Critical Thinking and the Literature Workshop

To prepare for week two of discussions on methodology for teaching literature and cultural studies, we read the first half of Sheridan Blau’s “The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers.” While our previous few readings on teaching so far have been more of a general overview of what to do (and not to do) in the college classroom, Blau takes a deep dive into the literary workshop and how, when executed properly, it helps students learn to comprehend, interpret, and articulate different texts.

In the introduction, Blau begins by describing the virtues of the literature workshop, which is based on the National Writing Project (founded by James Gray in 1974 as the Bay Area Writing Project at UC – Berkeley), and says he intends to “dramatize or recreate through constructed transcripts the experience of participating in a Writing Project workshop in a community of colleagues.”

In the first chapter, Blau outlines a “pedagogical problem that college teachers of literature share with most of their secondary school colleagues: the inclination of our students to behave like consumers of literary interpretations rather than the producers of them.” He says that teachers who expect students to simply absorb the instructor’s interpretation of the text is “encouraging all of them to read it without any particular interpretive responsibility.”

In one example, he recalls observing a high school English class that was learning “Macbeth.” The instructor glossed over several lines that were hard to comprehend for both him and Blau, so they worked on them after class. Blau realized that not teaching something because you didn’t understand it yourself was exactly the wrong approach. In fact, he goes on to say: “The only texts worth reading are texts you don’t understand. Because if you understand a text as soon as you read it, you must have understood it before you read it, so you didn’t have to bother reading it in the first place.”

He also examined the problem of students simply being recipients of the teacher’s own interpretation of the text. “Has the student performed as a reader of those texts?” he asked. “Or is the professor the reader, with the student functioning largely as the recorder of someone else’s reading?” This frame of mind is creating teachers who aren’t capable of critical thought. He goes on to say: “Given such a literary education, it perhaps shouldn’t surprise us to encounter graduating English major s about to embark on student-teaching assignments who say (as some have admitted to me over the years) that they don’t feel adequately prepared to teach literature in a secondary school because they haven’t had courses covering all the texts they might have to teach. They assume, in other words, that if they haven’t been taught a literary work, they won’t know how to teach it.”

In other words, it is flawed to assume “that literary instruction mostly entails discourse by the teacher on the text being taught.”

“In fact, given what they have experienced in literature classes, most students have never had the opportunity to learn that reading, like writing, is a process of making meaning or text construction that is frequently accompanied by false starts and faulty visions, requiring frequent and messy reconstruction and revision.” They have only been shown “finished readings” and aren’t taught that reading and writing often involve “struggle and frustration.” When students don’t immediately understand, they see it as “signs of incompetence, lack of knowledge, or insufficiency in skill.”

Teachers can help correct student misperceptions about the reading process by bringing in an unfamiliar or difficult text and working through it together, “thereby providing a model of how a competent reader proceeds in moving haltingly and recursively toward a satisfactory reading and interpretation of a difficult text.”

In the second chapter, Blau begins to lay out the process for developing “a disciplined, autonomous literacy in students while building a culture of learning in the classroom that, unlike the prevailing culture of literacy dependence and subservience, promote the literary and intellectual enfranchisement of student readers.” He details an experiment in reading a poem and breaks the process down into its parts: three readings with notes and questions, group work, completing the experiment, collecting data, and drawing conclusions from the experiment. He stresses the importance of multiple readings and laments that rereading is “underemployed by those who think of themselves as … not very strong, or minimally competent, or unmotivated or reluctant readers,” then outlines the principles laid out by Robert Scholes: reading, interpretation, and criticism. “Thus, in Scholes’ memorable formulation, reading produces text within text; interpretation produces text upon text; and criticism produces text against text.”

In the experiment’s conclusion, Blau lays out three principles “to be kept in mind in planning and conducting literary instruction and in defending the discipline of literary study itself in a political and educational culture that often threatens to minimize or dismiss its importance.” The first principle is that reading is “a process of constructing meaning or composing a text, exactly like writing.” It requires reading and rereading, drafting and revising. The second principle is that reading “is and needs to be in classrooms a social process, completed in conversation.” It’s only “natural” to cooperate with others. The third principle states that “literary reading and literary study as they are ordinarily sponsored in rigorously conducted English classes, teach students an intellectual discipline that defines critical thinking in every field and fosters academic success in every subject of study.”

Blau ends the chapter by saying that the critical-thinking skills learned in a literature class are applicable across all academic fields, and its importance cannot be understated (I absolutely agree with this).

In the third chapter, Blau presents the idea that there is more than one way to interpret many texts, though he added that does not mean there are infinite ways to interpret the text. The imaginary exchange between students and the teacher in this example allow for multiple interpretations of the text and the realization that many observations are valid and plausible, and even subject to change over time, and that even with knowing the author, the text’s meaning can still be ambiguous and malleable. A good instructor will nurture this conversation and help cultivate these new ideas and points of view.

Next, Blau inserts the idea that culture and background play a role in a student’s interpretation of a text, and he asserts that at least part of their reading “is assisted by their cultural knowledge or knowledge of texts residing behind texts, or can be impeded by the absence of such knowledge.” In one example, he gives students the Randall Jarrell poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” and shows how a lack of knowledge of World War II machinery and military operations. Without the previous knowledge to provide context for the poem, it changes its meaning. In this case, it is the teacher’s job to provide some of that context for students and guide them, without completing the work for them, toward an interpretation that is wholly their own.

“Our job as English teachers is not to convince our students that we are in possession of some unattainable knowledge that makes it easy for us to navigate in textual waters that are perilous for them, but to help them acquire, insofar as possible within the scope of our own course, the same background knowledge and intertextual experience that confer on us much of our advantage and competence as readers,” Blau wrote.

In the last chapter for today, Blau states that interpretation is “the conversation and writing about literature that define much of the activity of most literature classes in middle school, high school, and college.” He presents a model of literary meaning “that posits two axes of meaning, which we can call the representational axis and the evocative axis, showing the representational axis as an unbroken horizontal line and the evocative axis as a dotted or broken vertical one.”

The representational meaning “directs us to what a literary work shows and tells us directly, while the vertical, broken line refers to meanings that are not actually represented by the work but released by, derived from, or evoked by what is represented in actions, events, images, and so on.” Blau has encountered issues in evocative meaning and laments the tendency of his freshmen and sophomore students to “treat texts as objects requiring mechanical analysis rather than as invitations to genuine human illumination and pleasure.”

WHAT I LEARNED

In these literature workshops, Blau makes it clear that teaching literature needs to be a collaborative process, and that interpretations must be individually formed, not spoon-fed to students by the teacher based on how he or she interpreted the readings. While instructors may share their own interpretations, they should not be imposed upon the students but instead be used to “[model] the process of interpretation and [give] instruction at the same time in the theories and generalizations that make literary interpretations worth of attention and discussion.”

3 thoughts on “Critical Thinking and the Literature Workshop

  1. I absolutely agree that the most effective way to learn is by taking active part in the process. I think part of what teachers should to is to teach or guide people how to learn themselves, rather than teach simply knowledge, which may not be properly comprehended. I also like your summary of the chapters!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like the idea of coming to the material you’re teaching as if you are also new to it. We can stay fresh and meet students in modeling meaning making is to allow these processes from the ground up, as Blau is building into these workshops. It’s something that, when mixed with judicious lectures to provide context for further discussions as we talked about in class could lead to some wonderful learning opportunities.

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