English class

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English class

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Jan 4, 2008, 2:15pm

So, we twenty-somethings aren't too long out of high school/college. Does anyone else have any funny memories about being the person who loved to read in a class full of people who didn't understand?

In my A.P. English class senior year in high school, most everyone else was extremely reluctant to discuss The Handmaid's Tale, which we had read over summer break, because of the sexual content and this one particularly graphic portion where it repeatedly uses the "F-word." The class discussion was along the lines of how the book (and that part in particular) made them uncomfortable. Everyone thought I was weird anyway, so I went into a f-word laced rant about how I thought it was a f-ing amazing book.

These people were reluctant to read or discuss any book with conflict or non-family friendly content. And these were all honor students, like me.

Jan 4, 2008, 2:35pm

I went to school in France, where from the age of 16 students are segregated into streams according to the "speciality" they have chosen: science, economics or literature and languages.
Despite being in the literature stream, I was one of few people who enjoyed reading. Unfortunately, our french lit. teacher did absolutly nothing to encourage those who were less enthusiastic; teaching a class for her consisted in droning on monotonously for two hours while her students picked their noses or watched the flies buzzing above their heads.
But we soon discovered that there was one way to liven the class up: get her on to the subject of sex, at which point she would become very animated and start waving her hands around. It became a sort of competition among us: seeing who could find phallic symbols in the most unlikely texts.
Sometimes it didn't work. I can still see her, standing in front of the blackboard with her arms crossed and a puzzled look on her face, saying "I don't think that's what Proust had in mind with the madeleine, Anna..."

Edited: Jan 4, 2008, 4:47pm

You can lump me in the group that doesn't care for the F word or excessive sexual content. That's entirely my prerogative and I don't think it's something I should be ashamed of... your comment that "these people" were (oh wow) "honor students," as if intelligent people should naturally have no personal boundaries about swearing and sex, is rather insulting. I don't expect my personal rules to apply to you and I'm in no way trying to put you down if you do like books with lots of R-rated stuff... and I'd appreciate if you'd return the favor :-). I was an honor student too :-P

It's not that I won't read any books with that content. But I don't enjoy a book because of that content, and using the F word doesn't = quality literature. If I read a book with lots of sex and language, it's because the book has other merits that outweigh the things I don't care for.

ANYHOW... one thing that shocked me as an English major was the number of fellow English majors who hated reading. Seriously. They would moan and groan about the reading assignments, and I'm thinking, "um, are you in the wrong building or what?" Same with writing papers. It's what English majors DO.

Jan 4, 2008, 5:08pm

@ wisewoman: I entirely agree with you on one point: I loathe gratuitous use of swearing and excessive sex/violence (except when it comes to provoking lit. teachers). I object to writers like Bret Easton Ellis on this basis.

However the point that weener was trying to make is that her classmates' attitude towards The Handmaid's Tale was excessively prudish, especially seeing as the book's sexual content isn't at all excessive OR gratuitous, and is an important part of the narrative. You can expect from honor students to show proof of a little more open-mindedness; a serious student of literature can't afford to shy away from legitimate sexual content (it's what makes the world go round, after all!).

I too know an impressive number of English students who never read a book outside of class; I also know quite a few who have lost all conception of reading for pleasure and reckon that anything less high-brow than Doestoevsky is beneath them; they seem to regard reading as I regard going to the gym: no pain, no gain.

Jan 4, 2008, 8:57pm

High school English classes weren't too bad, but my middle school reading classes were the kind where I was the only one who enjoyed reading. It was routine for my teachers (in any subject) to make a pass by my desk to ensure I didn't have a book in my lap or in front of my textbook. It amused them.

My college English classes are the same way now. What is it with people shelling out thousands of dollars and then b*tching about the coursework? But that's a rant for a different time.

I don't mind being the odd one in my classes, it just means the teachers like me more than the others. :)

Jan 5, 2008, 11:01am

I've never read The Handmaid's Tale and I did not reference it in my post (though weener does mention a "particularly graphic section," as if there were many but this one stood out).

annkarina wrote: I loathe gratuitous use of swearing and excessive sex/violence (except when it comes to provoking lit. teachers).

Ah, but who decides what is gratuitous and what is legitimate use of obscenity in literature? I submit to you that everyone decides that for him- or herself... and trying to force your personal boundaries (or lack thereof) on other people in the name of literature is rather egocentric.

As I said, I read books that have graphic sexuality and profanity scattered throughout if it's just that: scattered, not forming the entire body of the work from cover to cover. If a book containing those elements is well-written, or has a very profound discussion of the human condition, or has wonderful characters, I will read it and enjoy it very much. Many times the R-rated material will be, as you said, an important part of the narrative. I recognize that.

But that doesn't mean that intelligent people (i.e. "honor students") HAVE to enjoy discussing those things in a classroom setting. For me, sex is an intensely personal thing and I would not be comfortable discussing it in a classroom of strangers. And I do not swear. I don't understand why my personal boundaries (that I am not forcing on anyone else) should be judged irrelevant in the light of (so-called) great literature. Again, who decides what's great literature and what isn't? Open-minded doesn't mean that a person must throw all of his or her personal values out the window.

Jan 5, 2008, 11:48am

Thanks for getting this thread off-track. For the record, The Handmaid's Tale touched on the subject of women's bodies being used as tools and property in an opressive theocracy. The scene was not intended to help the reader feel comfortable. My classmates complained at being made uncomfortable by a page on a book: how did they think the character in the book felt? They did not understand how their negative reaction might have meant that the author had succeeded. In their opinion, the scene/book was a failure because it made them think about something they didn't want to think about. To them, if it makes you feel bad, it has failed.

If you had read the book, you would realize that it's not graphic sexuality and swearing cover to cover. In fact, it's almost all in that one scene, with a scene or two of less-graphic sexuality later in the book. You might enjoy it. But my classmates' reaction was closed-minded and prudish. I did expect more from the other "smart kids."

Confronting their attitudes with a swearing-filled rave was pretty gratuitous and egomaniacal, but I was 17 and the class clown to boot.

They were also turned off by two scenes in The God of Small Things: one where a little girl decorates a pile of cow poop with flowers, and the description of a very old dog's shiny, bald testicles. I responded that I wished we read about nothing BUT piles of poop and dog balls.

Jan 5, 2008, 12:13pm

To get back to the original subject, I'm interested to see that in the USA (I'm presuming you're from the USA, correct me if I'm wrong) you study so much contemporary literature at high school level; where I went to school it was presumed that anything published less than 70 years ago wasn't worth studying as there wasn't enough "critical distance" (?!).
The syllabus was also centered exclusively around french literature.

I'm still amazed to hear that anyone could find the sexuality in The Handmaid's Tale offensive (even at the age of 17)...

Jan 5, 2008, 12:50pm

I am in the U.S.A, yes. And we studied the classics too, such as Crime and Punishment, but it was nice to be able to read some contemporary stuff. We had a great teacher. :)

Jan 6, 2008, 12:02pm

weener wrote: Thanks for getting this thread off-track.

You're welcome! :-) I just love rabbit-trails.

Really though, I don't mean to come across as snippy. I'm sorry if I have. I just didn't care for the inferences that could be drawn from your post — and, since we're all adults here, I thought we could discuss it. As far as I know LT doesn't have a rule about threads having to stay strictly on-topic.

weener wrote: In their opinion, the scene/book was a failure because it made them think about something they didn't want to think about. To them, if it makes you feel bad, it has failed.

Well, I'm not defending that kind of attitude. Often we need to be made uncomfortable to make things change (like Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin sparking the Civil War — not exactly a fun-filled read, but how necessary!). I'm just defending people's right to follow their personal convictions about explicit material in a classroom setting. I do not believe being intelligent means (or should mean) that you have no personal inhibitions — that's all.

weener wrote: If you had read the book, you would realize that it's not graphic sexuality and swearing cover to cover. ... You might enjoy it.

First off, I never said it was. And second, thanks for the recommendation; I'll look for it. And I will be sure to tell you how I like it!

I don't even remember those parts of The God of Small Things. I was much more turned off by the brother-sister sex.

*makes an attempt to get back on topic*... I remember a funny moment in an English class. We had a Japanese professor, a sweet little man of 85 (no kidding!) who was so happily clueless and good-natured about everything. Sometimes he got his words garbled because he talked so fast. We were talking about Nathaniel Hawthorne's books, and my professor called The House of the Seven Gables "The House of the Seven Bagels" — twice! It was very amusing. I don't know if I can ever take that book seriously now :-P

Jan 7, 2008, 12:13pm

I'm sure I wasn't the only one who liked reading, but I do recall our teacher asking a bonus question on a test, something like "which poem we have just studied was quoted in a Star Trek movie?" I'm preeeetty sure I was the only one who got that. :D

It was Sea Fever ("all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by"), in case anyone was wondering.

As someone who was a prudish honor student in high school... I never did understand why they always seemed to pick books with semi-disturbing content to read. Catcher in the Rye and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are the two in particular... I wonder how I'd feel about them if I read them now.

>10 atimco: The House of the Seven Bagels.... priceless. :D

Jan 7, 2008, 4:38pm

Onetroo-I think they do it to try and get the non-readers' attention. My last English teacher went out of her way to point out the sexual contexts that we wouldn't have picked up on.

Jan 8, 2008, 6:11pm

What I remember most about my English Literature class at high school was that my tastes were completely opposite to the rest of the class. I really enjoyed studying Heart of Darkness as it's brilliantly written and also incedibly easy to write essays on, because it's so dense with themes, symbolism and ideas. The other students in the class hated it - they all preferred the other novel we studied, Tim Winton's Cloudstreet, which I think is incredibly overrated.

The other thing that's stuck in my memory is that our teacher couldn't pronounce "Massachusetts" at all. It was quite amusing when we did The Crucible.

All nine students in my Literature class liked reading books. All the people who didn't (over 100!) took English, where they studied The Matrix.

Jan 11, 2008, 12:39pm

13- In a bizarre twist, the students who took English and studied the Matrix may have had a better start on the path to teaching university lit classes, as literary and cultural studies slowly move closer to merging into one entity.

On topic, I remember in one English class in high school we read the poem "This Be the Verse" by Philip Larkin (The one that starts "They **** you up, your mom and dad") and I asked my teacher if the title came from the Robert Louis Stevenson poem "Requiem." He had never heard it, so I recited the little poem from memory and I don't think the rest of the class knew whether to laugh or throw me out. I guess the thought of reading fiction outside of class, much less POEMS was pretty foreign to most kids. I've pretty much always read poetry for fun, and, as with words of any kind, they tend to stick pretty firmly in my memory. I wonder what they would have done if I'd recited Prufrock.

Jan 29, 2008, 5:29pm

One of the memories that stands out in my mind from high school literature classes was my sophomore honors English unit on irony. And how even in an honors class, in a unit on irony, my fellow students were absolutely REPULSED by A Modest Proposal. We were supposed to be reading it quietly to ourselves, and I distinctly remember being the only one giggling under my breath.

Feb 22, 2008, 4:48pm

We read Beowulf in my senior year AP English class, and as everyone else complained about it, I couldn't stop raving. Since then I've been meaning to read the Heaney translation, but I haven't gotten around to it.

Mar 16, 2008, 12:55pm

I think that almost everyone in my English classes hated reading. I remember reading 1984 and everyone hated it but I absolutely loved it.... I loved it so much I went out and bought the DVD a few year later.

In college we also read it for one of my poly sci classes I think again I was the only one who read it.

Mar 17, 2008, 5:24pm

I loved reading, but I always seemed to hate whatever books our teachers chose in high school. So people rave now about The Great Gatsby or Heart of Darkness and all I can remember is being ridiculously bored and tired of them in class. So even though I was reading all the time outside class, I still was one of the kids who hated English class itself!

I should really go back and reread all the books we did in high school. I'd probably get a whole lot more out of them now.

Mar 21, 2008, 10:01am

There's something about being forced to read a book that can make it terrible. I don't know what it is, but even if I'm doing a reading group, I feel this sense of obligation and my inner rebel just... rebels :-P

Mar 21, 2008, 11:29am

I decided to stick with regular English instead of AP and one year some how ended up in a class full of people who didn't have a clue and didn't care.

We read all of the books out loud in class that year, but I'm such a fast reader that I always ended up reading ahead of everyone, so would be done with the book/chapter/section long before the class. This one other guy and I both ended up sleeping through half of the class. The teacher never said anything to either of us. I assume he figured that we both read the book and could answer pretty much any question he asked, so why not let us sleep. :D

Mar 21, 2008, 11:31am

>18 jorowe:

I was the same way. There were very few books that I read in school that I actually enjoyed, but I read TONS outside of class. I never could figure out why they couldn't pick some good books for a change!

Mar 21, 2008, 2:26pm

Yeah, I hated Johnny Tremain for that reason. I didn't like the class or the teacher. In fact, before high school I don't remember liking any of the books assigned in class. They always picked ones that were boring to me.

Mar 25, 2008, 12:15pm

I never much enjoyed the books assigned for class, and still don't see much to a lot of them. The exceptions were Crime and Punishment and the works by Shakespeare. Other than that, nothing much. I've gone back to some of them to see if there was more there than I saw when I was younger, but the only one my opinion seems to have changed on is Heart of Darkness.

Mar 25, 2008, 1:24pm

Senior year of college I was in a sophomore-level short fiction class (it fit my schedule & was somewhat relevant to my interests). The only English major in the class, and one of two seniors, we read a story from the 1920s, wherein I insisted that a character was not the modern use of the word "gay" but instead "gay" in the sense of meaning happy. Despite my well-worked arguments and careful text citations (and yes, I was right by the way), half the class just looked at me like I was crazy. That was a failed experiment on many levels.

Mar 26, 2008, 11:44am

And the teacher didn't step in? I try to lead solely discussion based classes and give straight history/explanation as little as necessary in favor of the students doing so (in sophomore level classes), but if there's a historical misunderstanding like that, I'd feel the need to step in as the teacher to back up the student...

Mar 26, 2008, 11:59am

I had hoped he would, but he didn't like me (I'm still not quite sure why). My favorite professors would tell us when someone got a fact like that wildly wrong, and correct it nicely without making anyone feel like a total moron.

I mean, I'm fine with people disagreeing with me, but only if it makes sense. In 1920-something the color purple would have been known as referring to excessive luxury/royalty, not homosexuality. As I said, not the best class I've ever taken.

Mar 26, 2008, 10:33pm

That somewhat reminds me of a class discussion of Willa Cather's "Paul's Case" - in which we're told that Paul is "a bit of a dandy." My professor was much better about it though - he made it clear that this doesn't necessarily mean Paul's gay, even though the content of the entire story suggests he is - the word in itself just suggests what we today might call "metrosexual."

Anyway I was telling a friend about the story and about Paul being "somewhat of a dandy" and my friend said, "You mean he's gay." And I got to counter him with my professor's lecture on the history of the word, its meaning during that time period, etc.

Go me!

Mar 27, 2008, 7:24am

In my high school English class, we had to read "The Catcher in the Rye" by JD Salinger. I was the only one in the class who hated Holden. Everyone kept going on about how he was so great and when it came to my turn to talk, I said "I found him annoying."

Everyone jumped on me calling me insane.

People in the class were talking about how they empathized with Holden and that they saw a lot about in themselves within Holden.

It was at that point I saw my teacher smirk a little. Afterwards, she explained how Holden was pretty much crazy and how he refused to talk and communicate and thus would never grow. She mentioned how it's hinted that Holden is telling the story to a psychiatrist, to which many of the people in the class balked at and suddenly had a negative view of the character.

Mar 27, 2008, 2:45pm

Ha! Good one, warrick. I couldn't stand Holden either :-P

I must have been a weird kid though. I read Catcher on my own.

Mar 27, 2008, 2:52pm

Now'days I get excitable and try to discuss Milton's Paradise Lost or Dante's Inferno with my coworkers. They give me weird looks. I've learned to keep those thoughts in my head (mostly). Now I inflict it on them in other ways (this was actually for work...):
Pretty sneaky, huh?! I thought it was nifty.

Nobody ever understands book nerds, except other book nerds. Ah it's a lonely life.

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