Friday, July 03, 2009

Teaching Lit

Today I brought a double-barreled shotgun to class. The shotgun's name was "Hills Like White Elephants" and the class was Lit 2 - Literatures of the World. I needed the shotgun because I now sat on the other side of the teacher's table. I needed to make a good impression. A shotgun makes a good impression. I like to think the students went away impressed.

With a shotgun, you can make people talk. As a teacher, the greatest challenge is to get the students to talk. By talk, I mean about the subject at hand, not to each other. That challenge runs double for us here in the Philippines, where we're taught since birth to keep quiet and do as we're told. "Hills" got my students talking.

To get them to talk, I had to wield the shotgun a little creatively. Like a bludgeon maybe, whacked over their heads several times. As gentle as whackings go. "Hills" doesn't lend itself to a casual read -- it takes several times before the story reveals itself. What exactly are these two people talking about? What is this "thing" that seems to hover over them?

To get to that answer, we took another path. How do you characterize the man? How do you characterize the woman? Do you think you could be friends with this woman? What would you say to her? After a few tentative and timid mumbles, somebody blurted out: "The man is arrogant and manipulative." And then: "The woman is too submissive to the man."


"If she were my friend, I'd tell her to stand up for herself." "A relationship is supposed to be two-way; it can't all just be about what the guy wants." "She shouldn't just consider the happiness of other people; she should also consider her own happiness."

"So what are they talking about?" Still more furrowed brows, unsure about the answer. "If you were sitting next to them in a cafe, and you eavesdropped on their conversation, what would you think they were talking about?"

"I would say they have a big problem."

"A big problem, you say? What sort?"

And then, the answer dawns on the class.

"Hills" is about as perfect as a short story can get; and that's why it's perfect to start of a literature class. It's short, it's spare, but it's very deep. Don't weigh them down with theory or structure just yet. Hit the ground running. Literature is about stories. Get
started with a story.

A little later, I'm the one surprised by the revelations of hitherto-undiscovered meaning. My students are nursing students in their senior year, and to them this is just a minor subject; but
they're bringing their own experience to bear on the story.

"You say the beer means something?"

"Yes, sir. It's a depressant."

"Really, I didn't know that. I thought people drank beer to be happy."

"In small quantities, yes, beer gives you a good feeling. But if you drink too much, it has the opposite effect. You'll fall into a depression."

It's my own eureka moment as I discover another aspect of "Hills" I hadn't seen before.

And so the ideas start coming out. They're coming in trickles, yes, but they're steady trickles. There's still a ways to go to get to the free-flowing and -- dare I say it? -- heated discussions we normally see in workshops. But this is a start. I'm happy.

Always bring a double-barreled shotgun to class. Bludgeon, poke, cajole, and shoot.


  1. awwwww. i so miss lit classes. haven't enrolled this sem bec of a too heavy teaching load. hopefully next sem ulit. i wouldn't mind enrolling in world lit over and over again, really.

  2. As it happens, I just read the story the other day. But I'm glad to say that after reading the story I haven't gone through all that guessing and speculating on what must have the two been talking about. Why? Because in the head note of the story (I'm using the anthology edited by R.S. Gwynn), it says: "Stories like 'Hills Like White Elephants,' in which the unspoken subject is abortion, earned him a reputation for daring subject matter..."

    There you have it.

    Btw, as you can see, this is my first time to comment on your blog. But I have been reading your blog regularly, as in every day. In fact, I've added you on my blogroll to make sure I won't miss a post or two.

    Can you add mine, too? It's

  3. Don't you just hate spoilers?

    Adding you to my roll, but only because I like what you write and how you write it.

  4. Dr. Ness: maybe you should teach it. ;-)

  5. so... how did they get to the answer to "what the problem was?" :D

  6. teach lit...hah!
    that is my secret dream, when i retire from clinical practice i want to teach physiology AND literature. but i have a long way to go before i finish the lit course as i can only enroll in one or two subjects a sem. nonetheless, it's the journey, it's the journey...

  7. Sometimes, I do. Spoilers take away the excitement of discovering something from the story--a revelation, an insight into life, a fact that's always there but we simply don't notice because it's there, etc.--an excitement which, to begin with, belongs to the reader, and to him alone.

    Sometimes, however, I don't. It's because spoilers give a nudge on the reader's side to think that the story is not actually what the reader thinks it is. Case in point is F. Sionil Jose's "The God Stealer." When I read Jose's essay in which he talked about what does the story mean, I reread the story. Then I found out---for the first time---that it's more than a tale of two friends. The character Philip actually represents our country, The Philippines, and the character Sam represents the other country, U.S.A., our colonist.