Unlike some other literary experts, Elaine Showalter in Teaching Literature, insists that we do not need to be able to define literature in order to have the ability to teach it (21). On the flip-side of this statement, do students need to be able to define literature in order to understand it? I can recall being asked on the first day of one of my intermediate literature classes in my undergrad to spend five minutes writing down my own, personal definition of literature. Yes, I had taken at least four literature classes prior to this one, and yes, I had read and understood all of the novels assigned for each course. Yet, I found it astonishingly troubling to write a definition in accordance to my experience of what literature was. It was more than just text. It was more than just the idea of the novel. I understood what literature was to the extent of my education at that time, but I could not place my understanding of it into words.

Using Showalter’s argument and my own experience as a placeholder, a literature class does not function the same way other college classes do. In biology, a student must be able to define osmosis and even use the process of osmosis in experimentation. In addition, they may also fill in the correct multiple choice bubble on a test that answers the appropriate steps in order for osmosis to occur. The pedagogical methods in which a student learns osmosis may slightly vary, yet; the actual definition or process of osmosis remains constant. We can take out osmosis and insert the FOIL method in algebra, and the outcome will be the same. The FOIL method never changes and thus, all students who understand the FOIL method will give you nearly identical definitions of it. Literature does not work in this way. Ones definition of literature will be based on their experience with literature. An individual with a PhD in literature and specialization in Medieval British Lit, may be considered an expert of what literature really is. This person may never have read The Picture of Dorian Gray, Midnight’s Children, Alias Grace, or The House in Paris, and yet they are an expert in literature. They do not necessarily need to read Alias Grace – an Atwood novel published in 1996 that highlights female struggle and Neovictorianism – in order to form their expertise of Medieval British Lit, or even literature in a more general sense. However, another PhD literature scholar, focused on Feminist Lit will have most likely read Alias Grace, and will look at the specific text, along with most others differently than the Medieval British Lit scholar. It is arguable that if we were to ask the two individuals -both experts on literature – to give a definition of literature, that their answers will vastly differ. Canterbury Tales and The House in Paris are both literary texts, yet, “being a literary text” is nearly the only similarity that they share. In this sense, how can we ask a teacher or a student to define literature if literature itself is the variable?

In most cases, when an individual enters a literature class (teacher or student) no two people have read the exact same literary texts. Thus, literature is the variable in its own pedagogy and the student or reader is what remains constant. Therefore, a definition of literature is nearly meaningless because of the degree in which it varies. A single definition could never suffice for all of the literature in the world. In this light, an understanding of literature is what teachers and students must strive for. We should take privilege in being a discipline that is not definition based. Osmosis will be forever attached to its definition. Literature changes and evolves through time; it is never constant the way that osmosis is. Thus, an understanding of literature is what should be most important, not a definition.

Works Cited:

Showalter, Elaine. “Theories of Teaching Literature.” Teaching Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003. 21-41. Print.


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