The Secret of Good Humanities Teaching

It’s about learning the skill of rereading — of how much there is to find if you know how to look

eltpics / Creative Commons

September 14, 2015

This past May, when a former student was back at Pomona College to see his sister graduate, he (Julius) and I (Kevin) managed to steal away amid all the commencement festivities for a bit of Scotch in my living room. There, unbidden and (he claims) accidentally, he explained what I’ve since come to think of as the hidden structure of effective humanities teaching.

He said that his best professors "took texts that seemed complicated, made them look simple, and then made them complex again."

Something in that formulation rang true for me — this was what humanities teachers should do. In trying to explain it later to my wife, however, I felt like the idea was slipping away. (I blame the Scotch.) So I reverted to my role as professor and wrote Julius asking him to put the idea in writing — to clarify, please. What follows is our joint attempt at a more thorough explanation.

We think good humanities teachers do two things in sequence. First, the good ones take something that’s confusing and complicated for students and simplify it to the point where students have their bearings. They’re oriented; they can see in broad, general terms what a passage, text, or author is doing and talking about.

A teacher who can do that first step (and teach students how to do it for themselves) is competent. In middle and high schools, English teachers will usually be (and should be) satisfied just getting their students to this point — where they have a broad but accurate understanding of the themes, arcs, and ideas in the text.

But good college professors do a second thing, too: After making it look simple, and orienting the students, these professors will make things complex again. That is, they teach the text again, but this time show the subtleties and depths. They start bringing out the reasons that the text looked complicated in the first place — because it is. The stuff that was stripped away during the simplifying process wasn’t gratuitous padding or obfuscation after all; it was doing work, providing nuance and additional layers of meaning.

A good professor brings the complexities back into the text not as noise, but as music — organized by the broad ideas and structures that were exposed during the simplifying part of teaching.

The second part of good humanities teaching is how students start to see why the text was really worth reading — and reading carefully, and rereading. This part is where students see what sets great literature apart from beach reading (which has broad themes, too). It’s the depth of thought, the nuance, the management of difficult concepts, motions, and language — none of which can be easily summarized.

Those depths are why, in the famous chapter of The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry, Cleanth Brooks called the paraphrase of a literary text a "heresy." They’re why we read Hamlet itself instead of Hamlet SparkNotes. Bringing complexities back into the text is the part of teaching where the text itself — and the broad enterprise of taking certain texts seriously and thinking hard about them — gets sold: because the juice is worth the squeeze.

In part, we think, this two-phased approach is intrinsic to good humanities teaching because humanist texts generally aren’t about the transmission of information or data, but about the replication of an experience in a reader. A scientific text comes to us saying, "here’s what we’ve learned," while a literary, philosophical, or art-historical text instead says, "come see what I saw, feel what I felt, think what I thought." First you have to get students to understand the first-order experience — to understand Hamlet. Then you have to get them to step back and think about how and why that experience was created — to understand Hamlet.

Take Joseph Conrad’s epochal Heart of Darkness — another quintessential humanist text. Teaching Heart of Darkness always requires two trips up the Congo. On the first voyage, we’re trying to see just what’s going on among the confusion and the literal (or literary) fog of the story. Conrad, and through him our narrator Marlow, manipulates a continuous metaphor of atmospheric as epistemological fog. Although he insists that his goal is to make us see — to see the mythic Kurtz, to see the moral complexity of the situation — Marlow frequently despairs of the possibility: "Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream …" Our first trip through the novella then, like Marlow’s trip up the river, is largely just cutting through the fog.

But we need to make a second trip. (In that regard, the demands of the syllabus can be unforgiving.) By the end of that first voyage, we know that we’ve been lied to by Marlow, so it’s necessary to retrace our steps, his steps, and find out how he got away with it. What did Marlow know, and when did he know it? And when did we know that he knew it? The first reading of the story concludes that Marlow is lying while claiming to hate lying. The complex rereading seeks to understand why we, as readers, were so willing to be lied to. Confronting that dark truth is the true "horror" at the story’s heart.

A bad or mediocre professor will do just one of these two parts — the simplifying or the nuance of a text. Some professors only get students to a basic understanding of the themes and ideas involved, but that shouldn’t be enough in college: It’s hard for students to get excited about, or write well about, a topic or text that you as their instructor feel can be fully captured by a summary.

Other teachers skip right to some particular nuance or layer without providing context or orienting the students’ discussion and understanding of the text. In some sense that’s even worse teaching because it doesn’t really help students understand the thing they’ve read, and it creates the dangerous impression that the narrow point or issue that gets taught is all there is that’s worth paying attention to.

The second form of bad teaching is much more common in college than the first because it feels somehow more advanced — because it’s like graduate school. And in grad school, yes, you’re supposed to delve deep into some narrow scholarly topic, and once you’re teaching graduate students you can (or should be able to) expect that your students are already committed to thinking hard about literature, and they know how to read very carefully on their own, and they know how to write and organize their thinking about a text. But any productive discussion of a text should be premised on some shared understandings of themes, ideas, and story — and professors have to make those ideas explicit (if only to give students a chance to disagree). Nearly everyone, no matter how precocious, can use more practice at the fundamentals of reading and experiencing a text, particularly if that text is difficult enough to be worth teaching in the first place.

Good humanities pedagogy, then, is largely teaching the skill of rereading — of going up the river twice. The best humanities professors leave students with the ability and the desire to first make a complicated text simple and understandable, and then to reread and find the complexity again. They teach how much is there if you know how to look.

Julius Taranto is a student fellow of the Yale Law School Information Society Project. His work has appeared in Lawfare, The Yale Law Journal, and The Fiddleback. He studied philosophy and English at Pomona College. Kevin J.H. Dettmar is a professor of English at Pomona College. With Jonathan Lethem, he is editing an anthology of rock and pop writing for the Library of America.