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Marco V.


Teaching Literature is an essential guidebook for all literature teachers in higher

education. Drawing on her teaching experience, Elaine Showalter motivates instructors
to make their teaching strategies as intellectually exciting as their research. Showalter's
perceptions address real, theoretical, and operational issues. She first describes the
anxieties of teaching literature and by determining the main theories and methods being
used in the field. She then goes on to examine the teaching of drama, fiction, poetry,
and theory, and enumerate ways on teaching the teachers. Finally, she considers the
heavy issues involved in teaching, and the practical ethics of handling sensitive
subjects, from sexuality to suicide. Finally, she ended it with the good thing that can be
found in teaching literature, and that is happiness.
In the first three chapters, Showalter shares various teaching goals, she calls them
‘occupational hazard of all professors’ which say something about our ongoing anxiety
regarding our teaching. The implication of this could be that teachers generally wants to
discuss, at times confidently, WHAT they teach, yet, they become afraid or even ashamed
of when it comes to discussing HOW AND WHY they teach. She wonders if this anxiety
is more critical when teaching literature because, according to her, “unlike physicists or
economists, we are not confident of our authority”(p.3) and because “we believe that what
we say in the classroom reveals the deepest aspects of ourselves …feels like an
externalization of our personality” (p.3). After this, she categorizes teaching anxieties into
seven, namely, related to our lack of pedagogical training, isolation, stage
fright, coverage, grading, student or peer evaluation, and the conflict between teaching
and publication. At the end of it, she kind of made it clear that the book she wrote is not
for teachers who wants to escape their anxieties in teaching lit since she stated that her
book could only be a guide for those teachers who want to DEAL with these anxieties and
“go for the slam”. After this, she then mentioned some theories which are circulating the
field. These are quite wide-range, but not unfamiliar to the teachers and literature experts.
Some theories that are cited are New Criticism, Bloom’s Hierarchy of Cognitive Skills,
Fundamentalist Literalism, Critical Pedagogy, and the Personae – all of which encompass
the field of both teaching and literature itself. Methods in teaching literature is also
featured in the third chapter albeit general and no specifications on which genre each
method is appropriate; rather, Elaine specified strengths and weaknesses of each.
On the fourth chapter, Showalter presents some of the problems students
encounter with poetry from understanding the verse literally to examining its relevance.
However, poetry could have easy ways to involve students in learning because it is a
genre that lends itself to creative activities and hands-on methods. Some of teaching
practices cited include: the technical (focuses on literary terms and modifying a specific
form to grasp its technicalities), the historical (examining the period where the poems
were written to see if it has connection to the situation the author is in), the oral (reading
aloud, or memorizing, or reciting), the lecture (teaching students on ways to course
through the poem), the compilation/creation (writing poem is the main or final activity for
the whole semester), and the comparison-contrast (intertextuality between a poem and a
prose or a poem to a song/another poem). All of these approaches focus on guiding the
students to be more comfortable with reading and writing poetry and perceive it in various
The fifth chapter discusses the ways on how to teach the drama. In it, Elaine stated
some of the unique ways on how to teach it to the students. These include inviting some
actors and watching clips. Moreover, it also discusses some other ways on how to teach
drama other than just performing a piece. These include going to a theater or live
production, attending workshops, examining the history of the play, etc. This could imply
that other than performing or merely reading – a strategy mostly used in Philippine setting
– students and even teachers must also be able to see, hear, and feel the drama itself as
audience and as amateurs. This way, they could know what they want to see as an
audience and match it with what they want to perform as actors.

In teaching fiction, Showalter considers the different improvements teachers can

bring to fiction in order to boost student engagement in the text and different course

Reflections on the benefits and shortcomings of organizing course by author or by

theme or by period or by subgenres were cited as part of these supplements. Along with
these thoughts on type of content, there is an explanation on how to deal with the length
of the piece. The problems regarding the length of novels seems to be relative to student
number; for example, if students are employed fulltime and/or are parents, they might
finish the book slower than those who don’t have any other responsibilities. A solution for
this is to decrease the pacing, include fewer novels, and really enhance students’ close-
reading skills: daily journal entries that revolves around a small detail of the text can be
done to improve students’ reading comprehension.

Some strategies include watching clips for comparative purposes or to help

students consider narrative approaches, considering the experience of readers and
writers during the time the texts were written (asking students to read by candle light for
10 minutes and ponder on the experience when teaching a novel from a particular period
in the past), and treat it as though it were poetry or a play.

One flaw about this chapter is that it mostly focuses on novel and not any other
type of fiction such as short story, which is the mostly discussed type fiction in the
Philippines – according to experience at the very least. The interesting part here is when
Elaine shares her strategy of making the novel and the course as one. It’s interesting for
a course that is all about teaching fiction. However, in the Philippine setting, literature has
never been separated into its genres (poetry, prose and drama) except if the students are
taking literature as major – so it is still impossible for this strategy to be used. Nonetheless,
since the discussion of this chapter is all about teaching novel and there is little discussion
on short story, the strategy on the novel and its integration on the course syllabi for the
whole semester could be done in 1-2 sessions when teaching short story since the
difference in length is significant.
Another feature from the Teaching Literature is they way teachers could handle
pieces with explicit or dangerous contents such as suicide and sexual content. From what
Elaine said, it could be inferred that if it has heavy and serious content, it still should not
be censored since it is the essence of the piece – to show how it feels like being suicidal
and being sexually harassed. At times, these contents are disturbing for some readers
(especially those who have suicidal tendencies or are traumatized by an event in their
past), but it is the job of literature: to disturb – to break the balance of things and bring
something eerie, different, and unique the normal cycle. There was more to it than suicide
and sex – depression, relationships, needs, impulses, histories, even a way of thinking
about feelings. All things which concern normal people, and teachers, despite being not
trained to be therapist, could detect these to those students who writes the same way. In
the end, it’s not a bad thing to discuss this in class, if dealt correctly, it could be a way to
promote awareness and even treatment for those who suffer from the same situation.
Reaching towards the end, teaching theories that focus on engaging students
directly with the formalist approach of the texts appear to be the most evident in the book.
Also, it could also be said that it is the most productive based compare to activities that
were included in Teaching Literature.
Despite this, one of the statements of Elaine Showalter is that students’
uneasiness with the form of the piece can create walls that could limit their potential of
digging deeper with regard to the content of the text.
While many of these strategies are already being applied in the classrooms, there
are still more practices that Elaine Showalter has included that are unique, interesting
and student engaging. This book could really be a book for teachers who want to break
the status quo of teaching literature. This book could be used by all the literature teachers
who are anxious, but still brave enough to imagine and elevate the way of teaching. As
she said in the book “This book is all about real teachers in real classrooms”.