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Confessions of a Dangerous Reader and Teacher

Online Only, posted 4.23.09

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III.

I suspect that at this point many of you are shifting nervously in your seats. We shouldn’t have to advertise ourselves, you’re thinking—if the kids don’t “get it” that’s their problem, their loss.

Wrong. It’s our problem, our loss. Because as long as they don’t get it, they’re not going to buy our books.

It’s easy for writers to get drunk on a strong denial of the realities of the marketplace ("Look at James Joyce; he died broke!"), and so our world is full of a strong prejudice against writers who have embraced those realities. They and their ideas are considered dangerous. Editors and publicists, with whom we plead to do the advertising for us, know the truth. Of course, some writers embrace the truth. There are the writers who self-publish and self-market (like Walt Whitman who self-published Leaves of Grass and sent it to Emerson, who made his reputation). There are writers who make opportunities for themselves by networking in the literary scene, at parties and readings and conferences.

What I’m suggesting—a writer-teacher-led, nationwide grassroots “Back to Books!” campaign—is another of these market-embracing tactics, but with broader goals than a book deal. Think of it as enlightened self interest. You still teach for all the lofty reasons—to make your students smarter, etc.—but you’ve admitted another reason: You teach because you are the best advertisement for books, period.

Remember the college English professors who legitimized your love of reading? The ones who took time to talk with you about the pleasures of devouring a book in a weekend, who stood in overflowing lecture halls extolling the virtues of Dickens, or at seminar tables getting you to say interesting things about Dickens? Like magicians, these teachers created the most amazing illusion: They made you feel really, really smart. For you, they were the best possible advertisement for books, period.

Granted, in our cases, they were preaching to the choir. We already loved books. But, perhaps, without their influence, we would not have stayed English majors, or gone on to write poetry and stories ourselves. Similarly, without our influence, our students may never pick up another book.

How do we start? Though this concept is still new to me, I have a few ideas (and if you have some, shoot me an e-mail.) It’s critical, for instance, that we don’t compromise our campaign with an “us–them” “reader/superior–nonreader/inferior” mentality. Because if you ask your students why they don’t read, only a few will “us–them” you by citing bad English teachers in their past or a gut-level dislike of books. Mainly they’ll cite things you yourself will recognize as distractions in your own life: Instant Messaging, cell phones, the Internet, hanging out with friends, music, and movies.

I’m also not advocating that we execute our marketing entirely in the classroom—or, at least, I’m saying that we have to be careful about how we do it in the classroom. We don’t want to pander to what Mark Edmundson has called, in his wonderful Why Read, students’ sense of “consumer cool.” For one thing, English teachers are genetically uncool; it’s only with alcohol and hip glasses that some have come to do a good imitation of cool, and truly cool kids see through them immediately. But more importantly, again, as Mark Edmundson has said elsewhere at length, and much better than I can—trying to be cool in class will only compromise our teaching; we are there to challenge, not to coddle and affirm. Plus, kids won’t take us seriously if they detect our desperation (“Buy me! Buy me!”). Worse, if we’re trying to be cool, we can’t hand out anything less than an A-, or maybe a B+, and with students’ writing looking the way it does nationwide, that’s just not an option.

Rather, what I’m suggesting is that in addition to taking our teaching seriously—as more than just a way to pay the rent while working on that novel—teachers of writing should try to reach out to their college communities in other ways. Why not host readings and panels and lunches aimed at proselytizing the uninitiated, seducing erstwhile readers? Why not ruthlessly advertise reading- and writing-based classes as a way to all forms of communicative success? Why not make the writers whose work you read in your classes look like rock stars?

I even have a few success stories to prove that this kind of campaign can work. A few semesters ago, I had a redhead who initially came to my 11AM class in his pajama bottoms, to sleep in protest. He swore he hated reading. He came around sometime in November when he discovered coffee and transition sentences, and he took my spring comp. course because he said I’d reminded him of why he used to actually like his English classes (for the record, he was not getting an A in my class). There were also the handful of “reading, ho-hum” students I discovered to have at one point read most of Agatha Christie when I formed an extra credit book club to read Death on the Nile before going to see the school’s production of “Murder on the Nile.” I convinced a Psych-major to minor in English because in my class he came to see that novels are about the mind, and that learning about the mind’s expression in literature would only enhance his study of how it worked. And then there were the pizza-lunch panels, which garnered a loyal following of non-English majors.

Some students, like my redhead, will simply, miraculously, like us, and will respond almost instinctively to the way we teach. Those students will read us. They’re bonuses, though—we don’t get points for them. We need to work on the ones who don’t automatically like us, the ones who used to read Agatha Christie and have stopped, or who have not yet seen the connection between fiction and Psych 101.

They’re our future customers. If we don’t get their attention, someone else will.

Kerri Smith is making a concerted effort to read more and is currently enjoying Bonfire of the Vanities.  You can read more of her writing in Guernica, Ellipsis, and English Journal.  She has an MFA from Columbia and is working on a novel. Smith is a freshman composition professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her Web site is www.kerrismithmajors.

Reader Comments

  • LaLoren says...

    Wait a sec––a writer and freshman comp professor who would rather watch movies and read throw-away magazines (Bon Apetit not included), complaining about students not reading! Then complaining about her "busy" life filled with academic conferences focused on solving the reading problem. Am I the only one who sees the absurdity in this?

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