September 2001 — Volume 5, Number 2
Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents
Deborah Appleman (2000)
New York: Teachers College Press and National Council of Teachers of English
Pp. xvi + 200
ISBN 0-8077-3974-x (paper)
US $22.95 (NCTE Members, $18.95)
Deborah Appleman begins Critical Encounters in High School English with the following statement: “I’m stubborn. Ask my friends. When they say it can’t be done, I feel like I have to try” (p. xiii). Her attempt in Critical Encounters to “bridge the gap” between the high school English classroom, where literary theory, as a field of knowledge, is almost non-existent, and the college classroom, where critical theory is a major factor in many university literature courses, was both successful and unsuccessful.
The book can be broken down into two unequal sections. The first, which occupies the introduction and the first two chapters, attempts to make a case for the utility and necessity of critical theory in the high school English classroom. The second, which occupies the final six chapters, deals with some of the major literary theories: Reader Response, Marxist Theory, Feminist Theory, and Deconstruction. Finally, there is an enormous and extremely useful appendix containing more than 20 classroom activities referred to in the second section of the book.
Appleman’s argument that critical theory be taught in the high school classroom is two-fold. Firstly, she claims it is a pragmatic tool, which aids both in the interpretation of literary texts and in sifting them of their ideological content. Literary theory, then, is like a pair of glasses: “It provides lenses designed to bring out what is already there but what we often miss with unaided vision” (p. xvi) and helps student to identify the ideological currents laced within the texts they encounter. Secondly, she claims literary theory is beneficial beyond the classroom in that it helps students “read and interpret not only literary texts but their lives” (p. 2). Thus in both cases, Appleman makes the argument that literary theory should be taught to students because it reveals “reality” or, in Appleman’s words, it “brings out what is already there” (p. xvi).
There are a few problems with this argument. In the first place, it assumes the existence of an objective reality–something which some of the literary theories Appleman desires to address would not be so quick to assume. Following this assumption, she presumes that literary theory is capable of deciphering this reality; however, by presuming such, she places it on the same shelf as other “ideologies” which claim to explain reality and is therefore in need of sifting itself. Finally, she fails to address the issue of how literary theories (when used improperly) can sometimes muddy the waters when it comes to understanding literary texts. In short, this reviewer believes that Appleman overestimates the explicative powers of literary theories. Rather than making dogmatic arguments, Appleman could have simply argued that literary theory is a major recent development in the study of literature (if not the major recent development) and as such should be included on the syllabus of high school English courses. [-1-]
In the second portion of the book Appleman takes on each of the literary theories with an eye on classroom application. Each chapter is centered on a particular classroom situation where Appleman’s pedagogical techniques for introducing literary theory to adolescents are laid out. Appleman first deals with Reader Response theory, taking into account both its utility and inutility. As any high school teacher knows, Reader Response can quickly become an excuse for intellectual laziness. Appleman is more than aware of this tendency and deals with it and other pitfalls of Reader Response theory (among them, what Pirie calls, and Appleman cites, “the cult of the individual”[p. 22]) while at the same time not discarding Reader Response altogether. Her subsequent chapters on Marxist Literary Theory, Feminist Theory and Deconstruction are equally well-balanced, well-informed and applicable to the high school English classroom. The multiple activities that Appleman provides for each literary theory are relevant to the subject matter and to high school students. She includes activities which assist in introducing the particular literary theory to a class of high school students, helpful hints regarding organizing classroom discussions around particular literary theories, and in-class group activities. Each activity is highly student-centered and explained in the context of the particular high school in which it was used. Furthermore, Appleman has chosen a wide variety of high school classrooms in which to conduct her research, ranging from the rural and fairly homogeneous high school English class to the highly diverse urban one. She is keenly aware of the distinct and differing challenges of the two groups, proactively addressing issues which might arise in each particular case regarding the introduction of literary theory.
A third issue, though secondary to her initial thesis, is the question of which texts to use to teach each literary theory. Here, Appleman goes somewhat awry. She does not explicitly propose that high school English texts be chosen strictly based upon their usefulness as an example of a particular literary theory; however, in her chapter on Marxist theory she focuses primarily on Hamlet (a favorite of Marxist critics), in her chapter on Feminist theory she recommends “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Furthermore, in her chapter on Deconstruction she provides of list of possible texts useful in introducing the theory. Here the all-important question is: Does one choose literary texts for their inherent quality or for their utility in exemplifying a particularly critical theory? This reviewer would argue that literary theory needs to remain a possible interpretive tool, subservient to the texts themselves, and not a canonical determiner.
Overall, Appleman’s book hits and misses the mark. Regarding her more abstract arguments for the inclusion of literary theory in the high school curricula she, perhaps, chooses the wrong approach. Literary theory should be taught in high school because it is a current and prevalent field of knowledge concerning literature and not because it is somehow true a priori. Furthermore, her encouragement for specific literary texts to be used to teach specific literary theories seems somewhat backward. However, despite these two detractions, the more practical and pedagogical content of the book is excellent–being both academically sound and practically applicable to nearly all high school English classrooms.
Université de Fribourg, Switzerland
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