OUR FAMOUS GREEN WELCOME LETTER!
Dear fellow AP students: (rev. term 4 '05)
This is a long--and it will probably seem to you--talky introduction to the A.P. course you are about to take. It represents our attempt to articulate some of the assumptions we share about the teaching of literature and writing and what it means to read and write about literature. We do not imagine we can write a statement that will eliminate all future misunderstanding or dissatisfaction, but we can be as straight as we know how about some things that we hope can grow in meaning for you as we grow together in this class with our understanding and abilities. This statement, in other words, is one written to be reread rather than just read and is something we may refer back to from time to time during the term.
* * * * Our AP Class Philosophy * * * *
Literature we know, because we have read it and because we continue to read it, provides us with vicarious experiences. There is not enough time on the clock, there is not universe enough physically, for any person to enter all the experiences and to meet all the people he/she must meet to be a reasonably "civilized" person. Some experiences we must get out of books. Literature helps us to make contact with history (with history made and in the making), to recognize that "old" emotions are still valid, and that the questions that count are the unanswerable ones, the ones we for which we live.
What this course will try to do is provide you with some of these experiences by having you read and respond to a selection of works representing classical English literature as well as a variety of other selections. Given the number of works that there are, and the time in which we have to read them, we will not be able to read all that is on the syllabus, but we will make something of a beginning. No doubt, the more you can read (above and beyond the "required" reading), the more you will come away with.
Like all art, literature gives pleasure. It has a certain magic that transports us from the "real" world to a seemingly more remote and enjoyable place. You can experience this quality without analyzing it. But literature also poses intellectual challenges that do demand analysis. For most readers, grappling with these challenges enhances the pleasure of literature. By studying literature, you "see" more of it to appreciate. You learn that, far from being remote from life, good literature pleases you by reflecting and giving order to life. And it is pleasure derived from reflection that much of this course will aim for; in short, this course, like so many others, is a course in reading, writing, and thinking.
We don't believe reading well can be taught all by itself; but then we don't believe writing well or thinking well can be taught each by itself. Moreover, we wonder if they can be "taught" at all. If any of them is basic and a little independent of the others, it is thinking, but thinking without the art of language is mechanical. To be fluent in thinking, reading, and writing, you must be fluent in all of them.
This course, then, will try to teach them all--or at least give you the opportunity to add to what you have already learned about them. Since selected literary texts are the basis of this course, there is no better way to learn from these texts than by reading and writing about them. But you cannot learn to read, write, and think well only by studying principles or only by doing exercises. If you are just told to practice, without learning the principles, you will not know what to practice; you may pick up one or two principles on the way, but you will be confirmed in many errors. So you can best learn these skills by doing them and learning the principles at the same time.
We assume that anyone in this course, using these texts will be able to read the words on the page, to know more or less what each word means, and to have a general idea what the page is about. This skill may be called mere literacy. Once you have acquired it, you can write laundry lists, follow simple printed directions, and vote (if you are old enough). But "mere" literacy serves to enhance neither life nor civilization. The merely literate man or woman can enjoy at best only the prefabricated stories and articles of the slick magazines. Their intellectual fodder is pap, good enough to sustain life at the child's level. Their knowledge of life and the world is a homogenized mess of stereotypes and delusions. Their motto is: "I get by." And so they do when the machines of society grind smoothly. But in catastrophe and crisis, they become bewildered. For the world is more than they know, and they have never been prepared for disaster.
Like a little knowledge, a little literacy is a dangerous thing.
This course makes no claims to make a merely literate man or woman educated, but it offers some elementary tools necessary to education and much practice in their use. Since we are concerned with imparting to you the pleasures of reading literature, we will spend considerable time reading the literature. But we are concerned with thinking and writing, too: thinking about what we read, thinking about how you think about what you read, and thinking about how this thinking might pertain to your education. And we are concerned with how to move this thinking to a sheet of paper so that you will develop a fuller sense of the pleasure, power, and knowing that comes with using the written word.
Not only will the literature serve as a model for our proceedings, but so will our discussions. we will ask you to respond to questions that require thought, not just information; your speaking and writing will give you practice in formulating responses. We, like Edmund Burke, believe that
method of teaching which approaches most nearly to the method of investigation is incomparably the best; since, not content with serving up a few barren and lifeless truths, it leads to the stock on which they grew; it tends to set the reader himself in the track of invention, and to direct him into those paths in which the author has made his own discoveries . . .
The literature of this course can and will be used to test our interpretations: anything said about a work should be supported by evidence from that work. Of course, much has to be brought to a work in order to understand what is in it. We must know the meaning of words and the structure of sentences, recognize allusions, and be able to follow arguments; above all, we must bring attention and thoughtfulness to our reading.
In much the same way as we might regard the work of a microbiologist, who needs a special set of assumptions about what is real to examine what cannot be seen by the naked eye, we will be studying literature as a means of locating, examining, and coming to terms with the influence of certain forces in our lives--the operation of good and evil, the process of growth and decay, wishes, fears, and so on. Perhaps the best short way of putting it is to say that in this course we will be seeing literature itself as a particular way of seeing, a particular way of looking at and coming to terms with the world.
Just as important as our studying literature as a way of seeing will be our attempts to define and make distinctions between the different forms of literature we'll encounter. To do this you'll be making important distinctions in and through your writing; through composition we are determined to give you training in the various ways that writing can be a way of knowing--a way of making inferences, developing hypotheses, constructing sound generalizations, building workable models, conceptualizing, creating, and locating one's self in relation to what is outside one's self. Our methodology, in other words, will be explicitly the methodology used in the disciplined investigation of any subject at a college.
* * * * Ground Rules * * * *
We are offering this particular course because it is one we are interested in, know something about, and enjoy. The reading, similarly, we have chosen from a number of possible texts, and they represent not the ideal way of approaching the subject, but a way of getting us to the subject we are investigating given the time we have and where we are. Both the subject and the readings, of course, reflect our prejudices, liabilities, strengths, weaknesses, and so on as teachers.
It is as a certain kind of teacher also that we have certain expectations of what it means for us to work together. You must complete all of the reading and writing assigned and be willing to engage in maintaining a classroom dialogue responsibly--both as part of the class as a whole and within smaller groups. We expect you to keep up--which means to complete your work on the dates due. Late work will be evaluated but deducted for its lateness and receive few comments.
We are convinced that there is very little any teacher of the humanities can say to students about how he or she grades without being misleading or sounding foolish. Just as different students can have different opinions of the same teacher, different teachers can have different opinions of the same student. Since most humanities teachers are interested in the development of their students as readers and writers, not only can the process of evaluation not be arithmetical, it cannot be other than subjective. We can say, however, that the most important determinant of your grade in this course will be the progress you make in the work you do.
If you ever have any questions, concerns, problems, criticisms, please express them; don't wait until the end of the term! Now, let's begin, shall we?
Wally and Olson