What students need to know and do
Whereas once the study of literature was grounded entirely in traditional rhetoric, it has evolved to include elements from other disciplines, including philosophy, sociology and political theory. This evolution means that students need to be equipped not only with concepts drawn from rhetoric, like metaphor, but also with concept clusters such as class, gender, race and ethnicity. These concept clusters form the building blocks on which students can develop understanding of the various theoretical approaches that literary scholars have taken over time. Eventually, they should be able to reflect on and articulate their own approach. This complex development of literary studies arguably means that students need to grasp a greater range of foundational concepts than students in some other Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (ASSH) disciplines.
Before we expose students to the detail of such concepts, though, we need to help them understand two foundational ideas. First, that there is a particular language for discussing academic literature; that literary criticism is not simply expressing a like or dislike for a given text, but an academic discipline with its own terminology. Second, students should learn that texts may be read in a range of ways. Students can find both these foundational ideas hard to grasp, let alone master.
Student barriers to learning
First year students may find literary language daunting. They may struggle, for instance, to identify and understand tropes such metaphor or irony. They may also struggle with discipline terminology – with acquiring language for talking and writing about literature. Students anxious to show they can use literary terms often deploy them arbitrarily in essays, without discussing their connection to context or their relevance to set questions
Students may struggle to understand that texts may be read in a range of ways. They may know there are many approaches to texts and many ways of reading and interpreting, but find it difficult to come to grips with the idea that as readers we create meaning in the very process of reading.
Our teaching strategies
In first year, we should focus on the concepts that underpin theories, and use textual examples to demonstrate different concepts, showing students how to bring them to literary readings. For example, first year students reading Jane Eyre could learn to work with the concept of class and how it might give a particular slant on a text, by seeing how Marxist-feminist literary criticism added a counterbalance to a traditional Romantic reading of Jane Eyre by highlighting Jane’s upwardly mobile status.
Another approach to scaffolding students’ learning towards an exploration of the concept of class and how it might influence the interpretation of a literary text, could be for the teacher to explain the concept of gender and elucidate how it informs the reading of a literary text. Students could then be asked to find out about the concept of class as a research task, with students working in groups and each bringing a concept to bear on a simple text – children’s texts could be used as they are not difficult to understand and can be read in tutorial time. This is a step to understanding theory: how a literary theory is an attempt to explain something about the development of literature, the ways it is read and the ways it is valued.
The idea of “reading positions” may be a useful place to assist students to begin understanding method. We can model a method or approach using one, short and simple, text that students can then use themselves in relation to another text. We may also “apply” more than one theory or concept to a single text to show how texts may be read in a range of ways. This also gives students the chance to begin experimenting with the idea that, by using different conceptual approaches, a reader produces what are effectively different texts. For example, early critics of Jane Eyre read it purely as a triumphant tale of Romantic subjectivity, whereas a contemporary reader might read it from a post-colonial perspective as an account of marginalisation, in that the first Mrs Rochester is a West Indian Creole woman.
Students in first year could study the application and implications of at least one theoretical approach in depth.