blau’s literature workshop: interpretive dependence

Apart from his interesting views about the theory/practice split in literature teaching,  Blau has some good insights into the “interpretive dependence” we help instill and reinforce in literature students when we teach in the conventionally authoritative ways.  (This seems equally true in both lecture- and seminar-style courses, incidentally).

In the conventional scenario, the literature professor usually acts as the authoritative source of knowledge. This kind of professor anticipates student confusions with carefully synthesized prefatory lectures; confidently answers questions (because he* [*since this version of authority is heavily gendered] has  answered them a thousand times before); and spontaneously produces the summary remarks that tie together in-class conversations with the authoritative views of experts.  And hey presto! you’re done.

This is the kind of pedagogical model many of us remember from our own education and would love to emulate, because who wouldn’t want to become this kind of authority?  And I admit that even though I share Blau’s skepticism about this kind of teaching, my bad days with things like groupwork or student presentations sometimes make me wish I had a more traditional classroom.

So what is wrong with this model of teaching?  What we should notice is how the satisfactions and learning end up belonging to the figure of authority.  Its successes are not successes of learning, but of teaching.

Blau points out that this kind of teacher-as-authority has cleared away the precious source of any inquiry, which is readerly confusion.  Though Blau doesn’t quite say it this way, the difficulties we encounter in literary works are not obstacles to understanding, but the best way in to deeper, more refined, better integrated understandings of the works we study, through independent inquiry.  His heuristic principle is that “the only texts worth reading are the texts you don’t understand. Because if you understand a text as soon as you read it, you must have understood it before you read it, so you don’t have to bother reading it in the first place” (24).

From the pedagogical perspective, students need to know that it is the texts they don’t immediately understand that may be especially worth reading, because “the process of figuring it out will constitute a process of advancing or deepening your vision.”  This is his way of arguing the value of unfamiliar (yet canonical) texts to the hostile, skeptical or indifferent student who will blurt out, like one of the students he observes, that “this play sucks,” when the class is reading Shakespeare. (Note, however, that this kind of student resistance happens at least as often, if not more, when reading more recently canonized authors.)

From the disciplinary perspective, though, Blau seems to have identified an important aspect of professional literary study, which we might call the literary counterpart of Wineburg‘s “historical thinking“: “interpretive thinking.”  This emerges from his account of the differences between professional and novice readers of a Thoreau passage, where the professionals are actually eager to find the areas of difficulty or confusion that leave novices frustrated, stymied, or depressed at their own insufficiency as readers (28-32).  And the predictable response of such students is to desire, or demand, that an authoritative teacher clear up those problems that could serve as the beginning of their own learning.

Blau’s alternative is the “literature workshop,” which models to students a collaborative, self-revising, process of discussion and synthesis that will support its members as they work their way towards those more refined understandings.  Students should watch teachers engaged in their own struggles to understand questions and devise solutions, and realize how much individual work and outside feedback is necessary to arrive at a finished piece of scholarly interpretation. Though Blau treats the literature workshop as a way of training students to engage in individual inquiry, it seems to me equally important to persuade students to commit fully to a collective process of inquiry and synthesis of multiple perspectives that will benefit them all.

Blau observes that this process-oriented, workshop model is commonplace in first-year and creative writing pedagogies, but much less common among literature instructors.  It would be an interesting question to investigate: in what ways does the study of literature reinforce the traditional dyad of interpretive authority and dependence? And why might this kind of interpretive authority and mode of interaction be seen as a problem, even by some literature scholars, at this point in time?


3 responses to “blau’s literature workshop: interpretive dependence

  1. I’m a friend from the 80’s UCSB SCWriP days and have long been attempting to reach Sheridan Blau. If you have contact, I would much appreciate your sending him my name and e-mail address. Many, many thanks.

  2. Hi Jack, I’ve got no inside information here. The latest CV I’m seeing shows him at Teachers College, Columbia U. Good luck, DM

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