A most wonderfully valid point, O Panu! I am glad you made it. This brings me to the topic of academic detachment, which I was going to take up a bit later, but what the hell. The question also comes up in a slightly different way: some kid accosts me in the corridor and says why is Blah di Blah on the course it’s horrible, it makes me puke, IT IS THE PITS!!!!!!! I say, yes of course, dearie, but it’s there for your own good. This usually floors ‘em.
OK, one of the first things you learn as a lit student is how to read as an academic. That means that although your personal likes and dislikes matter (they are after all the fuel of your academic curiosity) you are also an impartial judge of the worth of an individual text. You begin to acquire a historical perspective on how literature as a whole has developed, and you start to see texts in the context of their time and of their themes. That’s one of the prime objectives of making you write answers and essays. Now a good academic will never let their personal feelings get in the way of assessing a text. Or to be more exact, will be able to do the industry-standard assessment without flinching, but will probably complain if asked to write a seminar paper on a cordially disliked work.
Most of the works in your syllabus are NOT there because they are great literature (and you are NOT expected to bang on about how the work is chock full of genius and proves that Shaw is god’s gift to world culture or whatever). They are there either because (a) they were pivotal in changing the trends of their time, or (b) because they stand for a common and important genre of their time. They don’t necessarily have to be good as well (though it’s always a welcome bonus). If you personally dislike a work, you are of course at liberty to say so. But you must FIRST place the work in its time and place and give it due credit for (a) and/or (b). You can then move to your opinion of it, and then back up your opinion with instances from the text. You won’t be allowed to say ‘This sucks, because ….!’ Because that’s childish and irresponsible. But if you can say, ‘I consider Sade morally depraved because of his eagerness to turn people into things, as he does in chapter x where he uses three young girls as mobile chess tables… ‘ then you’re on to something. Yes, we will even accept repugnant opinions if you can back them up. We have even had proto-fascists in this dept, and we never penalized them for their opinions, only where applicable for sloppy thinking, and in this they were not unique. In fact give me someone full of weird opinions who’s willing to fight for them over some docile mugpot any day.
In an ideal world, the problem you refer to doesn’t arise. I CAN’T be revolted by your opinions of Sade, if you present them sanely. Now I don’t deny that there are teachers who fall foul of this (not so) lofty ideal. But as far as I know, we don’t have any such in this Department (correct me if I’m wrong).
Hope this clears up what ‘contextualisation’ means.