Why I Teach Literature

While studying English at university in the 1990s it never occurred to me that one day I might teach literature. I could not imagine myself in classroom full of unresponsive or indifferent facial expressions, similar to those I used to give my teachers. 

As a child, I was an avid reader of books on minerals and the solar system. Later, I became fascinated with the English language—I would copy encyclopedia entries, etymologies of words, and abbreviations aimlessly but zealously onto paper like a scribe. Fictional literature was still terra incognita to me. In truth, reading and analyzing classic works of literature gave me the shivers. How unscientific and boring novels were, I mused. 

My view shifted the moment I “had to” read literary masterpieces for my English literature classes at the University of Presov in Slovakia. Listening to a lecture about the symbolism of the river in Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness was an epiphany. Now I knew that literature was meant to be explored in quite different dimensions than nature or the universe. The snake had charmed me.

It was only after I was exposed to the novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles that I began to realize my joy of reading may also be caused by my active, careful, and recurring engagement with the text. I was struck by the enigmatic narrative and a new type of narrator who shattered my illusion of what I had considered fiction. I was mesmerized by the linguistic playfulness that fiction allowed. What was more, on a more personal level, I was beginning to understand my own place in the new society, which only recently set off on a new path to democracy. Just as Fowles’s narrator reevaluates and challenges the Victorian era, I also had to come to terms with my childhood spent in the socialist republic. 

As a teacher, I knew that my class discussions would inevitably influence the next generation of citizens. In one class on Heart of Darkness that occurred during this transformative time, I emphasized how the ambiguity of language and racism in Marlow’s narrative could give us insight into how literary language can be a useful tool for thinking about Slovak history and our present situation.   

The idea that literature could be more than an object of research, curiosity, or creativity—that is to say, to think of literature as a possible career—came to me when my supervisor wrote a comment on my essay on John Irving’s novel The World According to Garp: “This should be read at conference.” I was both flabbergasted and flattered. From that moment on, I toyed with the idea of teaching at university until one day I was offered a job as a lecturer at my alma mater. Subconsciously, I must have wanted to challenge my students to experience the same feelings I had about fiction. 

Another novel that’s been important to my teaching is Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. The novel’s main heroine, Dellarobia, is mother to two small children and she is dissatisfied with how everyone in her Appalachian town thinks of nature. While landslides, floods, and deforestation trouble the local farmers, no one would expect an everyday woman to be so sensitive to the dramatic environmental changes occurring in Tennessee. This dystopian novel gives humanity hope in the future by contrasting the trivial and unique, the sense of selfishness and the sense of perseverance, and the difference between the natural and artificial. Dellarobia observes her son Preston watch the migrating monarch butterflies: “She watched his dark pupils dart up and around, puzzling this out, looking without yet seeing. Mine, ours, her heartbeat thumped, making promises from the inside. This was better than Christmas. She couldn’t wait to give him his present: sight.” The pastoral and poetic mood of the novel juxtaposes the everyday concerns of the villagers—paying loans, religious ceremonies, and hard work in a sheep farm. For my students, Kingsolver’s focus on environmental problems and, more importantly, her methodological approach to tackling such issues is unique and necessary for our class discussions. 

Today, thirty years after the establishment of democracy in Slovakia, society is threatened by climate change, new forms of nationalist, racist xenophobia, and the destructive effects of globalization. Many people have become complacent, all but indifferent to the real problems surrounding them. But it is important to remember that writers and artists have been addressing directly those issues in beautiful works of art. My students need to be introduced the diversity of characters, problems, and ideologies explored by artists in order to reflect on—and make them relevant to—their own lives.