Saturday, March 14, 2009

Amy Hungerford on Blood Meridian

Here are both parts of a two-part lecture on Blood Meridian from Yale Professor Amy Hungerford. (These are the transcripts, but the video is available as well.) She focuses her lectures on the topic of allusion, and actually begins with the same McCarthy interview quotation that I used in my post on Blood Meridian. She draws some very nice parallels with Moby-Dick and Paradise Lost and makes interesting comments about the historical source of the novel as well.

As I read through these lectures, though, I'm struck by some of the differences between college and high school teaching:

1) This lecture is basically an essay, albeit a rather loose one. Having prepared this two-day take on Blood Meridian, Hungerford (if she's lazy, or busy working on her own research and writing) can now teach it year after year without even re-reading the novel. If she doesn't want to, she has no need to test and refine her interpretation by re-reading and having to account for the many parts of the novel that she more or less ignores. (This is what Nabokov did before embarking on his teaching career in America—wrote a series of lectures on literature, later collected as a book, that he delivered verbatim for the rest of his time as an instructor.)

2) She also won't have her reading tested by students' questions. The class discussion here is quite shallow. She asks her students if they liked the book; then she asks why. That's it. After that, it's all pre-packaged lecture. I suppose students, if they have more specific questions, can go talk to her during her office hours, but that probably won't happen much, and it's also much easier to handle (or deflect) a tough question one-on-one in private than it is to do so on the spot in front of a whole class of students. 

3) It's only in the day-to-day reading and discussion—the type that tends to go on in high school classrooms—that the teacher is really forced to make sense of an entire book, and to be prepared for the type of close questioning that makes for a satisfying close reading. As a student, having worked my way through Blood Meridian for this class, I think I would feel pretty dissatisfied by these two class sessions. A high school teacher would probably spend twenty classes on a book like this.

4) I'm also willing to bet that a healthy percentage of the students in this class didn't even read Blood Meridian. There were no quizzes to hold them accountable for doing so, no class discussion to prepare for. And they can probably write their papers on one of the other books assigned for the class if they want to.

5) The lecture doesn't seem to have a lot to do with what Blood Meridian might tell us about being human, about living life. Hungerford's topic is pretty rarified: what this book has to do with other literary works. Hungerford's ultimate point seems to be that the book is about itself and about how novels are just as important and valid a source of truth as history. Okay, but that's a kind of self-enclosed meaning that leaves aside most of the interesting implications and questions raised by this novel. In the end, listening to Hungerford's lecture, I start to wonder, why is literature a field of study? Why does it deserve to be an academic department if it's just a bunch of people tracking down allusions in a bunch of texts that just refer to themselves?

6) I suppose I sound like a bitter high school teacher here, resentful of the college professor with her cushy job. But that's only half of it. The other half is why I decided not to pursue my Ph.D. and become a college teacher myself. The fact is, I like going in day after day and really working up close with a text. I like re-reading a book year after year and refining my interpretation. I like spending four weeks on Huck Finn, or six weeks on Invisible Man, or a semester on The Odyssey. I like designing classes that engage discussion as a key part of the interpretive process. I like holding students accountable for the reading, giving them a reason to do the work. I like talking with students about the implications books and poems and stories and plays have for our lives. 

Even when it's exhausting, high school teaching feels honest and important to me in a way that college teaching does not.


scrbblr said...

Reading your thoughts here, I found myself nodding in agreement and thinking, Yeah, right, right, right. I just, as it happens, came upon the Hungerford lectures on an academic-video website (pretty slim pickings as to English, by the way -- I think it was Hungerford and someone on Milton and that was it), watched her expound on "Blood Meridian" with some pleasure, but kept thinking, Why are the students even attending this course? Why isn't this analysis of hers -- spotting various literary allusions, etc. -- simply committed to print, where it can be read (and reread) by any interested student over a cup of coffee or on the crapper or in bed? Is this typical of a Yale English course? // And I esp. admire your point that this sort of teaching would theoretically allow an instructor to read a novel just once and (as you say Nabokov did) subsist on that for the rest of his or her career. // I taught English for a decade, and one of the novels I ended up rereading nine times was "The Grapes of Wrath." In retrospect it probably says something bad about my energy and self-confidence that I kept returning to the same familiar well, but at least, each year, I do think I found new things of interest in the novel every time I went back to it.

framiko said...

scrbblr, thanks for the comment. I wouldn’t feel bad about teaching Grapes of Wrath nine times. It’s that intimate knowledge of a book that allows one to really make sense of it and explain it in a satisfying way (satisfying not least to the teacher himself). Nabokov, funnily enough, in his Lectures on Literature, says as much: “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only re-read it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” // A while ago, I looked up Amy Hungerford’s page on the Yale website, and the course that this lecture was a part of was labeled as a “lecture course.” I presume her other courses involve more discussion. I probably came across more harshly toward Hungerford than I intended to. My comments really had more to do with the type of lazy college teaching that I could imagine, listening to this one particular lecture. Of course, there are college teachers who are committed to their students and to constantly refining their understandings of the texts they teach, just as there are high school teachers who are lazy in a million ways.

Anonymous said...

I, too, was a bit more than uncomfortable with Professor Hungerford’s two hour take on Blood Meridian. Her assessment of Blood Meridian is really less a careful attempt to explore the book and its possible import, than it is her hubristic attempt to try to explain the perceived personal motivations and mindset of an author she has never met.

At the very beginning of this “questionless lecture” (per Yale’s official class description), she discreetly and disingenuously discredits the book in the first few minutes of her lecture as not being “exactly a beach read” her students might have expected or enjoyed during spring break, a book all us are to also understand she herself couldn’t finish only until her third selfless attempt. The tone and the words don’t simply smack of pandering: they are pandering. Highly ironic in terms of a “questionless lecture”. And worse, it’s a preface for that is to come. In it’s own way, Professor’s Hungerford’s uncontested two hour lecture is a bit of theatrical fiction itself, a performance as it were, if but only on much more unimportant and inconsequential scale, than say the text at hand. Oh, yeah. That disturbingly inconvenient and elusive thing called Blood Meridian. Not Cormac McCarthy, Professor. But you will get to him, eventually.

Starting on a wrong foot with her dismissive pandering, she only worsens it further by following it up with an equally wobbly misstep. The faux pas here being the Professor’s insistence on persisting to follow the overripe, drained strains of genetic literary criticism. She prolongs it, stretching it out over two hours for her presumably taxed, once fresh from spring break students. It is was it is.

What is it? Her critique of the book is exclusively rooted in a type of long-closeted, mothballed strain of literary criticism that is solely obsessed with second-guessing the author intentions, and not particularly interested in the author’s work itself. The emphasis of her forensic-like analysis is highly selective and very much in the spirit of the Evangelical and/or Fundamentalist who cherry-pick the Good Book for their own ends, but for no one else’s. In essence, this type of criticism is deeply bound in agenda. And must of all morally skittish. It’s amazing how much of the novel she seemingly either glosses over or simply blithely fails to note. Important matter, stuff with pith. Dialogue and episodes that are both quotable and revelatory. The Professor is only concerned with the text at hand to the extent to she might be able to warp it comfortably to her own comfort level. And then, not too surprisingly, we discover at the very tail-end of her two hour lecture what her comfort level entails. It all becomes very crystal clear. It involves not reading Blood Meridian for what it is.

Per Professor Hungerford, we are to understand Blood Meridian as simply a senseless and morally-bereft novel without any meaning, created by its author in order to supplant — no, better yet, to destroy and erase — the literary canon that McCarthy deeply reveres. But she’s not stopping there. Again, starting on a wrong foot and following it up with a queasily odd to watch second misstep, she goes as to say McCarthy’s intention for all of this IS personal aggrandizement. McCarthy, per Hungerford, IS so hubristic in her intimate understanding of him to posit his writing of this book as an attempt not just to replace — but eradicate — the Old Testament, Melville’s Moby-Dick, Milton...and who know’s what else? Per the Professor, it solely boils down to McCarthy’s attempt to overcome his “anxiety of influence” by ritualistically denuding the canon that has fed, steered, and instructed him...and then positing himself as an alternative.

Wow. Simply wow. Maybe Yale needs an alternate teaching English 291.

aintstudyingyou said...

At the risk of being the "old woman [who becomes] uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in a proverb," I'd like to respond to this post.

As someone who has taught alongside you *and* obtained the PhD, I know it is possible to be a college professor, insist on accountable readings, and use study to gain insight and equipment for living.

When the structure of the daily class meeting changes, so must the understanding of the pedagogical relationship. It would seem to me that the college professor as *teacher* has a different job than the high school teacher. In my days at Wash U, I had many who did that job beautifully--teaching me about diction, grammar, and form, historical context, and theoretical lenses deftly.

It seems a bit unfair to hold up the high school model--which has a different schedule and purpose--as the standard against which the university model miserably fails. Forgive the elementary rejoinder: but it seems they are just different. And one can do each one well or poorly.

Now, when one considers the hiring practices at Yale, one might know why there may be more unsatisfying teaching going on there, but I will pause here before I ruin my career before it fully begins.

framiko said...

Thanks for the comment, aintstudying. I agree with you that important and meaningful stuff can and does go on in college classrooms. Like you, I had those types of experiences as an undergraduate and graduate student. But somehow, for me, the high school classroom experience remained most vivid, and the teachers who guided that experience remained my most significant role models. Not that they're perfect, but their particular type of passion appealed to me most powerfully, and continues to do so.

As I noted in my comment responding to scrbblr, this particular post probably comes across unfairly to those of your profession. The post, like many on this blog, was written in a more exploratory mode, in this case out of a certain pique at Hungerford's lecture, and in a desire to put my finger on some aspects of my own situation that I value.

I do stand by my clarification that "there are college teachers who are committed to their students and to constantly refining their understandings of the texts they teach, just as there are high school teachers who are lazy in a million ways."

I also recognize that my experience with high school English may be atypical—and that my current job as a high school English teacher may also be atypical, and indeed highly privileged in some ways.

Anyway, thanks for reading—and keep doing what you do, too!

aintstudyingyou said...

ahh, framiko, I missed your clarification to scrbblr, which is worth your standing by it. It's a good thing I missed it, because we wouldn't have had this additional occasion to converse.

I shall continue to try to brighten the corner where I am. And I'm glad to know with confidence that you do the same.

Anonymous said...

i just watched this on youtube. i agree that she will not allow her students to question her conclusions. i thought at the end, well- i wonder if anyone has the courage to refute you in a paper.

to the point: the book is not about itself. it isn't just aggrandizing the author. the book is saying, we ignorant people are free from the shackles of history and literary tradition. that is why the kid is different. he isn't sophisticated enough to be weighed down by the cotton lining in his pants. the violence inside him the historical landscape (of slavery, of cruelty) has no meaning to him.

in that sense it does reject morality as much as morality is an attempt to give meaning to a present course of action in terms of a historical and literate narrative.

here what never dies is the legacy and weight of history. but the present moves against it (why the judge accuses the kid of betrayal).

Marit said...

I am a college professor and I teach largely through discussion. Hungerford is brilliant but old-fashioned in lecturing without involving the students. That's not the way it's done any longer, at least not by those trained in the past ten years. I re-read a literary text every time I teach it. There is no need to set up a false opposition between high school and college teaching.

btm said...

I'm curious if you've taught Blood Meridian in a high school English class. I'm thinking of giving it a go next year.