Teaching Identity: Difficult But Worth It

Identity politics–defined by Leitch as “a politics of difference firmly based on some fixed or definable feature(s) of identity” (26)–is a topic which comes up naturally in some form or another when reading literature with high schoolers. Not only is identity a ripe topic for adolescents, who are constantly grappling with what they are and are not, but it is also a focus in much of the works we read in high school. In Jane Eyre, for example, as Sandra M. Gilbert would affirm, our protagonist completes a “pilgrimage” to womanhood, ultimately realizing her identity and agency as a woman (Gilbert). Nonetheless, discussion of identity politics–because of the impassioned views it may incite–must be framed and guided with caution.

In my mind, a person’s concept of his or her identity makes him or her relate to certain “groups” of people more than others and take up certain political or social causes more fervently than others. I think that A.) one’s identity can be comprised of many categories, associations, and experiences and B.) the identifiers which correlate most strongly to either powerfulness or powerlessness in society stand out more in a person’s concept of identity. Jane Eyre, for example, seems to be powerless in the first half of the novel because of her status as an underprivileged orphan girl and powerful in the second half of the novel because of her transformation into a fully conscious, self-reliant woman. Therefore, I believe, Jane’s personal politics would be based most on the identity categories of class and gender; class and gender correlate respectively to Jane’s struggle and triumph.

As the very act of asserting one’s identity seems to me to be necessarily political in nature–one is taking a stand for oneself–I think it is difficult to discuss identity as an apolitical topic. Additionally, not all possible categories of identity hold equal political power in a society, so inequalities will naturally be discussed alongside social realities. Consequently, issues of social justice–even calls to action–could arise in a classroom. Although I don’t think it is appropriate for teachers to suggest specific political actions or candidates, I do think that is is appropriate to discuss what social justice could look like for different categories of identity.

By both anticipating discord before holding such discussions and giving students some scripted phrases for how to validate others’ opinions while respectfully disagreeing with them in non-emotional language, teachers may make such conversations possible in the classroom. I would also consider incorporating a database mini research project into the pre-discussion activities to help students discuss facts as opposed to biases. Before discussing social realities and issues of social justice in Jane Eyre, for example, students could research the economic and political status of women in Victorian era England or the treatment of orphans during that time period. This could help to give the fictional world of Jane Eyre a firm foothold in the gender and socioeconomic realities of its time.

Despite attempted awareness of my own identity politics, I am sure that my own identity as a white, middle-class woman impacts the way I teach feminist theory. I may not be as instinctually aware, for example, of the fragmented nature of the Feminist movement (Leitch 25-26) or of the political advantage I might have in being relatively “mainstream” (25-26). Also, as a woman who already identifies as feminist, I tend to easily get on board with the theories of many feminists, so I have to work to read such works with a critical eye. Fortunately, though, I think that I am open to switching lenses as need be, so I don’t feel locked into any one way of reading.

Although aspects of my identity can sometimes be mental roadblocks for my enjoyment of certain canonical works of literature, I would say that literary theory enables me to access and think critically about most of what I read. Being, as Judith Fetterley terms it, a “resisting reader” (qtd. In Leitch 25), I don’t need to feel oppressed as a reader and I can continue to be me, even if I am not clearly reflected as an agent of power in the text. Just as Jane Eyre journeyed to find her place in the world, readers can peer through the lenses of others’ identities to strengthen their own.

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. Rpt. in Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Jane Eyre. 2nd ed. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015. Print. 21-437.

Gilbert, Sandra M. “Plain Jane’s Progress.” 1977. Rpt. in Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Jane Eyre. 2nd ed. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015. Print. 560-586.

Leitch, Vincent B., William E. Cain, Laurie Finke, Barbara Johnson, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Jeffrey J. Williams, eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

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Keeping an Open Attitude toward Authorship

After reading Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” and Michel Foucault’s “What Is an Author?”, I believe that both arguments have merit and, as such, critical readers would benefit most from learning how to both consider and disregard the identity of an author when interpreting a text. What I mean is that readers should be able to shift gears and question a text from all directions, ultimately arriving at the certainty that there is probably no certainty when it comes to delineating the extent of the author’s presence. What is certain, however, is that pondering the dueling presence and absence of the author is what makes for interesting discussions about the texts we read.

One benefit of approaching a text as Barthes does–with the belief that writing is “voiceless” or “neutral” (Barthes 1322)–is that the text then becomes open and accessible to all who read it. The reader need not have any biographical knowledge of the text’s author to make meaning of the text. Using textual evidence alone, any reader may engage in thoughtful argumentation about how the elements of a text combine to create meaning. As Barthes suggests, this frees the text from being “tyrannically centered on the author” (1322) and allows “the birth of the reader” (1326), which I think could be an empowering idea for young readers especially. If young readers understand a text as containing many supportable meanings or “multiplicity” (1325), they might see more room for themselves as literary analysts.

I definitely saw this engagement with meaning-making while studying with my freshman English students the poem “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks. The students had so many different interpretations to offer about words and phrases appearing in the poem, such as “Jazz June” (Brooks 9)–interpretations which would not have arisen had I shown them an interview with Brooks in which she explains her intention with each line. Imagine what learning opportunities would have been lost had the author been fully present from the start!

On the other hand, considering, at least, the potential “author-function”, as Foucault does, acknowledges the elephant in the room–the reality that, in general, readers care about authorship and the concept of authorship matters in our society. Furthermore, authors care about authorship, many writers consider their works to be deeply personal, and one of the most beautiful aspects of writing is that it allows for an empathic connection between reader and writer.

To illustrate this concept is another experience with my freshman English students, our study of the poem “Fast Break” by Edward Hirsch. Sitting with the text alone and noticing how the poem opens with an epitaph, “In Memory of Dennis Turner, 1946-1984” (Hirsch),  students can understand right away that there is some connection between this lost loved one and the content of the poem–a detailed, moment-by-moment description of a young man’s completion of a basketball play. However, in my opinion, the poem achieves its greatest impact when its reading is followed by the presence of the author, captured in a short YouTube video from the American Academy of poets, “Poet-to-Poet: Edward Hirsch, ‘Fast Break’” (Poets.org). In this video, Hirsch explains not only the story behind the poem’s creation but also the intended symbolism of the poem’s imagery–meanings which may or may not be evident by examining the text in isolation.

I and many of my students have found this video to be worth watching, I think, because it reminds us that writing doesn’t always need a narrator detached from the author, a  “second self” (Foucault 1484). Nor does the author necessarily become “a victim of his own writing” (1478) or lose the power of immortalizing the self or others through writing (1477). Allowing some wiggle room to consider connections between a text and its author ensures that writing can still be personal and human. Moreover, it can still have layers that will only be visible with the help of another person or another text.

Perhaps beginning with an authorless reading of a text, as Barthes would recommend, and then considering the potential value of some biographical criticism, as Foucault would recommend, is a way to find a happy medium between these apparently disparate approaches to literary criticism. Being open-minded to both approaches makes the most sense to me because I think the point of learning about literary criticism is to be able to look through many different lenses. As a teacher, I hope that this is one of the lasting lessons that students will take with them when they graduate from high school: the world is better when people take the time to consider how others–perhaps people of different genders, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, etc.–experience and express their lives.

 

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” 1967. Rpt. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch, William E. Cain, Laurie Finke, Barbara Johnson, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Jeffrey J. Williams. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 1322-1326. Print.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “We Real Cool.” The Bean Eaters. New York: Harpers, 1960. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?” 1969. Rpt. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch, William E. Cain, Laurie Finke, Barbara Johnson, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Jeffrey J. Williams. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 1475-1490. Print.

Hirsch, Edward. “Fast Break.” Wild Gratitude. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

Leitch, Vincent B., William E. Cain, Laurie Finke, Barbara Johnson, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Jeffrey J. Williams, eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

Poets.org. “Poet-to-Poet: Edward Hirsch, “Fast Break”” YouTube. YouTube, 4 Feb. 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BfgleFAyaY&gt;.

Introducing Literary Theory in Secondary Studies of American Literature

Imagining Controversial Criticism in Honors American Literature

As I imagine how I would teach potentially divisive schools of criticism such as Marxism/Phenomenology and Cultural Studies to my class of junior honors American literature students, many questions come to mind. First, how can I introduce these and other complex lenses in a way that is not only engaging and easily understandable but also objective and culturally sensitive? Working within a relatively homogenous classroom, how can I encourage all students to keep an open-minded and empathetic stance when looking through these lenses? What misconceptions will arise? How should I address them? Despite thoughtful planning, these questions and others may only be answered by trial and error.

Issues Specific to Marxism/Phenomenology and Cultural Studies

In my opinion, the way that I choose to frame the idea of literary criticism–and the many schools of thought which it encompasses–may make or break students’ willingness to buy into it. I can guess that the phrase itself, “literary criticism,” is an automatic turnoff for some students. In fact, many words and phrases that appear regularly in our critical readings could be aversive to some teenagers.

In relation to Marxism/Phenomenology, for instance, “Marxism” is quite a loaded term, carrying with it in some students’ minds all sorts of negative and perhaps misinformed connotations. Marx’s “class struggle” too could elicit immediate negativity, as many of my students–even those from disadvantaged backgrounds–have verbalized in the past their firm belief in both social mobility and the universal attainability of the “American Dream.” Along similar lines, the Hegelian master-slave dialectic might prove unpopular, as I have heard many students over the years flatly deny the existence of racism in our society. For some students, master-slave subjugation–literal or metaphorical, racial or otherwise–is a thing of the past.

Compared to Marxism/Phenomenology, Cultural Studies might be a bit easier to integrate into the high school classroom, as many of my students already appear to have a healthy skepticism about the media they consume. Similarly, we already read such essays as “The Pocahontas Myth,” which generally spurs great conversation. Nonetheless, certain Cultural Studies concepts could be somewhat unpalatable, such as Horkheimer and Adorno’s assertions that mass culture eliminates individual creativity (qtd. in Leitch 1115) and mass entertainment is simply a device to keep people happy enough to be submissive drones of capitalism (qtd. in Leitch 1119). In my experience, many high schoolers hold dear such concepts as individuality and self-determination, so to say that they do not exist is heresy.

Instructional Goals: A Foundation of Objectivity and Playfulness

As I consider how to delicately integrate literary criticism into my classroom, my first goal would be to introduce objectively and all at once the main schools of literary criticism. Using accessible, factual descriptions–like those provided by Deborah Appleman in Critical Encounters in Secondary English–could help to set the right tone for the class and give the basic terminology necessary to access the critical texts. Furthermore, starting this way would give both snapshots of each lens and a panorama of literary criticism as a field. Supplementary biographical resources and timelines could also add historical context without making students feel as if they should be swayed toward any particular view.

Once the variety and vast scope of literary criticism is established, I would like to ease into reading critical texts by trying first a fun, low-pressure activity with lenses. One activity I read about in Appleman and elsewhere involves revisiting well-known fairy tales through various critical lenses. This activity hits home the importance and fruitfulness of changing perspectives and–in its silliness–might make students more receptive to struggling through the challenging critical texts.

Works Cited

Appleman, Deborah. Critical Encounters in Secondary English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Teachers College Press, 2015. Print.

Leitch, Vincent B., William E. Cain, Laurie Finke, Barbara Johnson, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Jeffrey J. Williams, eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

Power, Love, and Self in Jane Eyre: Examining Theme and Language

ASSIGNMENT AND RATIONALE

As a student of literature, I have always been engaged by both the complex nature of theme and the emergence of theme through the author’s style–his or her imagery, diction, syntax, tone, and structural choices. Perhaps because of a poetic thread that runs through my family, I am the kind of reader who lingers on certain passages, phrases, and words. I say these things aloud, turn them over in my mind, look them up, bounce them off the people around me, and tuck them away for later resurfacing. In short, I read literature not only to learn lessons about the complexity of life–distilled into complex themes–but also to learn lessons about language and how language furthers theme.

Theme and language are indeed my two main interests as I continue reading Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre. Looking back on the first two volumes of Jane Eyre before I begin reading the third, the themes that have gripped me most so far are those of power, love, and self. Empathizing with our stalwart narrator, Jane, I have watched her transition from a child with little apparent power to an adult with–at the very least–the power of self-awareness. This development of self has also engaged me, as has the possibility for Jane to have her self affirmed by the love of others. Resonant to readers of any age, the themes of power, love, and self are, I believe, especially resonant to high school students, who are themselves gaining a greater understanding of these themes in their own lives. If I were to lead my students in an examination of the themes of power, love, and self in Jane Eyre, I would expand the following lesson elements.

SELECTED LESSON ELEMENTS

Essential Questions / Analysis Goals

  1. How do themes of power, love, and self develop over the course of Jane Eyre? (RL.11-12.2)
  2. How do the themes of power, love, and self interact and build on one another to ultimately complicate the universal truths argued by the text? (RL.11-12.2)
  3. How do the figurative and connotative layers of Brontë’s language help to illuminate the themes of power, love, and self? (RL.11-12.4)

Process

  1. Formative Assessment: Students’ regular keeping of theme-focused annotations in the form of double-entry journals
  2. Formative Assessment: Mid-novel and end-of-novel small group and class discussions, leading to the creation of a class study-guide which notes and analyzes thematic passages (example below)
  3. Summative Assessment: Open-study guide and open-book timed writing which requires students to make an argument responding to two or more of the essential questions posited

Example Study Guide Organizer for Thematic Analysis

Textual Evidence Analysis of Thematic Complexity + Possible Complex Themes Analysis of Style’s

Relation to Theme

Quotes that intertwine the themes of power, love, and self How are the themes of power, love, and self interacting within this quote? What possible thematic statements could be supported at this moment? How do the figurative and connotative layers of Brontë’s language help to illuminate the themes of power, love, and self?
“I resisted all the way…The fact is, I was a trifle beside myself; or rather out of myself, as the French would say: I was conscious that a moment’s mutiny had already rendered me liable to strange penalties, and, like any other rebel slave, I felt resolved, in my desperation, to go all lengths…‘Master! How is he my master? Am I a servant?’ ‘No; you are less than a servant, for you do nothing for your keep. There, sit down, and think over your wickedness’” (Brontë 26).
  • Jane’s motives and actions are misunderstood by the figures of Bessie, Miss Abbot, and Mrs. Reed, who chastise, punish, and demean her for standing up for herself.
  • Despite thinking of herself as a rebellious slave–which implies some self-awareness and self-advocacy–Jane at this point seems still to value highly the opinions that others hold of her. This is echoed in later chapters when she is publicly shamed at school.
  • POSSIBLE COMPLEX THEME AT THIS MOMENT: When children are denied power and love by the adults in their lives, they must detach themselves from outward reality and look inward to give value to the self.
IMAGERY: symbolism of Jane as a rebellious slave +  hostile, destructive mood
DICTION: “slave,” “master,” “servant” = connotations of oppression, subjugation, violence + powerlessness + self defined by work (no intrinsic value) + impossibility of being loved by others
DICTION (ctd.): “mutiny,” “rebel slave” = possibility for power? possibility for self in rebellion? possibility for heroic self-image?
ATTITUDE/TONE: sympathetic to Jane

Closing Thoughts

Throughout Jane Eyre, there are many passages that lend themselves to the study of multiple themes at once. Perhaps these types of passages could also lend themselves to the use of multiple critical lenses at once.

 

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. Rpt. in Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Jane Eyre.

2nd ed. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015. Print. 21-437.

Newman, Beth, ed. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Jane Eyre. 2nd. ed. Boston, MA:

Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015. Print.