Lawyers and Literature
James R. Elkins

 A Teacher's Work

"What teachers can do is to ask questions, to praise and criticize, to offer alternate ways of thinking about things. They get someone started, or help him along, in . . . the way he thinks and speaks and writes. Listen to the way students talk about teachers they have had. Lots of teachers are talked about, and colorful or eccentric or distinctive ones have stories told about them. The really good teachers also may have stories told about them, but they produce a different effect, because the teacher has become part of the process of the student's growing.

But no one knows how this happens or what a teacher can do to make it happen. The same teacher will affect two students in the same class in very different ways, and the same teacher and the same student can have very different relationships at different times. The teacher always knows he must be aggressive and forward enough to convince the student there is another mind out there intent upon him, yet quiet and withdrawn enough to give the student thinking room whenever it is needed. But no one really knows how to do this, how to plan a class or a course of classes so that this will happen, even to one student. What can be planned is what the teacher himself thinks, and he can sit down late in the summer and work out a long sequence of 'classes' which trace out various lines of thinking he finds interesting or important. But when the first class begins, the teacher's thought is only one ingredient in the making of a class, and he has little control over the other ingredients most of the time. Students know this, of course, but teachers forget it all the time." [Roger Sale, On Writing 56-57 (New York: Random House, 1970)]

"I will . . . try to tell you how I look at . . . [an] aspect of life. And then maybe you will listen. And then we will talk and probably disagree. Because you are you, your experience will have been different from mine. Your experience tells you, perhaps, that all men seek images of their mothers when they choose their wives; mine tells me this is far from being always so. So we will go on talking. Not 'objectively' or 'subjectively,' just talking. I will try to speak clearly and well so you will see what I see, if only for as long as I am speaking. Maybe I will change your mind some, maybe not, and maybe discussion will seem fruitless. But life is like that. It is people trying to say what they most want to say, discovering that proving objectively some arguable proposition is very easy when compared to struggling to say exactly what they believe is true." [Roger Sale, On Writing 51 (New York: Random House, 1970)]

"[T]eachers using written fiction should be careful not to assume that their own enthusiasm and responsiveness to fiction will carry over to their students." [Alexander Scherr & Hillary Farber, Popular Culture as a Lens on Legal Professionalism, 55 S.C.L. Rev. 351, 378 (2003)]

"[T]he most interesting discussions in literature class have to do with how readers work, how they bring to life the works we read together, how they arrive at and express their versions of the works-their interpretations and criticisms. My attention as a teacher has come to focus on the ways in which students and I myself construct texts as experiences we can talk about, write about, and share with others." [Benjamin DeMott, Close Imagining: An Introduction to Literature viii (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988)]

"What our students need . . . is first of all some guidance in learning how to understand their world and survive in it, and secondarily some grounds for criticizing and trying to improve it." [Robert Scholes, The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English as a Discipline 83 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998)]

James Boyd White on the teaching of law and literature: "I turned to literature . . . as a way of finding other forms of expression with which to contrast what lawyers and judges do. The idea was to use these nonlegal texts in two ways: to help identify some of what the law 'leaves out'—particular voices and gestures, possibilities for meaning and experience, both for their own sake and as surrogates for the whole omitted world—and also to get a handle on the art by which others controlled and transformed their languages, in the hope that this might help us, as lawyers, in our struggles with our own." [James Boyd White, From Expectation to Experience: Essays on Law & Legal Education 73 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999)]

"Our true aims as English teachers can be summed up as a desire to increase the textual competence of our students: to help them gain the ability to read with interpretive and critical acumen and to write with clarity, power, and grace. In short, we would like our students to be able to function textually in a society that constantly bombards them with texts." [Robert Scholes, "Toward a Curriculum in Textual Studies," in Bruce Henricksen & Tahis E. Morgan (eds.), Reorientations: Critical Theories And Pedagogies 95-122, at 99 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990)]

Another teacher, Benjamin DeMott, now Professor Emeritus of English at Amherst, begins a short essay on teaching with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "We animate what we see, we see only what we animate." [Benjamin DeMott, "English and the Promise of Happiness," in Teaching What We Do 2-11 (Amherst, Massachusetts: Amherst College Press, 1991)]. DeMott goes on to explain Emerson's statement as an epigram for his teaching:

"In a good class the efforts of student and teacher bring an imagined human innerness alive. Animation takes. A ghost walks. The collaborators enjoy a stretch of intelligently active, sympathetic engagement with a fictive being—and with each other." [2]

"Talking publicizes and to an extent routines an otherwise more or less exotic activity: searching one's own intimate experience and private knowledge to comprehend the intimate experience of others. By naming and 'discussing' the condition of feeling they're attempting to summon, by talking their way into treating the labor of imaginative penetration as run-of-the-mill, people moderate inhibition and adjust more comfortably to their obligations as animators. One, small, self-protectively objectifying chirp—we're perverse creatures, after all—enables us to shed embarrassment and live with a feeling from which ordinarily we'd retreat." [2]

"The function of conversation—searching for terms, pretending to exactitude, criticizing and celebrating each other's offerings—is to re-situate a deeply private enterprise on a public stage." Talking in class is one way of addressing and coming to terms with what DeMott calls "the hard-nosed self," that "adult self" that "persists in holding center stage, frozen in 'proper' impersonality . . . " [3]

The real work, says DeMott, in reading a poem with students, takes place when we explore "a possibility of feeling . . . ." [4]

"Always, the important classroom goal is that of increasing imaginative mobility, learning to accommodate and comprehend feelings and conditions of being that can, with seconds, touch extremes." [4]

"On occasion the teacher lobbies shamelessly for imaginative mobility as a 'value,' proposing it as the ground of moral or even spiritual advance." DeMott adds that, "Properly judged, pure immobility, the genuine article, is no good, and learning how to move oneself imaginatively . . . is life giving." [4-5]

As for a method of teaching literature, DeMott praises the "simplicity" suggested in questions such as: "What's going on here? What do you make of so and so? What's happening to this person?" [5]

Recognizing that some aspects of literature "don't abide questions" and "mock questions as piddling and small-minded," there must still be an effort to "penetrate" the unquestioned: "[I]n English [that is, the study of literature] as in life it's by arriving at our borders that we discover ourselves."

"Our labors are practical rather than abstract; we keep remembering (in obedience to Whitman) that we're exercising, developing ourselves, engaging in a gymnast's struggle—not settling questions." [7] DeMott begins the essay with a quote from Walt Whitman asserting that reading is "an exercise, a gymnast's struggle . . . . The reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay—the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or framework. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does." [1]

"[T]he chief matters of concern are particulars of humanness; individual human feeling, human response and human time, as they can be animated with the help of writing (at many literary levels) by people living and dead, and as they can be invented and discovered by student writers seeking through words to name and compose and grasp their own experience. English in sum is about my imagined distinctness and the imagined distinctness of other human beings. Its function, like that of some books termed great, is to provide an arena in which separate persons, single egos, can strive at once to encounter the world through art, to decide what if anything they uniquely are, and what some brothers and sisters uniquely are. The instruments employed are the imagination, the intellect, and texts or events that rouse the former to life." [9]

Wayne Booth, in his effort to articulate an ethics of literary reading, says: "What I mean by the ethical criticism of narration . . . cannot be nicely confined in any preliminary definitions; it will be shown more by what I do than by anything I can say." [Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction 8 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988)]. In Heracles' Bow, James Boyd White's collection of literary, law-related essays, he expressed the hope that his essays would find a "shape of their own and make a kind of collective sense. . . ." [James Boyd White, Heracles' Bow: Essays on the Rhetoric and Poetics of the Law ix (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985)]. White found it "difficult to settle on a single theme or philosophy or precise descriptive summary that sets out in conceptual language what we do when we set out to find literary expressions that instruct our imaginative possibilities as lawyers." [Id.] We can say then, of what we do with a course of reading in lawyers and literature: "[I]t is not a conceptual position, but . . . a literary one: a set of attitudes and questions, a way of giving attention to experience, a kind of intellectual identity worked out in performance" that we seek in reading lawyer stories. [Id.]

"If you are fortunate, you encounter a particular teacher who can help, yet finally you are alone. . . ." [Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why 19 (New York: Scribner, 2000)]. [Bloom, in How to Read and Why, tells us far more about what he reads then either "how" or "why." He is better with the "why" than the "how." Consequently, the title is somewhat misleading.]


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Professor Holly Messitt; video, 9:04 mins.

 

 

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