Academic journal article Style

Mind the Gap: Response to Rabinowitz & Bancroft's "Euclid at the Core"

Academic journal article Style

Mind the Gap: Response to Rabinowitz & Bancroft's "Euclid at the Core"

Article excerpt

I will play a double role in this number of Style: as general editor, I am grateful both to Peter Rabinowitz and to Corinne Bancroft, our guest editors extraordinaire, for their hard work and talents in constructing the "target essay" and the "rejoinders" for this special issue devoted to secondary and college teaching of literature. And, as someone who has been involved in teacher training in English for several decades now, I also want to add a few short remarks of my own to the conversation. In what follows is less a critical response to their ideas of literature teaching (I concur with most) and more a brief selection of some of the chronic problems we have faced in secondary literary education but now made even more difficult with the demands of the Common Core State Standards (hence CCSS).

I'll begin my response by noting the gap in expectations between those teaching the technical details MS and HS students learn in their math and science classes, contrasted to the generally lower levels of discourse in conversations teachers assume their (comparably talented) students will comprehend in MS and HS literature classes. Peter and Corinne speak of the "piling on of terminology" teachers following the CCSS, and, while agreeing with them about the negative effects of such loadings generally (cf. Gallagher's Readicide for details), I also want to speak of the theoretical assumptions that stand behind some of this terminology, assumptions grounding typically taught practices of analyzing literary characters. HS science students must learn, in their biology or chemistry or some math courses, no end of "terminology," a specialized vocabulary required even of some of the slower students in general science classes, so I would argue that "terminology" per se., may not be the major issue causing difficulties for literature students. My initial contention is with the usefulness of what grounds the vocabulary of literature study in the schools, the substance referenced by its language.

I believe that many of these exercises, even if thought appropriate only for very young readers (those under age 8 or 9 or so), have instead, collectively, contributed to the dumbing-down of literary study in far too many secondary schools and community colleges. A selection of these common practices include the following: learning about literary characters by reducing them to stylistic features of outward appearance, and/or identity-based qualities. While a Charles Dickens may develop characterization through physical appearance, over 150 years of worth of literary artists have since emphasized characters" mind processes and emotional states as primary. Nonetheless, some teachers advocate a return to these earlier modes of character apprehension by creating bulletin boards (visualizing how these characters might "look like, dress like, walk like, and even talk like"--Beers 134)--as if the modernist sense of mind-reading primacy had not dominated literary study during most of the 20th century (see Virginia Woolf's essay from 1923, "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown"); variations on this practice include employing cut-outs of pictures from popular magazines (Wilhelm 43-44), or employing Venn diagrams (Soter et al 52), diagrams that may work in chemistry study where the content of each circle is inert, but to do so in literary study is misleading when many of the most interesting literary characters are dynamic. One of the more inexplicable holdover practices from the 19,h century is advocating the structuring of a text via Gustav Freytag's pyramid (Soter et al 214), when that simple three-part analysis (rising action, climax, and falling action) didn't help much in analyzing realistic drama even then, some 100 years ago. Finally, the single most common practice in the schools is the use of type-trait charts, simple diagrams that ignore the far more useful Rules as stated earlier by Peter Rabinowitz (of Notice, Significance, Configuration, and Coherence). …

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