METAPHORS WE TEACH LITERATURE BY
an illustrated draft
I propose that are three primary metaphors English teachers use when teaching literature.
- Literary Meaning is Inside the Reader
- Literary Meaning is Outside the Reader
- Literary Meaning is a Collaborative Work of Art
Emphasis on the first or second of these metaphors creates the critical and cultural conditions for censorship.
Literary Meaning is Inside the Reader
IF English teachers teach literature following the Literary Meaning is Inside the Reader metaphor, anyone’s interpretation is as good as anyone else’s interpretation. The determination of Literary Meaning is a purely subjective enterprise, and therefore, any judgment of Literary Meaning and its Value is impossible. In this case, my container of literary experience is just as good as your container of literary experience. If my interpretation is as good as your interpretation, and I am a parent and you are a teacher, and I don’t want my child to read a book you’ve assigned, I get to decide that you’ve made the wrong choice. When Literary Meaning is Inside the Reader, teachers cannot argue for the Value of Literary Study or their teaching, and students find that Literary Meaning has no value in school, even though some may have very meaningful personal relationships with literature outside of school.
Literary Meaning is Outside the Reader
IF teachers of English teach literature according to the Literary Meaning is Outside the Reader metaphor, Literary Meaning resides in a book or in a teacher’s or literary critic’s mind. Literary Meaning must be sought Outside the Reader’s personal experience. In this case, my container of literary experience must be filled by someone else’s container of literary experience. The search for Literary Meaning becomes a search for those who have the power to determine Literary Meaning. If Literary Meaning is Outside the Reader and a matter of power, then those in positions of power get to decide Literary Meaning and Value. If I want to remove a book or reading list from a classroom or a school, I seek power from others or apply my own power to get the book or reading list banned. If the Judgment of Literary Meaning and Value is determined by those in positions of power, teachers–who are rarely in positions of power in school–are told what literature must be taught, and students may learn that the way to success in school or elsewhere is to mimic the ideas of those in power.
Literary Meaning is a Collaborative Work of Art
IF English teachers employ the Literary Meaning is a Collaborative Work of Art metaphor, the work of reading and interpretation is a shared enterprise whereby students practice personal and public engagement of the literary text, test their interpretations against the interpretations of others, and learn how Literary Meaning is both Inside and Outside the Reader. In this case, the container of the school allows for enrichment of my container of literary experience through the opening and sharing of my container with other containers of literary experience. If Literary Meaning is a Collaborative Work of Art, school provides the place and practices where teachers help students understand that the investigation of Literary Meaning is practice in everyday reading of the world.* Judgment of Literary Meaning and Value is a matter of shared agreement and personal enrichment. Both teachers and students are in positions of power and authority because they are readily able to argue for the value of and the process whereby Literary Meaning and Value are created. Teachers are recognized as leaders and experts in facilitating Literary Meaning as a Collaborative Work of Art and as such are prepared to respond to calls for censorship.
*Here are some other places on this blog that describe ways “investigation of Literary Meaning is practice in everyday reading of the world”: