Sunday, February 13, 2005

Literary Theory (aka Critical Lenses)

You could say I did a homework marathon this weekend. You could say I'm still on it (as I still have a large to-do list before me). I have officially finished Literature and Lives by Allen Carey-Webb, Critical Encounters in High School English by Deborah Appleman, Feed by MT Anderson, and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Today, I will catch up in my journals I have to write for three of my classes as well as attempt to read as much of Teaching Literature (the unpublished Beach, Appleman, etc. book) as possible. I just finished reading the second chapter, which was sent to us as an attachment; we have to now create a lesson plan related to Feed and young adult literature, I believe. (I took a Young Adult Literature course, along with several members of the cohort, last fall, so you would think that would be easy; however, I'd like to try to come up with something original or at least interestingly revamped, so I will have to mull it over.)

I have so much going on in my head in relation to teaching that I'm not sure exactly where to start. I do know that I need to write some of this down before I get started again for the day. I need to nail some ideas down and let a few more float around a bit.

One of the major shifts in thinking about how to teach to high school English students is the idea of teaching theory to them. Literary theory is this frightening word that seems like it really should belong in MA programs rather than in the high school classroom. A co-worker and friend of mine suggested getting together for coffee and talking about lit theory; she was curious to see what kind of background I had compared to her own. She had been reading On Deconstruction, so I immediately ordered it at work and picked it up, but it has been collecting dust since. "Literary Theory," "Deconstruction," "Derrida," "Postmodernism," etc. All of these words sent chills up my spine and reminded me of those professors that seemed to speak in riddles; it took me several classes to finally get the jargon.

Deborah Appleman's book Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents is about just that--teaching theory to high schoolers and why it's important. She also explains what each theory is (for those of us who feel like we might be on slippery ground as to how to define things like "deconstructionalism") and how to teach it (including some activities I'm going to attempt to incorporate into my own classroom).

One of the ways that she generally opens her lesson is to pass around her specialized sunglasses--RayBans that have special lenses to see greens and reds more clearly. Students can look through these and see a classmate's sweater brighten. (Any kind of visual representation is good for helping students' understanding, it seems.) She may name it as literary theory, but she refers to this study as "critical lenses" on a regular basis. Somehow, if you change the wording, it becomes a little easier.

The important part is to help students step outside of their own boxes and view a text from a different perspective.

The first theory, a messy one indeed, is the reader-response theory. It seems to be the one that drives a lot of classrooms. When we once emphasized New Criticism (and this seems to still be prevalent--when I wrote a paper on the Wife of Bath, the TA clearly did not want me to mention Chaucer's name--he told me that we couldn't make any assumptions about the author or the time period in which the text was written--blar), we now have students write about their feelings and how they might identify with the text.

Her activity is a good one, and I will probably try it out on my sophomores. (I'm actually thinking about this as a second day activity--the first day would be my audience activity, which I will put up on the web shortly.) She has them read the Plath poem "Mushrooms," only she leaves off the title, which makes it an entirely different reading:

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.

Sylvia Plath

She has the students write down what they think the poem might mean and has them share their thoughts. Some think it's about birth, some about an invasion, some about fungus, some about rabbits, some an oppressed group. They all have their interpretation. She then has them make this basic diagram:

(What factors surrounding my reading of
the text are influencing my response?)

Reader (your name) -----> Meaning <----- Text ("Mushrooms")

(What personal qualities, or events might relevant to this particular book, influence my response?) Reader

(What textual features might influnece my response?) Text

(I hope that diagram comes up clearly; it's so hard to tell with blogs since they look differently typed up here then how they'll look as you're reading it published.)

So they've already got their meaning (in the center); now they have to write about their own personal experiences, etc. might lend itself to that meaning and then they find textual evidence that might aid in lending itself to that meaning. The students can see how a combination of their own experiences (reading practices--I've read a lot of books about birth lately and it's been on my mind) and textual evidence ("toes" and "noses" are human form). After they reflect on these things, the instructor can give them the title and they can look through for evidence that these are, indeed, mushrooms.

(When we did the "Mushrooms" poem in class earlier in the semester, some of my peers protested the idea of not including the title, saying it was a disservice to take away that meaning from the text and from the students. I think it's a bit of trickery to do an activity like this, but I also think it's kind of fun and emphasizes to the students the importance of titles--so often this is a problem in writing workshops... "I don't have a title yet because I don't know what to call it" or "I don't think titles are important--all of my poems are untitled." It is my feeling that even a working title is better than nothing at all. It gives the reader and the writer a point to focus on.)

Appleman discusses three other lenses in her book: Marxist literary theory, Feminist theory, and Deconstructionalism.

The Marxist lens could be paraphrased (if the instructor feels uncomfortable or nervous at the school district) to the Power lens. It looks at social contradictions in the text as well as social power--who has it, who doesn't. It also looks at the ideologies--"A Marxist critic typically undertakes to 'explain' the literature in any era by the economic, class, and ideological determinants of the way an author writes, and to exaime the relation of the text to the social reality of that time and place" (Appleman 156). This could easily be used with To Kill a Mockingbird and all of the references to heritage and the places people fit into society. In the first chapters of the book, we are able to quickly place Scout and her family on a kind of "social ladder" (a good visual way to look at power--who is at the top and who is clearly at the bottom). The whole book is about social justice and how power plays into that. If Tom Robinson had been white, he would have had power, and the verdict would have come back much differently. If the Ewells hadn't been "trash," the town might also look on this trial differently.

The next theory is feminist (you could probably rename it "gender"), and this is a comfortable territory to me, as one of my minors was Women's Studies (along with American Indian Studies). I'm not sure how much I need to explain, since many people understand feminism, though to varying degrees (and some like to vilify it, which is frustrating). Appleman emphasizes the points that--"our civilization is pervasively patriarchal, the concepts of 'gender' are largely .... cultural constructs ..., this patriarchal ideology also pervades those writings that have been considered great literature" (155). So like Marxist theory, it focuses on one kind of oppression--instead of power, it is gender. (She cites the Oates short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" as a good text to study when looking at this lens; I haven't read that story yet, but my father cites it as one of Oates' best work.)

One activity that would be good to use with these lenses thus far would be to have the students collect ads and analyze them according to one of those lenses. (Analyzing print ads seems to be a fairly typical activity, especially when focusing on critical thinking and the media, and the kids often enjoy doing it because they "get it." If they get to pick the ad, it's not hard for them to figure out what they're trying to sell and to whom. It might be good for the instructor to pick a few more ambiguous ads for discussion.)

The last theory Appleman discusses is deconstructionalism, and I have a shakey understanding of it at best. Appleman writes, "This anti-authoritarian aspect of deconstruction has natural appeal for adolescents. But rather than simply stoking their rebellious fires, deconstruction provides adolescents with interpretive tools for critiquing the ideology that surrounds them" (105-106). She writes, "Deconstruction seeks to show that a literary work is usually self-contradictory" (101). She continues, "A reader does not destroy or 'dismantle' a text. S/he uses the interpretive strategies of deconstruction to reveal how a text unravels in self-contradiction" (101). She has a handout (amongst many great activities) in the back of the book that states:

"[Deconstruction] is a postmodern theory, and like most postmodernism, it questions many of the basic assumptions that have guided us in the past. In the traditional study of literature, those basic assumptions include:

~Language is stable and has meaning we can all agree on.
~The author is in control of the text s/he writes.
~Works of literature have an internal consistency.
~Works of literature have an external relevance.
~You can take the author's or poet's words for what s/he writes.
~There is a set of interpretive tools that you can reliably use to interpret a literary text" (172).

Conconstruction asks us to resist those assumptions and question what is going on within the text. She urges us as instructors to proceed with caution; she describes one classroom where deconstruction was no received so well. The students understood it, but one student said that she wished she had never learned it. She felt that everything she had learned up until then was a sham and that "nothing means anything" (112). Appleman writes, "While the privileging of 'the personal' in reader response and the anti-ideology stances of feminism and Marxism seem to be developmentally appropriate for adolescents, deconstruction is intellectually more challenging and psychologically more frightening for them" (113-114).

(By the way, the introductory activity helps to clarify what deconstructionalism might mean--she lists what are somewhat cliched metaphors and asks them to write the intended and unintended meaning. Examples include, "Love is a rose," "You are the sunshine of my life," and "The test was a bear" (173-174).)

I think I'll have to see about this last one; I'm not sure how well the sophomores will take it--it could be fun and it could be miserable. I'll see how the first three go, as they are relatively easy to grasp and relatively easy lenses to "put on" while reading a text. To Kill a Mockingbird is a good one when looking at power and gender.

Deborah Appleman came to our classroom on Thursday (10 Februray 2005) and she impressed all of us. She is very energetic (another one of our instructors called her "a performer," which was very true) and has a lot of great ideas. I'll definitely have to email her to let her know how things go when and if I teach those critical lenses in my own classroom.

Before I go bury myself in homework again:
Some great websites on Critical Theory (Literary Lenses, whatever you want to call it):
Introductory Guide to Literary and Critical Theory
Various Links to Lit Theory Pages & Info.

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