Authors’ Impretents Throughout Ages

Throughout the reading, I found it very difficult to see where Barthes and Foucault were coming from.  To me, an author always has a purpose for writing, therefore, it is nearly impossible for me to separate an author from his work. An author is always inspired whether it be by a life experience, a deadline, or by money to write. I see contradictions in the fact that Barthes and Foucault clearly have a belief that they want to convey through writing.  I can concede that, “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing (1325).  I don’t think knowing Barthes’ or Foucault’s background would matter in reading either of their essays.  It doesn’t changing the message or meaning.  However, knowing their background wouldn’t box in the reader, like how Barthes’ believes.  Everyone has their own experience when reading, so it wouldn’t box anyone in.  For example, I have read The Catcher in the Rye several times in my life and every time I’ve read it, I’ve had a different experience with it.  Knowing about J.D. Salinger and his tendency to be a recluse didn’t and doesn’t affect my reading of the novel.  It helps me understand the motivation behind Holden Caulfield’s behavior and how lonely he is, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that either just because I know that J.D. Salinger preferred to be alone.  Barthes mentions a could of times how writing is made up of all kinds of quotes and cultures, like, “The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (1324).  I guess, in a sense, he could be saying that knowing the background of the author doesn’t matter because his product comes from so many other places, but to me, that would just mean that there are so many more things the reader should understand before reading a text.

I can also understand Barthes’ and Foucault’s arguments from the lense of reading a book for pleasure, for simply just the story.  In reading Jane Eyre without knowing anything about Charlotte Bronte, the reader experiences a very interesting story with many characters that you can relate to, but also many characters that you can’t relate to either.  It’s like going to the movies where the audience doesn’t usually know a ton about the director or writer or producer because the audience goes in with the suspension of disbelief.  In studying literature, or film for that matter, I don’t think you are truly studying the text unless you know all the aspects of it.  Did the fact that Charlotte Bronte, and her sisters, all wrote with a male pen name affect the novel?  Did how Charlotte Bronte grow up influence the story she wrote?  These are all important aspects that must be analyzed for students to understand a novel, especially in this day in age where students are so curious, but also don’t fully understand unless you bring this biographical context in as well.

As a teacher, I think I go back to the statement I made earlier that an author always has a purpose for writing.  I think it is important to focus on this because it usually lends itself to cross curricular instruction.  Teaching The Crucible could lend to history through both the Salem Witch Trials and the fact that Miller was using the play as an allegory for the Red Scare.  With Shakespeare, you can give the historical context of the play as well as Shakespeare himself, while possibly lending the math and science to build a model of the Globe theatre.  With The Odyssey, it’s always important to discuss the oral tradition of Homer’s time to give the context of the style.  The only time I can see a pure break from the author through teaching is perhaps through teaching non-fiction, for the most part.  You don’t need to know the author’s experiences to read a biography of someone, however, it is important to know if that person is credible, so knowing about the author could be vital even in those instances.

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Identity of an Author

Reading and analyzing Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and Barthes’s “ The Death of the Author” allowed for an understanding of a Post-Structuralism approach to analyzing text and also an understanding the role that the identity of an author can have, or not have, on a given text. When critically analyzing texts it is important to take into consideration a variety of perspectives in order to create a well-rounded interpretation. Taking into consideration the author’s identity, as well as disregarding it, allows for different perspectives of the same text, which students can use to think critically and become critical readers.

Post-Structuralism literary criticism takes the approach of disregarding the author’s identity and opposes the analysis of literary text based and centered on the author of that given text. Both Foucault and Barthes believed that literary criticism should focus on the reader and their culture and society instead of focusing on the author’s biographical, personal, or cultural circumstances. In “The Death of the Author” Barthes states “The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice. The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us” (Barthes, 1322). Barthes argues that literary work should not be analyzed by the information about the person who created but instead should focus on a reader response critical theory. “Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not as, was hitherto said, the author” (Barthes, 1325). Teaching students to disregard the author will teach them that writing can have many interpretations and doesn’t need to be limited by the biographical, personal, or cultural circumstances of the author.

Although, Foucault pointed out that some types of texts have not always needed authors and were accepted and circulated without the need of knowing the author’s identity, the identity of the author can greatly impact the interpretation of a text. Authorship matters and is not only used for classification but an author’s biographical information can also be used to interpret a text and help put it into context. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s biographical information has been used with several different literary critical theories, which have resulted in many interpretation of Jane Eyre. In “The Father, Castration and Female Fantasy in Jane Eyre”, Dianne Sadoff uses Bronte’s family history, especially her relationship with her father, to connect and critically read Jane Eyre from a psychoanalytical perspective.

As an instructor I feel that it is important to allow students to understand that there are multiple perspectives to critically analyzing and interpreting a text and that knowing the identity of an author and the author’s background can lead to an interesting, new, and different perspective. Student’s can learn a great deal by understanding the gender, race, or nationality of an author and how it ties into the context of their work. Understanding when, and when not, to take and author’s identity into consideration and the perspectives that come with the decision will help students’ develop into well-rounded critical readers.

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;.

Controversial Cultural Studies Incorporated into The Diary of Anne Frank and the use of Propaganda

As you can imagine introducing any controversial topic to eighth graders from a small rural community is a challenge. Of course depending on your administration it may be easier if you have their support. For example, if my content coordinator came into my class to observe or evaluate me as I was teaching a lesson that incorporated Marxism she wouldn’t question my choice, trusting my teaching abilities, experience, and knowledge. However, as public school teacher I am not sure I would feel comfortable straying away from the common core standards that much. In the last five years our creative ability and teaching freedom has been slowly taken away. Student success on state testing and our teacher evaluations are now linked, this means if our students don’t show a significant amount of growth, our jobs are at risk. As you can imagine this is why ‘teaching to the test’ is becoming an epidemic through many districts.

Cultural studies have never been part of the eighth grade curriculum and we have little say of what are units consists of based on the constrictions of the common core standards and the limited available resources. It is difficult for me to even image bringing up Marxism to my students considering just bringing a pencil to class is considered a huge success on most days. I wouldn’t necessarily stay away from saying specific words like Marxism mostly because my students wouldn’t know they were “hot button” words at all. However, I would need to take a middle ground to be strategic in how I introduced the topics in a lesson so the students are engaged and also retain the information once they leave my classroom.

One way I could include Marxism and cultural theory in the classroom is when I teach the drama unit which revolves around a play adaption of The Diary of Anne Frank. I have a lot of interviews, primary documents, posters, videos, and articles that are incorporate into the unit. Some of these are propaganda postcards with images of Hitler building highways and making improvements as well propaganda children’s books depicting Jews as animals.

Prior to this unit I would have taught a small lesson on propaganda during the dystopian unit as an extra credit assignment. Students can create a poster based on the book with guideline and use of examples. For a refresher and a more in depth explanation I would begin with this video  https://youtu.be/-WpFzTplp28. This does a great job explaining what propaganda is as well as the history and the role of mass media influencing the use on a much larger scale. There is also discussion on Hitler’s use and his opinion on propaganda with ties the unit together.

After the propaganda video and some discussion I would show the biography of Theodor W. Adoro https://youtu.be/4YGnPgtWhsw and explain how he was an influential socialist in Germany after WWII who made valuable contributions how he blamed the use of mass media such as the propaganda and the complacency of society to be so easily manipulated for the Holocaust to continue. I can also take this further and ask students if they can give me examples of modern day propaganda just to see how aware they are or if they are like the complacent society that Adoro describes. Are we being easily manipulated by mass media and so easily influenced by what is being projected that we lose sight on what is important?  I can then show the students modern examples of propaganda such as “MODERN DAY WARFARE” which is a great example of internet propaganda http://www.skiptomalouuu.com/2011/10/modern-day-warfare.html as well as commercials and they can identify which technique is being used to persuade https://youtu.be/0eWPbr_KzN4

From the video:

1) Simple solutions (Google)

2) Name calling, card stacking, repetition (Bounty)

3) Appeal to tradition, emotional transfer (Gap)

4) wit and humor, simple solutions, small print (Boost Mobile)

5) repetition, jingle, plain folks (Clapper)

6) jingle, bandwagon (Snuggie)

7) wit and humor (Doritos)

As a writing piece students  can compare the difference between the propaganda used in WWII and the propaganda used now. Students can also write about the differences between how we use or free time and if that influence our subconscious. This lesson could be a great lead in activity to reading The Wave by Todd Strassar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Integrating Controversial Critical Theory into the Classroom

Implementing controversial and ideological charged concepts into classroom curriculum can be a challenging task for teachers, especially when dealing with controversial topics such as Marxism. I believe we must take into consideration several aspects when making this decision and try to find the best method to incorporate these types of ideology. We must look at the complexity of the material and find ways to make it easier for students to comprehend. We must also establish an environment for learning that fosters critical thinking and open- mindedness. Critical thinking is a very important tool for high school students to learn and teachers should strive, not only to educate students, but also to help develop well-rounded individuals that are capable of thinking for themselves and developing their own ideas about particular material, despite how controversial it may be. When developing and teaching a unit in literature and class, that incorporates critical theory like Marxism, I believe it is my duty, as an educator, to find a middle ground, in which, I am able to provide material and instruction objectively using outright terms but also subtle enough to avoid overwhelming students.

Before incorporating these concepts and introducing them to my students, I believe it would be important and necessary to first introduce literary theory to them. It is very important for students to understand that various theories exist and that literary theory is a means of understanding the various ways people read texts. Students will grasp the idea that “All literary theories are lenses through which we can see texts”(Appleman). Students will also understand that theses theories, controversial or not, are the proponent’s ideas and using these theories we can read texts through different perspectives regardless to whether we agree with them or not.

Critical theory is important in implementing critical thinking in literature and when teaching my students about controversial topics, such as Marxism, I wouldn’t be afraid to use Marxist terms, despite them having negative connotations. I would give students background information on Karl Marx and think it is very important for students to have an understanding of his background and his contributions. I believe vocabulary is very important in understanding Marxism/social class theory and simplifying difficult terminology is a crucial in helping students learn content, but we should not shy away from using Marxist terms. When thinking of the best way to integrate this critical theory, I believe I would take more of a subtle approach. Instead of diving deep into “From the Communist Manifesto”, which students would find very overwhelming, I would introduce main ideas that Marxism, such as class structure, capitalism, and the allocation of power in different groups of society. Discussion on how these terms would apply to the world we live in would allow students to make connections. In the society we live in today students are already aware that their exists a separation of classes and a culture of the haves and have- nots. Taking this into consideration, we could discuss why this exists and Marx’s thoughts were on it. Reading material from Deborah Appleman displays different methods and alternative ways of introducing this type of controversial material. Reading passages from Hamlet and The Great Gatsby, through a Marxist lens, are perfect examples of how we can integrate this critical theory for high school students in a more subtle way. By introducing literary criticism and controversial concepts we accomplish the task of opening student’s eyes to different perspectives while teaching them to think critically.

Integrating Critical Theory into Classroom Curriculum: Providing Worthwhile Ideas to help Students gain Perspective

As an educator, I am currently on a path to teacher students in a middle school setting. Having studied both English and Philosophy as an undergrad, and now being well into a Master’s learning the theories, approaches, and application of teaching, I am aware of the deepness, complexity, and often time controversial elements in Critical Theory and modern thought in general. I believe that it is important to have as well-rounded of a personal perspective as possible. There is much to be gained by exposing one’s students to aspects of Marxism and Phenomenology and Cultural Studies. In this essay, I will present some terminology, concepts, and historical, as well as modern, personalities that apply to, and can accompany, the teaching of literature that relates to class.

In order to introduce the ideas behind class and class struggle, even before delving into literature, I would begin with concepts related to today’s world, for instance, capitalism. Even at the middle school level, students have heard the term and have most likely been exposed to its development in Social Studies. I could ask my students to help me to develop a list of the pros and cons of such an economic system as the one America, and many counties in the world, are involved in. It could be possible to allow students to think about our culture’s current trends regarding consumption of goods by touching upon some of the ideas laid out by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Students would be able to begin to think about the consumer habits of themselves, and those around them, in a very different light.

This opening of the door to new ways of thinking can make other terms, concepts, and important figures less intimidating when they are introduced. Some students may even be asking themselves: “How did we get to this point? I love Disney, Sony, and my latest cell phone upgrade. Should I fear this concept of Cultural Industry?” Not all students will have such an existential reflection while in the classroom or during the bus ride home, but why not start to talk about some background on class, the proletariat, and the alienation of labor? For it is hard to imagine that anyone will start out working their dream job. Everyone has to work their way through jobs that generate frustration and angst in order to get to a place where one can find more meaning and fulfillment.

This is the place where concepts, like class struggle, set forth by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto, can be addressed. The majority of students in today’s public schools should be able to relate to how difficult it is to get by and rise above economic hardship and a sense of exploitation they are witnessing in their own families on a daily basis. Students are aware that their parents work multiple jobs, go back to school, and can’t afford health care. They know, firsthand, because it directly effects their own lives and wellbeing. I want my students to be aware that there are many ways to address these social ills, and by looking back to history to see what has worked, and what has not, is a good approach.

Although communist has become the king of dirty words in politics, a brief discussion of the pitfalls, and current successes, of its application in recent history should be addressed. Such developments from communism, like fascism, should also be touched upon. From this discussion, socialism can be introduced. I would help my students to see that there are benefits to not only capitalism, but also to aspects of socialism, by discussing examples that apply in a global sense. Universal health care in many European countries would be a good starting point. My students would then be able to see that many programs, even our own current health care system, have a foundation in socialist thought.

The time for Critical Theory in the classroom, even controversial topics like Marxism and Phenomenology and Cultural Studies, is here. As a culture, we need it now, more than we ever have. Our students are living in times of struggle, alongside of their families, neighbors, and communities. They are aware of what is going on. They are listening. They hear that their father has lost his job, their mother is going to get less hours at work, and that the cancer treatment for grandma just isn’t going to be possible. They are listening. At night when the T.V. is on and the American people are using their best judgment to decide between a capitalist business man and a socialist democrat for president, they are listening. Let’s help them to learn, grow, and keep on listening.

Justin J. Gallagher

March 2016

I Get The Big Deal, But I Don’t Get It…

As a middle school teacher, it is hard to think of a time where the Marxist lense would apply or be appropriate to teach simply because it is so complex for the young adolescent mind.  It would perhaps be easier if the more modern types of government and economic systems were in the curriculum, but the middle school social studies curriculum exists of ancient civilizations and US history from pre-colonial times to the late 19th century, so the opportunity for cross curricular teaching and learning doesn’t present itself readily.  If it were easier to present this theory, I would.  I think looking at Marxist theory in a historical context makes the most sense.  You need to look at the revolutions of Europe and the rise against monarchy. I would also have no problem saying the words “Marx” or “socialism”.  Quite frankly, I would think it pointless to even talk about the ideas without saying the creator’s name.  It’s like saying “he who must not be named” instead of “Voldemort”.  Students should be exposed to these terms and understand them in an age appropriate manner.  

In typing this, I have realized that this topic could actually links very easily to the novel I am teaching right now, The Giver.  In our closing writing assessment, an argumentative essay, students had 5 research topics to choose from that connect the novel to our world we live in today.  One topic in particular has to do with The Sameness they practice in The Giver.  In a way, I have been discussing social programs with students and the social programs in the novel already.  Students have to argue if The Sameness is good or bad for society while comparing it to examples in the real world.  In teaching these essay topics, students have been investigating our government vs. China’s, Cuba’s, and North Korea’s, among others.  This just goes to prove my point that these ideas, though to some may be extreme, can be discussed and they don’t need to be hidden.  How are students supposed to understand the capitalist society we live in, that has some socialist aspects to it, if they don’t understand the force that competes against it?
Cultural studies, on the other hand, is something I find myself going through every day almost.  With every piece we read in class, I need to build background knowledge of the topic or the writer or both.  This always deals with the historical lense, but also the cultural.  Students respond very well to this.  Regardless of if we are reading a book or discussing an article or just discussing current events, culture is a conversation that is very prevalent in my classroom. Students find it interesting and they like to make connections to their own cultures and their own lives.  This year we have read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Giver while we have The Diary of Anne Frank and possibly The Book Thief coming up.  Reading these books through the cultural lense, I would argue, is the only way to read these books, especially for middle schoolers.  Using the cultural lense helps students discover other people they haven’t encountered yet in their young lives, but they most likely will encounter in their adult lives.  By exposing students to all of these ideas, we are giving them the tools necessary to interact with others.  We would be stunting the intellectual growth of our students if we kept these topics of discussion away from them.