Sheridan Blau’s The Literature Workshop is an interesting pedagogical manual for not only aspiring literature teachers, but also aspiring composition teachers. As a person who is much more interested in composition, I wondered how useful Blau’s text would be for me. After reading through the text, I noticed that much of what the book describes could be applied to “texts” as a whole. I have a loose definition of what text means. My conception of text is influenced by my interest in cultural rhetorics. Blau discusses how to facilitate interpretation of texts, and I was led to think of Angela Haas’ “Wampum as Hypertext.” Haas explores how Native American wampum belts were constructed and “read” in various contexts.
When most of us consider reading something like a wampum belt, we would not know where to start, or even what the colored beads mean. That is because, as Blau points out, cultural background shapes the way we read texts. It is important for me to realize that culture influences how students experience the world, and how they interpret their experiences. Blau also argues that teachers have an ethical responsibility in the way that they instruct students. He states, “The ethical issue [in teaching literature] is not that teachers have a responsibility to build student confidence (they do, but not by promoting a specious or false confidence), but that they have a responsibility not to misrepresent the kind or quality of knowledge that the students lack and teachers may possess” (91). Teachers need to consider themselves as an equal partner in education, a facilitator of a learning environment, and a collaborator instead of viewing their students as a set of empty vessels, which the teacher must fill with his or her knowledge. This educational model only creates what Blau calls impersonators. Impersonators do not make the knowledge their own—only students who appropriate knowledge, according to Blau, can do that. The Literature Workshop gives us several examples of methods we can use to make our classrooms a collaborative environment—and I recommend this text based on that aspect, alone.
The text also discusses teaching writing in the literature classroom. This section was beneficial, and caused me to contemplate the composition classroom. Blau discusses how the example of literary criticism is exemplified in academic journals, but that these journals are inaccessible or unrealistic for freshman or sophomore students. Is this really true, though? I think that we could use examples from journals in both literature and composition classrooms through guided reading and discussion. At some point, I would like to have my students read an article from an academic journal, after which we would discuss the conventions the author of the article used in his or her writing and how we could apply them to our own writing projects. I find it strange that we do not share our own work with our students until the students enter graduate school. Last semester, the professor of my critical theory course gave us students examples of the writing he was looking for from articles that he had submitted in the past. I am also a big believer in doing the assignments myself before I assign them to my students. This is a practice I did as a secondary school teacher, and would like to continue doing at the college level. I wonder, however, if that practice is feasible long term. What is feasible long term, for me, is to always see myself as a learner–even when I am teaching. I must go into my courses with an open mind, and expecting to learn from my students by building a collaborative relationship where I facilitate the learning experience, but do not limit the way that they read texts. I have to keep in mind that how I read the texts I teach is built upon the experiences I have had with those texts previously. The students I teach will not have my experience, and their experiences can teach me new things about the texts I teach.