Teaching and Tunneling

Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories (P.S.)Kevin Wilson’s short story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth charmed me when it first came out two years ago, and now I am in the middle of teaching it for the first time in two introductory writing courses at University of Michigan. The decision of what texts to introduce college students to is one that has become more complicated over the years, primarily because university English departments have shifted focus from reading and responding to literature to exercises that privilege the student’s ability to situate herself/himself in the center of the writing experience, moving assigned texts to the peripheries of the class. A colleague recently recapped an argument/discussion that summarizes this well:

The question (posed by an administrator to an instructor teaching Shakespeare): Who is the most important person in the course?

The teacher’s answer: Shakespeare.

The response: No. The students.

I mention this, not to take sides, but rather to illustrate the differences in how writing and literature courses are currently taught and to think about how best to approach this shift. When I started teaching over ten years ago, both my colleagues and I assigned roughly eight or nine different literary texts in the semester. One of the great benefits of this is that the students got to explore very diverse pieces of writing, writing sustained and complicated over the course of entire books rather than just small excerpts. There was also a sense of apprenticeship, a sense that the authors were there to teach us, that they were experts and that we were enriched by their expertise, even if, eventually, after much careful reading and discussion, we disagreed with some of their points. Of course the danger in teaching this way is that some of the students deferred any engagement with the text and wrote papers that merely restated their course notes. In addition, there were certainly students who skipped entire readings when they knew they wouldn’t be held accountable for specific response.

Ideally, the shift from author to student centered writing instruction offers a wonderful opportunity for students to be more creative and sustained with their engagement and it instills a sense of ownership and pride in their own writing and ideas. However, this shift has its own losses as well. If the majority of class time is devoted to student drafts, assigned texts are pushed to the periphery of the classroom experience, and there is no longer time to sufficiently introduce the students to multiple books. In my own experience, which is quite typical from colleague syllabi I have seen, this means assigning one or two books over the course of the semester rather than eight or nine. Teachers can select an anthology or course packet for their one text in an attempt to achieve some diversity, but then the sustained experience of reading that I privilege is lost. In short, the past few years I have been faced with the question, what is the one book I will be assigning? What criteria should determine my choice?

In such situations, I am choosing literature that values experience over message, literature that poses more questions than it answers, literature that imagines over literature that reports. As a teacher in student-centered classrooms, these qualities become the way to keep reconnecting student writing back to the book, or at least the idea of the book. In this way, students can see the author modeling a complicated sense of experience that resists the fill-in-the-blank sentence: This is a book about x. In this way, students can defer overly simplistic thesis and arguments in their own writing. They can understand the magic (and truth) of contradictions and can participate in the struggle for meaning.

I chose Kevin Wilson’s collection for these reasons. In the great title story, a trio of recent college graduates decide to go into the narrator’s backyard and start tunneling. They start by digging a straight hole down, but then, as the months progress, create intricate tunnel systems that become a whole underground world. Eventually, they surface again and go separate ways to begin their lives above ground.

If Wilson wrote this as a straight realist story, the plot would probably go something like this: a trio of recent college graduates don’t know what to do with their lives after graduation. They hang out together at the narrator’s house for several months and then his two friends leave.

Both of these plots provoke two important questions for readers and writers: Why are the graduates finding life after graduation so difficult to adjust to? What makes them finally adjust or attempt to adjust to mainstream life?

The questions end there, however, for the straight realist story, and the answers to the two questions will mostly be the same. This, then, creates a situation student-centered classrooms were trying to avoid. If there are only a few questions and a few answers, the students do not have the opportunity to be creative and sustained in their engagement with the text. They still do not have any real sense of ownership of it, and, even worse, that was the only book they read for the course!

Luckily, writers like Kevin Wilson create a space for many more questions, ones that are much more difficult to be answered definitively. In “Tunneling,” the version that Kevin Wilson thankfully wrote, more questions abound: Why tunnels? What is the difference between above ground and underground? Are we set up to see the act of tunneling as a meaningless waste of time or as something creative and productive? What is the relationship between tunneling and college? Between tunneling and “real life”?

Not only are there more questions, but there are also more possible approaches to the answers. If part of the reason we still read is to imitate, then students reading literature that is not straight realism have a chance to imitate real exploration, the kind that goes beyond a standardized test, to embrace what they don’t know but want to struggle to understand. Near the end of the story, the narrator is recapping his conversations with a psychiatrist who his parents arranged for him to see after he emerged from the underground:

“He said that I had been postponing my life, that hiding in the tunnels had been a way to avoid the responsibilities of the real world. And yes, that is true. I knew that the minute we started digging. But it was more than that. I don’t know what it was, but I know it was more than that.” 

Here, the reader is invited to join in the quest for explanation and to understand that the trials and tribulations of the quest, not the end of the quest itself, are what make it human and life-affirming. The psychiatrist’s answer is so soulless and uninteresting. It’s an answer that everyone, including the readers and the narrator himself, already know. It’s also an answer that is insufficient.

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