Archive for Literary Theory

Literary Theory: Week in Review


           Friday Dialogue from                

                                      Your Two Favorite Educators 

As Emily and Aubrey look back over the week they use their razor sharp wit to break down the literary theory.

1.)  When were you first introduced to critical theory?  Why do you think it isn’t utilized more in the high school setting?

Aubrey: I was asked to immerse myself in literary theory for my 12th grade literary research paper.  My choice of topic?  Faulkner’s Light in August.  There has never been, nor will there ever be a paper via which I was more woefully inadequate as a writer.  I know this because I just found it in my files and reread it.  Horrible.  I think literary theory at the high school level can be tricky.  You have to feel comfortable with teaching it and you have to be patient with students.  Sometimes it can seem untenable.  Clearly as witnessed by Mrs. Biehl’s series of red question marks all over my essay.

Emily:  See?  That is what surprises me.  12th grade?  You are pretty smart (on most days!!!) and even you weren’t presented with it until you were a senior.  I do think it is tricky, but I also think it helps students narrow down an interpretation, which also makes reading easier.

2.)  Which literary theory lens (Formalist, Marxist, Gender, Psychological, Historicism, Archetypal) do you naturally cling to as a reader?  Do you think this is indicative of your personality as well or just yourself as a reader?  Is there a correlation between the two?
Aubrey: I would qualify myself as a New Historicist.  I think that texts undeniably represent the time period in which they were written.  It’s important to look at texts as if they are historical “markers” of a given cultural movement.  This is what I try to teach when I partner The Jungle and Fast Food Nation.  Often, this does not endear me to students.  

Emily:  I’m clearly psychological.  I’m always trying to analyze the motives of characters and how their upbringing made them who they are.  Maybe that’s why I’m terrified to be a parent!  Every year I always think I’m going to sit in on a psychology class all semester like I’m a student. Then, I realize that the students might look at me like I’m crazy.

3.)  Provide an interpretation from the Gender, Psychological, or Marxist lens about Snooki being engaged and pregnant.

Aubrey: I would like to Snooki and “said” pregnancy from the lens of gender. If she is the author of her own text/story, then I seriously hope she is deconstructing the role of party girl and fashioning it into someone who shows their chest less, tans less and speaks less.  Everything about “reformation” just screams big time screw-up to me.  Now that I think about it, that’s less a gendered reading and more a feminist or MTV rant.  That’s upsetting.  I am clearly old.  

Emily:  She clearly exacerbates the stereotypes that women are unintelligent and unmotivated.  While I’m not a feminist, I’d like to thank Snooki for all she has done for our gender.  Sarcasm.

4.)  Do you think that some of the lenses have more weight than others?  For example, do you consider Reader Response as valid or “literary” as New Criticism?Aubrey:  Some lenses are more important.  I value looking at gender and psychology in order to deepen meaning and understanding.  I do worry that with Reader Response, especially for high school students, they minimize what it actually argues.  They often want to consider their relationship to the text the mark of whether or not the text is meaningful.  This I don’t like.  Primarily because it means that books like Heart of Darkness quite often get cast aside by 17 years old.  Sometimes reading is about understanding other people’s “performance with” or “relationship to” the text.  Or in my pre-spring break lingo, “It’s not all about you.”  

Emily:  I have the hardest time implementing a good version of Reader Response.  Even though I know that there is a lot of depth in the theory, teachers typically revert to just “how does this text make you feel.”  It is easier for teachers to approach the theory in this way and, in the process, it isn’t truly being implemented.






Analyzing Literary Theory

Beyond asking students to read through a lens of critical theory, you can also bring criticism into your classroom for your students to evaluate.  However, a lot of teachers do not incorporate literary criticism in their classrooms because they are afraid their students will struggle with the content or they do not have adequate resources.  Below are a series of strategies and resources to make the implementation smooth and effective.

It might be overwhelming for lower-level students to grasp the main idea of a large work.  To make it easier, excerpt the criticism to include the most pertinent information.  This gives them a condensed look at the text, which allows them to focus more on the connection between the criticism and the text they’re reading.  Then, get student to engage in literary criticism by asking them to read the piece with two highlighters.  They need to highlight anything they agree with in one color and anything they disagree with in another color.  This will require them to support their views with knowledge of the text itself.  This allows students to debate the validity of the argument.  In the form of a debate, ask students to defend or challenge key ideas in the criticism.  Not only will this teach them key argumentation skills, it will also deepen their understanding of the text because they have to support their views.  Finally, this is a great approach for students who are good at criticizing and evaluating but struggle to create their own interpretation.  This allows them to explore their understanding of a novel through the lens of someone else. 

Two books I would highly recommend for their practical, hands-on approaches are Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, by Lois Tyson, and Critical Encounters in High School English, by Deborah Appleman.  The latter also has website with handouts and PowerPoint presentations that can be downloaded and used in the classroom. 

Another website with a lot of information about the different literary theories is the Purdue OWL website.  This is a great source for information that is easy-to-follow and written in student-friendly language. 

However, below are criticisms that directly respond to popular pieces of literature. 

The Great Gatsby:  Feminist, Marxist, Psychoanalytical

Into the Wild-Psychoanalytical and Gender


Romeo and Juliet-Psychoanalysis

The Crucible-Historicism, Gender, Archetypal, Psychoanalysis, Marxist

Getting to Know Literary Theory

I’m a dork and have really dorky jokes, especially when it comes to my classroom.  Sometimes I go out of my way to think of the funniest way to “package” a concept or an assignment or a text to a class.  I do this really because I find it witty; the kids find it lame. 

Introducing literary theory is one such package.

I’ve set it up to resemble an online dating profile and tell them they are finding their literary soul mate.  Finding a connection to the way they read is like finding their soulmate:  it makes their lives easier, it completes them as readers, it makes them happier. 

I begin by reminding them of the survey they took about their reading styles and interests.  Then I give each student a piece of paper with their name that details which 1-2 of the lenses they naturally do and which 1-2 they are opposed to.  Sometimes this is nice because it provides students with a justification for why they struggle with certain activities in an English class.  Most students see those as deficiencies and then block out the positive things they do as readers or see them as unimportant. 

Then I distribute descriptions of theories (also featured to the right).  They form groups with people who have the same theory and begin studying and identifying basic tenets or qualities of the theory.  Then they present their lens to their peers.  I think the study and presentation is important.  Some students will hear a lens they are more interested in and want to switch into that group.  This is also helpful for students to understand what types of questions they need to be asking themselves when reading from that lens.  The more they understand it the stronger reader they will become.  Presenting also allows me the opportunity to correct or provide more information about each theory. 

To practice and test out the lenses I give the entire class the same passage from a text and provide them questions to help them analyze the passage from their lens.  Since this is early in the implementation of critical theory it is important to provide them a lot of assistance.  When composing the questions I keep using the language of the theory and ask about specifics.  As experienced readers English teachers can read from all of these lenses, so, while it might be a bit time consuming to draft questions for 6 different groups it usually goes pretty quickly. 

Then, the students present out their interpretations from their lens.  It is amazing for students to see how the same passage can be interpreted in so many different ways.  As stated yesterday, it really helps to substantiate our work as students of literature.  It also helps them see there isn’t one set interpretation to any text, making them feel more confident in their analysis and reading skills.

Tomorrow I will provide several suggestions to continue using critical theory in your classroom through multiple activities.  I will also provide a variety of resources for particular texts.

Introducing Literary Theory

Literary theory is a great way to help students more closely engage with their reading; however, literary theory sounds overwhelming unless it is introduced meaningfully.  I like to indirectly introduce literary theory the first day of school by asking students to complete a critical approaches survey (also provided to the right.  This questionnaire asks them to evaluate what they like to look for when analyzing a text and what they think is important in a story.  When taking the survey I encourage the students to be as particular as possible and avoid labeling everything as important.  They need to be able to distinguish between important in reading and important to them when they are reading.  I tell them this is about them being true to themselves as readers and accurately reflecting their beliefs.  The survey has three parts: 

1.)    “ Statements about Literature:” this section asks them to read bold assertions about reading and asks students to label if they “strongly agree” all the way down to “strongly disagree.” 

2.)    “Elements of literature:” the students are given a variety of elements (like symbols, power, and text-to-self) to rank in order of importance.  If a lot of students place a 6 next to symbols then it informs how much and in what way I teach archetypes and motifs in the classroom).

3.)    “Focus:”  this section provides students with a variety of “tasks” people complete when reading.  They check only the things they tend to do when reading on their own without any teacher assistance. 

I then analyze their answers using an critical approaches survey key to determine which lens I think best captures each students’ reading interests.  Each question is coded to match one of the primary critical lenses we will utilize during the year:  Marxist, Gender, Archetypal, Reader Response, Historicism, and Psychological.  The survey is set up to make identifying the connections students have to particular lenses easy.  I always keep the answer key folded up next to their responses and a quick skim of the “Statements about Literature” section will eliminate a variety of lenses.  Then, if there is any question about which lens to assign students I use their ranking of the elements to help me even further.  Students typically fall into similar groups:  usually those who respond favorably to the Marxist theory also reflect interest in Historicism.  Students who respond favorably to the Psychological lens often closely identify with the Gender lens. 

This first step isn’t even really an introduction to literary theory.  It is about them thinking about what interests them as a reader and a student.  Then I analyze their results and determine the 1-2 lenses it appears they most closely identify with.  Tomorrow I will be posting on how I distribute their literary theory lens and how I introduce them to the concept of critical theory.  Even if you don’t teach literary theory this survey is an excellent way to get to know your students as readers at the start of the year.

Literary Theory-Overview

Raise your hand if you have heard “you’re an English teacher and are reading into this symbol too much” at least once this week.

Yeah, that’s what I thought.  It is the bane of our existence…what we constantly hear and defend tirelessly to our students who struggle to apply any sort of meaning to any sort of text let alone a 180-page novel written in the 19th century.  We always give the same response:  “We are scholars of literature and it is our job to evaluate in this manner.”  Or “we are engaging in an investigation of the text.  Exciting, huh?”  Or on really trying days “too bad.” 

However, if looking for a way to avoid these comments there is an easy fix:  literary theory.  I wasn’t exposed to different schools of criticism (like gender theory, Marxist theory, or Formalism) until I was sophomore in college.  And if high school students are introduced to it is usually only the higher-level students in an AP class.  But, while literary theory is appropriate for all ability-levels, I think it is especially important to struggling readers.  This opens them to an entire world of critics, situating the English teacher contextually.  Also, it gives them a focus to their reading.  For those who aren’t strong readers it is overwhelming to read a novel because they aren’t sure how to interpret it.  There are so many things to analyze:  plot, symbols, characters, themes, etc.  It is overpowering.  Giving them a specific critical lens from which to read narrows down the field of analysis, making it easier for them to make meaning of a text. 

It also gets them off our back with their pesky questions about reading into the text too much. 

This week I will be providing you tools to identify natural lenses of critical theory your students naturally use when reading, ways to introduce it to your students in an accessible way, and activities and resources to use with your students.