English teaching’s essential purpose in our politicised times is to make students culturally critical. I feel that this particularly suits the IB’s international element, and the need to perhaps reframe ‘international’ mindedness as ‘intercultural’ mindedness (and not just in Indonesia!).
I admired Blau’s emphasis on seeking to signpost and create ‘confusion’ in our students when they read literature. I begin my current post-16 courses by challenging students to offer opinions on modernist paintings (relatively easy, with comments often aesthetically based) before requiring them to interpret modernist poetry. Almost universally the students struggle with this and most say they ‘don’t like’ the poem. Like has been elsewhere in this forum, assessments of literature perhaps make students ‘junkies for meaning’, unable to function without affirmation of the right answers! Ideally, like how both Blau and the course aims suggest, we perhaps guide students to be about to be ‘sensitive’ about what a text is trying to do rather than what it necessarily seeking to pin down what it means. There’s a great article by Peskins (1998) that looks at the difference between novice and expert poetry critics that examines this point (I can send). Its thesis is that at the point of confusion in interpretation, novices scrabble for meaning whereas experts consider what the text is trying to do.
Of course, at the point of assessment total confusion is not usually helpful!
I link these ideas with Rosenblatt’s 1930s’ (!) assertion that literature needs to move away from an over-emphasis on close-reading and onto exploring more socio-emotional interpretations. This is interesting. And perhaps desirable. Like how Blau assert that we need to pay more ”attention to thoughts and feelings and feelings generated from a text”, Rosenblatt questions how simply finding a set of features leads to the act of authentic interpretation. She gives examples elsewhere in her text about teaching The Scarlet Letter, where the act of considering set questions on ”who is the most sinful” creates an interpretative cage against questions about sin itself.
The Rosenblatt extract inspired me to finish the text itself. I found it inspiring to think that students can ‘participat[e] emotionally’ in the dynamisms of a literary text, which is very much in the Hector mould of Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’ where he speaks about how literature can provide the ‘antidote’ to the invariability of future problems. I must quote that several times a year at opportune moments…
I do worry though that this might be a bit pie in the sky. Issues of student literacy might prove problematic, and I question whether all students (or teachers?) develop the necessary constructivist schemas needed to do this. From my early years of teaching, I think it is too easy (for me at least!) to focus on a reader-response approach to literature that risks the classroom becoming an echo chamber. But this shouldn’t be the case. Focusing on provocative literature can help in this instance, especially as Rosenblatt highlights that ‘literature offers us an outlet for our more antisocial emotions’. For example, the community in Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird are notable in that they want to be seen as pious, and that other than their racial blindspot, mixed attitudes towards the unintegrated and antisocial Ewells, and scepticism of Boo Radley, they want to be a ‘good’ community. While the IB has an acknowledged emphasis on the Western Enlightenment tradition, you would hope that this would at least encourage some self-criticism of its own aims.
For example, this year several students have come to my non-IB school from relatively prestigious IB schools with remarkably weak close-reading skills. Over this year I have wondered if this is partly caused by of an over-emphasis on reader-response interpretations. Rosenblatt says elsewhere in her text that we need to find the balance between ’emotional liberation’ and ‘intellectual chaos’. The course aims to understand both the genre and aesthetic elements of texts therefore require vital promotion.