Professors, assign your students a novel

Reading fiction exposes us to new information in a way that no academic essay can match.

by Alia Jeraj

In the academic world as we know it today, we rarely come across novels in classes that are not based in the study of literature. Though I’ve taken numerous writing-intensive classes, I didn’t read a novel for a college class until I was in my junior year. 
Many of us (a younger version of myself included) find this omission of literature in non-literature classes to be obvious and logical. We’ve been trained to see works of literature as subjective, whereas we see works written in and for the academy — both in “social” and “hard” sciences — as objective, reliable sources of knowledge. 
I believe it’s time to challenge both the idea of “objective” writing and that of literature as an invalid source of knowledge. 
I don’t believe in objective writing. For me, it’s kind of like a magical unicorn. Many of us search for it, and we often wrongly believe we’ve found it. However, bias weaves its way into all aspects of writing, from our diction to the way we organize papers and from the topics of our writing to the methods we use to study. We can separate neither ourselves nor the works we produce from our own experiences and histories. 
Novels (and, for the sake of this column, let’s think only about realist novels) accept this. Works of fiction proudly claim their biases. Readers of fiction are taught to analyze not only what’s said but also how it’s said, probing for what the author is trying to communicate and why he or she is trying to communicate it. Not only does reading with these intentions provide students a great exercise in critical thinking but it also enables them to access a wider breadth of knowledge. 
Novels give us access to a variety of truths. Whether the plot follows specific real-world events that we can trace and name or plausible ones based on the book’s historical and geographical setting, we are privy to both the logistics of these events and the ways in which people interpret them. 
Through novels, we are able to enter, if only momentarily, different worlds. We are able to relate with characters and understand their realities as we navigate their experiences with them. 
Through this approach to learning about worlds separated from us by time, space or culture, we can gain a much deeper understanding of life than if we were to continue to learn solely by way of “objective” narration. 
Acknowledging and accepting the bias of one author gives us impetus to actively seek out another, exposing us to multiple perspectives. Having intimate access to specific characters provides us with a multilayered understanding as we get to know their thoughts and feelings. This gives us a better grasp of why and how things happen — one that a merely historical perspective can’t provide.
Ultimately, I think it’s time for us to reevaluate how we think about what constitutes knowledge in an academic setting. Professors of all disciplines need to incorporate more literature into their curricula.