Dead Poets and Pedagogy

Dead Poets and Pedagogy

'The Poets'  by Georgios Roilos (1867-1928)
‘The Poets’ by Georgios Roilos (1867-1928)

A friend on Facebook shared a link to this hypercritical take on Dead Poet’s Society by Kevin Dettmar, an English professor at Pomona College:

I’ve never hated a film quite the way I hate Dead Poets Society. I expect that them’s fighting words, at least in some quarters; at least I hope they are. Because I’m trying to pick a fight here.

Well, if Dettmar wants to pick a fight, I’ll pick up the gauntlet he’s thrown down. I love a good tussle over poetry and pedagogy.

[Warning. This is going to be long and rambling and I am positive that I repeat myself. My first draft of this blog post was a cut and paste from a Facebook conversation and my kids are sick and I don’t have time, mental acuity, or energy to polish this into a well-formed work of art. It’s a blog post, I’m teasing out some ideas and not necessarily satisfied that I’ve come to a conclusion. I’m done tinkering but I’d love to continue the conversation in the comments below.]

So let’s begin.

I think I hate Dead Poets Society for the same reason that Robyn, a physician assistant, hates House: because its portrayal of my profession is both misleading and deeply seductive. For what Keating (Robin Williams) models for his students isn’t literary criticism, or analysis, or even study. In fact, it’s not even good, careful reading. Rather, it’s the literary equivalent of fandom. Worse, it’s anti-intellectual.

I agree that good careful reading of poetry is valuable and even an important component of its teaching, but I think Dettmar is too quick to dismiss “fandom” and to label it as “anti-intellectual.” As my friend Macbeth says, “fandom” may be the fate of most students of poetry; and why not? Everyone is not a critic.”

Dettmar here lays out three possible ways of teaching poetry:

There’s Keating’s emotional approach: find poetry that appeals to you, that conforms to your world view and confirms your beliefs. Read and enjoy. Dettmar hates this:

I think Dettmar is too quick to dismiss “fandom” and to label it as “anti-intellectual.” As my friend Macbeth says, “fandom” may be the fate of most students of poetry; and why not? Everyone is not a critic.”

2. There’s the Dettmar’s preferred academic approach “literary criticism, or analysis, or even study.” I think that’s fine for English professors and English majors and people who really enjoy the geekery of analysis. As my friend Erin points out, “every once in a while you may encounter a kid who appreciates the code-cracking cleverness more than the aesthetics, or perhaps finds the aesthetic in symmetry, rhythm, and code-cracking. Let the lessons fit the student!”

But this approach leaves many students cold and can quash the love of poetry before it’s even born, especially in students who’ve never had any previous exposure to poetry as something to be appreciated and enjoyed as a thing in itself. As my friend Jenny says: “In school, every thing, every line, every every had to have meaning, meaning, meaning, but not just any meaning, the “right answer” meaning. I had teachers who would like to stir up debate and after passions were raised and argued, they would then announce the correct response. I think we were supposed to be inspired, a la Dead Poets Society, but I found it exhausting.”

3. My preferred response, which Dettmar mentions here but then glosses over: Good careful reading.

Sally Thomas, poet herself and homeschooler extraordinaire, says it best:

I think the best discussions about poetry are the ones that approach it in the same sort of way that a naturalist might approach a bird or an earwig’s nest or whatever: as an observer first and foremost, interested to see what this living thing does and what we might learn about it from its behaviors. And I think the best facilitators of such discussions are willing to grant that other observers’ contributions are valid, as long as they’re based on something that’s actually there. I think too many students come to hate poetry because teachers dangle “right” answers above them and make them jump and then feel stupid when they miss. Who wouldn’t hate that? And perhaps students come to dislike poetry because they sense that their teachers don’t love it and see it as something alive and giving — it’s just this thing in the curriculum we have to get through. But a good poem *is* a living and generous thing: it gives and gives and gives on rereading. And there’s no reason not to let it be as generous as it can be.

Yes, that’s the ticket. A good close reading for the sake of understanding and enjoyment not to improve critical thinking skills be to really appreciate the poem itself. And with this approach I think it is also key that teachers bring to the classroom an awareness that students do often come to the poetry reading with a prejudice against poetry and that too much analysis can ruin the experience just as too little leaves them in the dark, especially with more “difficult” poetry like Shakespeare’s sonnets. Students do need a guide to help them explore a poem. So perhaps in the high school classroom especially we should leave the analysis to the teacher and not try to force students who aren’t really ready to do it on their own to try?

But back to Dettmar’s critique of the film.

This, then, is what’s at stake in Keating’s misreadings—I’m not interested simply in catching a fictional teacher out in an error. But he misreads both Frost and Whitman in such a way that he avoids precisely that encounter with the other, finding in poetry only an echo of what he already knows—what he’s oft thought, but ne’er so well expressed.

While I think the encounter with the other is one of the great enjoyments of literature and art, and especially of poetry, I do think the novice reader is apt to like things that confirm his view and that say what he’s often thought but never been able to express. Perhaps it is the role of the teacher to lead him toward a more complete reading, one that allows for the other. But I have to admit that in my selection of poems for the blog I’m often doing just this: finding poems that I like because they echo in my head and heart. I haven’t done a close reading of many of them, I haven’t done the hard work of encountering the other. And I am often well content to have just met them in passing and appreciated what I found in them. It isn’t an academic approach to poetry, and I certainly know enough to know the difference. And you know what, it’s ok to read poetry at that level, even if, like me, you are a former academic.

While I find myself agreeing with much of his criticism of the film, I rather wish Dettmar had addressed more directly why Dead Poets Society appeals so much to English professors and teachers. He acknowledges that the film is appealing to many in the profession and he does make a nod to stuffy pedagogy that Keating is reacting against, but I wish he’d dug a little deeper into that question of pedagogy.

The film’s anti-intellectualism is both quite visceral and quite violent. When his students first sit down with their new poetry anthology, Keating tricks a student into reading aloud a few sentences from the banal introduction written by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, PhD—a cartoonish version of academic criticism that opens with a split infinitive!—before instructing them to tear those pages out of their books.

He dismisses the chapter that Keating has the students rip out of their books as a “cartoonish version of academic criticism.” In fact, though, the introductory essay that they read is taken nearly word-for-word from chapter 15 of Laurence Perrine’s (1915-1995) Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry. I’d really like it if Dettmar seriously engaged with the film’s critique of academic criticism, because while I do think that Keating’s anti-intellectualism is something of an over-correction, it is a reaction against an overly intellectualized experience of poetry that many people have had. If it is wrong to divorce poetry from the intellect, it is equally wrong to divorce it from the pleasure of reading. Poetry made into an exercise of “critical thinking.” Poem analysis being a goal in itself or, even worse, a means to reach the end of “critical thinking.”

But while avoiding the pitfalls of dull pedagogy, Keating doesn’t finally give his students anything in its place besides a kind of vague enthusiasm. Next door, Mr. McAllister’s students are declining Latin—Agricolam, Agricola, Agricolae, Agricolarum, Agricolis, Agricolas, Agrilcolis; out in the hallway, in front of the trophy case and faded photographs of old Weltonians, Keating preaches it. “Carpe diem,” he entreats, during their first class period together.

Ironically, while critiquing both Keating’s emotionalism and the dull pedagogy of his colleagues, Dettmar fails to offer a clear vision of a third way. I rather suspect that I’d find his form of critical analysis as much of a joykill as Keating found Pritchard’s.

There is in the teaching of English an uneasy balance between critical analysis and enjoyment of poetry. And all too often, especially in high school, critical analysis is emphasized at the expense of an awareness that poetry is enjoyable and relevant in its own right. I suspect that this is because by and large poetry has been so de-emphasized in our curricula at all grade levels. No longer is poetry regularly memorized and recited by students in elementary and middle schools. I’m thinking of how Anne Shirley and Laura Ingalls both memorized poetry and looking at those novels it did seem to be standard pedagogical practice. When and why did teachers stop making memorization and recitation one of the cornerstones of literature study? I did have to memorize and recite a few times when I was in school and I am so grateful to those teachers who did. But that’s an oddity, not standard pedagogy. At best poetry is usually relegated to a short unit study, something to be taken off the shelf once a year and then put back to collect dust. Unless students come to the table already loving poetry, analysis is going to be torture. I think it’s much preferable to emphasize poetry as performance and let students cut their critical teeth in other areas if critical analysis is going to lead to hatred of poetry and an experience of paralysis when critical thought is expected of students but not well understood.

This is one reason I’m doing the poetry series here on my blog. I want to rescue the reading and enjoyment of poetry from the mandatory critical analysis. I’m enjoying just reading the poems, sharing them with others. I don’t feel a need to read them “critically,” though I do enjoy it when conversation pops up in the comments and I find myself digging deeper into the poem and noticing features I’d previously overlooked, come to a better understanding of a poem I’d read superficially before. But I think Dettmar too quickly dismisses the value of that first misreading. He picks the favorite example of Frost’s The Road Not Taken:

Wha—? Has Keating actually read the poem from which he so blithely samples? For Robert Frost said no such thing: a character in his poem says it. And we’re meant to learn, over the course of that poem, that he’s wrong—that he’s both congratulating and kidding himself. He chooses his road ostensibly because “it was grassy and wanted wear”; but this description is contradicted in the very next lines—“Though as for that, the passing there / Had worn them really about the same,” and—more incredibly still—“both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” He wants to claim to have taken the exceptional road, if not the spiritual high road; but he knows on some level that it’s a hollow boast.

Keating hasn’t actually read “The Road Not Taken” in any meaningful sense; rather, he’s adopted it, adapted it, made it his own—made it say what he wants it to say. His use of those closing lines, wrenched from their context, isn’t just wrong—it’s completely wrong, and Keating uses them to point a moral entirely different from that of Frost’s poem. (In a like manner, how often has Frost’s “The Mending Wall” been quoted out of context in debates about immigration reform? “Good fences make good neighbors,” indeed.)

I’m not sure I agree with him about the “completely wrong” use of those lines. Why even begin to read poetry if not because it speaks to us. I’d argue that even a misreading can be valuable, even if the student is never disabused of the “misreading”. Perhaps a close reading of the poem does dispel the possibility of reading the poem in the way Keating does and supports Dettmar’s interpretation. Me, I think it’s a deliberately ambiguous poem and that it’s perfectly fine to identify with what the “character in the poem” says without considering how the poet “means” us to learn. Does the poet mean us to learn? I’m not sure whether Frost would agree poetry is so directly didactic. But even if Robert Frost is standing on the sidelines tapping his foot in disgust at how often that most popular poem of his is “misread” and “misused”, I argue that it is precisely that misreading which makes it such a beloved poem. And I argue that the love of poetry is necessarily prior to the sort of critical thinking that Dettmar advocates.

The intellectual life… it can’t be forced on students. If they don’t love a poem why would they want to spend hours in class analyzing it? Should the reading of poetry be primarily an academic exercise? I began my blog series on poetry with that question and it seems more relevant with each poem I post.

Academic exercises are fun– for me. I’m an English professor— well, former English professor, I suppose, but in my heart it is part of who I am— and I do love poetry analysis. But I don’t think that’s the most important part of teaching poetry. I think analysis is a pedagogical tool best used sparingly and only once a student actually likes a poem and wants to engage with it further, to understand something that doesn’t quite make sense. I seldom notice rhyme scheme, for example, the first two or three times I read a poem. Only later re-readings do I start to notice all those technical details that English professors love to place front and center, as if noticing them were the point of poetry reading.

I’m definitely not saying analysis doesn’t have it’s place in poetry enjoyment. But I think the pedagogical emphasis should be on doing a close reading for the sake of understanding and enjoyment. And teachers must come to the classroom aware that students do often come to the poetry reading with a prejudice against poetry and that too much analysis can ruin the experience just as too little leaves them in the dark, especially with more “difficult” poetry like Shakespeare’s sonnets. Students do need a guide to help them explore a poem. So perhaps in the high school classroom especially we should leave the analysis to the teacher and not try to force students who aren’t really ready to do it on their own to try? I’m still trying to tease out my thoughts on the pedagogy of teaching poetry. Perhaps the role of the teacher is to be Virgil to Dante?

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  • Of all the good things you wrote about in this post, the last line was deliciously spine-tingling: “Perhaps the role of the teacher is to be Virgil to Dante?”
    Love that! As Virgil appeared in the Divine Comedy to be Dante’s guide, pointing out and explaining everything as he went, he also was encouraging, comforting, consoling AND interpreting what they saw and experienced.
    Just what a good teacher should do, provide a context from which the student of poetry can grow in understanding.
    That was wonderful imagery on your part, Melanie. To that idea, I say yes! Thank you for providing an excellent way to view that.

  • When I took an honors Great Books seminar in college, my two least-favorite semesters were taught by English professors. (The other professors were history, classics, economics…) They both seemed to have this idea that there was a single *right* way to approach and interpret the books and that it was their job to enlighten us. It was very irritating.

    My husband, meanwhile, LOVES Shakespeare. Apparently when he was in high school learning about Shakespeare meant watching Kenneth Branaugh movies and taking parts so they could read the plays aloud.