LitCrit in High School?

Appleman presents a strong argument for introducing secondary students to the world (and wonders!) of literary theory. I fully support the idea that Language Arts teachers should be in dialogue with the academic literary “establishment” and that there should be overlap in text selection as well as critical material. Her accessible parsings of various critical lenses seemed to make intuitive sense, and I can see how they could be woven into the curriculum.

The book takes as axiomatic the fact that most ELA teachers will have had extensive experience reading, interpreting and applying contemporary literary theory in their own educational and/or professional background. I believe this point is glossed over in the various case studies she presents, because in my experience I have seen many teachers express discomfort and resistance to literary theory very concept of multiple textual interpretations. There are many strategies here for accommodating students and approaching theory in the context of diverse classrooms, but all of these strategies are predicated on the assumption that the instructor has a solid handle on that particular theoretical perspective. The reality of school experience is that in many classrooms teaching is still “transmitting knowledge, offering literature as content, a [purely] aesthetic experience, or as neutral artifacts of our collective cultural heritage” (p. 11). I wonder if or how she would include teachers who hold these views of language and literature, or who have had less experience with contemporary theory. Who is the audience for this text, then? Is it for teachers already open to the possibility of using theory, or does it welcome those who are more used to the “more text-centered, teacher-led approach” (p. 38)

Even with extensive exposure to contemporary literary theory in my undergraduate studies, I find it difficult to fully conceptualize some theoretical frameworks. Perhaps this is because I learned about theory in a semi-chronological way which implicitly communicated “these are the theories that were popular/respected/valid in a certain time period of intellectual history, and there are others that are popular/respected/valid now.” Seeing various critical lenses instead as equally valid tools values “multiple readings (or interpretations) over a single authoritative reading.” (p. 129) It is not that the postcolonial or feminist reading is what is valued right now, but that both readings give access to different perspectives within a text. Her quote from Bertold Brecht echoes this sentiment:

A man with one theory is lost. He needs several of them, or lots! He should stuff them in his pockets like newspapers.  (p. 112)

Finally, even if a teacher values multiple perspectives and readings, communicating what a specific critical lens “is” is a difficult task that requires serious intellectual work on the part of the teacher. I like the fact that Appleman acknowledges the difficulty in establishing a coherent definition: “there are, of course, as many ‘feminisms’ as there are ‘Marxisms,’ and it is easy for both teachers and students to become confused” (p. 68). A way to avoid confusion is to have teachers engage directly with the theory, instead of relying completely on “translations” or glosses from third parties. The problem is this requires significant time and energy, and on second thought likely just complicates our understanding of feminism or Marxism, deconstructing these terms and stripping them of coherence.

I suppose my hesitation is that in spite of the fact that I do find theory an incredible tool to help students (and just people in general) critically read their world as well as literature, there are a lot of foundational ideas that have to be in place for it to work well, and doing it half-heartedly could disengage already reluctant adolescents. This seems to be an instance where ELA teachers should engage more closely with college English and Literature departments to allow teachers time and space to learn about theory before they are asked to teach it with their own students. This recurring theme of the potential benefits in collaborations between academics and secondary educators is one that interests me greatly–I’d like to see how this works in practice. Appleman’s work with high school teachers seems to be one of these fruitful collaborations, how can we create more of them?

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3 thoughts on “LitCrit in High School?

  1. I think it is important that you ask about teacher’s backgrounds and dispositions toward literary theory. You hint at a lot of teachers being steeping in New Criticism and I see this so much in the high schools I observe in. If teachers are not critical of texts, how can they teach students to be?

    I agree ten-thousand percent about teachers engaging in academic work. Wanna partner with me in this next year when we’re both teaching again??

  2. I whole-heartedly agree with you in finding that people in general would profit from tools to critically read the world around them, and I also agree that there is much fear and trepidation for teachers in approaching these theories for lack of exposure and thorough understanding. I only took one class that dealt heavily with theory, and I had a lot of other things going on that semester. Other classes might have touched on it, but only in spurts or chronological explanations as you mention. Perhaps there is yet another course to be created: literary criticism for teachers. You are very right that simply plopping these activities into the syllabus will not guarantee success. The teacher must find a way to involve themselves within the thinking or else you run the risk of damaging or confusing the structure of the course all together.

  3. As someone brand new to literary theory, I feel like this book alone has started something that I think I could immediately bring into the classroom (except for deconstruction, of course). I am curious to know more from you in regards to how much a teacher needs to know about the different theories to be successful in the classroom.

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