I should be marking more Year 10 English exams, but what the hey.
I have spent some time over the past few weeks contributing to a multi-voice review of 'The Literacy Wars' by Ilana Snyder, so the contemporary landscape of literacy education is on my mind, particularly the furores that have roared around critical literacy over the past few years.
My Literature class has just finished their latest assessment task, in which they write an analysis of a critical review of a set text, unearthing the assumptions and comparing it to their own interpretation. It's quite a challenging task, requiring close reading of both the set text and the review/critical essay, as well as confidence in their own reading. The text they studied was Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, which I have already drooled over in this blog, and the review that I found could be roughly described as a post-colonial reading of the text, a fabulously controversial essay by Jane Marcus-Delgado.
It worked so well, because the majority of my students absolutely hated her reading. They hated what they saw as her selective use of textual evidence, railed against the lens that she had 'subjected' Bel Canto to, and were quite indignant about what they viewed as her complete disregard for the author's intention. It was certainly a polarising interpretation and it really enabled the students to consider a perspective on the text that was drastically different from where they were coming from.
Bel Canto is a beautifully written text about, well... beauty. In all its forms. For my students, reading a review about a text they loved which had turned that beauty into something quite monstrous- well, at first it was like something had been stolen from them. Their initial reactions reminded me of how I felt after I read 'Wide Sargasso Sea' for the first time. It was as if Jean Rhys had stolen Jane Eyre. It is these sudden realisations, these alternative ways of seeing, that the traditionalists/canon preserversationists would rather we didn't have. And yes, they can be painful revelations. About the comforting, familiar stories that we love, about ourselves. It also brings to mind a student's voice in Deborah Appleman's wonderful book, 'Critical Encounters in High School English' (NCTE, 2000) after using deconstruction in the classroom: 'Why did you teach us this? I'm so sorry I know about this. How could you have told us about this? What are you trying to do- destroy us? How am I supposed to live with this knowledge?' (pp. 112-113).
Theory is uncomfortable. Theory can make us feel uncomfortable, because it makes us ask questions. It exposes wounds, belief systems, values, silences. It unsettles my students. It makes us talk about 'uncomfortable' topics in the classroom- race, gender, power, versions of history, identity, knowledge, truths... as my students and I discussed Delgado, we realised in the middle of our conversation that we were doing the very thing that she accuses Patchett of (and what Delgado is also guilty of)- privileging certain kinds of beauty and knowledge over others. 'But that's not the point of using opera in the book,' we tried to reassure ourselves. 'She's not using it as an example of high culture, she's using it to suggest that in opera, language doesn't matter... ' After horrifying my students with Delgado's failure to be seduced by the beauty of music, the interesting thing was what this did to their own readings. How fiercely they wrote, how determinedly they flipped through pages to prove her wrong. They found a new level of confidence. Was this a result of our blind determination to cling to a text that we identified with? Or was it simply our frustration with the way Delgado's reading reduced the text to a binary opposition? I'm not entirely sure. All I know is that the uncomfortable, challenging conversations produced some of the best, and most thoughtful, writing that I have seen all year.
I understand why some conservatives are so frightened by the prospect of young people engaging with critical theory. Get rid of theory, and nostalgia- a single, pleasant, banal truth -rules.
Critical theory has been invariably linked to some of the most uncomfortable, and rewarding, moments in my classroom over the past five years. It has shaken preconceptions, opened up possibilities, challenged both my students and myself. I can't imagine teaching and learning without it.