Thursday, January 17, 2013

"Holding the Mirror Up: A Review of Tim Gillespie's 'Doing Literary Criticism'"

The following article is used with permission and was originally published in the Oregon English Journal, a publication of the Oregon Council of Teachers of EnglishFull citation: 

Funk, Glenda. "Holding the Mirror Up: A Review of Tim Gillespie's Doing Literary Criticism. Oregon  English Journal. (XXXIV.2) Fall, 2012, 7-10.

You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you” (III.4.18-20).

Hamlet’s admonition to his mother offers a fitting metaphor for critical literary theory. Just as a mirror or candid individual can help us see and understand ourselves, literary theory assists readers in their understanding, appreciation, and analysis of complex texts. Yet theory connotes fear in the minds of many language arts teachers, many of whom have little direct experience studying the often dense, seemingly inaccessible texts on which theory depends. 

InDoing Literary Criticism: Helping Students Engage with Challenging Texts (StenhousePublishing 2010), retired literature teacher Tim Gillespie, a public school teacher for nearly four decades, provides a much-needed corrective to the gap in literary theory pedagogy. Gillespie tackles the dense language found in the primary literature of the most common theories: reader response, biographical, historical (a.k.a. New Historicism), psychological, archetypal, genre, moral, philosophical, feminist, political advocacy, and formalist (a.k.a. New Criticism). For teachers desiring more in-depth analysis, Gillespie has added a bonus CD packed with useful materials, including reproducible student handouts. Additionally, the bonus CD includes a chapter on postmodern criticism.

In a teacher-friendly format, Gillespie devotes a chapter to each theory and organizes each chapter in easy-to-follow formats. For example, the Reader Response chapter, appropriately titled “Reader Response Criticism: Beginning with Personal Meaning and Classroom Community,” overviews the essential philosophies and origins of the theory, including an analysis of Louise Rosenblat’s Literature as Exploration (1976). In speaking about Stanley Fish’s contribution to reader response theory, Gillespie says Fish

          …argued in his early work that we shouldn’t just describe what a literary work is—as if it were simply an inert object to be examined and classified like a butterfly pinned into a     display case—but rather we should describe what a literary work does to a reader, because texts mean nothing until they are read, felt, and experienced. (56)

Gillespie’s book is an indispensable tool for teachers concerned about the use and abuse of reader response theory and its recent criticism (Stotsky 2011), and for those who wish to assist students in understanding that reader response theory isn’t a “shoot from the hip” reaction to a text but a way to articulate a transactional experience, one in which something happens to the individual reader and that readers “attempt to see more clearly who one is and where one stands” through the books we read.

Beyond explaining the theoretical underpinnings of Reader Response, Gillespie offers ways teachers can move students from their “singular perspectives” into the community of responders who “help them modify, deepen, and extend their own responses” (60).

To test Gillespie’s resources, I assigned the seniors I teach Reader Response essays and distributed the short student handout. AP and honors-level teachers may find the longer, more detailed resources appropriate for their courses. My students often base their personal responses to literature on emotion while ignoring textual evidence for their responses. Moreover, they also summarize rather than analyze, a common error among students with little experience analyzing literature in formal compositions. I also utilized some of the questions Gillespie poses to students for Reader Response, including:

 · Describe any problems this work posed for you. What seemed strange, confusing, misleading, objectionable? Why? How did you deal with these problems?
·   Did the literary work offer any new insight or point of view to you? If so, did it lead you to a change in your own thinking? If not, did it confirm thoughts or opinions you already held? Explain.
·   If you were an English teacher, would you want to share this work with your students? Would you want this work to have influence on future generations?
·   What did you learn about yourself as a reader during the reading of this book? In what ways were your personal, literary, or critical skills expanded?

In writing about V. C. Andrews’ Heaven using the third prompt, Jordi discussed the theme of determination and cited specific details from the novel that makes it appeal to young adults:

          One of my favorite aspects about the novel is Heaven’s determination throughout her hardships. She lives in a tiny shack, seven miles from school, where she sleeps on the floor…. However, she forces her siblings to trudge all the way to their classes every morning….[T]his boldness is a very important thing that all students should be introduced to…Heaven’s family struggle serves as an opportunity for all to feel very lucky.

In her response to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, a Native American students working from fourth prompt first quoted Alexie:

It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian…

The student connected Alexie’s experience of getting “ugly glasses” from the Indian Health Service to her own experience, and added:

I agree with this because I don’t see any natives with loads of money. And I was told that I was ugly and stupid all the time…

Clearly, this student sees her life in a work of literature, and Reader Response theory offers her a mirror through which she sees and shares a critical response to a text. 

However, Gillespie also acknowledges both the limitations of each critical theory as well as important issues teachers should consider when teaching each theory. In his discussion of Archetypal Criticism, Gillespie shares a class discussion about “the mythic dimension of rivers,” specifically the river in Herman Hess’s Siddartha, that leads to students’ identifying other texts that utilize the river archetype: Huck Finn, A Separate Peace, Animal Dreams, Heart of Darkness, and A Bend in the River, among others (118-119). One benefit Gillespie credits to Archetypal Criticism is the ease with which students get it. Another benefit can be found in the writings of Joseph Campbell, who believes archetypes acknowledge universal experiences found in comparative mythology (120).

As teachers who have taught the hero journey archetype know, Archetypal Criticism can devolve into a mere listing of archetypal elements, a limit Gillespie notes. Archetypal Criticism also fails to acknowledge “aesthetic accomplishments, philosophical questions, historical implications,” as well as other important considerations literature raises, explains Gillespie (121).

Pedagogically, Doing Literary Criticism saves novice teachers from some of the pitfalls inherent in teaching literary theory early in one’s career, while reminding experienced teachers about the seminal works and issues students need to consider when analyzing texts.

For those teachers who struggle with essential questions on which to base literary analysis essays, Gillespie provides lengthy lists, also included on the CD, so that busy teachers need not transcribe the print document. For example, the chapter on Feminist Criticism bridges Reader Response with such questions as “What do you think about the representations of women in this work? How about the representations of gender in general?” (213) Consequently, Gillespie invites his students to first experience a transactional response to a text and to follow-up with close readings grounded in a specific critical lens.

These two questions became the informal basis for discussions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for my seniors. Gillespie suggests teachers have “Open Mike” (33) sessions and allow students to share important passages from a text. Open Mike focuses students’ reading, especially when combined with essential questions. Consequently, class discussions became more dynamic and fluid as students responded to essential questions via Open Mike presentations. Literary criticism, as Open Mike illustrates, evolves in both formal and informal ways.

Since individual theories exist in the context of other theories, teachers will also discover essential questions that acknowledge these connections, as in the relationship between feminist criticism and historical criticism: “How do the portrayals of women in the work relate to the status and treatment of women during the period when it was written?” as well as others (214).

In our study of The Taming of the Shrew, students first read The Good and the Badde, a primary document from the Folger Shakespeare Library. The document invites readers to consider the stereotypes of women in 1616 and became the focus of our reading of Shrew.

Essential questions such as the ones mentioned ground texts in historical contexts. Too often a disjointed relationship between history and literary texts results from the mundane presentation of both in weighty anthologies. By presenting students with questions that raise their interest in the history-text connection, teachers invite inquiry from students.

While teaching both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, I posed the essential question, “What is the nature of male/female relationships?” to students early in the unit. This question offers a lens through which students may read and respond to both texts. Moreover, it prepares them for analyzing both, perhaps in a comparative analysis, using the tenants of feminist criticism, perhaps by responding to Gillespie’s question, “How are relationships between men and women presented?” (213).

Acknowledging the inherent value of storytelling on which theory resides, Gillespie’s book tells the story of his teaching journey by using student anecdotes that illustrate how one master teacher discusses theory with his students. In Chapter 9 for Philosophical Criticism , Gillespie bravely recounts his struggles teaching this critical mode, characterizing an assignment as “one of my failed attempts to find an entry point to philosophical criticism” (185). Laying bare his own struggles and stories gives Doing Literary Criticism legitimacy.

Gillespie’s explanation of philosophy’s role in textual analysis raises important questions posed by various philosophical schools of thought. As support, Gillespie turns to Lisa Schade Eckert’s How Does It Mean?  

          Philosophical criticism, then can be defined as a method of constructing interpretation by applying philosophical schools of thought (e.g., existentialism, creationism), the theories of an historic philosopher (e.g., Hume, Kierkegaard, Nietsche), or even a specific philosophy (e.g., Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism) as prior knowledge for unlocking the text. In other words, the reader, in this case, uses the basic tenets of a philosophical theory to fill in the gaps and link segments of a text. (Gillespie 176)

As Gillespie notes, the sheer scope of philosophy limits its use in the typical language arts classroom. Still, theory itself exists in philosophical contexts. For teachers such as I who have never taken a formal philosophy class and have only learned philosophy via literary theory and/or self-study, DLC communicates the narratives of philosophy in a conversational and informal tone.

The section on existentialism speaks to its complexity, its controversial ideas, and its critical role in Western culture with a series of questions designed to elicit discussion of texts and historical events that give rise to new philosophical schools of thought. Gillespie provides a concise, comprehensible definition of existentialism, which examines “what it is like to be an individual human being living in what they see as an inherently meaningless, illogical, subjective, and uncertain world. This philosophy is for many a description of our modern condition” (179). Such explanations of complex, often controversial, concepts abound in DLC, making both the text and its critiques accessible both to novice and seasoned teachers.

Recognizing the time limitations of busy teachers, Gillespie has compiled a set of essays targeted to students that explain each theory. Acknowledging lit crit’s place in English classrooms of all levels, Gillespie includes two versions of each, one for students such as mine, those in regular English classes, and one for honors and AP level classes. Thus, DLC offers pedagogy for teachers and authentic teaching materials for students.

Literary Criticism has lived a hollowed existence in the ivory towers of academia too long or existed within the narrow confines of New Criticism in secondary classrooms. Doing Literary Criticism frees theory of its mystic tenants and constraints by deconstructing the often arcane, dense language and concepts on which theorists ground their ideas by showing teachers both formal and informal methods of doing literary criticism. Through Doing Literary Criticism by master teacher Tim Gillespie, both teachers and students will see the “innermost part” of each texts and theory’s function of setting up a glass by which we glimpse a text’s “innermost part.”

Works Cited

Breton, Nicholas.  The goode and the badde, or Descriptions of the worthies, and

unworthies of this age. London, 1616. Shelfmark STC 3656. Web.

Folger Shakespeare Library. Web. November 28, 2011.

Gillespie, Tim. Doing Literary Criticism: Helping Students Engage with Challenging

Texts. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Pub. 2011. Print.

of the ALSCW, Number 4, Fall 2010. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. . Folger Shakespeare Library,  ed.

Barbra Mowat and Paul Werstine,. New York: Washington Square Press, 2004.


Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Folger Shakespeare

Library,  ed. Barbra Mowat and Paul Werstine,. New York: Washington Square

Press, 2003.  Print.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, Literary Touchstone Classics

Clayton, DE: Prestwick House. 2005. Print.

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