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What should you learn from a course in literature? Students and professors may and likely do have differing opinions on the content and form of a course on literature.  What are your expectations for this course? What are you hoping to learn? How and what does one learn from reading? If you are not the first comment, then examine and think about what has come before you. Your answer need not be long, but it should be thoughtful. (200-250 words).

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This comment should be posted before our first class on Tuesday.

20 Responses to “Why Study Literature?”

  1. Russell Jacobs says:

    Hmm… Writing the last post isn’t the easiest thing in the world with this question so I’ll try not to spend all my time repeating everything that everyone’s said, although I think there are some great points up there that are worth elaborating on. Literature (as in plural ‘works of’) automatically gives readers a set of strange (and awesome) dialogues. There’s the dialogue between fiction and reality where ideas move from the “real world” into fictional works, and often the other way around; there’s a dialogue between the works of fiction where structural and thematic elements are shared through inspiration and influence; and there’s a dialogue of philosophical ideas (questions of morality, politics, ect.) that’s kind of a blend of those first two dialogues (the arguments of real world political and social issues through the lens of their interplay in fictional works). It’s not all that hard to summon a dialogue between any two, three, or four works of literature and it’s a whole lot of fun. That is, in my opinion, why we study literature. It’s pleasurable to parse it and draw comparisons and find consistencies. We’re searching for dialogues.
    When we decide to study something like 19th Century Russian Lit, as Ben said, our dialogue is going to be heavily based in Russian history. We’re trying to understand Russian History through Russian Literature and vice versa. We’re also trying to understand Russian Literature through other works of Russian Literature. We’ll get to ask things like “who did that first?” and “who did that better?” and we’ll notice when writers make references to one another and build off of shared ideas. It will always feel like a fair comparison because there’s an obvious basis for comparison: 19th century Russian culture. So I guess how I feel about “goals” for the course is that I don’t have any other than to take, literally, a “course” through the various analytic paths that reading a series of books offers. I plan to learn a great deal about Russian Lit and history and culture but that will all come naturally, I believe, when we jump into the literature.

  2. Kelsey Calhoun says:

    Literature is invented fiction, and yet, as Mary said, it offers a moral and behavioral guide for readers. It is because of this skill of authors, of telling many lies to tell the truth, that we read literature and appreciate it as exploring and explaining the human experience. I’m interested in Russian literature as an example of how writers can synthesize cultural normalities, social order, political drama, the effects of landscape and place, and both personal and cultural philosophy into fictions that explain more about a specific time and place than a history book could. I also think it is important to study what is universal about literature, why a beautifully encapsulated story of 19th-century Russia still resonates with readers all over the world, and also how that story and its underlying assumptions, philosophies, and pressures contrast with those of other cultures and times.

    The immediate experience of a novel or short story is also vital for the questions that it raises. Small and large turns of behavior in the characters, modes of expressing themselves, small choices they make, all make us examine our personal experience; as Vanda and Juan said, we try to assemble scraps of our own experience to better live vicariously through characters. We watch them judge each other and be judged, and react to all sorts of situations. The study of literature asks us to engage with a novel or short story on several levels- a personal level, a philosophical level, and a contextual level, among others. I hope this class provides many dynamic discussions about each of our text’s multiple levels, and how and why the canon of 19th century literature as a whole still resonates with people of many different backgrounds.

  3. Romany Redman says:

    Literature is a miracle. Truly. The study of literature dangles at the end of a long line of nigh impossible chain of events. Others have mentioned the complexities of sociopolitical psychosocial economic geographical historical geological physical (and on and on) influences on an individual. The individual interacts with his surroundings, introducing some essence of the unique self. Then perhaps amidst all the improbabilities of coincidence and fate, a thought is formed, an emotion, an idea. Next, a desire to externalize that thought, perhaps in words. Words are the building blocks of language, a code of sounds and symbols that somehow convey meaning beyond the air pushed through a larynx or lines scratched on a page. So our guy, the potential author, externalizes some thought with neurons sending signals and triggering those ATP-dependent motor proteins, ol’ actin and myosin, burning energy, changing shapes of cells, which multiplied by a ga-jillion cells results in tendons pulling, joints vibrating, pressure of writing utensil on a page, and boom! –there are these little scratches and loops, representing a system of language, in itself a crazy miracle. Now, maybe this thought was externalized for the sake of externalization, like a diary, where one writes down anything to either read it back, ruminating for rethought or spitting it out for good. Other times, communication is the predetermined goal. Either way, a message may be conveyed to an entirely new person.
    Let’s personify the text. So there are these words on a page. They have the ultimate fight for survival: dodging the wastebasket, escaping the red pen, squeezing past the censors and the politics, the weather…everything. Sometimes, these words endure the ultimate suffering of translation, where thoughts are interpreted and rewritten with a whole new set of phonics and associations. Finally the text meets the reader, perhaps in a different world, with different values and different practices. Light on a page travels in waves to the reader’s retina, where photons induce chemical changes in rhodopsin, neurons carry messages to the brain, which can somehow draw out from the biological recognition of patterns on a page abstract, philosophical supernatural thoughts.
    At the end of all this, the fact that a response can be stimulated is a miracle. The odds just seem so against it. Like all of you have written before me, we DO learn from literature. Literature is a mirror, for the author, for society, and for ourselves. My identity changes as I relate from one protagonist to the next minor character to the shadows on the wall. Literature may not reflect real events, yet still gives perspectives of reality. The list goes on.
    All in all, it seems more probable to throw a tennis ball into the air and watch it stick there, defying gravity, than to experience literature. And that is why we study it.

  4. Juan Machado says:

    I agree with Vanda Gaidamovic’s first point that a reader somehow suspends the distance between himself and the text and often lives through fictional characters. This reminds me of a passage in Mann’s Death in Venice in which the narrator claims that although the protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach, had been a writer all of his life, his face showed signs of physical strain because in order to write he had to “live” through the same events his fictional characters had experienced. This dynamic relationship between an individual, be it a reader or an author, and the text is one of the many fascinating aspects of literature.

    My interest in taking this class, however, comes from my belief in the importance of intertexuality. No texts exists by itself, but is instead defined by the works that precede and succeed it. Thus, in order to better understand any text, one must be familiar with as many literary traditions as possible. Russian national literature was and continues to be very influential, but I’m relatively unfamiliar with it. By reading Tolstoy I hope to better understand Proust, and the same is true for Turgenev and Nabokov, Dostoevsky and Kafka.

  5. Vanda Gaidamovic says:

    I think what makes good literature fascinating and timeless is the perfect balance of practicality and art. The dialogue between external and internal worlds of the protagonist(s) offers an ideal combination of factual knowledge and the means of self-discovery: while the setting and the interactions between the characters provide a commentary on the current and impermanent social, political, spiritual, or moral issues, the inner world of the protagonists often deals with the fundamental human nature, and thus, with the eternal matters: our desires, fears, and weaknesses. We vicariously live through the struggles of the fictional characters, often emphasize and resonate with them, sometimes even learn from their errors. Yet the obscure line between the reality and fictional narrative allows us to maintain a safe distance between their world and ours. And that is why, perhaps, we still repeat their mistakes. All that delivered through a fluent, skillful language teaches us cohesive thought and clarity of communication.
    I second Rouan’s point that literature is an inseparable part of the language. Frankly, I am taking this course because I grew up speaking Russian, yet I never knew what this language was built of, how it evolved, what the culture behind it was. Thus, I am hoping that this course will fill in some gaps in my education and I will have a better grasp of what Russia and its people represented in the past, and who and why they are today.

  6. Laura Howard says:

    As an Art History major, I have learned to look at works of art in a “Triangle” sense — the triangle being made up of three points: the context, the artist’s personality, and the viewer’s personality. Discussing each one of these points is vital to the interpretation of the work. A book, like a painting, building, or sculpture, is also a work of art and can be approached in the same way. I believe that a good literature class will teach the student to view a literary work with these same three points.
    As a work of art, a book should “open up the world” to the reader. Studying Art History opens up the world to the viewer because the viewer learns about social history, battles, politics, fashion, and love. The same can be said for reading. Literature classes, like art classes, simply act as the key that unlocks the meaning behind these works. My hope is that this class unlocks the world of Russia from the 19th century. I like Benjamin’s question — why is Russian literature so compelling to Westerners?

    I would love to explore this question further and look forward to hearing each member of the class’ discussions of how he or she has been influenced, or (over the course of the class) is being influenced by the Russian authors. From personal experience, Russian literature (Anna Karenina) was appealing because the characters, their lives, and their locations seemed familiar. I could imagine the events actually happening. I read the book while I was on a kayaking course on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, and each time I started to read it took no more than two seconds for me to become immersed in the snowy, frilly, high-class world of the 19th-century Russians, which I knew nothing about but about which I felt myself to be an expert as soon as the books was over! My hope is that this course “opens up the world to me”, as Anna Karenina did.

    Sara said “Literature is a mirror. It reflects the face of the author and the society surrounding him or her. ” Her assertion is almost completely correct, except that Literature, as mirror, also reflects ourselves and what we bring to the work — our past, our histories. In this class, the professor and each student will be able to share the interpretation of the work based on these three points, or reflections. Throughout the semester, as a whole we will all benefit.

  7. Bryanna Kleber says:

    Language is the fundamental means of gaining self-knowledge. A literature course should not only nurse a growth in developing skills of understanding foreign and translated text, but promote an understanding of the impact a novel has on each reader. Additionally, a reader can experience the journey an author goes through in an exploration of identity that transpires into the written work. Naturally, the literature we read will expose us to diverse voices and experiences.

    Like Sarah, I hope to also take a step away from the actual novels and question why each author wrote and what his purpose was? Were there particular events going on in the world that prompted a an author to write about a certain subject? What did the authors want to accomplish? How did these novels impact culture, society, and other literature? I am looking forward to learning what particular parts in each novel are vastly different in beauty and flow when in the original tongue, Russian.

    By immersing myself in Russian literature, I hope to get a sense of the soul of the people and places whose culture, beliefs, language and perspectives differ greatly from those in the US.

  8. Anna Mackey says:

    Literature is an illuminating and lasting medium that offers endless interpretations, discoveries, and opportunities for analytical thought. Like the others have written, understanding the connections between a piece of work, the time period during which it was written, and its country of origin can illuminate much about a society and its culture while creating a richer reading experience. Recognizing how those connections remain relevant and exploring why these stories are still purchased and read today is also essential to grasping the immortality of literature.

    Reading literature also hones ones ability to think critically and analytically, and tests the reader to recognize both the details and the big picture and how they shape one another. I believe this ability is an important one that spans many academic fields and areas of life, and literature is a great means through which to learn it.

    From this course I hope to gain a better understanding of Russian history and culture, of which I know very little of now. I hope to have insightful and diverse discussions about student’s individual interpretations of the readings. Learning about the individual authors would also be interesting and enlightening.

  9. Flora Weeks says:

    I agree with just about everything that has already been stated in this discussion. This includes the importance of discussion, historical relevance, and individual reactions to a literature course. The one thing I would like to stress more than others have to this point is the personal connection to the literature. Many people have written about how literature will speak to each reader in a slightly different way, but I also think there is a unique perspective gained from reading literature of a specific time. Even though this perspective is skewed by the author’s views and experiences, literature is still able to provide insight into the daily lives of common people that is often not available from history books. This understanding of the more common lifestyle can also help us to understand how larger historical events were shaped as well as how they were seen at the time.

    In addition, there is certainly a lot to learn about yourself by reading literature, but even more to learn about yourself when taking the extra step to discuss the literature. It is always interesting to compare how you react to the plot, or particular characters, to how others react when reading the same passage. For both the historical relevance and the discussions, I am excited to take this class.

  10. Kevin Carpenter says:

    I believe that most literature accomplishes two basic, yet highly nuanced aims. Literary works attempt to tell a story and convey a set of ideologies. A literature course should address these two aspects, both the narrative and the interwoven messages that permeate through the story. Through studying the text for character development and plot progression, one can hopefully gain some insight to struggles of the human condition, often in terms of dealing with hardship and suffering (especially in Russian literature). And once the groundwork of the narrative is well established then one can delve into the author’s editorial; one can try to exhume the author’s message from the story or ponder questions raised through the text.
    I hope this course explores the context in which the works were written. Like Katharine and many others, I feel there is an inextricable link between many Russian authors and the context in which they wrote. To separate the author from his environment can dilute the work’s intent and make one blind to cultural and sociopolitical references in the text. Dostoevsky, for example, had numerous deep-rooted biases against certain groups, like socialists and progressives, and knowing his biography and historical milieu opens one’s eyes for the religious undertones in his texts. And ultimately I would like to examine these extra-textual settings and also how the Russian authors we study played off each other’s works and exhibited similar or different themes and styles in their texts.

  11. Benjamin Kingstone says:

    It seems that the greatest desire in this course is to understand Russian Literature of the 19th Century through its historical lens. Russian literature, more than creative works published elsewhere, has often been altered, tainted or manipulated by temporal politics and social change. It appears also that Russia, particularly 19th Century Russia, has created some of the most striking, inventive, absurd and lasting art. What makes Gogol’s stories–however odd–still relevant today? What makes Anna Arkadyevna’s story universal? Why can contemporary readers name many 19th Century Russian works–like Crime and Punishment or War and Peace–but few 20th Century writers or works from the same country? Why is Russian literature so compelling to westerners?

    From this course I would also like to gain a better understanding of the historical moment that launched these books. Like Emily, I am interested in what critics–like Nabokov, for example–had to say about these works. How did they reflect the novels that preceded them and influence works that were to follow?

    What I think a good literature course teaches students to do is read widely, write precisely and think deeply. I expect that this course–by the very nature of the society that inspired these works–will hold our attention. I would like to come away from the course with a better understanding of Russian literature as a genre but also particular differences that distinguish each author (Why do most readers typically love either Tolstoy or Dostoevsky but not both?). Given the complexity of many of these narratives, I anticipate learning to better analyse individual works and their idiosyncrasies.

  12. Rouan Yao says:

    As others have pointed out previously, I feel that the study of literature serves a more individualized purpose than many others would. Unlike the sciences, where students strive for the pursuit of knowledge or the arts, where students strive to create, literature teaches students to appreciate. Of course, appreciation of a work of literature, as with a work of art, resonates differently for everyone. This, I believe, is the inherent challenge of both teaching and taking a literature course.

    How could this be dealt with? Well, I feel that the best thing a teacher can do for literature is provide the context or a better understanding of literature, through a historical or cultural study of the work. However, the importance of facilitating effective discussions in class, in my opinion, overshadows all other backgrounds which a teacher could provide.

    A goal that I have in taking this class is to gain a better understanding of Russian culture, in both historical and modern contexts. The novels of the Golden Age has undeniably shaped the psyche of the Russian people today – the brief span of a few hundred years dominating Russian pride over the much longer span of Slavic history.

    Contrary to the opinion of some of the previous posts, I believe that construction of the literature is also a very important part of the language. The flow and rhythm of words, as well as syntax, are part of what makes Russian literature so beautiful and memorable. However, given the nature of this course and the fact that we will be using translations instead of the original Russian texts, these goals may be unreasonable, to be saved for another course or another time.

  13. Alexandra Siega says:

    As others have said before, the main goal of a literature course is to discover the context from which the works were written. On the student’s part, a course provides the structure for the student to look at a creative work from a rational lens and determine the relationships between characters and their environment. The professor facilitates the student’s process by helping her understand the historical, political, and religious context, which in turn furthers the understanding of the cultural and social context presented in the work. Often the added insight revolutionizes prior discoveries, for the actions of a character within a different context take on a new meaning.

    From this course, I expect to better understand the evolution of Russian literature and culture. Modern literature and film is riddled with references to works from the Golden Age—many of which we will read in this course—and I feel that it is imperative to study these works to fully understand the modern Russian mentality. I am also hoping to decode the system of Russian morality and philosophy that fuels many of the debates seen in the works; context will help greatly in understanding the political and moral positions of each character.

    One learns from reading by approaching a work with both a creative and a critical eye. Though we are reading our texts in translation, last semester’s Russian Modernism course highlighted the importance of word choice. The way in which each situation is presented plays a large part in how we react to the text, especially its characters. Mary had a great point in saying that literature sheds light on our own personal and cultural preferences, and I feel that I learn most from stories that contain characters that I can identify with, either positively or negatively. A good work of literature is able to harmonize language and subject matter in a way that causes the greatest amount of impact on the reader, and it remains timeless because it has the ability to touch the lives of modern readers from an older time.

  14. Melody Wang says:

    In response to the very first question(What should you learn from a course in literature?), I find it to be impossible to compress what I should learn from a course in literature into a catalogue of expectations or precepts, because by doing so would reduce the all-encompassing nature of literature into a didactic field of study. Therefore, I do not want to confine myself to certain categories of interest, and am open to and interested in anything that the works have to offer. Just as everyone else has mentioned, I think it is important to be informed about the historical, cultural, social, theological, and moral context/basis of all the works, as well as the mutual critical reception and influence in which all the works have contributed to one another; however, given the limited time we have in the course, I believe that we will manage to find these information in the works themselves. Additionally, the works can also provide a common frame of reference within which our class can discuss and reflect upon. In short, I prefer not to expend too much time outside of the works themselves in attempt to correspond the works to a particular period of historical, social, politic, cultural, theoretical backgrounds/concepts.
    I find reading to be a highly personal and subjective experience, and I learn from reading through my identifications with the characters’ tensions, emotions, and struggles.

  15. Sarah Bellingham says:

    Literature is a mirror. It reflects the face of the author and the society surrounding him or her. It houses an underlying philosophy and worldview, puts forth emerging thoughts of the author’s time and beyond, and lures the reader onto the side of the protagonist—regardless of whether he or she may be a murderer or adulterer or otherwise.

    When taking a course on literature, I strongly feel that it is important to not only address the novel in terms of its style of prose, but to also consider the historical context in which it was written. Furthermore, what was the author trying to say with his or her work? What was he or she trying to accomplish by publishing it? Was it even published immediately?

    Of course, looking at the characters, themes, style of prose, etc. are all things that I would expect and enjoy as well. However, I still feel that these individual aspects find their worth when approached in terms of the novel as a whole and the time, place, and people that produced the work.

    By the end of this class, I hope to have a better understanding of the philosophies behind the great works of literature that we shall read. I would like to have an understanding of the novels that is deep enough to allow me to discuss them my host family in Russia to find out what they think the novels do or do not reflect about Russia and the Russians.

  16. Emily de Koning says:

    As the others have stated, a literature course (particularly one that focuses on a particular time period) should acknowledge and study the influence of cultural context on the arts. I would be especially interested in to looking at how authors of the same time influenced each other’s writing.

    It would also be interesting to observe the critics responses to works. Critics of the same time period can help clarify the differences between what is portrayed in the literature and what is the reality of that time.

    I would also like to learn about the social structure that existed in Russia at the time. Let us remember that these works were written before the revolution and that the author’s opinion of the political situation in Russia can help us understand the context and genesis of revolutionary ideas.

    I agree with Margaret that the morals portrayed in works can serve for educational purposes, to guide the readers and show them what is socially acceptable through examples. However, whether all of these works were intended to educate the readers is debatable, instead I believe that some authors wish instead to bring the flaws of their world into the spotlight.

    What I am looking forward to in this class, like Margaret, is the possibility of discussing my the observations on these great works of Russian literature with others and to listen and learn from what others see in them.

  17. Margaret Fulford says:

    I definitely also agree with Katharine as to the importance of literature being in a culture and temporal context. I have read things before that did not acquire the entirety of their meaning until I learned what was happening in the author’s country at the time, and one of the most interesting things to me about 19th and 20th century Russian literature was the climate in which those works were conceived and published.

    A course in literature should have a strong concentration on the aforementioned “cultural and temporal context,” for lack of a better/more concise term. Even when authors are not writing specifically about the culture or political climate or anything era-specific, they as people are products of their time and their writing is influenced as such.

    In this course I hope to learn not only about the books themselves but about the authors, their lives and the trials they went through in writing and publishing their works. The “story behind the story” for The Master and Margarita fascinated me and I would very much like to learn that about other authors.

    Stories, whether written or oral, have served as cultural instruction for children since time immemorial. Reading is an important method of gaining access to the countless lessons to be learned that have been written down over the years. It is obviously best to study literature in its original language, but a skillfully translated version can convey much of the content regardless. A lot of the learning through reading in truth comes from the discussions one has with others about a literary work, one reason I am looking forward to our course this semester.

  18. Mary Robinson says:

    I agree with Katherine and Brandt’s comments about the purpose of a literature course. I would like to add that students should discuss not only the events of the book in the context of the story and the society in which that story is set, but they should also determine why it is important to read this literature today, and what relevance it has to their lives.

    In this course in particular, I am hoping to discuss the authors themselves, in addition to the literature they wrote. In these novels, characters often have debates about their personal philosophies. I’m curious to know about the personal philosophies of the authors and then examine how that is reflected in the books they wrote. I think this is necessary to understand the work, and will be useful should we decide to read other books by these authors later.

    In reading great literature, one learns how to live and how to think. The novels that we will read this semester are full of questions and debates about morality and religion. It is important for readers to examine the characters of a story and their actions. The readers must then determine whether or not they agree with what the characters say, do, and feel, and, most important, why they do or do not agree. Reading novels like these make the readers examine their own values and worldview, which can have a significant impact on the readers’ lives.

  19. Brandt Silver-Korn says:

    I absolutely agree with Katherine’s position that it is important to explore the webs that connect authors in a given country or time period. However, I also believe a literature course should explore not only how these webs developed and were influential within the particular society where they contemporarily existed, but how the literature impacted authors in future generations and literary styles outside of the society where they were created. Furthermore, I believe a course in literature should give an individual a better sense of what they like and do not like reading, as well as a better understanding of his/her own personal stances on the issues presented in the given work (political, religious, etc…).

    In this course, I would like to understand how 19th century Russian literature developed, how and why certain works were similar or different from one another, and what the impact of Russian literature in the time period had on future literary styles around the world. I also hope to learn how perceptions of these authors and their works changed over time, both inside and outside of Russia.

    One learns from reading by connecting the ideas and style of a given work, to other literature, acquired historical knowledge, and one’s own set of cultural beliefs. He or she learns about how history interacted with itself, both on a micro and macro level, as well as how this interaction is received differently from one person to another.

  20. Katherine Burdine says:

    I feel that in a literature course it is important to explore, not just individual works, but the connections and webs of influence that link the literature of a certain country, or a particular time period. No author, even the greatest, produced his or her work in a vacuum, and I think that one may come to a deeper understanding of an author or a work by making sure to understand the context in which that work was produced.

    I hope that this course gives me a deeper sense of the historical community of Russian writers, how their society influenced them and how they influenced their society. I would like to know more about how Russian literature, which began by simply imitating Western European literary forms, eventually developed its own distinctive style, mood, and voice.

    One learns from reading by paying attention, reflecting, and getting a sense of the author’s ideas, voice, and values. What does he or she ignore? What is important? How is the book like others? How is it different? All these questions are helpful in achieving a deeper understanding of a given text.

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