Score One for New Criticism

Early in my Ph.D. program, a wonderful professor (That isn’t sarcasm — she treated me well and we are friends) told me that my approach to some medieval texts was very conservative. I asked her what that meant in this instance, and she said I wasn’t especially suspicious of the text. Fair enough, I think — although in the case of medievalia, sometimes the text is really pretty much all we have. I even applied that conversation to my dissertation, where I argued that, Bakhtin notwithstanding, the morality plays I studied were in fact arguments from a standpoint of Christian orthodoxy, or in Bakhtinian terms, Lenten despite (or even because of) their carnivalesque elements.

A different prof of mine (who served on my dissertation committee) once called me “the last of the New Critics” after reading a paper I had written for him, again because of my exclusive focus on the texts he had assigned. I told him I really consider myself to be a Frygean, but I was OK with his description as well. And so I’ve wandered on through my career to my current destination in a rural branch office of Ivory Tower, Inc.

Of course, the close reading associated with New Criticism is also the foundation of a considerable amount of post-structural and pomo interpretation, but these days, there often seems to be greater emphasis on the context in which a work appears than upon the text. And when dealing with undergrads, for whom context is often understood either as Now or an amorphous “Back in the day” (a term encompassing everything from about 1997 to the Big Bang), this can too often result in “We’re so superior/this is offensive” responses that do little to develop understanding either of the text or the context in which it arose.

That’s why I’m glad to hear from Scott Stein, a prof at Drexel, who offers an article about his pedagogy at Reason today. He argues, among other things, that an advantage to exclusive reliance upon the text under discussion is itself a democratizing/anti-authoritarian position:

If [Stein and his students] disagree about the meaning or purpose of something we read and want to persuade people that ours is a valid interpretation, the only evidence that matters is the work itself.

[…] I believe this egalitarian or nonauthoritarian view of literature, which recognizes only the text as authority—an authority that all readers can access—and treats students like full adults intellectually, is incompatible with the recent trend of providing specific trigger or content warnings before students read potentially offensive material.

[…] I didn’t ask whether my student should have found [a passage] disturbing. Should has nothing to do with it. She found it disturbing. I accepted that. My student had read carefully, reached her own conclusion, and could support that conclusion by pointing to examples in the text. Other students had not reacted the same way, but to the degree that the text is consistent with her interpretation, that doesn’t matter. I see this as empowering for the student. She knew that she alone had seen this in the reading and brought it to the class for discussion.

If I’d provided a warning that the text contained [disturbing material], lots of students would have seen it only because I told them it was there. My authority would have been imposed on not only the discussion, but the initial reading. Instead, a peer had presented the idea to them. The student who had read carefully, and found something that struck her as important, might have been denied the opportunity to experience the book for herself and share it with others if I told her and everyone else what to think before they read.

A term that was popular during my Ph.D. days was the “pedagogy of the oppressed“, an approach that ostensibly is meant to empower the students to challenge their unjust society. (A lot of bases are being stolen there, but that’s a discussion for another time.) However, it seems to me that recent trends in higher ed start by treating the students as psychologically frail, lacking agency, and in need of handholding lest they encounter uncomfortable ideas.

Given a choice between such a classroom and Stein’s, I think Stein’s is more likely to be intellectually liberating.


About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Literature, Medievalia, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Score One for New Criticism

  1. Jeff S. says:

    Ha! I used to get the same comments from professors, mostly because my high school worked hard to teach us close reading. The profs always seemed wary, though, and only now do I realize why: they expected a whole flurry of related political positions to follow close behind. (Which, in my case, they didn’t, but it’s amusing to look back with clearer understanding…)

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