Book Twenty-Fours: On Classics and Ending Classes

Years ago, when I was griping to a colleague about an unusually stressful semester, she reminded me that academic terms end. By definition, by design, they end. Courses conform to this conventional ending; they reach a boundary and stop. A real ending, that state or telos that provides meaning and structure to the whole, isn’t necessary. Nevertheless, we want one. Or at least I do. A class does.

A course and a class aren’t quite the same thing. Syllabi define courses; classes are social groups. Syllabi can do with merely conventional endings, and the Syllabus of the Real infinite anyway. To end a course, one just runs out of time. To end a class – that’s more difficult. One can select a reading that draws together the course themes. I have done it that way, and it can work. But I prefer an approach that may seem like a formula for chaos: a roundtable discussion.* Each student says something about how she or he synthesized the course. I communicate a strong expectation that everyone will speak. People are permitted to pass, and I will ask those once more later if they want to speak. Sometimes my only instruction, “Say something about what you gained from the course,” with the caveat that this is not an evaluation of me. In other cases, I provide an optional focus. Usually everyone contributes, and usually two or three themes emerge.

Last week, at the concluding session of my Homeric Epic class, I invited anything they wanted to say and suggested an optional address to the question “Why read the classics?” The course is a close reading of the Iliad and the Odyssey (Fagles’s translation), interleaved with readings in Greek religion from Jan Bremmer, a few of the Homeric Hymns, and a selection of later appropriations. In a way, the class goes through at least two endings, the ending of each epic, and the ending of the class if we can pull that off. Last week, I mistimed slightly, and we needed to finish discussing Odyssey 24 before the roundtable. Thus we had two endings, the Odyssey’s and ours.

Most of the students felt that the epic didn’t end properly. After providing some context on that interpretive question, I asked them how it should end. Some favored lopping off book 24 entirely. Others found the reunion with Laertes slow and repetitious, and wanted to cut that. The best suggestion was a re-arrangement of book 24 in this order: (shorter) reunion with Laertes, settlement with the suitors’ kin, and then the scene in Hades, ending with the narrator’s lines that conclude that scene. There, we fixed it. A wintry solution.

Then we did the roundtable. This group converged strongly on one theme, with a few counterpoints. If I may compose various comments into a single voice, it said this: “We never get to read slowly and carefully, even in English classes. We don’t get to discuss a text line-by-line and debate different interpretations. This class was different because we got to do that. And Homer is both deep and fun.” I have heard parts of this before, but the metaphorical loudness astonished me this time. They told me that in high school, the teaching was entirely geared to providing “answers” for standardized tests. They said that even in English courses beyond the survey level (several majors were present), they were expected to read perhaps half of a big novel for a session, and the session then summarized a few key points. Two of the students were simultaneously enrolled in another course that had the Odyssey on the syllabus; it was “covered” (their term) in a week. They said that my approach to the class made them – I would say, invited them to – pay far more detailed attention to the text than anything they had experienced before.

My response was an ambivalence that I hope I concealed. Yes, I’m delighted that I could show a group of students how to read this way. I’m troubled that the experience is so unusual for them. The persistence of this point, through nearly every speaker, made me hear something I hadn’t noticed before, probably because it lies in what’s missing. They were so happy about real reading that they didn’t address themselves to the question why read Homer.

I am a child of the ‘80s: I attended Northwestern from 1985-1989, and entered U Chicago in 1989. It was the peak of the culture wars, or at least that portion of them related to required reading at elite universities. In my own pre-collegiate social context, deep reading did not come from schooling or family. I discovered my entré texts – Joyce, Buber, Nietzsche, Emerson, the Tao – by introverted shelf-browsing in second-hand bookstores. I desperately needed this reading, and it was socially unacceptable. So it was quite a shock to arrive in college and be told (not by professors!) that DWEMS like these wrote worthless vehicles of oppression. If this portrait seems over-simplified, that’s because some of the flashiest salvos of the culture wars were over-simple. You can read about it in the history books. In any case, I was only beginning to acquire my historical bearings, nor was it possible to mediate my own times by reading the not-yet-written intellectual histories of them. That’s my social and generational position, a given with which I work. Thus, when I ask, “Why read Homer?” the question means, why read the European literary canon as it was constructed up to about 1985? Why read it instead of other works? (My answer: this is a false dichotomy; globalize the canon.) Or why construct canons at all? (Long, off-topic answer.)

In every prior iteration of my Homeric Epic course – I first taught it in 2004, a decade ago – at least some of the students still heard and responded to that aspect of the question. We would talk about why we found the epics, and epic, and the Greeks, moving and intellectually engaging, even though we were 21st century denizens of various ethnicities, genders, religions, geographies, and so on. The enthusiasm for slow reading and free-ranging discussion has always been an element, too. What changed, since the last iteration in spring ’11? First, the sensitivity to canon questions disappeared, apart from whether the canon was Self or Other. I was the only one who spoke to it, after all the students had taken their turn. Second, their discussion of the teaching method differed in emotional quality. It had a persistence, loudness, and brio that I have never heard before from a class. It wasn’t Homer so much – several had read at least parts of the epics earlier in their schoolings – as the very procedure that struck them as new and exciting. They seemed to think I had invented the thing.

While they were talking, I had a realization of twofold temporal distance, theirs from Gen-X moi, and this class from the first time ten years ago. I remarked about the contrast between my generational standpoint as a pawn in the old culture wars and theirs as pawns of the national testing regime that came online in the early ‘00s. I pointed out that much of pedagogy focuses on structuring the student’s attention: what material or tasks to which he or she must attend, or pretend to attend. That’s only a partial account. I asked them, “Who is paying attention to you – to your mind and intellectual efforts?” What if the answer is no one? (I don’t think I said that.) Pedagogies and course (not class) design that ignore the quality of attention given to students encode the practice of ignoring students’ minds. Like a Homeric seer, I offer these reflections as a warning: odds are, you will teach students for whom close reading of complex texts and discussion in which their thinking is tried, is unusual, perhaps astonishing.

After they spoke, I gathered together the counterpoint comments and offered some connections: that classics are classics partly because they not only bear but reward this kind of reading and re-reading; that the fun of Homer is inseparable from its power; that my ability to gloss it with contemporary and pop cultural references, which several students had praised, relies on a grasp of the text that is both intellectual and emotional, academic and imaginative; and that the epics’ contemplation of war and return from war is both alien and too familiar. (I have always had veterans in these classes, and I suspect they find the text familiar in ways I, a civilian, cannot imagine). I also made one parting reference to Captain Kirk, one of Odysseus’ many descendants and my own first encounter with the type.

Thus it came to a real end. The instructor cannot control this; any ending that could be effected by the instructor alone would not be real, or would end the course but not the class. Any real ending must be jointly created. The potential chaos of the roundtable discussion offers the best potential for drawing everything together, from where the students are, or have come to be. It doesn’t always work, but I don’t think anything else works better. Selecting a reading that draws the course themes together foregrounds the course, not the class. That can work too, if students are given free reign to respond to it. Even if it’s my hand on the tiller, the ship has many sailors. This particular ending to Homeric Epic gave me much to think about. Made me feel old, but that’s as it should be. Real endings to a class are wonderful, when they happen. Fortunately, even if they don’t, the term will end anyway. The Syllabus of the Real, and its dialogue, goes on.

                                                                                So they traded stories,

                                                  The two ghosts standing there in the House of Death,

                                                  Far in the hidden depths below the earth.



*My former chair, Vincent Luizzi, suggested this for mid-term diagnostics. It works well for that, too.

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