Forum: On the Teaching of Literature: Occupying Literature Teaching in Contemporaneity

by Louie Jon A. Sanchez

A paper for a panel at the 2012 Taboan Writers Festival organized by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, held at Clark Field, Pampanga last Feb. 9-11, 2012.

Just a few days ago, in my Philippine Literature in English class in the Ateneo de Manila, we problematized notions of the contemporary and how it must be understood in relation to literary history and the critical practice. My own reading of the panel’s theme brought me once again to the same problematique, with the other keywords in the brief elaborating the conditions of contemporaneity—“high-tech”, “globalized society”, and the almost imperative pedagogical actions of “strategies”, “approaches”, and “challenges”. What seems to remain constant in the equation is the word, “classroom”, where all of these “thrive”. The object of the discussion is to explore the questions, “how should a poem be taught ” or “what relevance does a short story have,” in this classroom located in that certain “today”. The theme constructs for us not only a “presencing” in time (the contemporary as today), but also in space (the classroom today). The more we look into the brief of this panel, the more we understand how the “reading” of the contemporary imposes the variability of time and the constancy of space—quite simplistic and essentialist if seen closely. I want to unsettle this reading a little by looking into how this contemporaneity occupies the realm of learning, considering the word “occupy” as today’s current preoccupation, from Wall Street to Mendiola. This way of reading brings me to two collective assumptions, mainly that both—(1) literature as classroom subject or object of learning, and (2) the classroom as space of learning have already been radically transformed by this occupation.

The canon itself (World or Philippine), the pieces of literature put together as “time-tested” may seem to be a resolute fortress, but the occupation of the contemporary interrogates our interpretative and textual notions. With this, even our understanding of “significant human experiences” of Universalist origins is put to test by what may be called deferred (in the poststructural, postmodernist sense) values, if there is such, of our times. Perhaps this basic understanding of significant human experiences must also be revaluated and consequently revised not only to emphasize man’s unflinching desire for wholeness in the face of “suffering”, a construct in itself created by the old masters of the West. Though we say that they were never wrong, it lacked that Audenian position which only pertains, I believe, to discourses of location. A position is a perspective, a way of looking, a weltanchuung, and its space or habitation needs to be reconsidered. Literature then must not only be seen as a school of the ages, as Harold Bloom puts it; it must also be read as a location of consciousness, a location-in-the-world. Literature through the ages has been characterized as a space of engagement between the author (before his death in the Barthian sense), and the reader. The text eventually came into play, and so did its nature of constructedness, of being an edifice of/to meaning. We have longed for meaning in our relationship with literature-as-text in our readerly life, and many of us surely despair the arrival of the contemporary’s interventions, like postmodernism, or even what Bloom described as a “school of resentment” in poetry, which he highly criticized for its unabashedly social commitment. What appears constant now is the space-ness of literature as text, its being a place of both engagements (reading, the textual jouissance) and interventions (interpretating, criticizing, historicizing, theorizing). The question of how is literature to be read appears to direct us to the more pertinent question: the where to read literature—or, in what position, in what conceptual landscape or terrain, in what geographical/geopolitical/geocultural perspective should it be read in this day and age?

In the Philippines, the primary location of literature is the classroom. In our own teaching experience, literature education, I surmise, had been upheld for reasons of practicality, to a certain extent corporate and capitalist, and only intending to create productive individuals who could climb the highest levels of analysis, evaluation and creativity in the learning taxonomy ladder of that other Bloom, Benjamin; the practice of close reading is considered a mere exercise in critical thinking, a way of cultivating language for communicative purposes. The globalized circuit of business process outsourcing, professional head hunting, and OFW production needs the skills to effectively contribute to national economy, whose financial capacities and standings are determined, dictated by the interests of the powers that be. This is the kind of hegemony literature education suffers nowadays, and it simply oppresses the texts’ plethora of possibilities, and in effect, the minds (if I may be allowed to use that awful synecdoche) that could be stirred by/through the full range of experiences made possible by/through literature. One hegemonic manifestation is the uninterrogated centricism (Manila and some others), perpetrated through our literary preferences (language, location, politics) as well as judgments (inclusions and exclusions, the institution and the new, the mainstream and the underground) that surface in our teaching practices. We are all fed with the same things as literature because we continue to be prisoners of our classroom structures and constructs. To my mind, the oppressions of the classroom may be overcome by breaking down not only the fourth, but all of its walls, reminiscent of the metaphor of the World Wide Web, globalization’s portal and virtual monument, as a borderless world—a borderless consciousness even, if we also begin accounting for the imaginative aspects of literature and its transformative powers. Literature is a languaging, a calling into presence, of a world, and that world must be entered (forgive the rather sexist diction)—occupied—by all means. If this borderless world is confounded by violence and war, the violence of/to the text could be a probable way to this “wholeness” literature had been aspiring for from the beginning. That sort of violence through textuality as a means of responding to the world may only be possible, I suppose, if we are to re-understand reading not merely as a skill, a symbolic capital, but a criticality, a way of seeing that defines who we are, and consequently, where we are. Reading literature in the classroom must transform, must renew itself into a critical practice in order to combat the limitations of our teaching practices.

Classical wholeness is a paradox in itself if we reconsider its literary notions in contemporaneity. Our age of borderlessness is also an age of fragmentation, of the Derridean differance. In the Philippines at least, we can understand our literary discourse by explicating our own archipelagic nature and the “unification” (nationalization, as some would put it) project which is more often than not considered futile. We are conditioned by our own dividedness as an archipelago, and this archipeligiality, this critical concept I am testing right now as a critical response to reading literature leads me to conclude that our own production of literature, from the time of the una persona tagala to the gesamtkunstwerk of our contemporary writers, are but ideations in a narrative-in-progress, an attempt at creatively discoursing the Filipino nation, not merely as a body of texts, but as beingness itself, an embodiment, an idea located and locatable in the geographical body. To teach literature in the Philippines then is to involve one’s self in reading this narrative, in telling this story, in this moment in time where everything is exposed as constructs. Reading needs positionality and consequently, positionality itself requires some form of close “reading” that is not only interpretive but also interrogative. A requisite for the use of this archipelagial framework is critical practice which must be cultivated in the classroom—from both within the structured learning environments and from without. Contemporaneity is not only a state of being governed by technology, by the high-tech and the globalized. The contemporaneous is also a vision of progress, another construct which necessitates critical investigation. When we read a poem or a story in class, we experience its inherent speculativeness (all literature after all is speculative, and not merely some), its idea for a certain state of life and of being. In and through it, we get to encounter the promise of languaging as worlding, the existence of the probable. A nation in constant strife like ours is best studied in literature. Literature in the Philippines is a reconstruction of a national self, not merely a representation but also a “re-presentation”, of making present once again of that self which was lost in multicolonialisms. When we define literature in the way of Fr. Joseph Galdon SJ, its significance to our human experience must be located—or relocated—in our Philippine landscape. Even our reading of the foreign text must be tempered by this critical location. In the end, the success and failure of teaching literature in the contemporary times in the Philippines depend not only on pedagogy, but also on the politics that defines it. The Filipino literature teacher must preoccupy him or herself with looking at reading, and teaching as exposing this peculiar clockwork.


Louie Jon A. Sanchez is the managing editor of Kalatas. He teaches Writing and Literature at the Department of English, School of Humanities, Ateneo de Manila, where he also works as associate editor for communications for the international journal Kritika Kultura. He has two books of poetry, Kung Saan sa Katawan (2013, UST Publishing House) and At Sa Tahanan ng Alabok (2010, UST Publishing House), a finalist at the Madrigal-Gonzalez First Best Book Prize.


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