Friday, September 16, 2011

On Boredom and English Majors

I decided to take a stand against boredom this semester. "I just think it's boring" is not a great way to get conversations moving and yet, sadly, it's sometimes the only thing a student might say all semester.
Now, I'm lucky. I teach literature courses for undergraduates at Rowan University where I, too, was an English undergraduate. I love the campus. The English department is in an old building with huge windows and lots of light. I don't get to teach in that building often because fire codes don't mesh with the large classes our department must accommodate (English is very popular amongst Elementary and Secondary education majors).
My students sometimes feel unlucky. Because I teach literature courses that allow me to teach Joseph Conrad's wonderful, uplifting, optimistic, and all-around hilarious novella Heart of Darkness. Okay, it's not any of those things, but it is one of my favorite texts to teach. It's flawed, troublesome, filled with fog and mud, metaphor and meandering sentences. I think it's a text that should be taught because it's these things. In fact, I think the issues of race, famously highlighted and chastised by Chinea Achebe, make the text one to look at MORE not LESS.
I've found my undergraduates are often slow to love Conrad's tale, but many of them do learn to love it. Or at least appreciate it. I won't lie and say I want them all to love it. My philosophy in the classroom has been to always try to help my students to understand a text. Loving it is optional and sometimes not possible as I have to sometimes teach texts I do not love.
But what I recently realized is that there's another problem with Heart of Darkness. Many students think it's boring. There's not enough dialogue to break up the massive paragraphs. Marlow's meandering narration can feel like 3 am college freshmen philosophizing. The plot -- despite being based on a perilous journey up the Congo river -- involves more waiting and talking about death than actual threats of death. I love it, but for my students it's certainly no Twilight or Harry Potter (the texts of choice of the last couple of years of readers and non-readers alike).
So, here's a slightly modified version of what I told my class before we began discussing Heart of Darkness:
I want to say something about boredom. Boredom is not something that is inherent to the text you're reading. It's not an inherent quality. I know that plenty of philosophers and critics would argue that beauty can be said to be an inherent quality in a piece of art, but I'm going to stop short of allowing anyone to say that a text contains boredom. I need to point out -- gently -- that boredom is, well, your fault. I don't mean that you are flawed. But I want you to consider that if you are bored when you're reading something it's not the text's fault. Look inside yourself and try to figure out why you are bored. I can suggest a few reasons.
  • Sometimes you have to read things that are given no context. You are not told when the book was written or why it was written at that time. You don't know anything about the world of the author and thus the world of the characters might seem just as strange. 
  • Perhaps there's a problem of focus -- maybe so much is contained in the text that you have no idea where to look closely. And, especially on the first read, your mind may prefer to wander off than to try to highlight everything as important. 
  • Perhaps, in a different way, boredom is a sign that the book just isn't for you. And when you are reading for pleasure, that's fine. I fully support people passing on a book that bores them if they got the book to be entertained. 
But as English majors -- as people who choose to study literature not simply "read" -- we have to use our boredom as a means to learn something, to be enlightened, to dive deeper into the text. Because, as book nerds, we love reading, but as English majors we love words, so we should use every opportunity to learn what the words are doing, why they work and, in some cases, why they don't. If the words don't work, if the sentences don't work, then if you sit there, you can't just stare at the page and say "This is not interesting to me. I'm bored." Instead use that moment to ask hard questions. The questions that start out in a negative place -- even one of judgment and rejection -- can lead to understanding. You may not end up loving the book. But if you can get past boredom, you've taken a step as a student of literature.
So, I cleaned some of that up and made the end more profound, but that was basically it. My attempt to try and start conversations that lead somewhere, not to engage in one where the judgment of boredom has been made and thus other inquiries rejected (because students stop thinking and caring if they are bored) I'm not sure if it was the greatest idea, the most inspiring speech, or if it ended up making some students more hesitant to speak up in class. But I gave it a shot.
Plus, I got an email from a student at the end of class that said "Just wanted to say that I never thought about the content of books, stories, and movies, like the way you described in the beginning of class. I'm one of those people who would normally say how boring the book or movie is, but I agree with what you said, it isn't the book that's boring, it's something in us that makes it boring. I had to re-read some parts [of Heart of Darkness] several times to make sure i understood. At no point was I ever 100% sure with what was going on or with what I was thinking. But I do think the story is interesting, in a very weird and uncommon fashion. I'm typing this as everyone leaves, and I just want to add that today's discussion indeed did help me understand some parts."
So, at least one person walked out thinking more positively!