Category Archives: Literary theory

Small revelation

My husband and I rented the movie Dead Poets Society last night, which he had never seen and I hadn’t seen since it first came out in 1989.

Now that I have a certain amount of knowledge about literary theory (which I did not have in 1989), I had a small revelation that this movie is in part about the conflict between traditional New Critical teaching methods and the more modern and flexible Reader Response teaching methods.  Granted, there probably weren’t too many teachers in 1959 who would have been aware of Reader Response theory, but since Louise Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration was published in 1938, the chance is there that Mr. Keating could have known of her work and of this theory.

Having spent my last semester at Simmons doing an independent study on Reader Response theory (and having spent three and a half years teaching reading at the elementary level), the benefits and drawbacks of RR have been a preoccupation of mine for several years.  On the one hand, it’s an enormously empowering way for a reader to read a book.  When I was in high school in the early to mid 80’s, the prevailing theory was still New Critical, and we students had to search to find the “one true meaning” of the text; our own personal opinions were valueless.  Class discussions were limited to theme, plot, etc, and to trying to read the teacher’s mind and say what the teacher wanted us to say.

But my first experience with Reader Response theory (in my first class at Simmons) also demonstrated how dangerous it can be from a teaching standpoint.  This particular professor of mine, who shall remain nameless, tried to run a RR style class focused on Tim Wynne-Jones’s The Maestro.  Though she ostensibly wanted us to explore the text in a RR way — with value given to our thoughts and opinions — in truth she had a distinct teaching agenda and a definite direction that she wanted the discussion to take.  When the class did not go in the direction that she was aiming for, she definitively and clumsily tried to force us back; though we the class had been thinking that we had some power, in truth all power still belonged to the teacher.  Since this was a class full of empowered graduate students, not cowed high school students, we rebelled and called her out; the next full class was devoted to a discussion of how the previous class’s discussion had gone wrong.

As a result of that experience, I have never been fully sold on RR theory.  In my opinion, it takes a truly exceptional teacher to successfully run a RR centered class.  A teacher who is open-minded, flexible, and not ego-centered.  A teacher who is willing to consider alternative directions of class discussion.  I was lucky enough to have such a teacher at Simmons, Cathy Mercier, but I often wonder how many such teachers exist.  RR in the wrong hands is really New Critical theory with a nice coating of sugary frosting that makes students think their opinions matter as much as the teacher’s opinions.  (At heart, though I know it labels me as a bit passe, I think I’ll always be a deconstructor myself, though I am very intrigued by childist theory.)

But to get back to the movie.  Robin Williams as Mr. Keating plays a flawed teacher.  Inspirational, but still flawed.  He was a pioneer in the world of stodgy good-ol’-boy New Critical teaching, but his execution of the new type of teaching was still driven by a distinct agenda.  Granted, his agenda was far more palatable than that of his collegues, but he wasn’t perfect.  Did his imperfections drive Neil to suicide, as the administration and Neil’s parents wanted to think?  Probably not, but that perception definitely set back the cause of RR teaching at that fictional school.

So in the end, I’m still left with the same questions that have haunted me for a long time:
How many teachers exist who truly listen to and interact with their students, assimilating the thoughts of their students and then taking discussions to a newer, higher level?  (A note here: though I’ve never sat in one of my sister’s classes, I’m guessing that she is one of these rare teachers.

How problematic is the age disconnect between adult teachers and child learners?  And what of the difficulties of adults trying to imagine what their child selves would have thought about a certain text?  Once we are grown, can we ever truly recapture the thought processes of our youth?  And, if the answer to the last question is “no,” how does that affect the ability of the adult to teach the child?