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April 30, 2007

Lit Crit's Usefulness in Pedagogy

We've spent the semester in literary criticism discussing the usefulness of each critical lens we've studied. Dr. Jerz always made sure to keep us focused on what was most important in our class discussions by repeatedly asking "Why don't you rephrase that question to say 'How is it useful...?'" As we are finally approaching the end of the semester I think it is appropriate that we turn to ask that very question about our study of literary theory itself. How is a knowledge of literary critical approaches going to be useful to us later as we begin our careers as English majors?

As a good portion of us plan on practicing some form of pedagogy of various levels from elementary to university, Tiff and I thought it would be especially helpful to see what everyone thought of the role literary criticism plays in our jobs as future educators.

We may not have known it when we were in school, I know I never noticed it, but the literary lens through which our teachers in school approached literature affected us more than you might think.

The two classes of high school juniors that I am working with this semester, as I mentioned during class last week, are currently reading Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The teacher devoted several days to dispensing all sorts of different pre-reading information to give the students background on the text, the author, the time-period, themes of the novel. He went into lessons about satire, the noble savage, and the use of the vernacular in the novel. While I think this is all very useful information I worry about the effects of giving them all that information before even letting them lay hands on the text itself. The teacher has a tendency to tell them exactly how they should view the literature before they have even read it. Then, they complete study guides for each chapter and talk about the answers in class. Those study guides, which are largely plot-based, are also the basis of the students' tests.

I think he feels a need to do this with them because the other teachers at the school seem to expect so little from the students. When you want them to think for themselves they give you a very formidable deer-in-the-headlights look that makes you panic when you are standing there in front of a class that expects you to tell them exactly what they need to know. And he is very good at drawing out of them good answers to questions when he feels strongly about something, but overall I think the expectations are lower than what the students are capable of meeting - and I will tell you right now that I not how I would run my own class.

One thing that I feel very strongly about since I began my post-secondary literary studies, is that high school teachers tend to teach the students all sorts of things that need to be un-taught when they get to college. It drives me crazy! Shouldn't we be teaching students skills they can build on when they get to college, not skills and habits they have to break in order to be successful in post-secondary education!?! So, one of my goals when I teach is not to teach my students things that they need to be un-taught later. That might mean expecting more out of my students than the average high school English teacher, but I think in the end it will benefit them greatly.

Sorry about that little detour, but the point of all that is to start by saying I would take an approach similar to the one Karissa mentioned in her contribution to the carnival, and that is to give the students the works going into it cold. Of course, I will choose novels and stories much more appropriate for their reading level (I think the English Patient would certainly be expecting too much ;0) but I want to see their reactions to a piece of literature without them being tainted by my influences and knowledge. Even if the first reaction is as simple as "I did/did not like the work" I can easily move to asking them why and then I can develop some specific questions to get them to focus on key parts of the work. I want to see what the students can do on their own and use that to build from there. I also want to try to ignite and foster a love of literature and writing as much as I can (obviously this will not be possible with every student, but it is a good goal to reach a few). I think the best way to do that is to make the students feel like what they know and think is valuable. So I guess that means I will initially take a reader-response sort of approach to introducing literature. But, like Karissa, I could never limit myself to one approach.

After getting their first reactions then I would want to get into things like author biography and cultural history to help shape the understanding of the work in a useful way. I would also probably want to ask the students in which ways parts of the work remind them of their own life or perhaps how they think it reflects the lives of people from the time period it was written in order to take a mimetic approach. Depending on my students I could even see myself dipping very slightly into an intertextual lens.

Now, as far formalism and postmodern/deconstruction-type criticisms, that would be going too far I think for high school students. It just wouldn't be useful to try to bring that into my teaching. And maybe an AP class would benefit from psycho-analytic ideas, (and they also might be able to handle the formalist ideas too) but I don't think I would want to get into that stuff with a regular class. I think they do need some guidance and information in order to be able to learn what to focus on when studying literature. And I will always emphasize the need to find textual evidence for all claims made about a work so that the students won't think the outside information is necessary to understand a work (they must just realize the potential for its usefulness, of course).

Overall, I want to emphasize the flexibility of the study of literature and show my students how endless the possibilities are for the written word so that they realize two very important things: A) that there is more to literature than the plot and B) they will never find any "right" answers in the back of a literature book, only endless possibilities. And these possibilities require exploration in order to determine which ones are probable.

Posted by LorinSchumacher at April 30, 2007 5:30 PM


If you can get your students to believe you when you teach those two concepts, you will be doing them a great service.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at May 1, 2007 10:39 AM

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