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The practical question is, therefore, what, in the circumstances, is the best that can be done? To answer the question in part is the aim of this paper. A supposed lack of time is probably the most common reason why English literature has, so often, no place in academic instruction. The circumstances, however, must be unusual that will not permit its study at least one term. Especially is this the case when, in connection with the subject, may be carried on with advantage, a valuable part of the work in rhetoric and elocution.
For several years the general curriculum of the college with which the writer was at one time connected, allowed only one term for class instruction in English literature. The course, he is glad to report, has been since largely extended. Still some of the methods that were devised to meet the former limitations of time proved so useful as to claim a prominent place in the enlarged and more thorough course. Recognizing the difference between a class of Sophomores and ordinary academic students, the writer hopes that a brief statement of some of these methods may not be without helpful suggestions to those who teach this subject in our high schools and academies.
The skeleton of any satisfactory course in English literature is necessarily the history of the subject. But like other skeletons, it should not be made too prominent. The strange distaste that the student sometimes has for this delightful study, can be usually traced to an acquaintance with only its skeleton. But if it is the literature itself that gives life, interest, and attractive beauty to the subject, yet, as its framework, the historical element has important uses, and must receive attention.
With the class mentioned, this part of the work was made largely an exercise in composition. The number of recitations in English literature for the term was sixty. The work, outside of the classroom, for a third of these exercises was devoted to the history of the subject. For each of the twenty recitations a period, or writer, or group of writers was assigned. In description of the period or writers so designated, each member of the class was required to prepare an abstract or essay. The facts stated were to accord with designated authorities. The language, and method of presentation of subject, however, were to be wholly the student's. Apart from accuracy and thoroughness the value of the work depended upon excellence of style and original arrangement of facts.
The value of this work was not simply rhetorical. Without warning, the class was, at times, questioned with care as to the periods and writers considered in these papers. These examinations showed a better mastery of the subject than is usually obtained by means of recitation from the textbook. Not to lose wholly the benefit of textbook drill, between five and six hundred questions, relating to the periods and writers studied, were prepared in printed form; and definite answers as given in the work selected, required in the review. These review exercises were the only recitations in regard to the history of the subject that were made in the classroom. They were ten in number; and with the twenty abstracts prepared in study hours, they constituted the work in the historical part. This part extended from the Elizabethan age to the middle of the present century.
The questions for review were limited to three different textbooks. In preparing the written exercises, however, students were encouraged to extend their examinations to other authorities. This was frequently done so that the papers represented the daily comparison and study of several standard works on English literature. To secure this kind of work, in some measure, from every member of the class, certain subjects were assigned for written discussion. More than forty in number, the subjects of these discussions were such as to lead to the acquaintance of much that is most valuable in our literature. After the first few recitations, each exercise opened with the reading of one of these discussions by two members of the class; one representing the affirmative, the other the negative.
Perhaps at this point the difficulty of the student obtaining books for the satisfactory preparation of such papers, may suggest itself. Pardon the writer while he refers to his own experience. With a general college library of many thousand volumes, he yet found it wanting in many of the books most needed by his classes in literature. Even if such books belonged to the library, they were often, when the members of his class had occasion to use them, in the hands of other students. He, therefore, determined that the classes in literature should have their own library. By quiet, but persistent importunity, to use a long word for begging, there were collected in six years, for this purpose, nearly two thousand volumes.
The collection included not only much choice reading and a large number of works of reference, but all books necessary for classroom use. Thus, in the examination of a play of Shakespeare, an essay of Bacon, a poem of Milton, a satire of Pope, or selection from Addison, each member of the class was furnished with a copy free of expense. Perhaps not so large a collection, in the same time, can be obtained for many of our academies. Yet results in kind, if not in degree, can be reached, we believe, in every village having any interest in literary culture. A little labor with some wealthy and generous patron or patrons, will supply the nucleus. This gained, valuable accretions will come with time. The collection at first may not exceed two or three hundred volumes. Yet let these be well selected, and they will be of untold benefit to the class in literature.
Returning to methods of instruction, it is seen that of sixty exercises of the term, but ten recitations in the classroom were devoted to an immediate use of the textbook. These were the ten recitations and the questions, reviewing the history of the subject. The student had, therefore, left for other work in this subject, fifty recitations in the classroom, and thirty exercises to be prepared in study hours.
The time outside of the classroom reserved for these thirty exercises, and a large number of recitations, were given to the study of the writings of representative authors. A number of Shakespeare's plays were studied. Neither time nor the general purpose of the course would permit this work to be, in any proper sense, critical. Questions were prepared that called for the students' estimate of different characters; for original comparison with the characters of other plays of Shakespeare, or characters of contemporary or later dramatists. The questions called for the relation of the action of the play to its characterization; for the significance of historical allusions; for the occasion and attendant circumstances of certain quotations; for the meaning of many of the words, especially such as illustrate the life of the times. While not philosophical nor, as has been said, in any marked manner critical, they required a careful reading and study of the plays. Nor is it too much to add that they accomplished their purpose, namely, to interest the student and to give him a general literary acquaintance with these masterpieces.
In the opinion of the class, one of the most difficult exercises of
the course, was the analysis of a number of Bacon's essays. analysis, as all instructors who have tried it know, is valuable not only for the rigorous mental discipline, but also for its help in teaching the student how to plan and systematize his own literary work. In fact, according to the experience of the writer, the most effective way of teaching rhetoric is by a course in English literature.
"Paradise Lost" is often praised but rarely read, it is said. In the case of this class the saying was disproved. Two books were read aloud in the classroom. Work was required that compelled also the thoughtful reading elsewhere of four other books. "Lycidas" was examined line by line, and word by word, in the classroom. "Comus" was read aloud, with the parts assigned for previous study. One or two subjects of the discussions brought to the attention of the class some of the prose works of the same author.
Other writers were studied more briefly. Care was taken to vary the exercises, so that exactly the same method was rarely followed with any two authors. As the work could not be exhaustive, even with regard to the examination of a single long selection, the aim was to make it suggestive; and, it was hoped, introductory to the student's private study of the author, at some future time.
One exercise a week was given to dramatic readings. These readings were popular and awakened general interest. With not a few, it was the origin of the first enthusiasm for the subject. The plays were so arranged, as to bring them within an hour's presentation. The parts were given out some time in advance; and the principal readers drilled for a proper interpretation of the characters. The class read together not only several of Shakespeare's plays; but also came to know something of different periods of the English drama by reading Massenger's "New Way to Pay Old Debts," Otway's "Venice Preserved," and Goldsmith's "She Stoops to Conquer."
The most profitable exercise of the course, however, was one which we now describe. To it was given a large part of the time that had been gained from the recitation hour, by the student having prepared and handed in his work in written form, as has been explained. The exercise was the reading from an author by a member of a class, while the other members listened
with the understanding that some one of their number would be called to reproduce, in his own language, what had just been read. During the term, among the books so read were all of Thackeray's lectures on English Humorists, Macaulay's essays on Milton, Bacon, Addison, Dryden, and Byron, Carlyle's essay on Burns, the most valuable parts of Dowden's work on Shakespeare, and Stopford Brooke's on Milton, a number of papers from the Spectator, several extracts from Goldsmith, different selections from the poets, and a variety of literary criticisms by representative writers.
These readings were, so far as possible, arranged in connection with the work prepared outside of the classroom. While Addison and his writings were the subject for the written work, the reading at the time of recitation was from Thackeray's lecture, or Macaulay's essay on Addison. The discussion also that opened the exercise related to Addison's responsibility for the quarrel between him and Pope.
It is plain that such readings give the instructor a frequent and useful opportunity for comments, explanations, and even short, informal lectures. These lose nothing in point and interest because they seem to be suggested so naturally by the allusions, or statements of the page just read by a member of the class. If the instruction is without the usual didactic form, it is perhaps, for this reason, no less enjoyable and effective.
That the exercise is excellent elocutionary training for the reader is apparent. To have his elocution satisfactory to his classmates who are to reproduce what he has read, he knows he must read distinctly and intelligently. With no tricks of voice or affectation of manner he must make it his one effort to bring out the thought and sentiment. Not infrequently the student who had won honors in formal declamation, or been particularly impressive in dramatic readings, found he had a new lesson to learn before he could read with approval the quiet essay or page of subtle criticism, to listeners anxious to catch the significance of every sentence and word.
But if the exercise is of benefit to the reader, far more so is it to the hearer. A habit of attention is formed that develops into a rare power of concentration of mind. If, when summoned to state what has been read, the student would not wish to be with vacant mind and speechless tongue, he must indulge in no woolgathering, nor listlessness of attention.