published in Volume 3, Issue 2 on February 29th, 1996
Jumping through hoops. That's what earning my masters degree has become over the past three years. All my grandiose, albeit fuzzy, plans for figuring it out and making a difference have gradually been eroded by long hours in the library, late nights preparing papers, and afternoons spent in seminars arguing the Machiavellian subtexts of Christopher Marlowe. My high school English teacher warned me that graduate school would ruin my passion for reading, but I scoffed at the idea. Seven years later, she was almost proved correct.
Almost, I say, because a wonderful thing happened to me in this, my final semester of my masters degree. I found myself in George Wolf's Canadian Fiction class. Scheduled at that god-awful hour of 8:00 am on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the class was sure to be little more than a hazy prequel to my 9:30 am Modern Drama class. I held this smug conviction for the forty seconds it took me to walk into Andrews Hall, past various open classroom doors, and across the threshold of Room 121. I blinked. The frenetic movement of desks screeching, students milling, and coats and bookbags being cast off rejected the lethargy my mind and muscles had been prepared to slip into. At the center of this maelstrom stood a slight man, his graying hair pulled back into a ponytail that swung erratically against his shoulder blades as he addressed the students converging on him. "Take a sheet of paper and some markers! Spread out! No, David, you need more colors than that. Marta, get in the circle. Everyone, make a circle of the desks! Now start drawing!" And in less time than it took me to enter the classroom with my smug preconceptions, I found myself sucked into this man's orbit and jettisoned out again, markers and paper in hand and searching for my own place in the circle of desks forming around the perimeter of the room.
The images we drew that morning of what we knew about Canadian Fiction are no less amusing to recall than the confused, and sometimes panicked, expressions on our faces as we tried to orient ourselves to such an unorthodox introduction to a literature class. Drawing would be expected, we were told, as would dramatic readings of the material and active participation in discussions. We received a class roster and were told to learn our classmates' names. Read with a pencil, he said, and write in your books. Do not read lying down, he said. You should be concentrating, not falling asleep. Unlike most syllabi, these standards have been enforced. We all have been required to talk, to call on one another, to bring favorite passages to life with the inflections of our voices. But most of all, we have been required to feel. "How does that scene make you feel?" he demands, not letting us hide behind discussions of themes or symbolism. And for the first time in many many years, I find myself being drawn into to the literature, responding to it on a human level rather than an analytical one.
It disturbs me how deeply I have been conditioned to dissect first, and to feel second. Where I once delighted in literature for the understanding of my humanity that language offered, I have been trained to approach literature like an algebraic story problem. What does "x" represent? And how about "y"? What if we take the square root of the whole thing and multiply it by some imaginary numbers? Just as I regarded my neatly printed solutions to story problems with a bored satisfaction, I survey the multitude of papers I have written for literature classes with a skeptical pride that is undercut by the nagging question, So what? Does it really matter that I have pinpointed the sources of Chaucer's death imagery in The Book of the Duchess? Or that I recognize the importance of narrative forms in Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha novels? Perhaps. But my experience in George Wolf's class has shown me that my own feelings teach me far more about works of literature than these academic exercises can. In half a semester I have unlearned the lessons of seven years of undergraduate and graduate training. I have reauthorized myself to succumb to the emotional response to characters' joys and sorrows, to enjoy the pure sensory pleasure of reading aloud an especially elegant piece of writing. This experience has been more than just a rediscovery of an approach to reading. It has been a rediscovery of literature itself, and with it, a rebirth of my passion for reading. Thank you, Mr. Wolf.