Dhaka Diary: Teaching English Literature in Bangladesh

by Fakrul Alam

Teaching Literature . Oxford : Blackwell Publishing, 2003. 177 pp.

Nearly thirty years ago, when I first went into a classroom in the University of Dhaka to teach English literature I remember how terrified I was. I had spent a couple of days reading for the class and half of a sleepless night writing out the lecture itself. I think I had written out my lecture in its entirety—twenty pages at least! —and then memorized it. And yet once in the classroom I managed to blurt it out in about forty minutes, leaving me with ten minutes of sheer agony and embarrassment.

I wish I had Elaine Showalter’s slim but succinct introduction to teaching literature with me then. Turning to p. 111 of her book, I would have had a sense of deja vu in reading the testimony of a fellow sufferer: “It was scary…I knew the material, but I felt I needed a lot more help.” But having the book itself would have perhaps calmed me down and would have equipped me somewhat for that initiatory moment and subsequent hours, weeks, and months in class. Wise, witty, wide-ranging in its review of literature teaching practices and options, Showlater’s book is that rare thing in our profession: the perfect guide to the classroom.

Showlater is eminently equipped to share with us her expertise as a teacher of literature. Professor of English at Princeton University, she has taught English and American literature at all levels and all over the world for almost forty years now. Once President of the Modern Language Association of America and author of the seminal feminist study A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing and quite a few other major studies of English and American literature, she is one of the foremost teachers of English in America at this time. But the book also distils the experience of other major academics of the western world, presenting readers with expert advice on how to teach literature in the classroom.

Showalter begins her book with a chapter on the anxiety of teaching—the sense of panic beginning teachers have before class, “the fear of failure—the failure of one’s authority” reported by one of her respondents, who even wrote a poem about the experience: “To teach is to be battered/Scrutinized, and drained/Day after day. We know this./Still, it is never said” (3). She identifies seven sources of teaching-anxiety: “lack of pedagogical training, isolation, stage fright, the conflict between teaching and publication, coverage, grading, and student or peer evaluation.”

Lack of training is one of the main causes of teaching anxiety anywhere but my experience tells me that it is the number one problem for beginning teachers in Bangladesh. We are let loose in the classroom with no training at all, whereas in North America chances are that you have been a teaching assistant for at least a few years before you are perceived to be ready for the real thing. The consequence is that most of us enter classrooms without any sense of the audience, no insight into managing time, and no knowledge of the varieties of activities possible in a classroom besides lecturing.

In contrast, Showlater is a great believer in the idea that “teaching is a skill that can be learned”. To say that good teachers are born to the profession is to her to perpetuate a myth. She advocates a continuous dialogue with other teachers about teaching and is a great believer in teaching workshops. She also suggests that research and teaching at the university level are complementary; the good teacher is the one who is at the cutting edge of research. Personally, I am amazed at praise heaped on university teachers who have done no research at all for years: yes, he or she might be good up to a point, but isn’t the substance of his or her lecture going to be hopelessly outdated sooner or later?

Reading Showalter I realized that the first time I lectured I had suffered because of what she calls “performance anxiety.” Beginning teachers have something very close to stage fright; but not having been trained to perform, they are even more nervous than actors in standing up and playing the role of the teacher before a large classroom. Reading Showalter also made me feel that to teach well is to achieve the right balance between performing, imparting information, and making students think.

Showalter is also very helpful because of the suggestions she has either culled from others or come up with from her own experience. Thus she urges instructors to opt for mid-term student evaluations on their own so that they can adjust their teaching to meet student needs or to correct problems in interacting with students on their own. She also stresses how important it is to learn the names of students correctly, to develop one’s voice and physical movements and adjust them to classroom size, shape, and sitting arrangements.

Chapter 2 and 3 of Showalter’s book are about the theories and methods of teaching literature. She points out how literature was once taught because of its humanizing elements but is now viewed as “a mode of consciousness-raising’, as a means of identity formation, and of nurturing the imagination of students. Of course many of the points stressed by her and her colleagues may strike us here as irrelevant or impractical. Almost no one in Bangladesh—administrator, parent, teacher, or student—will thus agree with one of her colleagues who declares that “the objective of a course is not to cover a certain set of topics, but rather to facilitate student learning and teaching” or with another one who suggests that “the main goal of…teaching is to get their students to be “critical thinkers”—but surely these goals are not to be slighted even if in our country students come to the English department mainly to be fluent in the language and ready for the job market?

Showalter’s Teaching Literature is especially good as a handbook on the methods one can adopt for classroom teaching. She notes that an approach still preferred is of the teacher giving a “strong reading” of a canonical text in the classroom. Another method often adopted is the Socratic one where through discussions a teacher leads students “to discover predetermined clues and meanings.” However, she suggests that these methods are good up to a point since they may stifle alternative interpretations and discourage students from expressing their point of view. She presents instances of teachers who organize their lectures around “contesting critical interpretations”. She emphasizes that one can teach too by “questioning and making space for feelings other than one’s own.”

Reading Showalter’s Teaching Literature I was made to reflect on the major difference between the ways we teach English in Bangladesh and the ways it is taught in the west. We are still caught up in teacher-centered pedagogy whereas there the emphasis is on “active learning”. In their approach teachers listen as well as talk and adopt the kind of “dialogic, problem-solving pedagogy” recommended by the great Brazilian theorist of learning Paulo Freire. The problem, of course, in our country is how to do so in large classrooms and in a culture where all wisdom is supposed to emanate from the teacher. And yet if this goal proves difficult to implement not only because of the size of the class but also because students prefer to be spoon-fed rather than led to come to their own conclusions, it is a goal that we can ill afford to abandon. As Showalter puts it: it is “only the real exchange of ideas that makes teaching memorable”.

But whether we prefer teacher-centered pedagogy to one that prioritizes learning by students, Showalter is emphatic about the sine qua non of good teaching: “ The first step in teaching method is preparation, both in the course and the individual class.” She stresses the necessity of studying before the class and of teaching new material or that which is still fresh from a recent reading. I particularly liked the Emersonian emphasis in Showalter’s book: “Every course is a fresh start, a chance to start anew, to get it right…Each semester is an opportunity for self-renewal.” How can a teacher ever get jaded or sound boring if he or she starts every teaching term as a new one? She suggests too that the teacher must take special care to engage the student’s attention in the first class and that attitude, dress, body language, and appearance as well as statements about course requirements that are articulated in the first class are all important for the success of the course.

I found Showalter’s book full of stimulating ideas and helpful suggestions about the theory and practice of teaching. For example, she notes that studies show that our attention levels drop after ten minutes and therefore teachers must break or change their approach every fifteen minutes or so. She points out how one literature teacher who is considered outstanding, Bonnie Zimmerman of the University of California at San Diego, succeeds not by going to the classroom with notes but by “being totally focused on the students,” by conveying her “great enthusiasm” for the material she teaches, by asking “a few pointed and direct questions,” and by having “an overall sense and plan” for how she wants the class to go. Evidently, Showalter herself succeeds in the classroom, even in a very large one, by giving lectures that are structured and clear, using technology, and by “the deliberate introduction of the personal” experience without indulging in narcissistic behavior, as well as observing fairness and transparency in grading and of course by her scholarship.

The rest of Teaching Literature describes specific aspects of the pedagogy of the subject. She thus has separate chapters on teaching poetry, fiction, and drama. In the chapter on teaching poetry one of her correspondents suggests, helpfully, that the teacher of verse must foreground “languages, in its complexity, intensity, and relatedness.” Another expert on teaching poetry stresses the importance of demonstrating “sonic and auditory relationships” while others draw attention to the necessity of alerting students to metaphor, genres, punctuation, and the background. Quite a few of these distinguished teachers made students read out poems in the class before interpreting them. Some encourage students to memorize poem and even write them as a way of making them learn to appreciate poetry. Citing the observation of Harold Bloom, one of America’s leading literary critics of recent decades, she advocates “possession-by-memory”.

Showalter’s chapter on teaching drama is as helpful as the one on teaching poetry She indicates that a very effective way of doing so is to stage plays in whole or in part in the classroom since just as the meaning of a poem is fully realized when it is read out loud the essence of a play come out when it is dramatized. As one of her correspondents observes, a teacher of drama has to make students “think of a play not just as a book but as a script for a possible performance.”

I must say though that I was quite disappointed with the chapter on teaching fiction in Showalter’s book. She and her correspondents recognize the problem created by the length of a novel and the limited time that the instructor has but the solutions they offer aren’t very helpful. In fact, I found at least a few of the solutions offered to be eccentric. Isn’t the method adopted by Lisa Berglund of Connecticut College of making students study the eighteenth-century novel by candlelight and then write in that same light downright silly? The length of Showalter’s chapter here is indicative of her earnestness throughout the book in helping readers teach literature better, but its failure perhaps is indicative that the novel is an almost impossible form to handle in the classroom and that there are no satisfactory solutions to the problem posed by sheer size.

In view of the importance theory has assumed in English departments, it is good to have a chapter on teaching it in Teaching Literature. Showalter and the colleagues she consults on the subject recognize the difficulty of teaching it and the fear and/or loathing it can induce not only in students but also in some academics. However, she calls attention to ways of overcoming resistance to theory through methods that stress active learning in addition to “patience and imagination.”

In the chapter on theory and in subsequent chapters Showalter points at the Web as an endless source of material on teaching literature She has, in addition, useful tips about utilizing videos and films in classrooms. She offers a helpful collection based on postings from instructors on such key issues of teaching as beginning the class, asking the opening question, controlling discussions, course planning, pacing, and continuity, classroom management, ending classes, grading, and making use of student course evaluations. She has something to say about teaching controversial texts, especially on teaching texts containing explicit sexual language. I was particularly taken by her emphasis on teaching as “a humane, humanistic, value-laden art’ and how teaching can be therapeutic in times of personal tragedies, something I have learned from my own experience.

Showalter concludes her book with a chapter on the joys of the teacher of literature. As someone who feels privileged to be in the profession, and who knows that he is learning about teaching all the time, this was a heartening chapter to read. Indeed, I found the book as a whole elevating and her conclusion that “developing a coherent teaching self is a lifelong process.” inspirational. Showalter also presents in her concluding chapter an observation made by another of her correspondents that I found particularly motivating, “Teaching is after all a ‘work in progress’.” Yes, that’s exactly it! I am of course no longer the nervous young man who had rushed through a wad of material in forty minutes thirty years ago in a literature classroom at the University of Dhaka, but I feel that the process of learning about my profession that began so inauspiciously that day has been greatly helped by Showalter’s Teaching Literature.

September 18, 2005
Fakrul Alam is on leave from the University of Dhaka and now teaches English at East West University, Bangladesh.