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    22nd September 2011

    How literary theory affects us (part 1?)

    It’s been a good long while since I wrote. I sort of quit the internet/social media world at the beginning of July after I had a change of relationship status. It’s been really wonderful to not have any real web presence for a few months but I suppose it’s time to return. Anyway, to recap, I’ve been living in LA doing the MAT program at the University of Southern California since May.

    Kind of.

    I say that because we had a seven week break from the beginning of August until this week when we started up again. Between then and now I went to Austin, TX for 5 days and then back to Colorado for a month. During that time I started working on a new set of musical recordings – but more on that in a later post.

    Fall 2011 – Fight On!

    One of the classes that I am taking this fall is for those of us in the program looking to teach secondary English, and in that class we are supposed to create entries for an online “Commonplace Book” – a multi-media, multi-genre collection of information, ideas, and responses to various topics that apparently has a much older pedigree (dating back to 15th C. Europe) than I realized (apologies to Dr. Carbone if she discussed this in class and I didn’t pick up on it…).

    17th C. Commonplace Book with various poems (from Wikipedia)

    17th C. Commonplace Book with various poems (from Wikipedia)

    So here is my first entry, in response particularly to the first two chapters of Deborah Appleman’s Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents. In the first chapter, Appleman lays out her general premise that modern literary theory is important and relevant to high school students, and that educators should find ways to teach theory and enable students to use theory to make their own judgements about literature. In the second chapter, Appleman gives five classroom examples of ways that teachers have introduced their students to the the idea that there are many different ways to look at literature. Her examples include reading Sylvia Plath’s poetry with different background information (those who know her biography interpret her poems differently from those who do not); retelling nursery rhymes from the perspectives of other community members (i.e., what does Humpty Dumpty’s lawyer have to say?); thinking about the way that different family members remember past events differently by writing down a family story and then going home and asking another family member about the story; and watching Star Wars on the first few days of an advanced literature class and then discussing the merits of re-reading lit or re-watching movies and the inequities between student and teacher when it comes to engaging a class text.

    Sylvia Plath reads \"November Graveyard\"

    Two quotations from this chapter in particular stood out to me as instructive. The first, Appleman takes from Stephen Bonnycastle:

    “The main reason for studying theory at the same time as literature is that if forces you to deal consciously with the problem of ideologies… If you are going to live intelligently in the modern world, you have to recognize that there are conflicting ideologies and there is no simple direct access to the truth.”

    The second quotation Appleman takes from Applebee:

    “Instruction becomes less a matter of transmittal of an objective and culturally sanctioned body of knowledge, and more a matter of helping individual learners learn to construct and interpret for themselves.”

    The first quotation points out how important it is for students to be able to recognize what power structures might have contributed to the creation of a given text – or that might have contributed to the text becoming an accepted part of the literary canon or K-12 curriculum. The second quotation emphasizes the importance of then empowering students to understand and interpret the text on their own, whether they do so using their own experience (reader-centered), the historical background (historical-critical), gender differences and experiences, or any of the other lenses that modern literary theory provides.

    When it comes to introducing multiple perspectives, two examples from my life stand out. I worked several years for a company that contracted with various states for standardized test creation and assessment (“I Scored at Measured Progress” shirts anyone?). I worked in a warehouse where the tests were graded, first as a grader and then as a trainer/supervisor. One of the projects I worked on was reading comprehension for 4th grade, and one of the questions involved a girl whose father missed her dance recital because he had a business meeting. The prompt asked students to describe how the attitudes of the characters changed throughout the piece. A large number of girls described the father as a jerk who didn’t care about his daughter. Meanwhile, many of the boys (you can tell which is which by handwriting!) called the girl immature for not realizing the father works hard and couldn’t miss his meeting. Which group is correct in their assessment?

    Another personal experience that I think relates to this comes from my musical life. After the first Sauni’s Big Jump album, people often asked me about the meaning of several songs – or they would make speculations about the meanings of the lyrics. I wrote the song “Day Off” about three of my friends, but the situations that the three people in the song were in have consistently been interpreted differently than the situations those people were actually in. Additionally, many listeners tried to apply the lyrics to my personal biography, which would be understandable knowing some of the hardships that I’ve been through. However, even during the parts of the song that I wrote in first person, I still originally intended for it to be about a different friend. Is my original intent the gold standard for how to understand that song? Or is it possible for other people to listen to the song through their own personal experiences and come up with new and fresh interpretations? I can honestly say that as the writer, I gained from all the different ideas that people gave about the people in the song. You can listen to the song “Day Off” at the Sauni’s Big Jump website (it’s the second to last song on the player), or read some of the lyrics here:

    You look at her like it’s something she did
    When it’s not what she wanted, it’s just who she is
    And now she’s confused not sure what’s right or wrong
    She cries out to God, she’s singing this song
    Says I want a day off, a day off life
    Everybody gets a day off, why don’t I?
    A day for me to rest and not be afraid
    To be who I am for just one day

    They look away but he knows they stare
    And he pretends acts like he doesn’t care
    You know he’s tired of playing this game
    He wonders what it’s like just to be the same
    He says I want a day off, a day off life
    Everybody gets a day off, why don’t I?
    The grass is always greener on the other side
    I don’t want to stay but I’d love to try

    Now back to me stuck with nothing to do
    More bored than sad and more sad than confused
    You know the thought has crossed my mind
    Oh I won’t lie, I think about it all the time
    How I want a day off, a day off life
    Everybody gets a day off, why don’t I?
    I don’t want a second chance or a second try
    I want a day of – a day off
    I want a day off, a day off life
    Nobody gets a day off, why should I?
    Six billion other people all in need
    Man there’s got to be someplace for me…


    2 Responses to “How literary theory affects us (part 1?)”

    1. Paula Carbone says:

      I did not mention the 15th C adaptation of commonplace books – but we did talk about them in ancient Greece! emerging within the rhetorical tradition.
      An excellent use of the genre, blurring some boundaries and maintaining others.

    2. Daryl says:

      Oh right, I forgot about us talking about Ancient Greece. And thank you! I might not do as stellar work on my next commonplace entry but I’ll try to do something.

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    Copyright 2005 by Daryl Holmlund - All rights reserved.