Kicking off a new era in this site, I want to talk about teaching. And although there are many things to be said about teaching that reflect quite negatively on the whole experience — just read this piece, by the inimitable Mary Beard for a perfect assessment of some of the shortcomings of the current climate in universities — I want to use this space to be positive: to remind the world (and myself) just why teaching is such a great, rewarding, mutually beneficial experience.
Last week, all of my seminar groups were looking at Andrea Levy’s Small Island for the second week running. (Two things to say about that: firstly, the groups don’t always do the same text — it’s up to them the order in which we cover the reading list — but at this end of the term, with essay deadlines approaching, things came together, and they did all want to focus on Levy. Secondly, they don’t always take two weeks per text, but it’s quite long, it’s getting towards the ‘no more reading, please’ end of term, and also — and I can’t stress this enough — it’s AN ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT BOOK.) Having focused more on the first half of the book the week before, this session saw us look at the second half — and also concentrate more on what students need to be doing in their essays (due in, at the time, in just over two weeks).
One thing that I make a point of stressing to my students, when they come to write an essay, is the importance of close reading — particularly as a way to start an essay answer. Starting a piece of writing by focusing on the nuts and bolts of a certain episode, then broadening that out into a view of the book in general, and ultimately the concerns of the module: this, in my view, is the sign of a really good start to an essay.
With this in mind, and looking at the second half of the book, I came across a passage about migration, racist attitudes, and WWII, which I read out, with accompanying ‘this is how to do close reading’-type asides; it included the following gem (at this point the narrative is from the point of view of a British soldier, returning from fighting in WWII in India, who is faced with the fact that his wife has opened the doors of their family home to ‘Windrush generation’ lodgers from the Caribbean, and doesn’t like this one bit):
These coloured people don’t have the same standards. I’d seen it out east. Not used to our ways. When in Rome. . . Lost on these immigrants. ~ Andrea Levy, Small Island (London: Hodder Headline, 2004), pp. 469–69
Now I’d read this passage before, but not closely — not as I was asking my students to do. So this was the first time I’d properly focused on that tailing-off phrase ‘When in Rome. . .’ I asked, after I’d read it out, what it meant; what was being implied, here? After some coaxing, they generally agreed that the ending that was missed out was ‘. . . do as the Romans do.’ But why, I asked them. (A favourite tactic of mine.) Who, originally, would have been brought into Rome from outside; what was the city of Rome the centre of; what was this ‘Roman way’ that was decreed? Slaves, Empire, and imperial dominance. Nowadays, the phrase is the sort of thing you get in guidebooks, as an exhortation to cultural integration: ‘learn the language, try the food, behave as the locals do’. But originally, it was a sort of unofficial motto of Empire: ‘slaves will do as we do, regardless of where they come from, because we’ll kill them if they don’t‘.
This is why I love teaching: because it’s in this sort of reading exercise that I force myself to think about some of the meanings behind literature. Students learn, but so do I. Also, not entirely unincidentally, this is why I don’t really understand people who say ‘oh, I’m glad I didn’t have to read that book for school/college/university: having to pick it apart would have destroyed it for me’. For me, it’s almost exactly the opposite: I get more out of the books I love by analysing them.