In the March 2018 edition of English Journal, Ameer Sohrawardy offers a compelling article about the use of nonfiction in connection with Julius Caesar. Sohrawardy writes about using a piece of political commentary written by Andrew McGill about West Virginia coal miners and the election of Donald Trump. Sohrawardy reflects on how the discussion that followed, in a class comprised primarily of Clinton supporters, “rehearsed many of the dyadic frameworks” of the election, oversimplifying frameworks that were “already being questioned by political analysts” (64).
This exercise, it strikes us, reflects the dangers of using nonfiction simply to find (and perhaps exploit) relevance in literature. Sohrawardy notes that her students were willing and able to extend their analysis of McGill’s piece to Caesar, making interesting connections, but they couldn’t see the limitations of the analogy. Their reading of McGill, in other words, enabled them to discuss Caesar in the context of the Trump election, but that discussion didn’t productively complicate their reading of either the election or the play.
Relevance is critical, and we do want our students to make interesting connections between our world and the literary texts we ask them to read. But Sohrawardy is right to ask for more from this kind of contextualizing reading.
Next, Sohrawardy asked the students to read excerpts from Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (2009). This text, as Sohrawardy explains, focuses on the dislocation and diminution of manual competencies in a fragmented and alienating 21st century economy. More importantly, the class discussion of Crawford’s work enabled Sohrawardy’s students to rethink the election, McGill’s ideas about the election, and Shakespeare’s investigation of the discontent among the Roman citizens.
Most compellingly, Sohrawardy writes that the readings “had begun to attune us … to listen” to the “fleeting, fugitive voices in our own time” (66). These are the skills we want to cultivate in the humanities: the ability to find and think through more context, to hear unexpected voices and ideas, and to rethink our preconceptions.
So, the lesson from Sohrawardy is clear: when we seek out a nonfiction reading to pair with a literary text, we need to be careful. Relevance is great for engagement. But we can’t stop there. Our pairings should help our students and ourselves continue to find the unexpected, even in texts like Caesar that we’ve read time and again.