Academic journal article JCT (Online)

Roles of Affect and Imagination in Reading and Responding to Literature: Perspectives and Possibilities for English Classrooms

Academic journal article JCT (Online)

Roles of Affect and Imagination in Reading and Responding to Literature: Perspectives and Possibilities for English Classrooms

Article excerpt

We talk of the mind's capacity to analyze. This capacity-to abstract, to absorb elements of knowledge, and to relinquish them in statements, verbal or written- is an important part of what we are: creatures of language, of symbols galore. But we need not use ourselves, so to speak, in only that way. We have memories; we have feelings. We reach out to others . . . That side of ourselves is not set apart from our intellect. In order to respond, one remembers, one notices, then one makes connections-engaging the thinking mind as well as what is called one's emotional side. (Coles, 1989, p. 128)

LITERATURE OFFERS THAT KIND OF EXPERIENCE, uniquely activating our metaphorical sensibilities to the might-be-could-be in our lives and worlds. Engaging with literature typically involves dwelling in the primary affordances of the texts themselves and engaging in critical theoretical reflection. Strange as it may seem, the ability to engage in thoughtful literary critique, or political critique, is perhaps ultimately located in our capacity to vicariously feel, imagine, and think about what is going on in the hearts and minds of others in ways that deepen or exceed the "passive ideal" often used to frame or characterize empathetic engagements with literature or others (Davis, 2014; Goizueta, 2001; Ruddick, 2015; Sepulveda, 2011). As teachers and readers of literature, we are constantly provided with circumstances or events that ask us to negotiate between what was initially expected and what eventually transpired. For readers of all ages, transactions with literature are fundamentally about coming to terms with the "mixed comforts" of the customary and the "temptations of the possible." These texts offer alternative ways of seeing our worlds, exploring the lives of others, and glimpsing our own potentials for being, and they do so in complex ways.

In a passage written more than 25 years earlier, Robert Coles (1989) identified one of the fundamental distinctions between personal and critical approaches to reading fiction. Literature's invitation to enlist our "emotional side" as well as our "thinking mind" requires that we imagine the English classroom as a place where students might be encouraged to read and respond with both their hearts and minds. It is this capacity to read stories, with both intellect and emotion, with critique and imagination, that we wish to more fully acknowledge and explore as an essential component of literary reading and literature instruction. Although this perspective is not new (see C. Lewis, 2000), we believe that reviewing the work of key scholars on the subject will be useful and edifying. As recent years have given rise to the popularity of teaching literary theory, and especially critical theoretical approaches (e.g., Appleman, 2009; Gillespie, 2010; Mellor & Patterson, 2001; Wilson, 2014), the value of personal ways of reading has been increasingly eclipsed, understated, and even caricatured. These unenthusiastic characterizations make us concerned about the fate of affective and imaginative approaches to reading and responding to literature in school classrooms. Our concern, however, is not so much with celebrating personal engagement over other forms of engagement as it is with arguing that its value has been inadequately understood and thus undervalued. Contrary to many advocates of critical approaches to reading, we thus argue that engaging personally with literature involves much more than the exploration of one's subjective experiences or one's own inner life. Moreover, we argue that when readers engage both personally and critically with literary texts, imagination, feeling, analysis, and critique are "cooperatively mangled" in powerful ways. This "cooperation" has the potential to fully exploit the both/and ways of knowing (embodied/visceral and analytic/critical) that reading literature affords (e.g., Davis, 2014; Weinstein, 2003: Nussbaum, 1995).

Finally, we believe that teachers (as knowledge workers) have a responsibility to provide students with opportunities and tools for seeing beyond what is culturally canonical or officially expected. …

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