Dhaka, Bangladesh
Students, teachers ponder literature in an age of technology

Students, teachers ponder literature in an age of technology

"Literature allows us the chance to get out of our own worlds and see the viewpoints of characters," he said. Brown said he's not one to idolize famous authors - he recognizes their flaws, he noted - but he said he finds the whole process of seeing through another's eyes to be valuable. The reasons for studying literature in college have always been complicated and deeply debated, but at a time when technological skills are strongly emphasized, those reasons might be up for more debate than ever. As a cluster of English teachers at MCC noted recently, as they reflected on their work, it's essential that the study of literature help prepare students for their careers. But that's not the end of the story, either. "I had a student who said, 'I'm going into nursing. Why do I need to do this?'" recalled Lisa Rhodes, chair of the Division of Language and Literature at MCC, as well as an English instructor. "That kind of changed the way I approach it and talk to (the students) about it. One of the things I told them is that it's all about communication. Learning how to interpret and analyze and understand the written word helps you across the board - including with the spoken word." That approach, Rhodes suggested, broadens the course's emphasis. "We're not just learning about reading and writing," she said. "We're learning about you becoming a better communicator." Other teachers agreed that studying literature can help students in a whole variety of fields. MCC English Instructor Morgan Boothe, for instance, stressed the way working on a literary problem in groups can prepare students to work in teams. "No one's going to be an island," she said. "They're going to have to figure out how to work together." The teachers talked, too, about the complex role literature can play in a student's education alongside that of career preparation. "We definitely, as educators, want to give our students as much as we can to make them prepared for a career," said MCC English Instructor Corey Kelly. "But at the same time, we also serve a dual role in that we are enriching their lives." Rhodes said she and the other instructors also think - and think hard - about what sorts of literature will reach students. "We spend a lot of time and energy and effort on the choices we make of what literature we teach in the classroom, and not just because we want to provide our students with the ability to learn skills," Rhodes said. "We also think about what students will connect with." Kelly said seeking such a connection involves choosing literature from "as many cultures as possible." In some lessons, that may mean finding an essay from another college student, one who's reflecting on experiences that resonate with what the students in class might have encountered. But sometimes there are surprises, too, such as when Rhodes found her class responding favorably to the writing of Jonathan Edwards, an American theologian from the eighteenth century known for his fiery sermons. "I was teaching American Lit 1, and I (assigned) 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God' and they loved it," Rhodes said. "They ate it up. I walked in and they said 'Oh, Ms. Rhodes, this was good ...They were entertained by the tone of it because it was so different from what they get in their churches." Rhodes said students disagreed with the writing but enjoyed it anyway - and that's something that pleased her. "They disagreed with it but still liked it," she said. It's a phenomenon that struck MCC English Instructor Amanda Thompson as particularly important. "So you taught them the true form of tolerance," Thompson said. Other teachers, too, noted that tough texts - such as the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins - tended to fly well with students, helping them to open their thinking to worlds they may not have explored in the past. Teachers mentioned writers such as Sherman Alexie, William Faulkner and Alice Walker as striking affirmative chords with students, and Thompson said her pupils responded powerfully to Elie Wiesel's "Night." After they read "Night," Thompson said, they found other works about the Holocaust they wanted to share with her. "They were telling me, 'You've got to listen to this,'" she said. The teachers noted that the motivation for students to read such material might be related to career preparation - at first. But it's often something more far-reaching, they said, that carries them through. "Before they know it, they're discussing and analyzing literature - and enjoying it," Rhodes said. That's an experience that MCC student Jay Fritts, whose studies are concentrated in science, recounted recently. He said his "brain is really wired with math and science," and then he considered himself and other science and math students. "Sometimes we need literature," he said. "Sometimes we need literature to kind of open our minds a little bit."

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