What Is My Problem? (... with teaching extracts)

The conclusion to this post has been updated. In teaching, I struggle with which texts to assign: more fruitful, complex texts (like speeches by Cicero or Demosthenes, or Benjamin's "The Task of the Translator") can lead to drops in attendance and participation, but less dense ones (like select think pieces from, say, The Atlantic or The Millions) seem to reinforce the common view held by 20-year-olds that they pretty much know it all. It is a problem when students do not participate because if they bring nothing to the conversation, there is nothing to tie the material to, to make it relevant. Some years, I almost exclusively use excerpts from the more complex texts - if only inclusive of a few non-sugar coated ones, but I maintain that this method is rife with dangers, which may or may not have been indirectly apparent in my last post, which drew only on excerpts.
To use an excerpt is to take on the responsibility of filling in the context of what the excerpt was cut out of. This not only includes explaining parts of the text that surrounded the excerpt, but also explicating related schools of thought, historical details and precedents, specific references, etc. This is particularly challenging where it cannot be assumed that there is a shared 'cultural language' to begin with - which means that I might not know how important it is to emphasise certain points, or might not remember to point things out that I take for granted.
It may be because of these problems that I am increasingly interested in "the rudimentary" - and doubtful of whether I have a sound enough mastery of the basics: to use an example mentioned above, I might forget to explain points I have long assimilated and internalised.
There is also the problem of what "knowledge" is - for example, how can one claim to know a book when second, third readings bring elucidation of ideas one failed to see or retain the first time? Or, when further readings bring entirely new meaning? Such basic and common experiences are further warnings of the inadequacy of the outline.


This has been better expressed by Auerbach when he describes, in his famous essay on "Philology and 'Weltliteratur'", the problem of achieving "synthesis", which is similar to the outline, or summary in its concern for a vision of the whole. It is problematic because of the problem of the uncertainty of what is truly known of the past, as well as the challenges of grasping "the conditions under which ... literature developed", which includes religion, philosophy, politics, etc. He explains the "problematic and the ordering categories" of literature by writing: "Most of them are too abstract and ambiguous, and frequently they have too private a slant. They confirm a temptation to which neophytes (and acolytes) are frequently inclined to submit: the desire to master a great mass of material through the introduction of hypostasized, abstract concepts of order".
The pitfalls of abstracted overviews is no new concern. I think it is reflected in the adage non multa legere sed multum (which I will poorly render as: read not many but much). If the meaning of this phrase is not immediately apparent, I think it is rather well illustrated by the reading habits of A. W. Verall (in the foreword to his Collected Literary Essays: Classical and Modern, eds. M. A. Bayfield and J. D. Duff):
"For mere information he did not care overmuch, he preferred multum legere potius quam multa. What he asked for from serious books was nutriment, and this he got better (if I may pursue the horrid metaphor) by repeated mastication than by the hasty omnivorous feeding which makes assimilation impossible."

I am afraid that my own habits are inferior - and I attribute my shortcomings to inadequate "mastication": there are no shortcuts in learning, or teaching. That is, if we care about knowledge and learning.
To return to my initial ramblings in this post: "select think pieces" offer immediate relevance to students, the familiar, the contemporary. This is an important piece in the attempt to reach a potential audience. I think it is also important in terms of the meaning of learning, which I consider to lie at the crossroads between distant horizons and what can actually apply on one's journey - which is part of the mystery of learning, as these coordinates are always moving where there is thought. But, as implied, equally as important is having further horizons to strive towards. These can be afforded by exposure to rich rhetoric and history. I was about to write theory, but after having tried to teach it alongside the former two, I cannot claim that it is as rich. Even theorists reach towards Plato, or Homer... Distant contextual horizons are important, but so is where we are standing, in more practical and immediate terms. So the problem is how to encourage an orientation towards horizons, for students to embark on their own Odysseys. One hopes the journeys are informed, for what use is travel in the wilderness if one knows nothing of the elements or navigation - if this seems a pathetic defense of the exaggerated tenet of what is known in textual criticism as the "difficult reading", just read any tales of outdoor experience and travel (three links there). I think this practical comparison is valid: knowledge has been described as an ocean or a wilderness for a reason.
Teaching navigation through overview-courses based on extracts seems reasonable because extracts are short but deep enough to encourage star gazing and the related connection to greater coordinates. But teaching via extracts is also riddled with problems. That's my problem.
And why I feel the burden of bussardes - I sometimes feel the fear of being a bussard myself (one responsible for teaching!), even though that fear is more a fallacy of composition than a reasonable assessment. Such reactionary thinking stems from the lack of proper mentors, and the critical stance towards the status quo. I will illustrate what I mean by this.
In teaching composition, I found I was dissatisfied with the handbooks, readers, etc., on the topic and found I had to compile my own assembly of guidance from various sources (for example, describing essays as "narrative", "descriptive", etc. is ridiculous as most good essays combine these "types": by contrast, teaching composition via rhetoric, where those same "types" are assembled under "invention" is far more useful). But this very illustration reveals my problem: what if one does not have a degree in the classics: can one be sure that one's occasional ("excerpted") references to classical rhetoricians is accurate? One needs to be guided in such things by specialists. I of course make an attempt to research into what I teach, and should add I truly enjoy the opportunity of taking a broad approach that is perhaps characteristic of making of the humanities a "core", but I am just trying to articulate here what I think some of the problems of this approach.

Photo of a bee-eater, not a bussard. 
Brush: misprinted type.

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