Academic Exchange Quarterly     Spring    2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  9, Issue  1

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Caveats for Teaching the Novel


Michael D. Gose, Pepperdine University


Gose, Ph.D., is the Blanche E. Seaver Professor of Humanities and Teacher Education



The author credits much of the success he has had in teaching the novel to his adjustments to the “realities” of teaching.  Is it realistic to teach the novel as if one’s students are going to become English teachers?  Is it realistic to teach a novel that is beyond the capacities of the students? Is it smart to plod through a novel, when the joy of reading a novel is in reading it at one’s own pace? And what if the students expect worksheets?  The author offers some tips, some “caveats,” for creating the opportunity to have success in teaching the novel.



I have taught English Literature for thirty-six years and my favorite genre is the novel.  According to student evaluations I do this extremely well.  I think my “edge” is that whatever does not kill you makes you stronger.  Silas Marner tried to kill me when I was fourteen years old.  To have hopes of becoming an English teacher one presumably needs a high level of success in High School English.  My future career nearly ended with George Eliot’s Silas Marner.  For whatever reasons, including immaturity, I could not fight my way through that text.  And given the propensity of English teachers to spend weeks on a single novel, it was one of the worst periods of my academic life.  I have made a point to remember that.  That memory alone has made me a more empathetic teacher.


My second strongest memory as a student of the novel was reading Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country (which I see has recently made Oprah’s Book Club) when I was in college.  I had allotted what should have been sufficient time to finish the book, but in savoring the book, I found myself reading it at a very deliberate pace…so much so that it was my only time as a student that I had to rush to the library to read in Master Plots on how the story ended, rush to take the exam, and then rush back to my dorm room to finish the book.  I do not fault the professor for the timing of the exam, but I am forever reminded of the significance of coming to love reading literature.


I mention these two stories to suggest that the key to teaching the novel successfully is adjusting to the social and educational variables that set the context for teaching the novel.


Realities about your class

Have you considered that if you are teaching the novel in a High School English class, it is unlikely any one of your students will go on to become an English major (much less an English teacher)?  Have you considered as you make your teaching preparations that you already know more about the novel than any of your students are likely to want to know?  Have you wondered why it has been reported that college graduates do not read a book the first two years after graduation?


I think that the implications of these questions is in preparing to teach a particular novel with regard to 1) working to help one’s students connect with the novel; 2) emphasizing the aspects of the novel that educated people (rather than English majors) need to know; and 3) doing everything possible to make the reading of the novel such a good experience that the student is more likely, rather than less likely, to continue to read novels.  While my experience has been that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing style in The Scarlet Letter is challenging for students, I have found it fairly easy to get students to identify with the issues of guilt and the cruelty of peer pressure.  While some of the details may be forgotten the power of the red letter “A” and the characters of Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth remain a part of the consciousness of most educated Americans.  I have also found that the more difficult the novel the more important it is to work quickly, that students understand that this is a “first” reading, that they will have a working knowledge of the text, that this is surely a book to which they will want to return to again.


Teaching/learning realities

1.  What if the novel to be read is beyond the capacity of the students?  This is perhaps the most perplexing problem faced by teachers.  On the one hand one hopes that the student can stretch to meet the challenge.  However, if the challenge is beyond the capacity of the students, the teacher must either hope to 1) teach something else; or 2) help the students as best s/he can.  For example of ways to help, William A. Glasser (2003:  p. 25) discusses the advantages of giving students certain information up front of their reading of the novel.  He says, “The point remains that an advanced knowledge of the happenings taking place within a literary work may actually enhance the essential experience conveyed by the work.”  Brett C. McInelly (2003:  p. 20) describes the advantages of having students study the historical context of a novel.  He has his students write a “context paper” where students “peruse a variety of primary sources, such as newspapers and periodicals, in an effort to recreate the historical and cultural contexts from which a particular novel emerged.”  He has found that this project aids students in understanding.

2.  How do students best learn?  Elliot Eisner makes a distinction between the “staircase” model of teaching and the “spiderweb” model.  My complaint as a student was that my English teachers were far too devoted to the “staircase” model, working step by step, chapter by chapter through a book.  Certainly the implication of Gestalt Psychology is that this is a very artificial method of approaching a work.  As Ernest Hilgard explains,


“According to the Gestalt Psychologists …our experiences depend on the patterns that stimuli form, on the organization of experience.  What we see is relative to background, to other aspects of the whole.  The whole is different from the sum of its parts:  the whole consists of parts in relationship.” (Hilgard, p. 19)


If Gestalt Psychology is correct, we first need a grasp of the whole against which we test the particulars.  Such a “whole” comes best by first making a complete reading of a work.  The alternative, “spiderweb” model offers more flexibility for teaching something as long as the novel without feeling that one has to march through a novel.

3.  Although they are both epic poems instead of novels, I have long felt that the use of the staircase model has ruined the teaching of both The Iliad and The Divine Comedy.  Only when one understands why The Iliad necessarily ends with the burial of Hektor can one look back on why Achilleus is the hero; only when one understands Dante’s Trinity can one begin to understand Dante’s confusions in The Inferno.  The problem becomes how the teacher creates “the time and space” necessary for students to have the time to read an entire work before it is analyzed.


The reality of the hidden curriculum

Teaching the novel is always impacted by the students’ “social class”.  Jean Anyon has identified how social class influences the curriculum.  In working class schools students do a lot of work sheets; in middle class schools students, metaphorically and literally, work the formulas and check their answers against those in the back of the book; in affluent professional schools students work on creative projects and self expression; in social-elite schools students read difficult, original material, discuss it, and write essays about it.  Regardless the social class orientation of the teacher, if it at odds with the expectations of the students, adjustments will have to be made.  Personally I like to have a conversation with my students about their expectations and to explain the social significance of their answers.  We need hard working citizens among all of the social classes.  The kind of work students do in school is very much a preparation for the kind of college they might go to and the kind of work they will do in the economy.  I admit that my personal preference is for the kind of education associated with the “social-elite” schools—discussion and essays.  However, I am also absolutely fine with worksheets, with multiple-choice exams, with creative projects.  I admit that I do encourage all of my students to consider going on to college, and that I want them to be prepared to be successful at whatever kind of college they will choose.  I want them to know that if they want to go on to an “elite” university, they will need to become adroit and the discussion/essay format.  But that is certainly not the only way to approach grades and assignments.


Tips related to teaching the novel

  1. Work with students on their planning skills.  Deliberately, intentionally, and conspicuously work with students to budget their time in such a way as they can be expected to complete reading a novel in a designated amount of time.  I have found that having students keep a time log for a week, and pick out particularly good times in the week for uninterrupted reading actually helps.
  2. “Sell” the novel; sell it realistically!  Will they enjoy it?  Will it be on the test?  Are all educated people familiar with this work?  Will it be on the Advanced Placement Test?  Will it help them with vocabulary for the SAT?  Will it help them to understand their own lives better?  Be honest.  And if there’s not a good reason to teach this novel, teach something else.
  3. Encourage students to find their own rhythm for reading and appreciating the novel.  Some may read straight through over a weekend, some chapter by chapter.  A key is for students to find an enjoyable routine that might become a life long habit.
  4. On a daily basis monitor students’ progress with their reading. Ask students individually how far s/he has read thus far.  I like to ask students about their experience in trying to stop their reading at the end of a chapter.  My experience has usually been that authors have so successfully whetted my appetite at the end of a chapter for the next chapter that it is often easier to stop at a section break rather than at the end of a chapter.  Comparing reading experiences like that is enjoyable to do, and also cultivates an appreciation for reading.  I will also ask questions that I think will connect with readers who have gotten a certain distance in the novel, but questions that  do not give away any plot details…”have you met a certain character yet in your reading?  Have you gotten to such-and-such an event or place?” 
  5. Buy time for students to complete their longer reading by having short, interim assignments.  During the time when students’ major responsibility is reading the novel, I do not hesitate to spend classroom time on short stories, essays, poems, song lyrics (which tell stories), working on thematic and genre issues and reminding students we are buying them time to finish their novel.
  6. When feasible, divide a class and let each student pick between two novels to avoid creating a “Silas Marner” situation for any student.  When students are allowed to make a choice, they are usually much more invested in making that choice successful.
  7. If the syntax of a work is unfamiliar, it can be very, very helpful to read aloud to students until they literally “hear” and internalize the flow of words.  Read the first few pages aloud to get students all started at the same time.
  8. Ask students to note favorite passages and places where they laughed.  (They can use post-it notes if they are not allowed to write in their books.)  They can read these passages aloud in class, not for discussion, but for appreciation, in the time while the class is still reading the book.


Thoughts on teaching the novel

  1. How much of the esoteric material particular to the respective academic discipline must be taught?  Although a class needs to be convinced of the wisdom of this advice, my point of view is that not everything in the textbooks needs to be covered during class time.  That’s why there are textbooks.  Students can read quicker than they can listen; only “A” students may need to have that extra material anyway; the “best” students should be able to show the initiative to cover that additional material on their own.  A key for such a policy is in writing an exam in which about 60% of the material tested is what everyone clearly learned, especially during class time, and the remaining 40% of the exam is used to separate the Cs, Bs, and As.  This makes writing the exam more difficult, but the rewards of grading an exam where one realizes that much learning took place makes this very worthwhile.
  2. When possible I like to use video clips from movies that are adaptations of the novel.  For example, I teach Dickens’ Hard Times at the college level.  I have two different B.B.C. versions of the novel.  In the scene where Harthouse and Louisa are considering running away together their motivations for doing so are depicted very, very differently among the novel and two movies.  The comparisons and contrasts work very nicely for helping students to read text more closely.
  3. Focus on the human issues raised by the text.  I do not neglect plot, character, setting, point of view, and theme, for example, but find it much easier to get all of my students involved in the issues raised by a novel, whether issues of ethics, justice, maturity, etc.  Why does Huck Finn help Jim escape from slavery when  in fact Huck says that doing so is wrong?
  4. Do students have to do collages or mobiles or videos or a journal about the novel?  Why?  I personally loathed writing journals, a continuing staple among English teachers.  Why not let them have some choice among assignments lest the particular assignment cause students to hate the novel.  I have always especially hated quizzes.  They admittedly have the virtue of coercing students to be prepared, but they can also have the disadvantage of students learning to associate the novel with pain.
  5. Do not beleaguer.  Leave the novel while students still have enthusiasm for it.  Many a great novel (and reading experience) has been killed by staying on it too long.  I fully understand the temptation to spend lots of classroom time on a work that took a relatively long time to read.  But the truth of the matter is that probably most of us want to fully enjoy reading a novel; have a great conversation about it; and leave it at that; without ever feeling cheated because we did not spend weeks dissecting it (Glasser (2003) says in his title, “we murder (emphasis added) to dissect.”)
  6. Thus, do not feel guilty for heavily weighting the work the student does on the novel in terms of the overall grade, but while spending only a limited number of class periods on it.  Feel good about a long, quality reading experience, and a short, quality classroom experience.



James Herndon blames “Noman.”  The voice of tradition sits on our shoulders telling us that there are approved ways of doing things, whether they work or not.  After thirty-six years of relative success teaching the novel, I find that I still occasionally feel guilty about my failure to plod through a novel page by page, giving quizzes to make sure students keep up with their reading, and then giving them any number of assignments about the novel to make sure they worked hard enough.  But I soon get over such insecurities and find ways of occupying our time in class so that we have time to read a good book, talk with each other about the experience, and find the process very satisfying.  And I hear from my students that they do continue to read novels after graduation.



Selected Bibliography

Anyon, J. (1980).  Social class and the hidden curriculum of work.  Journal of Education, 162 (1), 67-92.


Eisner, E. (1985) The educational imagination.   New York:  MacMillan.


Glasser, William A (2003).  The unteaching of literature:  we murder to dissect.  Academic Exchange Quarterly. v. 7, i2, p. 25 (5), Summer, 2003.


Herndon, J. (1985) How to survive in your native land.  New York:  Simon & Schuster.


Hilgard, E, (1962) Introduction to Psychology.  New York:  Harcourt, Brace and World.


McInelly, Brett C. (2003).  Teaching the Novel in Context.  Academic Exchange Quarterly. v. 7, i2, p. 20 (5), Summer, 2003.















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