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?

One thought on “Small revelation”

  1. 2 Responses to “small revelation”
    1. Jean Says:
    June 28th, 2006 at 7:32 am
    Hi Ab –
    I might be one of those rare teachers. I’m not sure. The goal in my classroom is to value the voice of every student, even those who are way off the mark. Yes, I do believe there is a “mark” when we talk about literature. A writer has something in mind when he or she offers a story or poem or essay to the world. This can range from the sheer sound and look of the words on the page (think concrete poetry, for example) to a precise explication of how things work (William Langweische’s essays, for example). What we try to do is figure out what the writer is trying to accomplish. Not his her “intentions” so much as what is this piece of writing supposed to be doing. Reader response works here, I think, because at the early stages we pay attention to our responses. What does a Mary Oliver poem do to you? What do you see? What do you hear? how do you feel? Then we try to figure out how Mary Oliver got the poem to have those effects. It’s kind of cool, really. But the key is toggling back and forth between our reactions and what is actually happening in the piece of writing. Those words on the page. We always come back to the words on the page. Why those words? Why that image? Why that tone? Those questions allow for both the reader, and all that other stuff that goes into writing: historical context, politics, aesthetic trends, etc. etc.
    It’s kind of fun, really. And when it works, the students feel heard and valued, but also transformed by the experience. Which really is what literature is all about. Transforming readers. Or, at least, I like to think so.
    2. Abby Says:
    June 28th, 2006 at 7:42 am
    I understand what you’re saying — and it proves that indeed you are one of those rare teachers who can assimilate and value student responses while effectively teaching.
    I was interested to see your statement: “A writer has something in mind when he or she offers a story or poem or essay to the world.” This is where I, as a deconstructor, always run into trouble. I like to view literature as existing outside its author; yes, we talk about intention and implication, but I like to focus on actual. To me, literature is its own entity and transcends the intentions of its author.
    But that’s just me… 🙂

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