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As I was teaching my Introduction to Literary Theory course this semester, I thought a lot about what it is that we’re teaching students to do. I paid particular attention to the way that I taught students about formalism, which led me to further thinking when we hit other theories, including deconstruction, feminism and Marxism.
One of the things that’s so difficult about formalism for students -- whether they’re in a theory class or in an introduction to literature class -- is recognizing the rigor and care that we show when we’re serious about close readings. For years, I’ve been trying to impress upon my students that they shouldn’t settle for a single example of something. Rather, they should be paying attention to every instance of an image, thinking about how it changes over the course of a text.
It hit me this year that I’ve been framing this all wrong for my students. It’s all about the patterns. For many of us -- particularly those of us who are a couple of decades away from our first college English course -- it’s easy to forget that finding themes and patterns of images is not particularly intuitive for most people. This is something that seemed entirely obvious once I realized it -- and it’s something that many of the questions in anthologies ask students to do (e.g. “Trace the patterns of light and dark in ‘Araby.’”). But how often do we speak to our English majors about patterns?
Of course, it’s not simply about finding a pattern -- or to put it in more scientific language, it’s not all about finding a complete dataset. It’s about figuring out what to do with that textual information. What we want to encourage in our students is not simply an ability to find all of the metaphors that are about animals, or all of the images that engage the ear, or every time the color yellow shows up in the novel. Instead, we want to help our students build the pattern and interpret from there.
Even our work using theory requires this special kind of careful thinking: we cannot simply cherry-pick what we want from a text to make the point we want to make. We have to look at all of the possibilities and figure out whether or not they help our thesis or defeat our thesis -- and then we have to go back to reconsider our original impression of the text.
While I don’t have a particular exercise to help with this -- I’ll be working on that over the summer -- I think it’s an important insight for me. It provides my English majors some boundaries on their interpretations (it can’t mean whatever you want it to mean, but must instead be plausible. Or, as I tell students, you cannot insist that Hamlet is about pterodactyls in space, because you want it to be.); it also gives us a way to talk about the interpretation of literature with students who are less comfortable with ambiguity. It gives everyone a way in.
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