Not just a theory

“Until lions tell their stories, tales of hunting will glorify the hunter.” -African Proverb

For our Literature for Adolescents class this term, we’ll be thinking about the teaching of literary theory in the high school English classroom. In her book Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents, Deborah Appleman makes a convincing case for it. And her reasoning is actually more audacious than you might expect. It’s easy to yawn and look at your watch when you hear the phrase “literary theory,” even if you have some experience with it. Isn’t using theory basically the practice of analyzing the life out of literature so that you can sound like some pompous academic? And if so, WHY would we put our high school students through that? Don’t we want them to read MORE, not less?

Well, Appleman reminds us, looking at literature through different theoretical lenses is a way to understand the perspectives of those who are different from us. When we do a feminist reading of The Great Gatsby or of Hamlet, peering into the inner worlds of Daisy Buchanan and Ophelia, we are learning how to see the world from the viewpoints of people whom society has conditioned us to ignore. When we deconstruct The Heart of Darkness we can see the other side of the colonial conquest, and begin to comprehend the experiences of the colonized. We learn how to refuse to take stories, and eventually, real life events, at face value – because there is always more than face value for everything.

But aside from increasing our students’ facility for questioning and for empathy, maybe using different theoretical lenses can actually help them get engrossed by texts that had formerly been closed to them. I for one have noticed that thinking about why Ophelia lost her marbles is a lot more interesting than thinking about why Hamlet lost his. Is it because I’m female? Who knows. But literary theory gives me permission to choose how I want to look at the play.

Appleman anticipates an objection to the politicizing nature of literary theory. She responds to those who just want to teach stories, and not get bogged down by all that conflict and politics, by saying: “Teaching is essentially a political act, a political stance– a stance that advocates for the literacy rights of everyone, a stance that acknowledges that when you give someone literacy, you give them power.” Basically, teachers may not ignore the fact that ideologies exist and conflict in the way that other professionals may. Still, maybe some are put off by the battle cry words of “political” and “power.” Think of literary theory in these terms then (and here Appleman quotes Shirley Staton, 1987): “There is no such thing as an innocent, value-free reading… People who deny having a critical stance, who claim they are responding ‘naturally’ or being ‘completely objective’ do not know themselves.” The stakes are high, it seems. But the lion could have told you that.

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2 thoughts on “Not just a theory

  1. “Literary theory” is a bizarre term; it took me a long time that it meant “looking at literature through different theoretical lenses”

    Perspective is one of my favorite words:
    “We learn how to refuse to take stories, and eventually, real life events, at face value – because there is always more than face value for everything.” It’s all a puzzle, with more than one correct answer!

  2. What a great quote you chose to open this post, and then perfectly concluded with a relevent reference to it. The idea of different lenses for every situation is fascinating. (A current case in point is what is going on at the RNC and the DNC.) Because of these differences in understand and expression – and how that expression affects further understanding – learning to see, write and teach with a clear grasp of the lens employed is critical.

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