In this post, I would like address some aspects of Sheridan Blau’s The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers that I found most compelling and useful. First, Blau reminded me what it felt like to be a student in an literature classroom, a daunting and confusing experience that sometimes debilitated my confidence and self-assurance. As a second language English speaker in high school, literature was a foreign language to me and the words on the page the equivalent of hieroglyphic symbols. I don’t blame my teachers. Indeed, they must have done something right because I am now a PhD student studying literature for a living. Like me, many students experience literary language from the perspective of a second language speaker, a language possessing a distinctive vocabulary, syntax, tone, and logic. In a way, teachers are facilitator/lecturers in the classroom just as much as they are translators but in what ways, Blau questions, is their potential over-translation of texts hindering student learning and impeding creative thought?
Blau argues that we need to validate the reading of literature as an experience that confuses and perplexes us because “confusion often represents an advanced state of understanding [sic]” (21). This is a point I found both professionally and personally useful since it fosters learning that is process-oriented and allows students to discover meaning that they derive from their own reading experience. As teachers, Blau says we need to “welcome and even foster among readers the experience of confusion” (21) in order to open up the space for discussion, collaboration, and text construction in the classroom.
Blau’s workshops generally begin the same way: a set of questions directed at his students asking them to identify aspects of the texts they found confusing or troublesome. This allows students to pay attention to their thought process as readers and opens up the discussion in a democratic way. When students realize that others are struggling with the text as well, they’re less likely to draw the conclusion that it is beyond comprehension. Blau says, teachers, on the other hand,
assume that the text must be very difficult and therefore one requiring our concentrated effort and long attention. Our students, however, assume that the same difficulty, when they encounter it, is evidence of their insufficiency as readers. Which leads me to a third proposition about literary instruction: when it comes to the reading of difficult literary texts, the difference between us and our students is that we have a much higher tolerance for failure.
In other words, if we do not understand it the first time, we approach it again whereas our students are more likely to quit because they fear that rereading a text will only lead to another instance of failure. Students, however, cannot overcome their anxiety or fear of failure because they do not realize that rereading helps us make sense of a difficult text. Blau further suggests that reading is a process like writing that often eludes students. Like writing, they presume that if they do not get it right the first time, they will not get it right at all but “reading … is a process of making meaning or text construction that is frequently accompanied by false starts and faulty visions, requiring frequent and messy reconstruction and revision” (31).
Overall, I have to agree with Blau and believe that we should create an open space for the expression of not only lucid ideas but also confused ones. This will allow students to practice metacognitive thinking and will prevent us from privileging the former, more static method of making meaning at the expense of the later more dynamic method of constructing texts.