August 30 , 1999
Volume 52, No. 2
Gruber recalls a time when 'discussion' wasn't everything
Each year in the early summer a large box arrives not so mysteriously in my office. The box contains the evaluations from students who have taken our courses, and it's the responsibility of the chair to read this inundation of literature commenting on all the faculty and a good number of graduate students who teach in our department.
It's a time-consuming task to read hand-written commentaries on the 100-odd courses we offer each year, but it's a task I've come to value for all that. We are on the whole excellent teachers, if students' evaluations are any indication. Numbers on the college "bubble sheets" are high, and hundreds of students each semester tell our faculty and teaching assistants how much they enjoyed the time they spent in our company.
One of the things they most enjoy, it turns out, is "discussions" of literature. Our classes are rich in what we like to call "discussion," a concept in the teaching of literature that over the last 10 years has acquired the pull of a religion.
It's a funny thing about "discussion." Everything about the concept seems to be good for education, but it sometimes strikes me as a little too democratic an idea for what is essentially the undemocratic space of the classroom. The best class I had as an undergraduate was a class in which I said only one word. Literally. Here is how it was.
The class was called "Aspects of Fiction." It was a "seminar" of 15 people, and it was taught by Robert Penn Warren, the poet and novelist. The first day of the class we all sat in thrall as Warren talked, apparently spontaneously, about the first two paragraphs of Ernest Hemingway's novel, A Farewell to Arms. Warren talked for two hours about seven sentences (I just now went back and counted them), about imagery and prose rhythms and parataxis and narrative voice and something he called their "drift of import," and none of the rest of us said anything.
By the time the class was over two hours later I had filled the margins of my text with Warren's words. Who cared what I thought? It was like being in the presence of an angel. I sat in awe and listened and wrote down what he said. We were not students; we were disciples. We saw Art, Beauty, Truth.
Most of the rest of the semester was like that first day of class. After a couple of weeks all of us were convinced Warren had read and committed to memory every poem and story in Western literary history. That was the simple pedagogy of English 66, "Aspects of Fiction": Warren talked, and I listened.
"The book by Oswald Spengler," Warren started to say one day. "The " And then he stopped cold. Robert Penn Warren could not remember the title of Spengler's book. We were amazed, all 15 of us. In a class where we had got used to what seemed like Warren's total recall of every book ever written, this moment of forgetfulness was without precedent. What? A book he hasn't memorized? The stillness was deep and full of apprehension, and none of us knew what to do. So we waited during what Samuel Beckett would have called "a good pause." Then Robert Penn Warren tried again. "You know, what's it called, 'The, the-going down?-of the West.'"
"Decline," I said. It made me feel proud to be there to help him out. But it made me feel bogus too. My word was just filler, and I knew it; it was a good deal like the air in whipped margarine.
"Decline," Warren repeated in acknowledgment. Then he resumed his monologue about the state of contemporary fiction, and I said nothing for the rest of the term.
That was the extent of the "discussion" I remember from English 66, "Aspects of Fiction." Lest I give a false report, I should admit that other students that semester said more. But not much more. Whether or not we had opinions of our own about the novels we read, I don't know. Probably some of us did. But I do know that none of us ever felt disenfranchised because we were not able to discuss those opinions with Warren.
It's a story I like to tell, the time I helped one of the most famous American poets and novelists of the 20th century find the right word. But I would have to say also that it may not be entirely accidental that the class from which I learned most as an undergraduate was the one in which I said least. Looking back, I think I should have said even less. It's the curmudgeon in me, probably.
Bill Gruber is professor of English and chair of the department. This
story is reprinted from the July 1999 issue of the English department newsletter,
"Loose Canons," and is used with permission.