An excerpt from a Harvard Crimson article, “Humor Reveals the Road to Faulkner,” on the subject of James Wood’s pedagogy (he holds, after all, the title of “Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism”):
In James Wood’s popular class “Postwar British and American Fiction,” the first half of a lecture is invariably devoted to Wood reading aloud his favorite excerpts from the book under discussion. “Flip to page twenty-nine where Nabokov writes, ‘The cat, as Pnin would say, cannot be hid in a bag.’” Wood grins, before eagerly pushing forward, “Ah, yes, yes! There’s a great bit four pages earlier when Pnin gets dentures and Nabokov describes his tongue as ‘a fat sleek seal, [which] used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, but now not a landmark remained.’”
“What do you think about this passage?... Why is it funny?... Is it funny at all?... Is there another phrase you liked?... What made you laugh?” Wood asks. At first the students are taken aback by this barrage of surprisingly personal questions. After a half-minute of silence one girl gathers the courage to ask Professor Wood what the passage meant. He leans back chuckling in his chair before reassuringly answering, “Oh, I don’t have much to say about that bit. I’ve just always found it a good laugh.” Looking back on the class, I now realize Wood’s response is the most genuine reaction to the passage.
The professor’s unusual approach to lecturing immediately immerses his students in the milieu of the novel through short, funny excerpts, but more importantly it gives students permission to enjoy reading a book . . .
Ah, yes, yes! – I remember when this kind of charming thing was called “Affective Criticism.” Along with Moral Criticism – another of the distinguished Professor’s specialties – it was supposed to have gone out with the daguerreotype and ladies’ finishing schools. I can just see the final exam: What do you think of Elizabeth’s decision at the end of the novel? Would you have made the same choice? Discuss. No doubt it’s the English Department’s most popular course offering – among Journalism majors and athletes.
* (In the Brechtian sense.)