ours. We should, especially for undergraduates, emphasize vocation more. We should… present the tools and options our fields offer in the most clear and cogent ways. What will make the students themselves bitter… is the realization that we didn’t ask them to do enough.”
Freeburg’s point about informing students about the relevance of their work, and the vocation they’re involved in, and the bigger conversation going on outside of the classroom is spot on. The idea of “vocation” and the “options” available in the field of English is something we definitely don’t know enough about as students for most of our undergraduate careers. And while job-mindedness is not and should not be the primary focus of our educations, it IS important to know what is going on outside the university. And, how we can not only passively consume knowledge but contribute and produce it as well.
His essay reminds me of Sidonie Smith’s essay “The English Major as Social Action,” when she talks about students’ work having an “afterlife.” She quotes Marshall Gregory, “Information we can look up, but when a thing gets absorbed, it turns into ideas and skills, and it turns into forms of socialization and cognition that shape students’ intuitions and that strengthen their powers of language, imagination, judgment, and reasoning.”
As hard as it is to define the value of studying English, the above quote at least gets at one big part of it. The ideas, skills, intuition, judgment, etc. that we may gain are part of the “afterlife” of our work that Smith mentions. Freeburg echoes Gregory when he says that students cannot “grab the syllabus” and accomplish on their own what they would accomplish in class. It’s not just about the information, but also the skills being learned and honed, and the participation in a conversation.
Explicitly addressing the ways in which our work is not “inconsequential after submission” makes such a difference in the classroom experience, and I think it is just not done enough. If we’re not getting the sense that the work we’re doing is relevant, then what’s the point? I think this holds true for college as well as high school. When assignments and classes have no “afterlife,” they feel like a waste of time, and that’s not fair to students or teachers. And frankly, that’s where the “bitterness” comes in. Furthermore, having assignments in English classes and humanities classes that we don’t connect to a bigger picture outside the classroom only contributes to the myth that these courses don’t have real-life value.
As much as I love it, it’s not enough to just read books and write about them and call it a day. It’s vital to give students “an awareness of what they’re doing, why they are doing it, and what it offers them beyond the loose rhetoric of critical thinking and writing skills.” Students should ask these questions more often, and teachers should help them always to arrive at some answers. Otherwise, we’re just going through the motions; we’re just David Foster Wallace’s little fishies, swimming blindly around with no idea what “water” is.