Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Frances Ferguson reviews The Teaching Archive

Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan. The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021. 320 pp.

Review by Frances Ferguson

7 July 2021

Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan present The Teaching Archive as a commentary on the teaching materials of nine different figures: Caroline Spurgeon, T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, J. Saunders Redding, Cleanth Brooks and Edmund Wilson, Josephine Miles, and Simon J. Ortiz. Yet the book is more than a teacher’s guide or a collection of scattered observations about what has worked in a classroom. It is a history of literary study pitched against the accounts of literary professionalism that have given us the sense that we should guide our thinking about literature by doctrinal statements.

Buurma and Heffernan’s distinctive contribution is to claim full value for the teaching materials they analyze. Even as they call up an image of what they call “the true, impossible teaching archive—all the syllabuses, handouts, reading lists, lecture notes, student papers, and exams ever made,” they do so only to point to an important fact about the teaching of literature: more close-readings have been done in classrooms than have ever appeared in print (p. 2). Their quantitative perspective––loose though it may be in the absence of the “true, impossible teaching archive” of all teaching materials––brings into sharp relief “the grand scale” of the teaching of English literature, “counted not just in hours and weeks, but in numbers of people, stacks of paper, and intensity of attention” (p. 2).

In emphasizing the sheer scale of the enterprise of teaching literature, Buurma and Heffernan argue that their various case studies offer a “much larger and more interesting record than the famous monographs and seminal articles that usually represent the history of literary study” (p. 2). This interesting record, they maintain, offers a corrective to the notion that literary methods have always “trickled down” from elite universities to nonelites. We should, they propose, stop writing histories of literary study that project back from anthologies of criticism and instead focus on the classroom as the place where most of our work and our thinking is done.

Although they challenge the account of the divide between scholars and critics that Gerald Graff offers in Professing Literature, their approach has significant implications for most of the cultural histories of literary study. They do not mount an explicit critique of such cultural histories, but one can imagine that they easily could. Such a critique would fault many cultural histories for their need to regulate their materials with plotlines. Cultural histories, not only amass numbers of cases, they link them together to tell stories of developments and waxing and waning fashions, their rise and fall. Buurma and Heffernan not only expand the range of institutions they include in their analysis. They also insist upon the importance of deriving their history of literary study from case studies. Their interest falls on what happens in classrooms in which the primary pressure on a teacher is to establish a language with their students. Literary value may seem “to emanate from texts, but is actually made by people” (p. 6).

Buurma and Heffernan notice that several of their subjects dedicate their books to the students in particular classes and thank them for having helped them arrive at certain models for literary study. None of the other archives seem to have had such beautifully bound and carefully preserved records as Spurgeon’s account of the work that she and her students did on William Shakespeare’s metaphors and metaphorical networks. Yet all of the records show teachers who take their students as they find them and who are changed by the experience of talking to them about making sense. Josephine Miles regularly taught composition in English 1-A at the University of California, Berkeley as an exercise in “sentence-making” and “predication” rather than “simply reporting or emoting” (p. 156). She did not oppose literary form to scientific writing, as did many of her fellow critics of the 1940s and 1950s, and explicitly advocated “writing across the disciplines” that would draw on the interests of “geographers and astronomers,” so that “’the language of their discipline could come alive for them in their own writing’” (p. 164). Her pioneering word counts of Romantic poetry across authors and decades helped to demonstrate how far our notions of poetic originality color our dictionary entries, which all too frequently credit a famous poet with first use. All of this work arose from a sense of the importance of noticing observable facts and sifting them for their significance.

What Buurma and Heffernan capture in Miles’s pedagogy is its responsiveness to students in a large public university for whom sentences and texts are more compelling than Literature with a capital L.  Moreover, they provide an account of Eliot’s tutorial course Modern English Literature that shows him to have been more susceptible to the Workers’ Educational Association’s ethos of equal exchange than most accounts of Eliot would have thought possible. Quoting Eliot’s self-deprecatory remarks about having needed to “'get up’” information “'about the private life of worthies, where they went to school, and why their elder brother failed in business,’” Buurma and Heffernan show Eliot as a teacher being taught, adjusting to students’ work schedules and tailoring the courses’ readings to his students’ requests (p. 58). The essays Eliot published in The Sacred Wood, they point out, were not designed so much as interventions in the literary canon as outgrowths of his having studied what his students had chosen to study. Yet their most striking instances of the literary canon shaped in the classroom appear in their accounts of the work of J. Saunders Redding and Simon J. Ortiz. Redding, who taught for substantial portions of his career at Hampton Institute and Cornell University, developed syllabi that regularly combined readings of Black authors and White authors and led him to outline a literary history of American literature that did not “'lop off’” “'writing by black Americans . . . from the corpus of American literary expression’” (p. 109). His claim that “Afro-American Studies . . . are basically American Studies” emerged from his ways of thinking with his students about Charles Dickens’s idealizations of himself and various characters and about the importance of writing that reflected the “constantly changing situations [Negro people] have encountered, and their reaction to these situations." One of his characteristic course descriptions promised "attention to minor writers, as well as to white writers whose interpretations of the Negro have influenced American opinion and literature” (quoted in p. 112). Ortiz, by contrast, taught and revised courses in the College of Marin in the late 1970s that reveal “how his conception of Native American literary history . . . and the connection between the oral tradition and printed literature arose first as solutions to the pedagogical problem of how to teach a literary historical survey that didn’t position contemporary [Native American] writing as belated or inauthentic” (quoted in p. 182).