Studying literature should be fun

Image by: Herbert Wang

Compulsory period-specific courses damage our relationship to reading—bored students don’t make good literary scholars.

Reading is the best thing in the world, but it’s also the worst thing in the world. There’s nothing like reading a book you love, and there’s nothing like reading a book you hate. Even if we try our best to read books we love, studying literature entails reading near-fossilized 200-year-old texts that make your receipts read like The Hunger Games.

Compulsory, period-specific literature courses are a massive discouragement to students and damage their relationship with reading. Spending twenty-four weeks studying Restoration literature is enough to make even the most voracious bookworm question their love of reading.

When the course reading list is an all-star inventory of literary stinkers, what do you do? You don’t read any of the books—and that’s not your fault. You’re studying a literary period in which you have absolutely no interest, so you end up taking little away from it other than an aversion to reading and studying literature.

These compulsory courses are harmful to students’ engagement with literature. If the course readings are inaccessible and soul-sapping, people just won’t read. They’ll begin to dislike the study of literature, which is a shame because it’s an enriching, fulfilling experience.

This isn’t to say we should cancel all pre-1900 literary courses, but if we want students to have a more robust engagement with literature, we shouldn’t force them to learn about a period they’re not interested in. Those who have a burning passion for Restoration literature can choose to enroll in a course they love with classmates who share their interest.

No one wants to be in a class with people who don’t care about the reading list, and it’s not enjoyable to teach one, either. Every time a professor asks a question about Tom Jones, they’re met with silence because nobody’s read it. No one is having fun. 

It’s all done to morph students into “literary scholars,” but hate-reading The Wood Beyond the World doesn’t encourage students’ curiosity about literature. 

A far more fulsome approach to the academic study of literature would entail allowing students to pursue what interests them. Reading is joyous, and words are beautiful. We must let students discover what type of literature they like best and allow them to rigorously study whichever period they choose, without restraint.

Studying literature is a terrible thing to do without passion. If you don’t like the books you’re studying, you’ll have an awful time. You’ll have nightmares about Pamela and the other books you’ve forced yourself to read, and you’ll question why you love reading at all.

That’s the worst part: the compulsory academic study of period-specific literature kills passion and replaces it with apathy. Students are disinterested in the academics of literature because they waste so much of their undergrad on books they don’t care about.

The value of the humanities is in question like never before. For the study of literature to survive as a discipline and thrive, universities must encourage students to be creative and engage with books that inspire in them a love of literature.

Until then, pull out your 250-year-old, 800-page tome and try not to throw up.

Sam is a fourth-year English student and The Journal’s Assistant Arts Editor.


Academics, books, course design, English literature, Reading

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