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date: 27 June 2022

Pedagogyfree

Pedagogyfree

  • Philip MeadPhilip MeadDepartment of English and Literary Studies, University of Western Australia
  •  and Brenton DoeckeBrenton DoeckeFaculty of Arts and Education (Emeritus), Deakin University

Summary

Concepts of pedagogy that circulate within various educational contexts refer to the abstract and theoretical discourse about ways in which learners and students are introduced into fields of knowledge and established ways of knowing. But when pedagogical theory refers to the actual social apparatus that drives the production and reproduction of knowledge it is referring to the everyday activity of teaching. Teaching can be relatively un-self-reflexive and instrumental, or it can be self-reflexively aware of its own modes and processes (praxis) and grounded in an awareness of its social settings and learners’ experience. This article explores how pedagogy and teaching are bound up with the complex, disciplinary relation between literary knowledge and literary theory. Specific accounts of classroom interactions, from a range of national settings, are adduced to indicate the complexity of the relationship between theory, literary knowledge, and classroom praxis and the ways in which literary meaning making is mediated by the social relationships that comprise classroom settings. The article draws on research with which we have been engaged that interrogates the role that literary knowledge might play within the professional practice of early career English teachers as they negotiate the curriculum in school settings. The article also raises the question of how literary knowing outside of formal education systems and institutions can enter into what Gayatri Spivak calls the “teaching machine.” How do pedagogy and teaching account for and incorporate the myriad ways in which we learn about literature in broad social and experiential contexts?

Subjects

  • Oceanic Literatures
  • Enlightenment and Early Modern (1600-1800)
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)
  • Literary Theory
  • Poetry

Pedagogy and Teaching

What is known is always in excess of knowledge. Knowledge is never adequate to its object.

—Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine

The word “pedagogy” points to a set of theories and practices that are constituted in relation to fields of knowledge. It is a word whose uses have to do with teaching and learning in general, with ideas about instruction and its applications that hover over actual educational contexts and practices. In this sense, thinking about pedagogy tends to move out and up from specific disciplines or fields of inquiry—such as English, media studies, or environmental humanities—into more abstract considerations about education and the reproduction of the social apparatuses of knowledge. The word has a more specific application in relation to the reproduction of knowledge and the generational transfer that underpins the continuation of particular fields of learning. This relationship typically presupposes the role of pedagogy as a driver of the ongoing production of knowledge domains, as well as ruling modes of learning even though it is understood as “theoretical,” that is, in some translational relation to teaching practice.1 Thus the pedagogical aspect of education might seem to refer primarily to the abstract discourse about ways in which learners and students are introduced into fields of knowledge and inducted into the world as given, into learning about established ways of knowing.

The word “teaching,” on the other hand, refers to an open-ended process, an everyday practice that can happen anywhere and that is always more complex and more unpredictable than educators can plan for.2 This difference between “pedagogy” and “teaching” is arguably buried in their etymologies. Of the two words, one is a noun only, while the other can be used as either a noun or (usually) an active verb. The grammatical and etymological differences are accentuated by the obvious Greek aspect of the word “pedagogy.” Although the word’s meaning has its origins in ancient Greek educational culture, since its reentry into European languages in the early modern period it has diverged from reference to the pedagogue or guardian toward the more abstract level of discourse about knowledge and learning just alluded to. Teaching, a word of Old English origin, describes an action, full of contingencies, something that teachers do in concrete social settings involving other people, most obviously their students and pupils (though there are also other players whose presence shapes what occurs within the social spaces of those settings).

In relation to the literary field specifically, there is also an anterior and fundamental instability concerning the status of knowledge that bears on this asymmetric equation between teaching and pedagogy. Alain Badiou postulates that “all true education does not only, nor even principally, rest on already-known knowledges, but on the Idea by which the becoming knowledges are organized.”3 With literary knowledge in particular, since the last decades of the 20th century—especially since the era of “theory”—even the “already-known knowledges” of the field have regularly been characterized as undergoing “crisis.”4 It is possible to argue that such crises have always constituted the field, even as far back as the emergence of literary studies, as such, in the late 19th century, with its exponents continually revisiting the rationale for their work, continually reappraising the very meaning of “literature” and the foundations of literary knowledge itself as focuses of inquiry and education. One of the fundamental binaries at work in this history of crisis is about where literary knowledge, in fact, lies: whether it is “inside” or “outside” literature, whether it belongs to aesthetics or to sociology. This set of dualities provides the focus for Roland Barthes’s essay on Racine (“History or Literature?”) where he characterizes literary inquiry as needing to be clear about its two constitutive elements: the history of literature as an institution, and the reading of literature as a creation.5 This alternating current runs through all discourses of literary knowledge and literary education where it continuously destabilizes thinking about teaching and learning in relation to the institution of literary studies and the experience of the literary text itself. At one extreme it has given rise to a discourse that treats texts with radical suspicion, thereby destabilizing conventional understandings of meaning, identity, and group affiliation. At another extreme it gives rise to a conception of literature as a social technology, emphasizing the ethical uses of literary texts within a governmental or institutional system designed to produce certain kinds of social and subjective outcomes.6 This is a use of literature that has little if anything to do with literary culture and the aesthetic, or questions of literary knowledge, which are marginalized as individual and privatized. The role of schools, and specifically the teaching of literature in the production of a citizenry is an abiding concern of much educational research.7

Such an understanding of literary studies as constitutively divided and unstable challenges any assumption that what literature teachers do in their classrooms derives in any straightforward way from the “knowledge” they gained through completing a degree in literary studies. What knowledge about literature and literary theory, then, do they bring into the classroom? Does it still have currency, given the way literary-theoretical debates are played out, with their leading proponents continually reviewing the assumptions that underpin their work (e.g., Terry Eagleton’s trajectory from his initially iconoclastic Literary Theory: An Introduction [1983] to his subsequent attempts to reaffirm the centrality of “close reading” in studies such as How to Read a Poem [2007] or, by contrast, post-literary conceptualizations of cultural fields).8 This instability that constitutes literary studies—or the vitality that arises from the way it continually reinvents itself—conceivably makes it a powerful example of “becoming” or “true” education, as Badiou defines it. What is the graduate student’s relation, though, to the vast edifice of “already-known” literary knowledge—creative, critical, and scholarly? Or the relation of that edifice to the endless questioning of the status of both “literature” and “theory”? And how does this notion of “becoming” resonate within the institutional settings that literary studies graduates encounter when they become teachers of literature and find their pedagogical practices mediated by complex institutional structures? These include mandated curricula and assessment regimes that seek to regulate and control in order to impose a stability based on what systems deem to be the knowledge and skills necessary for employment in a market economy and the perpetuation of existing social structures. All of which returns us to the vision of education as an induction into the world as given and reproduced.

Taken together, then, the words “pedagogy” and “teaching” suggest a duality, even a hierarchy, of theory and practice, linked as well to a duality of knowledge and knowing. Pedagogy is the abstract and reflective discourse about what does and should happen in classrooms, when educators enact a curriculum that derives from the fields of knowledge constituted by the academies and according to variously identified and mandated aims and standards of learning. Teaching, on the other hand, invokes the material conditions and subjective investments in any educational setting, not only those on the part of the teacher but also the intentions and perspectives that students bring with them into the classroom. With the word “pedagogy” the scales seem to be weighted away from classroom practice and the existential and local realities of teaching, giving rise to a need to use this word reflexively: This is an article, after all, about capital-P Pedagogy and might thus be said to be already part of the binary that structures any attempt to think about the relationship between literary theory and what teachers actually do in classroom contexts (and to understand how their literary theoretical knowledge might mediate their practice as educators). An aim of this article, then, is to address this bias in favor of “pedagogy” by re-theorizing teaching not just as practice but also as praxis: that is, practice self-consciously and self-reflexively grounded in concrete social settings and informed by theoretical-pedagogical awareness—less the application of a received knowledge (still less the transmission of a knowledge) than an action mediated by becoming knowledge, always, as Spivak suggests, exceeded by knowing itself. The implications of such a redress to the duality/hierarchy pedagogy/teaching goes not just to how we understand educational practice and theory but to how we understand knowledge and knowing.

Knowledge in the Present

The first decade of the 21st century has witnessed a refocusing within the field of educational research and policy on the question of the relationship between knowledge and curriculum, including how literary studies might provide a foundation for curriculum and pedagogy within school settings.9 What follows in this article is informed by a longitudinal study we have been engaged in that interrogates the role that literary knowledge might play within the professional practice of early career English teachers as they negotiate the curriculum in school settings.10 This research has focused specifically on the literary socialization that early career teachers have experienced in their childhood and adolescence, their education at both school and university, and how they have been able to bring the knowledge they have developed as literary studies graduates into the institutional settings they encounter when they join the English teaching profession: this means, in short, their transition from being students of literature to teachers of literature and all that mediates this process of becoming. This process is understood not as growth marked by a beginning point and an end point, with the stages of the journey signposted between, as though the transition from student to teacher lends itself to being formalized as a neat continuum. The focus of this educational research is on the tensions these early career teachers experience as they step into schools and try to make sense of their experiences within the frames of reference provided to them by their literary educations (or not, as the case might be). Their transition from students to teachers of literature is conceived as an often fraught and contradictory process, one marked by a divided self rather than anything that might be characterized as an unfolding of one’s professional identity (as in the self-vindicating myth about “preachers of culture”).11

This research is in dialogue with other researchers in a range of national settings, often in the form of a critical engagement with their arguments. An influential body of work relevant to these exchanges is that of Michael Young, who advocates “bringing knowledge back in” to the secondary curriculum.12 The primary function of schools, argues Young, is “to enable all students to acquire knowledge that takes them beyond their experience,” knowledge which “many will not have access to at home, among their friends, or in the communities in which they live.”13 This is in contradistinction to a view that had formerly been influential in curriculum debates (a view that Young himself once advocated), that for a school curriculum to be meaningful it “should start with the interests and experiences of the children, their parents and the locality.”14 This thinking about teaching, knowledge, and experience, however, does not escape the foundational imbalances of literary studies. First, teachers would hardly wish to discount the experiences that students bring to the classroom when they attempt to facilitate conversation around literary texts. To use the word “experience,” however, is not to posit some kind of personal realm that exists apart from the social—experience, including experience of the aesthetic, is always already mediated by social settings and those institutional structures that we associate with education.15 Anyone’s becoming—anyone’s autobiography—takes the form of a continuing dialectic between one’s accumulated experience and knowledge and the new understandings that become available through engaging in other situations, which includes both formal and informal educational settings. As well, Young’s advocacy of what he calls “powerful” knowledge hardly provides a framework for understanding what teachers and their students actually do with literary texts in classroom settings, where knowledge does not primarily take the form of propositional knowledge of the kind that Young privileges.16

In Young’s understanding, knowledge is stripped of its origins in particular social and educational relationships at certain moments in history and reified into an entity that embodies “universal truths”—he cites Newton’s laws of gravity and Shakespeare’s plays as examples of such “truths.”17 Young’s research is arguably symptomatic of an era of educational reform that has been almost exclusively focused on education as a tool for economic growth and as a quantifiable social product, measurable by national and global standards. Education is something done to people in the interests of economic development and other policy blueprints that governments have produced since the 1980s, not something in which they can actively participate in the making of themselves.18 Undoubtedly Young’s work is driven by an impulse toward enabling young people from working-class communities and other disadvantaged groups to gain access to cultural capital that has been denied them.19 Yet despite his emphasis on the importance of knowledge as something that should be available to everyone, his rhetoric about “bringing knowledge back in” is easily co-opted by schemes for educational reform that focus primarily on national economic growth, where education is conceived as a matter of providing students with the necessary skills and knowledge to take their place in the economy, at the expense of any recognition of the value of the everyday cultures they participate in. Their local knowledges and cultures cannot simply be dismissed as “just experience” as something that should be displaced by knowledge that exists in a realm beyond their everyday lives but should be recognized as a vital resource that is already mediated in complex ways. As such their knowledges and experiences provide an inescapable context for thinking about and representing their world and their experience of language.20

It is difficult to generalize about a whole sector of education such as the post-secondary one, especially given its different economic model from the secondary system, but there is an equivalent instrumentalization of higher education at work in many national settings, though with globalizing similarities. Concepts of knowledge that inhere centrally in literary studies and theory and that underpin understandings of subject formation as transformative and emancipatory have been displaced in the bureaucratized and managerialist university by incoherent approaches to disciplinarity, and the rhetoric of consumption, content delivery, skills acquisition and “learning outcomes.” Commodified knowledge (severed from individual learning) thus becomes a commodity that can be purchased on the market by informed consumers in order to increase their chances of getting a better job in the future or, put differently, a job which will provide the greatest “return in the global marketplace on their education investment.21

Rich Particularities

Some work that has been conducted in the field of language education provides a counterpoint to the brutal insistence that school subjects should serve to induct students into accepted and instrumental forms of knowledge. German language educators, for example, within key educational journals such as Didaktik Deutsch and other publications and research forums, have drawn on the literary theoretical traditions available to them to produce increasingly subtle accounts of the ways in which students self-consciously engage with literary texts. Irene Pieper, for one, in a chapter entitled “Wissen im Zwischenraum” (“Knowledge in the Interstices”) (2016) analyzes the interpretive strategies that a teenage girl (in the eighth year at a Gymnasium) brings to a reading of Sarah Kirsch’s (b. 1935–d. 2013) poem, “Schnee”: “Schnee ein Brief mit Zaubertinte und vor langer Zeit geschrieben” (“Snow a letter in magic ink and written a long time ago”). The student speaks her thoughts aloud as she attempts to make meaning from the poem. Yet it is not only the manner in which she articulates her thoughts and feelings in response to the words of the poem but the way she continually returns to the poem, punctuating her reflections by re-reading the lines: “Schnee ein Brief . . . Schnee ein Brief mit Zaubertinte und vor langer Zeit geschrieben.”22 As Pieper observes, the student knowingly engages in a “literary” reading, discounting her original attempts to interpret the poem and suspending the illogicality of supposing that something that melts away in a moment could convey a message that has been written long ago. But the girl laughs—“Gedichte müssen auch keinen Sinn machen” (“Poems don’t have to make sense”)—returning to the language of the poem, which she again reads aloud before teasing out other interpretive possibilities.

For this student, poetry is an unresolved, perhaps unresolvable use of language involving reading and re-reading where she cannot say for sure what the poem is saying. Reading poetic language means living with uncertainty, with the intimation of meaning only. It is within this interstitial space where such activities at the heart of the “literary”—a “literary praxis”—occur.23 Such activities are not primarily directed toward scaffolding students into an ever more sophisticated body of knowledge “about” literature (although that is part of the aim), and obviously a teacher’s knowledge of literary theory becomes crucial in supporting students’ developing an increasingly sophisticated awareness of their interpretive practices when they engage in literary texts—an awareness that arguably distinguishes literary reading from the work we do when engaging with other kinds of texts. The readings that students perform, however, when they encounter literary texts do not amount to some kind of dummy run or apprentice’s work—it is not to be understood simply as a stage leading to somewhere else, nor is it experienced by readers in this way—but it is constitutive of the “literary” itself. It is not simply a starting point that will, with proper guidance, eventually see the student reach an appropriate level of maturity or cultural integration, but it is always already a literary praxis in its own right. Why, otherwise, would memories of our first reading of a story stay with us, replete with a recollection of the scene of the encounter and perhaps the people who were on hand, even when we may have since read the story again and again, each time with new insight? The “literary” does not name simply a professionalized body of knowledge—books, canons, normative interpretation, courses and programs, a literary critical repertoire validated by a huge machinery of scholarship—but is crucially bound up with moments of socialization, of entry into literature, and of teaching and learning. In that sense we can conceptualize literary education as autobiography, rather than exclusively in the form of an educational pathway that leads to somewhere else, reified as a set of desirable outcomes (as when we talk about graduate attributes, etc.). Systems may require such justifications, but we know that outcomes statements of this kind are never adequate to represent the complexity of the processes they name.

In London, Leila Ali, a student teacher, is struggling to engage a member of her class, Reece, in an English curriculum that includes Shakespeare and Tennyson, a curriculum that she feels is utterly alien to him and his peers and the street/urban culture to which they share allegiance. She observes that the students “were from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds (mainly Afro-Caribbean, Somali, and Arab), but most had adopted, and were unified by, an urban/street culture and identity.”24 Rather than being open to the invitation of “powerful knowledge” as Michael Young conceives it, the students resist schooling that is “attempting to assimilate them into a particular culture—a culture markedly different from their own—and they are skeptical about both the credibility and the desirability of the claim that schooling will automatically lead to social mobility” or economic security.25 In an attempt to “engage Reece and many other students like him and bridge gaps between their two different cultures,” Leila introduces a rap, the British-Iraqi Lowkey’s “I Believe,” to the class, asking them to write their own raps in response. This is what Reece writes:

We need to overcome this povertyThis racism should not be trueI believe that we can chase our dreamsTake a chance for our familyLike Martin Luther KingI have a dreamI think this should not be trueIt should be equal for me and youTo be able to walk down the street without people looking at me and youWhat makes you cry makes you stronger

Reece’s rap, which was performed for the class, shows his grasp of the genre of performance poetry and its activist rhetoric. This might be characterized as partly an intuitive grasp, but it is obviously something he has learned through interactions with his peers, outside formal educational contexts. His rap is the product of the sociability that characterizes the urban culture Reece belongs to, and its reception is marked by the same kind of sociability, though paradoxically enacted within a school setting. Just from the script we can tell how it might have engaged its audience immediately with its first-person plural beginning “we” then shifting to a positive rhetoric of overcoming racism, bolstered by the allusion to the powerfully iconic Martin Luther King. The unexpected reversal of the last line, “What makes you cry makes you stronger,” has both a poetic resonance and a strong rhetorical impact, given its up-ending allusion to a vast range of cultural uses, from Nietzsche to Steve McQueen to many popular music artists.

The stimulus for this piece of writing is shaped by Leila’s understanding of genre and the politics of knowledge; this is something she knows about from her own experiences as a Muslim woman living in multicultural London but that has also been formed by her university education, including her knowledge of Shakespeare. Her decision to focus on rap arises out of her evaluation of her students’ engagement in a series of lessons on Shakespeare. Reece’s reaction to Shakespearean language and imagery has been uniformly negative. When the focus of the lessons switches to rap poetry, the literary theoretical knowledge that Leila brings to her work can still be seen to mediate her exchanges with Reece, combined with her sensitivity to the dynamics of the social relationships that constitute this classroom setting. Crucially this involves entering into the “literary” through writing or composing (or creating), which in itself signals a kind of break away from the reified version of culture enshrined in the curriculum. The “knowledge” of early career teachers such as Leila, then, comprises both literary theoretical knowledge acquired through university study and an awareness of popular cultural forms as they arise out of the everyday lives of their students. The former provides a framework for appreciating the complexities of the latter and for appreciating how they make meaning through their form—as in Reece’s rap poem and his pronominal usage.

These concrete examples of teaching and meaning making on the part of students, as reported by these language and literature educators, provide a contrast to the large-scale scenarios about the role that education should play in economic reform and a national mission. Yet it is not simply that the irreducible quality of each incident resists the generalizations that underpin those reforms. One can sense an alternative logic—an alternative way of reflecting on the world we hold in common—with respect both to the ways meaning-making activities represented in these accounts unfold and the standpoints of the language educators as they attempt to gauge what they have learned from these adolescents. Both these incidents in their rich particularities are prompts for thinking about the nature of meaning making and learning about literature, as well as the applications of both literary and pedagogical theory as they occur around literary texts within classroom settings—not to mention the way in which a teacher’s own literary education mediates that learning.

Mediating Practice

The question of how literary knowledge mediates the exchanges between teachers and their students in classroom settings is hardly new—within the English-speaking world The Teaching of English in England of 1921 (popularly known as the Newbolt Report) makes a passionate plea for the role that the literary imagination should play in the classroom, in contradistinction to an overemphasis on propositional knowledge.26 It is possible to see traces of this discourse (and its characteristic binaries) in the way that English teachers understand and talk about their work.27 Yet there is no doubt that our contemporary “professional knowledge landscape” means that these old debates are being played out in a historically specific way and that any claim about the value of the imaginative or creative activities that we have just been considering resonates differently in a world where everything appears to be geared toward regulation, underpinned by reified forms of knowledge and bureaucratized “standards.”28

Much of the richly suggestive work on the teaching of literature that has arisen in contemporary literary education in Germany might be read against the backdrop of the so-called PISA crisis of 2000, when Germany’s performance exposed gaps in its school system, sparking a national debate about educational standards that has since led to significant attempts at reform.29 The inquiry into literary knowledge conducted by Irene Pieper and other German educators has occurred within the context of a larger debate about national educational standards, including the so-called Kompetenzen that students should be expected to learn in the course of their schooling, and of the role of literary and language education in the integration of refugee and immigrant populations.30 The impulse behind this work could be interpreted as a desire to show that the practice of a literary reading as it features within school settings is every bit as rigorous as the practices of other knowledge domains. This rhetoric obviously runs the risk of reducing the teaching of literature to terms that are foreign to it—indeed, some of these writers cite authorities such as Michael Young and John Hattie (who pointedly exhorts teachers to “know thy impact factor”) in order to support the kind of focused attention to literature that they are advocating.31 Yet within this body of work there are nonetheless signs of an increasingly refined appreciation of the complexities of a “literary” reading that challenges the assumption that all school subjects (and the knowledge domains from which they supposedly derive) should lend themselves to being organized in a rigidly hierarchical and sequential way associated with “science” and “scientific rationality.”32

Thomas Zabka, in an essay that has recently been translated into English, teases out the “logic” of literary interpretation in contradistinction to the classificatory logic of the natural sciences.33 Quoting Peter Szondi, he affirms that “texts present themselves in an individualistic manner, not in an exemplary one.”34 When students engage with a literary text, they should be encouraged to attend to the distinctive ways that it uses the conventions of a genre (or genres) in order to make meaning, rather than supposing that anything has been gained by simply identifying the genre it might “belong” to.35 Zabka’s starting point is that “literature is art” that “the study of literature is the study of an art,” which means that “to teach literature is to teach students about an art form, one of a range of art forms that might form the subject of aesthetic judgement.”36 The word “aesthetic” perhaps belies the main impulse behind this essay: namely to plea for a return to valuing the experience of surrendering to a story, of immersing oneself in the imaginative world of the text, and in the process entering into the play between words and their meaning, as indispensable conditions for students to sustain an interest in reading “literary” texts. This understanding of the aesthetic is grounded in the sociology of consciousness and the understanding of the existential origins of literary meanings. Crucially, Zabka emphasizes the need to make reading “as it is commonly experienced and reported by readers” a focus of literary scholarship that will in turn enhance educators’ sensitivity toward how readers might discuss and reflect on their reading within classrooms.37

Irene Pieper’s account of the young girl’s reading of the poem “Schnee” is an example of a refocusing on the experience of reading that Zabka desires, although it is not a reading that relies on any explicit ideas of the aesthetic or the pleasurable. Such refocusing opens up a new line of inquiry that might prompt literary scholars and educators to revisit their own education as readers, cultivating a self-awareness that could enable them to refine their understanding of the dialectic between literary knowledge and the exchanges that occur around literary texts in classrooms settings. In this respect, it is just as significant that the girl’s reading of “Schnee” leads to an admission of “Nicht-Verstehen” or “not-understanding,” to a sense of multiple interpretive possibilities, rather than producing a definitive judgment about the meaning of the poem.38 This is to say that, for a teacher, her standpoint and practice as a reader properly form the main focus of attention, rather than any knowledge that exists outside this interpretive activity that might be formalized and rehearsed prior to her reading. This is in the expectation that it will be duly activated when she turns her attention to the chosen text. Yes, she brings knowledge and experience to the text—about snow, about ink—all examples of extra-textual framing that are a condition for any meaning making to occur.39 Most crucially, for our purposes, she is able continually to refocus her reading of “Schnee” because she recognizes that it is a “poem,” a recognizable mode of language. But any appreciation of the meaning-making process that is occurring here needs to recognize that it unfolds in a “Zwischenraum,” as Pieper characterizes it—an interstitial space that paradoxically involves a preparedness to suspend judgment, to be alert to the play between what is both ordinary and non-ordinary language and meaning, rather than simply apply preexisting knowledge and understandings in order to make a definitive statement about the meaning of the poem. Her reading involves continuing dialogue with herself and conversation with others (the girl is asked how she would be likely to introduce the poem to her mother if she had the opportunity) in an effort to tease out the multivalent character of the words of the poem.

An emphasis on literary understanding (literarisches Verstehen) as a process, as distinct from positing literary knowledge (literarisches Wissen) as something that students should acquire is a feature not only of Irene Pieper’s work but that of other German educators she is associated with. That literary knowledge provides a vital resource for teachers of literature is not in contention (they all variously emphasize the way readers construct meaning through their interactions with texts, as distinct from supposing that the text’s meaning inheres within it, an insight that obviously arises out of the literary-theoretical debates since the 1980s. The question is how exactly this knowledge might productively mediate the teaching and learning that occurs in literature classrooms and if anything is achieved when teachers make such knowledge explicit. Whether it is knowledge about genre or a period in literary history, literary theoretical knowledge, as Kaspar Spinner observes, can both support and hinder a “literary” reading—all depends upon the teacher’s judgment as to when and how an intervention that actually supports a “literary” reading that is fully responsive to the specific character of the text might be made.40

Such preoccupations are not peculiar to German language educators. John Yandell and colleagues associated with the journal Changing English, working within the UK policy context, have likewise posed the question of the relationship between literary knowledge and the interactions that occur within classroom settings.41 Their focus is on literary language, not in the sense of some kind of privileging of the “literary” over other uses of language (indeed, they continually interrogate the values associated with the “literary” and “literature,” even as they use these words) but in order to differentiate the meaning making that occurs when anyone reads a poem or a story or for that matter composes a rap poem from other ways of engaging with texts. As with the German examples considered here this work has emerged in response to standards-based reforms, which in the United Kingdom have drastically restricted the parameters in which English teachers operate. Yandell and colleagues all take issue with those reforms and their culturally conservative nature. Students in the senior years, for example, are required to study texts originally written in English that supposedly embody the “best that has been thought and said,” and their capacity to respond to such texts is gauged solely according to their capacity to write essays under exam conditions.42 Leila Ali’s story about Reece’s rap is an account of her struggle to create opportunities for her students to use language in ways that are meaningful to them, despite the constraints imposed by this policy environment.

A feature that distinguishes the work of Yandell and his associates from the German scholarship considered here is their more pronounced focus on how the reading and interpretation of literary texts are mediated by the social relationships that comprise classroom settings. Indeed, they argue that the meaning of a text is always the product of the social relationships in which it is read, always a product of classroom contexts, rather than something that exists in a realm apart from the transactions that occur there. Seminal here is Douglas Barnes’s vision of the communication that occurs in classrooms, which he sees as always being richer and more multifaceted than “what teachers plan in advance for their pupils to learn.”43 A curriculum, according to Barnes, “made only of teachers’ intentions would be an insubstantial thing from which nobody would learn much.” The curriculum, rather, should be seen as something that teachers and their pupils “enact” (and therefore re-create), as they come together in “meaningful communication,” bringing their own experiences and values to the conversations that take place within classroom settings.44

This vision of curriculum as “communication”—when curriculum becomes “embodied in the communicative life of an institution, the talk and gestures by which pupils and teachers exchange meanings even when they quarrel and cannot agree”—obviously includes the conversations that occur around literary texts in classroom settings, as Yandell, Brady, Turvey, and other educators have shown. In this respect, it is significant that Barnes’s own journey as an educator was one that took him from Cambridge, where he was a student of Leavis, to working as a secondary school teacher and collaborator with James Britton, Harold Rosen, and others in the London Association for the Teaching of English in the 1950s. This is a journey that he describes in his autobiography as a switch from “a reified version of culture to a culture that inhered in interpersonal and social interaction, and the active meanings they generated.”45 This is how teaching English taught him to think about literature differently from the habits of mind and practices instilled in him by his Leavisite education. Some commentators have characterized the work of the so-called London school as involving a shift from a focus on literature (as advocated by Leavis) to a focus on the language of everyday exchanges.46 But Barnes’s account in his autobiography of his transition from being a student of literature to a teacher shows that he did not dismiss the value of a literary education, in preference for “the immediate life, culture and language of the school student.”47 He was concerned, rather, to think about the potential of such an education anew and to revitalize the notion of literary culture as something more than the pursuit of an elite few.48 Classrooms, according to Barnes, should involve more than the transmission of knowledge but should enable students to develop perspectives on their everyday world that take them beyond what is given to entertain other possibilities, other ways of envisioning the world. This is what can happen through classroom talk. This is also what happens when that talk centers around a poem or a short story, as students step from the indicative to the subjunctive mood and reflect on what might happen, as the story they are reading unfolds or how they might respond to the play of meaning a poem involves.

Nearly a half a century later, Yandell and his associates might be characterized as attempting to renew Barnes’s vision, with the difference being that—in a way that represents a significant extension of Barnes’s work—they are able to draw on the literary theoretical resources that have emerged in the interim (the moment of “theory”) to refocus on the complexities of meaning making around literary texts and to show how literary texts mean different things in different educational settings. Monica Brady, for example, has written vivid accounts of how Palestinian students in Ramallah are able to make meaning from Shakespeare’s plays, generating a comparative perspective on Yandell’s accounts of teaching Shakespeare in London schools.49 This brings to mind the Kurdish-Iranian refugee Behrouz Boochani’s account of life in a Manus Island detention center, No Friend But the Mountains (2018), which in its uses of poetic and autobiographical narrative gives a voice, self, and history to a member of the otherwise stateless, storyless mass of displaced and asylum-seeking people around the world. Both show meaning-making occurring in a “Zwischenraum” (to use Irene Peiper’s term again), dislodged from the nationalist framings that have done so much to compromise literary studies from its inception.50

Where does “knowledge” sit within the classroom scenes that Yandell and others evoke? How does the literary education of a teacher figure within the exchanges that he or she is able to facilitate among pupils when they read the novels or plays or poems that are set for study? The issue, as Yandell poses it, concerns the assumption embedded in current research and policy discourse that knowledge is something that people possess like a commodity and that is nationally bounded. The many accounts of classroom interactions to be found in the work considered here serve to indicate the complexity of the relationship between literary knowledge and classroom praxis as these writers conceive it. They all involve a recognition of the challenges that teachers of literature experience in negotiating a policy context that conceives the reading of literary texts as primarily a means to differentiate between pupils in high-stakes assessment, in contradistinction to any recognition of reading as a social process in which readers share their interpretations of texts with one another.

Autobiographies

When poststructuralist understandings of literature were initially taken up by leading educators, they often produced accounts of classrooms that were every bit as reductive as the efforts by positivist researchers to reduce educational settings to places where it is possible to calculate the effectiveness of teaching with scientific precision. To borrow the language of Dorothy Smith’s critique of the tyranny of theory in ethnographic inquiry their work is characterized by a strong tendency to contain the complexities of classroom interactions around literary texts within a theoretical domain “stripped of local and biographical particularities” and the contingencies of classroom life.51 Instructive here is a remarkable body of work directed at secondary English teachers that was produced in Australia (though one can also point to similar work in other Anglophone countries, such as the publications produced in the United Kingdom by the English and Media Centre), all directed at opening up new ways of engaging with texts that would enable students to move beyond what these educators construed as the disabling assumptions of the past.52 This moment of radical transformation was heralded by the titles of influential texts within the field of English education, such as Pam Gilbert’s 1989 text Writing, Schooling and Deconstruction: From Voice to Text in the Classroom and Annette Patterson’s 1992 study “Individualism in English: From Personal Growth to Discursive Construction.” Classroom resources were produced that exposed the constructed-ness of texts, challenging readers to move beyond naïve judgments about how lifelike the scenes and characters were, or any expression of empathy for the characters, in order to analyze the ideological work that each text was performing: “How does each story ask to be read?” “Why do texts invite particular kinds of readings?” “What are the gaps and silences in a story?”53 The literary theorists whom the writers of these resources drew upon are easy to spot. The text probably most often cited is Catherine Belsey’s Critical Practice (1980), in which she critiques what she calls “expressive realism,” the hegemonic view that “literature reflects the reality of experience as it is perceived by one (especially gifted) individual, who expresses it in a discourse which enables other individuals to recognize it as true.”54 The educators mentioned took up what they saw to be the challenge of Belsey’s exposé of “expressive realism,” providing teachers with the tools to induct their students into the new literary theoretical lexicon that had become available to them. “Life,” “experience,” “empathy”—these words became suspect, to be replaced by a new lexicon including terms such as “gaps,” “silences,” “open,” and “closed” texts, “textual ideology” that signified a more critical stance on the part of readers toward the texts presented to them. Indeed, the word “text” itself as it was being used within the context of literary theoretical debates was new, displacing (as in Barthes’s essay, “From Work to Text”) reference to the literary work.

The paradox of these ideas was that they treated the reading habits of students prior to their exposure to poststructuralist understandings as a series of mistakes: a bundle of naïve assumptions and practices that needed to be corrected. With Annette Patterson, this standpoint takes the form of an autobiographical account of her “odyssey” as a reader, as she moves from the dubious assumptions that she associates with “personal growth” (as it was espoused by John Dixon in his influential account of the 1966 Dartmouth Seminar, Growth Through English) to “post-structuralism.”55 Her account of her professional learning has been wryly characterized by Harry Ballis and Paul Richardson’s Roads to Damascus (1997) as an example of a conversion story, replete with binaries structured around a “before” and “after” that characterize such narratives. Whether or not this claim does justice to Patterson’s attempts to open up new ways of reading texts that might (properly) displace the habitual practices that had come to dominate English curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment in Australia, it is nonetheless striking how any experience of one’s prior socialization as a reader is excluded from such accounts of the transformative effects that poststructuralist theory can supposedly have on reading, other than to treat it as a botched affair full of wrongheaded notions about the reading process. When, in Jack Thomson’s groundbreaking study Understanding Teenagers’ Reading (1987), an attempt was made to inquire into the pleasures that adolescents derived from reading literature, the rich detail of the teenagers’ accounts of their reading is belied by Thomson’s efforts to organize their responses in the form of a “developmental model,” beginning with “unreflective interest in action,” followed by activities such as “empathising” and “analogising,” which culminates in a “consciously considered relationship with the author, recognition of textual ideology, and understanding of self (identity theme) and of one’s own reading processes.”56 And yet, as Thomson somewhat disarmingly admits, he had not actually been able to deduce this last level of engagement from anything that his interviewees had said to him.57 This begs the question as to how students might reach this “reflexive understanding of their own reading practices” as a desirable level of maturity to be reached on the basis of their previous encounters with texts and the pleasures derived from them.58

A similar failure to grapple with the question of how readers become readers—of how the educator becomes educated—is evident in Terry Eagleton’s work. Eagleton’s standpoint vis-à-vis the moment of “theory” has from the outset been a radically critical one—he sees “the story of modern literary theory” as one of a flight from “real history,” as an ideological obfuscation that “subordinates the sociality of human life to solitary individual enterprise.”59 Yet his critique of the legacy of Arnold and Leavis that commences Literary Theory: An Introduction sees him doubting whether education can have any “transformative power” when it comes to tackling major social ills. He appropriates Marx’s famous aphorism from his “Theses on Feuerbach”—that “the educator himself needs educating”—construing this to mean that education “is, after all, part of society rather than a solution to it.”60 Yet Marx’s statement is not one about how education is inevitably bound up with the perpetuation of existing society but the seeds of a critique (apropos the Jacobin Reign of Terror during the French Revolution) of all programs for social reform that suppose that change can simply be brought about by people lifting themselves up by their bootstraps in order to bring about radical social transformation. He is posing the paradox at the heart of efforts by social reformers to create a new world: that they are capable of entertaining a vision of a social alternative even though they themselves are the products of the society they are subjecting to vigorous critique. He is, in short, conceptualizing a program for social reform as an educational project, involving continual mediation between what “is” and what “ought” to be, as we reflexively engage with our thoughts and actions (our consciousness and being) in order to create a new world.

The examples of adolescents making meaning from texts that have motivated much of the foregoing discussion might be characterized in similar terms, as involving a dialectic between what “is” and what “ought” to be (or what “might” be), between the world as “I” experience it and a world that “we” might experience differently, between the indicative mood and the subjunctive mood. The paradox, however, (which Eagleton’s critique of the edifice of modern literary theory also curiously elides) is that our capacity to trace the subtleties of the interactions surrounding the reading of “Schnee” or Reece’s performance of his rap poem is largely the product of the insights that have become available to us through a literary education. This is certainly the case with the educators who facilitated these interactions. Research on the socialization of early career English teachers into the profession has provided powerful examples of their capacity to read the semiotic transactions that occur around the reading and writing of literary texts that derive from their own literary education. Here again we might take issue with Eagleton, but this time from another phase in his own autobiography as a reader. In more recent texts he has lamented what he perceives as his students’ incapacity to grapple with the formal quality of literary texts—they appear to be incapable of grasping the “literariness” of a novel, choosing instead to talk about it as though they are talking about people in their everyday lives.61 Yet, like Leila Ali, many of the early career teachers whom we have interviewed have been sensitive to the ways form mediates experience, and—what is more—they are supremely aware of how their practice as educators is mediated by larger social and cultural contexts beyond the immediacy of the exchanges that occur between teachers and their pupils in classrooms—the flesh and blood encounters of everyday life.62

The doctrinaire nature of poststructuralism as it was once espoused by some leading educators can be countered by refocusing on one’s autobiography as a reader—by reconceptualizing reading as autobiography—though care needs to be taken that such a refocusing acknowledges the way one’s “self” is mediated by multiple contexts, including institutional ones. (This refocusing is also a product of the insights that theory has made available to us.) We have said enough to indicate that such a refocusing means cultivating a sensitivity to the ways readers actually make meaning from texts and that attends to that meaning making without taking a judgmental stance, as though the pleasures that people derive from reading (young and old) always need to be subject to correction by educators. Educators themselves need to inquire into the conditions of their own education, to gauge reflexively the significance of moments in their own literary education and/or literary experience, the insights those moments yield, and the limitations they might reveal with respect to the knowledge and values that they bring to interactions with texts. Such moments have never been entirely solitary. Even a young girl’s reading of “Schnee” is not a solitary act—at the most obvious level, it is something performed in the presence of a researcher, but at a larger level (when one conceives it as a social activity mediated by larger contexts that are not visible) it is clearly the product of her literary socialization, and in that of multiple occasions that have centered on the reading of literary texts.

Systems of Knowledge

As people professionally involved in literature as a “social institution with specifiable material interests, organizational structures and social functions rather than simply [a] body of writing” teachers have a subjective and collective relation to their discipline and their subject, to both their institutional forms and their life in the seminar or classroom.63 At the same time the sites and modes of their pedagogical engagements are powerfully prescribed by the bureaucratic settings and sequential hierarchies within which they work. When it comes to literary knowledge, the teaching and learning of it is always staged and temporally segmented, whatever the socioeconomic context of schooling or higher education may be. And those involved in literary education spend their working lives negotiating the stages, discourses, and paradigms of the institutions of literary knowledge.

So how can any pedagogical theory or teaching regime encompass the idea of a life course of recursive learning about literature, a corpus of work, and a mode of knowing that is constituted by the figural creativity and unresolved meanings of all human language, past and present? What are the values and relativities of meanings, for instance, at different stages of an individual’s reading life (a reading life that is probably never consistent or organized)? Do “mature” readings somehow discount the initial and formative encounters with literary texts of young readers and teachers? What is the status of “untutored” readings by the disenfranchised, refugees, or the marginalized, for example, as opposed to professionalized readings? Is Irene Pieper’s student’s learning about poetry (as well as language), for instance, more crucially formative than any later success she might achieve in “professionalized” literary study because it is a moment when she is learning to learn (about literary language)? With his creative and imaginative grasp of genre and popular forms is Leila Ali’s Reece on the path to rap artistry? How do teachers precipitate or guard the moment of learning to learn, or of the entry into the expressive (and political) potential of literary form? If literary knowledge is always contingent in the ways suggested here, as well as performative and historically, culturally, and politically situated, what are the limits of its organization and systematization? How do we learn beyond and against the institutionalized and professionalized forms of knowledge? Who can teach us, and how can we learn, antisystematically? Or, the other way round, how can literary knowing outside of formal education enter into the teaching machine (to use Spivak’s formula)?64

One way to address such questions is to recognize the ways in which teaching and learning about literature are bound up with a large and complex range of social communities and individual pursuits beyond formal educational settings: communities such as book clubs, discussion and activist groups, literary festivals (talking and listening), private reading, and creative writing (both private and collective), the literary genres of marginal or unrecognized cultures, blogs, podcasts, and a variety of online communities. These dimensions coexist in complex ways, sometimes in contention with formal educational literary studies, sometimes in parallel with one another, and sometimes intersecting with one another—all challenging any naive binary of “knowledge” and “experience.” In relation to pedagogy and teaching the (literary) personal and interpersonal can provide a resource for thinking about literary praxis, about the myriad ways in which we learn about literature in the broader social and historical context. The secondary level is shaped by the levels of compulsoriness and framed by curricula that are necessarily prescriptive and directed toward instrumental purposes—local, national, assessment driven, vocational, personalist, etc.—as well as various limitations on texts read and studied, although there is also a literary sociability that teachers and students create in their common pursuit and that can include active, resistant, and dialogic teaching praxis.

At the ostensibly less regulated level of post-secondary education, the disciplinary context is one where the horizons of teaching and learning about literature and literary theory are framed by the dynamics of the system of literary knowledge overall. This is a massively complex global system, with whole universes of linguistic difference and translational networks and innumerable local, regional, and national instantiations within the world higher education system. Models of higher education pedagogy and teaching all reflect the institutionalization of disciplinarity, its ethics, praxis, and politics. And there are well-established modes of tertiary humanities teaching—the lecture, the tutorial, the seminar, the workshop, the supervisory session—as well as pedagogical discourse about those practices (Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, the MLA’s Profession and Options For Teaching series, for example). And yet this literary episteme is always subject to the further horizon of literary knowing, which is in fact as complex as the world itself, even in excess of that complexity given the literary imagination’s propensity for alternative and possible worlds. It is “theory,” which is the discourse that negotiates between the restless and unpredictable evolution of literary knowing and the teaching of the literary episteme. Just one example: Spivak’s essay “How to Teach a ‘Culturally Different’ Book” (1996) takes R. K. Narayan’s 1980 novel The Guide as an exemplar of a detailed and nuanced reading that follows an “itinerary from colonial through national to postcolonial and/or migrant subjects.” The essay, writes Spivak, has “tried to plot a few way-stations on that itinerary by reading a text of cultural self-presentation. The method of reading has kept to the representation of agency. These representations are gender-divided.”65 Framing this reading is Spivak’s script for teaching praxis, a theoretically informed teaching of this text that stresses cultural difference in all its complexity, diversity, and multilevel nature and that is aware, at the same time, of the limits of the literary episteme and the further horizon of literary knowing:

[This reading] can timidly solicit the attention of the teacher of multicultural literature courses so that s/he can remain aware of the differences and deferments within ‘national identity’ and ‘ethnic minority,’ and not take the latter as the invariable starting-point of every decolonization of the mind.66

Of course, there is no program or manual for the kind of praxis Spivak is describing. Not only is the literary knowledge of the teacher the result of endless and innumerable personal encounters and intersections with the institutions of literary study, including the autobiographical and professional, this knowledge about literature can never encompass more than a fraction of the world of literary knowing.

Beyond Pedagogy

The distinction between “pedagogy” and “teaching” with which we began is one way to gesture toward the open-endedness that continues to characterize the most productive exchanges around literary texts, including questions of theory—both in school and tertiary settings, in formal and informal settings. This is so, even when students’ engagement with literary texts is shaped by the demands of a competitive academic curriculum, when the reading of novels or plays or poems is reduced to serving instrumental purposes imposed by larger institutional or governmental mandates. Theoretically both “pedagogy” and “teaching” propose a future, but we use the words to differentiate between a vision of the future that is simply a continuation of the present, of the world as we know it, and a future that exceeds our current knowledge and that opens up the possibility of imagining our lives differently: between the world as adults see it, through the lens of their habitual practices and beliefs and the world as it might be seen with new eyes.

Bound up with this recognition of our responsibility as educators to enable our students to renew the world on their terms and not our own (or even society’s, collectively) is an openness toward what they bring to the conversations they encounter in literary classrooms. As well as Spivak, we can adduce other educators who have affirmed the primacy of the world of experience of learners vis-à-vis the theory and scholarship that a teacher brings to the encounters that take place in classrooms. Walter Benjamin affirms the capacity of children to bring together in their play “materials of widely differing kinds in a new, intuitive relationship.”67 Elsewhere he describes the role of the writer as “beginning again at the beginning,” requiring a capacity to abandon habitual practices and values and to find within themselves the resources for cultural renewal.68 Hannah Arendt defines the purpose of education as enabling children to undertake “something new, something unforeseen by us,” as equipping children “in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”69 It is only in this way that we can commit to “renewal” and stave off “ruin,” which “except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable.”70 The openness espoused by Spivak, Arendt, and Benjamin reflects a humility in relation to the children and the young in education systems, a recognition that any new beginning (if there is to be one) will ultimately occur in our absence.

But this is not to devalue the importance of educators, in the course of equipping their pupils for the task of historical and social renewal, of participating in that renewal themselves. How could education be conceived other than as a process of gladly learning and gladly teaching? A question that theories of pedagogy might start from. The value of the immense wealth of theoretical resources that have become available to educators since the moment of “theory” is that they enhance the capacity of educators to think otherwise and to respond to difference.

Discussion of the Literature

This article analyzes and references numerous important and influential examples of thinking about literary pedagogy and about teaching practice in the literary studies and English classroom. It also signals the comparative aspect of this literature, with analysis of relevant literature in Australia, the United Kingdom, North America, and Germany. See also P.-H. Van de Ven and B. Doecke’s Literary Praxis: A Conversational Inquiry Into the Teaching of Literature; B. Doecke and P. Mead’s “English and the Knowledge Question”; P. Mead, “What We Have to Work With: Teaching Australian Literature in the Contemporary Context,” in Teaching Australian Literature: From Classroom Conversations to National Imaginings.

Further Reading

  • Arendt, Hannah. “The Crisis in Education.” In Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York, NY: The Viking Press, 1976.
  • Belsey, C. Critical Practice. London, UK: Methuen, 1980.
  • Davidson, Cathy N. “The New Education and the Old.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 133, no. 3 (May 2018): 707–714.
  • Doecke, B. What Kind of “Knowledge” is English? (Re-Reading the Newbolt Report). Changing English 24, no. 3 (2017): 230–245.
  • Felski, R. The Limits of Critique. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
  • Spivak, G. C. Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York, NY, and London, UK: Routledge, 2009.
  • Young, M. F. D. Bringing Knowledge Back In: From Social Constructivisms to Social Realism in the Sociology of Education. London, UK, and New York, NY: Routledge, 2008.

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