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.






One comment

  1. For great resources on teaching critical theory to high school students, check out Deborah Appleman’s Critical Encounters in High School English, 2nd Ed (2009). I attended one of her workshops a few years ago and have put her ideas to use in my own classroom. My students are doing great with it! They are finally understanding the value of looking at a “text” from multiple vantage points.

    I introduced critical theory using Superbowl commercials. Students applied various lenses to see how the meaning of the commercial changed each time. It was a great lesson in media literacy.

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