Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What is Literature?: Sorting into "Yes" and "No" Piles

That's the question I posed to class last night. Then, I asked them to create a "Yes" pile and a "No" pile of literature. As I listened to them last night, and as I read through their comments this afternoon, I have so many questions.

One thing that came up last night was that romance novels, or smut, or Harlequin novels, for many, were not considered literature. The argument was that these books were not well-written and they use stock characters. Michael mentioned that Western novels do the same thing, yet we didn't mention that particular genre in our "No" pile. I was also interested in that comics were in the "No" pile, but graphic novels were in the "Yes" pile. Also, book series, were mentioned in the "No" pile. Great Expectations was listed in several "Yes" piles, yet I couldn't help but notice the irony in the fact that so much of Dickens work was serialized. Was he the Stephanie Meyer of his time? No vampires of course, but he kept his audiences asking for more.

There seemed to be an unstated thread that it might not be literature if the book was too entertaining. In most "No" piles, the list was filled with non-fiction texts--how-to manuals, cookbooks, and even travel guides.
I read much more non-fiction than fiction these days. It may be a phase, not sure. Right now, I'm reading A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson and Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel. In a sense, I suppose, they are history books. Does that mean they are not considered literature?

Two of my favorite "travel books" are Charles Kuralt's America and Blue Highways by William Least-Heat Moon. Another item in the "No" pile was maps. Least-Heat Moon talks about maps frequently in his books (thus, the "blue" highways that he drove based on his map). Do maps tell stories?

How do our definitions of literature affect how we approach the teaching of literature? I feel like maybe they were left wondering what the point of this conversation was. In fact, I feel like I need to return to it briefly tomorrow night and have them talk about why they think I asked them to talk about this. Why would it be important as a literature teacher to discuss the question "What is literature?" There didn't seem to be a lot of questioning going on. But, maybe I wasn't reading that correctly.

What's the purpose of having a narrow definition of literature? And, what are the consequences of narrowly defining "literature"?

What are your responsibilities as a teacher of literature?

Did you feel open to including books into your literature category?

I shared this post with a teacher and she said, "If I didn't allow kids to read how-to manuals, they wouldn't read all year." I'm not sure that she's always thought that how-to manuals were literature, but they are that now. How does her definition of literature affect the students in her classroom?

Can you have a personal, aesthetic interaction with a how-to manual?

NCTE writes, "Literature is that collection of texts that best help us develop higher levels of literacy."

According to NCTE, literature affords the following to students:
1. an aesthetic stance
2. empathy
3. conversations about purpose, values, and self
4. reflection
5. multimodal experiences (students bring with them classroom knowledge about a variety of texts--Gee)

Why does literature matter?
What are the criteria for "literary quality"?

Many of these questions come from the NCTE draft report, "The What, Why, and How of Teaching Literature"

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