Improvisations on Teaching Literature

Improvisations on Teaching Literature

By Robert DiYanni, New York University





PART ONE               Teaching Poetry—6 Ways In

  1. Looking & Listening—Billy Collins, Gwendolyn Brooks; Lucille Clifton: Introduction to Poetry; We Real Cool; homage to my hips
  2. Speaker, Structure, Sound—W. B. Yeats: An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
  3. Argument—Andrew Marvell: To His Coy Mistress
  4. Tone—Elizabeth Bishop: One Art
  5. Poetry & Arts—W. H. Auden: Musée des Beaux Arts; William Carlos Williams: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus; Pieter Breughel the Elder: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus; Walt Whitman: from Song of Myself
  6. Interrupted Reading—Robert Frost: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening


PART TWO              Teaching Fiction—6 Ways In

  1. Questions—Katherine Anne Porter: Rope
  2. Surprises—Petronius: The Widow of Ephesus
  3. Voices—Jamaica Kincaid: Girl
  4. Cultural Values—Sandra Cisneros: There Was a Man, There Was a Woman / Barbie-Q
  5. Fiction & Arts—Ernest Hemingway: from The Revolutionist / from A Farewell to Arms
  6. Interrupted Reading—Kate Chopin: The Story of an Hour


PART THREE          Teaching Drama—6 Ways In

  1. Mental Theater—Terrence McNally: Andre’s Mother
  2. Language & Style—William Shakespeare: from Othello
  3. Scene and Sound—William Shakespeare: from Macbeth
  4. Subtext—Wendy Wasserstein: from Tender Offer
  5. Soliloquy—William Shakespeare: from Henry IV, Part I
  6. Interrupted Reading—George Bernard Shaw: from Arms and the Man


PART FOUR             Teaching the Essay—6 Ways In

  1. Beginning & Ending—Brian Doyle: Joyas Voladoras
  2. Annotation—Francis Bacon: Of Youth and Age
  3. Style and Tone—Mary Wollstonecraft: from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
  4. Close Reading—John Updike: Beer Can
  5. Reading Framework—Jamaica Kincaid: from On Seeing England for the First Time
  6. Interrupted Reading—George Orwell: A Hanging


PART FIVE               Teaching with Literary Elements—6 Takes

  1. Elements of Poetry—G. M. Hopkins: Spring and Fall: To a Young Child
  2. Elements of Fiction—Alice Walker: Everyday Use
  3. Elements of Drama—Lady Gregory, Isabella Persse: The Rising of the Moon
  4. Elements of the Essay—Annie Dillard: Living Like Weasels
  5. Elements of Epic—Homer: Iliad and Odyssey
  6. Elements of Speeches: Elizabeth I, Speech at Tilbury/Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman


PART SIX                 Teaching Literature Through Critical Lenses—6 Double Takes

  1. Formalist and Reader-Response Perspectives
  2. Biographical and Historical Perspectives
  3. Psychological and Sociological Perspectives
  4. Mythological and Structuralist Perspectives
  5. Deconstructionist and Post-Colonial Perspectives
  6. Eco-Critical and Influence & Values Perspectives




I begin with a series of questions.

  • How might literature be taught, and how should we teach it?
  • What are our goals for the literature courses we teach?
  • What do we want our students to learn?
  • What do we want them to be able to do at the end of our courses that they could not do (or do nearly as well) at the beginning?

Our answers to these questions provide a starting point for thinking about how we teach literature and why we teach it the ways we do. What literature we teach might matter considerably less than how we teach students to read it with pleasure, understand and appreciate it, and see its relevance for their lives. There, I’ve just confessed my primary goals in teaching literature—to enable and enhance students’ ability to begin to do what we, ourselves, have learned how to do: enjoy, appreciate, and comprehend literary works, and relate them productively to our lives.

To achieve those goals we need to develop effective teaching practices—ways of teaching literature that engage students, motivate them, and reward their efforts and ours with memorable literary experiences. To that end I offer a set of improvisations on teaching literary works, inspired by the improvising of jazz musicians,

My approach is suggestive rather than prescriptive. It’s less a system than a method, less a template or formula than a series of strategies—“ways in”—to the teaching of literary works. These ways in are not exhaustive, of course; others use different approaches, alternative strategies to help students learn to read literature beneficially. But the approaches I provide have worked for me and for others in the classroom and beyond, with student demographics from late middle school to university, and also with adults in a variety of venues, including churches, libraries, and union halls.

Improvisations on Teaching Literature ranges across the literary genres. The book is arranged in six parts—on teaching poetry, fiction, drama, essay, literary elements, and basic literary theory. For each genre in parts one through four, I identify six ways to help students develop confidence in understanding and appreciating literary works. One of these techniques, the interrupted reading, concludes each genre section. In part five the literary elements of each genre provide the basis for sample analyses of poem, story, play, essay, and epic. Part six offers an introductory overview of a dozen paired critical approaches, or theoretical perspectives, on literature.

My approach to reading literature is based upon the following axioms:

  1. We read literary works as imaginative acts, acts of imagination made of words.
  2. We read works of literature as symbolic actions, not as literal statements.
  3. We read literary works as distinctive and singular, but also as part of a larger literature corpus. Although we experience literary works as unique creations, we read them, simultaneously as part of a tradition.

Although I have developed Improvisations on Teaching Literature largely for less experienced instructors, seasoned pros who introduce students to literary study will find useful teaching ideas here as well. I have drawn on an extensive career teaching literature at two secondary schools and eight higher education institutions, where I have taught more than 10,000 students during a fifty-year + career.

I hope you find the varied “takes,” or  “ways in,” and the application of the literary elements and theories of value. Ultimately, our investment in developing and refreshing our teaching practices benefits our students—that our pedagogical efforts on their behalf make a difference in their understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of literature. That’s my hope, at least, for you who read the book and for your students, who stand to profit from your teaching expertise.


Current Writing Projects

My current writing projects are linked below: (1) a book on reading literature (Improvisations); (2) two books on getting smarter (fast and across the board); (3) a pair of memoirs about my teaching life (50 years+) and my life with music (even more years!). Also included is information about my biggest work-in-progress: an encyclopedic summa pedagogica, with the current title: We Are All Teachers Now—Learning with the World’s Great Teachers (152 chapters—and counting—each chapter a dozen double-spaced pages, with most chapters devoted to a pair of great teachers past and present).

For each of these works in the making, I have provided a table of contents and preface. A couple of them also include a sample chapter. An additional book I have in the works is Poems to Live By, for which I’ve included about a third of what I’ve written so far—also with a brief TOC and prefatory note.

We Are All Teachers Now

Learning With the World’s Great Teachers


We Are All Teachers Now

Learning With the World’s Great Teachers


Simply Smart I

How to Get Smarter Fast

Simply Smart II

How to Get Smarter Across the Board

Improvisations on Teaching Literature

The Teaching Life: Why Teaching Matters

Living with Music: A Glorious Journey

Poems to Live By

Robert DiYanni

Robert DiYanni

Author ⪢ | Professor ⪢ | Consultant ⪢

Robert DiYanni is a professor of humanities at New York University, having served as an  instructional consultant at the NYU Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Center for Faculty Advancement. For these centers he conducted workshops and seminars on all aspects of pedagogy, consulted with faculty about teaching concerns, visited and observed classes, and provided a wide range of pedagogical consultative services. Professor DiYanni serves on the faculties of the School of Professional Studies and the Stern School of Business at NYU. He earned his undergraduate degree in English from Rutgers University, attended a Master of Arts in Teaching program at Johns Hopkins University, and received a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the City University of New York Graduate Center.  

In addition to his work at NYU, Dr. DiYanni has taught at City University of New York, at Pace University, and as a Visiting Professor at Tsing Hua University in Taiwan and at Harvard University. As a high school teacher for four years and a college professor for more than four decades, Professor DiYanni has taught students from eighth grade through doctoral candidates. Most of his teaching, however, has been with college and university undergraduates. His numerous workshops, offered in more than twenty countries, have been attended by secondary school teachers and administrators, as well as by undergraduate college and university faculty and administrators.

Dr. DiYanni has written and edited numerous textbooks, among them, Literature: An Introduction; The Scribner Handbook for Writers (with Pat C. Hoy II); Arts and Culture: An Introduction to the Humanities, (with Janetta Rebold Benton), the basis for a series of lectures given at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Visions, which served as a companion text for the PBS television series Voices and Vision, which aired in the late 1980s.

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