In “Critical Editing and Close Reading in the Undergraduate Classroom,” Erick Kelemen argues for a textual approach to teaching literature in an effort to “demystify textual media and thereby increase students’ ability to negotiate and interpret textual mediations.” Demystification is an important pedagogical concept for teachers of literature, particularly when it comes demystifying the writing process (Peter Elbow first cried for demystification in the composition classroom). Once students see all the decisions and factors at play before a manuscript is published, they better understand the importance of process. Many models students are exposed to in the classroom come in polished, structured formats that give the impression that genius and talent are innate qualities and are the only contributing factors to an end product. We can blame the Romantic Movement for elevating the idea of writer as a solitary genius. We can also blame proceeding critics for distinguishing the concept of genius as a cultural value. I like to demystify the notion of writer as genius right way by showing students in my online class a manuscript of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. This image shows the impact of not only publishing but also print on writing as a lengthy process demanding reflection and revision.
What my students first notice are changes to the title. Most of them are drawn to the title because it’s the most permanent feature of the text left in the cultural memory of readers. Hardy and his title have become metonyms. When they notice that Hardy’s title could have been something other than Tess of the d’Urbervilles, it begins to open their minds to the fact that works of literature by famous authors were once texts, a product consumed by readers, recirculated and transmitted within various cultural and historical contexts.
Textual studies could also help demystify poetry. Chapter 4 of Showalter’s book discusses the alienating effect poetry has on today’s students. As an undergraduate, I enjoyed novels because I felt alienated by poetry. Poetry looked like cult language that only a select group of highly educated could understand. Whether I was the victim of the residual effect of New Criticism or whether it was because I was reading the poetry of only canonized British white men, I am to this day, a little frightened of confronting poetry as a critical reader. This doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate it or that it doesn’t move me. My personal experience is one I can share with students to help them develop connections with poetry. Showalter says that one of the ways we can help build a bridge between students’ experiences and poetic language is by make poetry relatable, “familiar,” and “emotionally relevant” (64).
Showalter provides further chapters on teaching fiction and the novel, mentioning some challenges teachers face when teaching long novels. I see myself grappling with the same kinds of issues when I assign readings of various novels cramped within a space of twelve weeks, and even less if I’m teaching in the summer. Showalter does not offer this tip but I think digital resources can assist students and teachers in their endeavor to complete large volumes of fiction in short periods of time. The Victorian Web, for instance, provides rich pieces of credible information on almost every topic relating to the Victorian period. Embedded hyperlinking allows the content to stay organized and fosters quick and easy access. Because contextual and background knowledge is crucial to constructing balanced interpretations when reading eighteenth and nineteenth century fiction, access to digital resources equips students with the confidence and literacy to begin conversations about historically complex works of literature.