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

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.
Since initially publishing this post, it became clearer that perhaps the ultimate problem is that, as the late and great D. G. Myers wrote, "nothing is considered essential knowledge" in academe today; he wrote that he could not expect "any common background knowledge, not even in English majors". Among the enlightening comments to that post, is a link to another blog post, which presents a brief, invaluable exploration of the history of the "fragmentation of the curriculum". The author cites Barzun's scepticism of the trend to shop for majors, and Santayana's lament that "in the Harvard of my day we had heard a little of everything, and nobody really knew his Latin or knew his Bible."


In Auerbach's his famous essay on "Philology and 'Weltliteratur'", he describes the problem of achieving "synthesis" - which, I might add, is similar to the outline, or summary, in its concern for a vision of the whole. Synthesis is difficult 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, as suggested above, no new concern. I think it is also reflected in the phrase 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."

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 important if one wishes to reach a potential audience at the crossroads between what listeners can actually apply on their journey beginning from where they are at present and more distant horizons. This crossroads represents part of the mystery of learning, as its coordinates will always be moving where there is thought.
Horizons to be striven towards can be afforded through rich history and rhetoric. I was about to add theory to that list, 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 (important even today). Teaching navigation through overview-courses based on extracts seems reasonable because extracts are short but deep enough to encourage star gazing and the 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 than a reasonable assessment. Such reactionary thinking on my part stems from my lacking proper mentors, and 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 selection of instruction from various sources (for example, to describe essays, as so many "college handbooks" do, 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 constructive). But this very illustration reveals my problem: I do not have a degree in the classics: can I be sure that my occasional ("excerpted") references to classical oratory are 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 that I truly enjoy the opportunity of taking a broad approach that is perhaps characteristic of a "core" approach to the humanities, but I am just trying to articulate here what I think are some of the problems of this approach.

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

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