Academic journal article English Journal

Trending Bedfellows: The Teaching of Literature and Critical Approaches

Academic journal article English Journal

Trending Bedfellows: The Teaching of Literature and Critical Approaches

Article excerpt

For more than a decade, Deborah Appleman's Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents has served as an important resource for English teachers wishing to reinvigorate their teaching of literature through critical literary theories. Coming this December, and in light of the Common Core State Standards, the book's third edition includes strategies for reading and teaching nonfiction and informational texts through these literary lenses as well. Similarly, Lois Tyson's book, Using Critical Theory: How to Read and Write about Literature, illuminates theories and opportunities for developing critical engagement and multiple perspectives-in the classroom, culture and media, and everyday life.

Now, in keeping with this trend of using critical theories for practical purposes, Antero Garcia's Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature offers another take on the application of critical theory through an analysis of young adult literature (the hot book market these days), examining the ways in which the genre acts on, produces, and even supports popular (and sometimes stereotypical or problematic) conceptions of its young readers.

Taken together, these books suggest a turn in the school subject English: the marriage of critical theories with the teaching of literature. Specifically, they offer methods of literature instruction designed through critical frameworks that combine theory with practice, open up possibilities for interpretation, and address important issues neglected by traditional approaches to literary study: how societal, cultural, and political influences shape texts and readers' responses to those texts.

Why Theory?

An imagined divide exists between theory and practice-an assumption that theory can't help on the "ground floor" of classroom life. This view conceives practice, the practical or everyday doings of the English classroom, as neutral, somehow not imbued or charged with purposes and theories of how the world works, how students learn, or how we should act and behave in the world. We know better. Even a glance at the Common Core State Standards tells us otherwise. Garcia argues that "the dominant cultural practices of education . . . debilitate large populations of students" (97), and more often than not, these approaches take shape in the form of New Critical and reader-response strategies, which are often represented as the two "correct" approaches to literature instruction. The problem, when taken up in the classroom, is that the former usually favors the text, the latter usually favors the reader, and neither offers structures to challenge the text and the readers.

The point of theory is to support "thinking otherwise . . . it offers a language for challenge and modes of thought, other than those articulated for us by dominant others. . . . The purpose of such theory is to de-familiarise present practices and categories . . . to open up spaces for the invention of new forms of experience" (Ball 266). Critical theories, specifically, acknowledge that all texts, textual practices, and readers are infused with certain values and beliefs, philosophies and theories, or worldviews and dispositions. They therefore seek to expose those values through the consideration of multiple points of view. This approach is vital today, as social media and the 24-hour news cycle explode with messages and images that, when not "read" critically, can reinforce dominant or problematic conceptions and perspectives about texts and readers.

A critical approach, then, will bring this lively debate about literary interpretation and pedagogy into the classroom "by naming and confronting how we invite our students to interact with text. To say to students 'Follow this script' without naming the script as New Criticism [or reader response] is narrow and dishonest; to say to students 'This is how a New Critic would unfold this poem, but a Feminist would offer these clarifications. …

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