Author Bio

Samuel CohenSamuel Cohen (PhD, City University of New York) is Associate Professor of English and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Missouri, where he has won a number of teaching awards, including the Provost's Outstanding Junior Faculty Teaching Award. He is the author of After the End of History: American Fiction in the 1990s, co-editor of The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, Series Editor of The New American Canon: The Iowa Series in Contemporary Literature and Culture, and Co-editor of the Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, and has published in such journals as Amerikastudien, Voices in Italian Americana, Clio, Twentieth-Century Literature, The Journal of Basic Writing, and Dialogue: A Journal for Writing Specialists. For Bedford/St. Martin's, he is author of 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology and coauthor of Literature: The Human Experience.

Why I Teach Literature

posted: 3.4.14 by Samuel Cohen

For the epigraph to the preface of the latest edition of Literature: The Human Experience, I chose a few sentences from an interview given by David Foster Wallace: “We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.”

It might just be that simple, but I’m not sure that it is. I do think it’s possible to feel less alone inside by living for a while inside someone else’s head; even better, it’s possible that this identification can help readers of literature not only to feel better but to act better, to treat others more empathetically, and to do so because they know not only how others feel but also how they live. Teaching literature, then, could be a way to help people learn from literature how to be better humans.

But of course some historically awful humans are said to have read a lot of literature. And there is writing out there that one would be hard-pressed to describe as empathy-expanding (see Ayn Rand), yet it gets read and even taught. So it’s not that simple. What else? Helping students to appreciate beauty is a good reason to teach literature. So is teaching them to appreciate complexity, and ambiguity, and even contradiction. So is teaching them to communicate their own thoughts better in writing.


There are many good reasons to teach literature. The one I reject is the one that those inside and outside of higher education who question the value of the humanities are most ready to hear: that it prepares students to join the workforce, maybe even better than the business degrees to which so many are inclined these days. I think it’s great if studying literature helps get my students jobs—saying otherwise in this economy would be outrageous—but it’s no reason to teach literature. As important as the economic and the political are, and as much as literature can say about them, maybe the greatest value of literature is that it stands apart from these things. It gets produced and consumed, and emerges out of a world where money and power shape everything, but I teach it as art, as something that can resist those forces. So, in a much shorter formulation, why teach literature? Because in some saving measure, literature stands apart from the world of getting and spending, a world that is way, way too much with us. Time spent reading it and thinking about it and talking about it and writing about it is time well-spent, period.

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One Response to “Why I Teach Literature”

  1. AKT, Eastern Michigan University Says:

    I think the reason so many people want to jump on that bandwagon (literature is valuable because it makes people better corporate citizens) is that culturally, we are deeply uncomfortable, still, with the notion that difference is valuable. At least, in economic terms, the conversations around education are all about THE path towards employability, rather than considering that a) there are many paths; and b) there are paths that are valuable even if they do not lead in some directly tangible way to a job. Paths, in short, that are not a job title tend to make many people who are critical of our educational system deeply uncomfortable. Hence people within the Humanities mount a defense by suggesting sameness: “hey! look! we aren’t that different from you after all! we can help your science/business/marketing/political values/machine move forward.”

    Calling for valuing literature precisely because literature is *not* a job title, because it enables us to question and challenge–rather than easily move forward in–our world, goes against the larger, insidious expectation that education is primarily job training.

    I completely agree with you, by the way, that literature should neither be read nor taught in terms of some future job value, but rather in terms of its value for illuminating and questioning human conditions, for thinking. But this is an argument based on difference. And on valuing difference. And we certainly could do with better, stronger language in which to articulate the values of that difference, if we are going to make headway in these discussions about why literature matters with an audience beyond those who already think it does.

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