Why Study Literature?

Why Study Literature?


Hello, and welcome to the lecture for “Why
Study Literature?” In this lecture we’re going to be exploring the “whys” of
literature, before we get into specific texts this semester. A lot of times
people will ask the question about why we should have general education
literature, and I’ve designed this lecture to give you some sense of why
studying literature can be important even if you’re not an English major or
even if you don’t enjoy reading books. So I hope as we go through this lecture
together, it will give you some better context for understanding why literature
matters to your life. As you begin to study literature, you might have thought
to yourself, “Why do I have to read this? What am I supposed to get out of it? What
does this mean? and What’s the point?” these are all very basic questions that
I hear, a lot of the times, from people who are not as interested in literature,
and those are very valid questions. A lot of times when you come into a discipline
like literature it’s difficult from the outside perspective, if you don’t already
have the taste for literature, to understand what kind of relevance it
could have to you or your job or your future career or just your personal life.
So I want us to think through these questions and to take them seriously so
we can understand how these questions actually inform our study of literature
and its importance this semester. So all of these questions can essentially be
answered by saying “story is identity.” This semester we will examine how
literature is actually essential to how you understand your own identity. Some of
the points will discuss include that all cultures have stories, no matter how
different they may appear. Stories are a unifying element of human experience, and
story is the way that we process experience. So you’ll hear me come back
throughout the course of the semester to this concept of literature and identity,
and that is a big theme for the class and that will be one of our focuses
throughout the course of the semester. So when you think in terms of literature I
want you to stop thinking of it as something that is “out there,” separate or
external to yourself, and instead begin to recognize the way that story is
actually part of your personal life. One of the ways you might see this first
is in the way that we tend to have conversations with a narrative structure.
So I have here on this slide, “You’ll never believe what happened to me!” If you’ve ever said the above phrase, then you have told a story as part of
your identity. This is actually a very common phrase that you’ll hear when
people are telling each other things about their day, or their week, or if you
haven’t talked to someone recently, or if you have something surprising happen You
introduce a story to a listener, and you already understand the story structure,
which tends to underlie a lot of our conversations. You determine “characters”
involved in the action. You emphasize important points of plot. You might pause
for dramatic effect, and then you’ll lead someone up to the punchline, to the
conclusion, to the important point of the story that you’re telling. So in all of
these ways, you’re already shaping conversation narratively, and that
becomes a big part of how literature begins to function. It starts in our
personal interactions, and then becomes something that’s written down and
translated, and becomes bigger than an individual person, but it really all
begins with thinking of our lives as actual stories. Story becomes essential
to our understanding of self because when we tell stories and our experiences,
we do so because we actually process information narratively. So we’re
telling stories in order to explain events, or to give a sense of personal
history. We also view our lives teleologically. This is just a fancy word
for meaning that we’re moving through time, from a beginning point, with a
middle, toward an end, where the end is the goal, just like in the story. So
viewing time chronologically and viewing our lives teleologically, moving towards
something, towards a purpose, and we tend to structure our sense of identity, our
sense of self, and even everyday conversations, with the same narrative
structure. And we really already think of our lives as stories. When we tell people
about ourselves, we tell our “life story” and that is how we begin to get to know
one another, to build relationships, to build networks for our jobs. All of these
things involve a storytelling process that underlies
all of our communications. In fact, there’s an entire genre of storytelling
literature about life stories called “autobiography,” which I’m sure you’ve
heard of. This process of telling and hearing life stories really does two
things: it gives a sense of history, because it provides your origin, how you
got to where and who you are today, and then it also determines and defines your
identity, helping you shape the events and people that are essential to your
present self. An autobiography as a genre is essentially just where people have
begun writing down those life stories that have helped them understand who
they are, but all of those things are based on viewing ourselves in terms of
narrative. Since we view our lives narratively, we’re always writing our own life stories, even though we may not be doing
so consciously. In the process of shaping your identity through story, you can
start to understand how you’re actually choosing which “characters” to remember
and forget. These are people in your life that you’ve decided to maintain
relationships with, for better or for worse, people who become sort of “villain
figures” or who become your “heroes,” who are your companions, your sidekicks. All
of those narrative tropes are structures that have become almost cliche in
literature, but they actually arise out of life and the people that we bring
into our lives and the people that we see in our lives that become these sort
of character figures even though we wouldn’t necessarily label them as such
consciously. We also choose which events are most formative to our present state
of self. So if you think back through your life, there are probably certain
events that have shaped you and helped shape your worldview. Those are your
big “action moments” in your life story or your narrative, and all of these things,
the people and the events, create an explanation of your identity and your
personal history. So whether you realize it or not, you do tend to think of your
life in the story-like terms. This is what’s called “narrative identity”
and underlies a lot of the way that we think through our life journey and our
trajectories and our goals and what we want to accomplish. It’s with this sense
of narrative purpose. So given the background of this narrative identity
theory, what I want you to understand is that literature is really just like you.
So the stories that you’re reading are coming out of cultural backgrounds, where
authors have taken characters and ideas and different personalities and events
and shaped them into literature. So authors are picking out these stories to
have major plot points that would be representative of certain people’s
cultural experiences. They write them down, and then we read them because we
can recognize in them something common to our own experiences. So when you read
literature, you should be able to find some point of identification, being able
to recognize stories that are uniquely human and that transcend cultural
barriers. So that’s really the importance of literature, is that it puts
down in writing and records these common human experiences that we can all
recognize and feel that we’re a part of, in some way. Regardless of where the
author comes from, or what personal backgrounds they have, they’re saying
something that could be representative of personal human experience overall.
Even if you don’t feel personally connected to literature, because you
don’t enjoy the reading process, you’re still encountering story in a lot of
different forms, primarily these days in terms of film, which also has a similar
narrative structure and also derives a lot from different literary texts. So I
want you to think through why literature matters: it’s really a record of all
these different stories that went beyond one person’s experiences to become a
story of national, cultural, or universal human identity. And it’s studied
because they provide us with that sense of cultural connection and identity,
demonstrating common human experiences, and helping us understand essential
parts of our lives: death and birth, joy and tragedy, all those kind of “big ideas.”
Stories help us to contextualize those and to feel both
entertained, in the sense of perhaps a superhero movie where we can look at
heroism and really think about what our values and our ideals are for heroism; as
well as educated, in terms of something like a documentary or a text that’s a
memoir when you’re reading about someone’s personal experiences going
through a struggle that you might or might not have experienced yourself.
Stories are really teaching us who we were in the past, who we are now, and who
we have the potential to be. So they’re really forming two different goals here:
entertainment/pleasure versus instruction or education, whether that’s
historical, or present-day social problems, or thinking about how we can be
better in the future. So all of these different purposes are why literature is
created and why it could speak to your life, whether or not you’re an English
major, or whether or not you have a career in English Studies. So as I
mentioned, this semester we’re going to be thinking about literature in terms of
narrative identity theory, and for now I want to see what you think. So have you
thought of your life as a story before now, or can you see how your life might
be shaped by story now that you’ve heard this lecture this week? In our first
discussion board post, I’m going to ask you to introduce yourself to the class
and share a bit of your story, and as we go through the semester, we’ll be using
“literature as identity” as the basis for our discussions. So I do want you to keep
this theory in mind as you begin to read, and I’ll come back to it and mention it
throughout the course of this semester, so that that way we can understand how
identity is connected to the different stories we read and how it might impact
personal identity, cultural identity, even national identity as we look at stories
from around the world . Thanks!

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