Literary theory and the postmodern turn

The following is an extract from my PhD thesis, part of a series I am publishing on this blog discussing the background of some contested territory in English curriculum.


Literary theory and the postmodern turn

As explained [previously], critical reading was one of the significant additions to the study of texts in post-1960s English curriculum, and one that came about as a means for problematising subjectivities, usually through the analysis of dominant discourses in texts and the ways in which these might operate to suppress or devalue marginalised discourses. One of the tools for such analyses is the engagement with various literary theories and the method of ‘reading’ a text through certain theoretical lenses:

Feminist and post-colonial readings and writings have called into question the Leavisite canon’s assumptions of cultural and moral excellence, its view of literature and its promotion of particular ways of reading. Their arguments about the importance of readings ‘against the text’, reflect a more general shift in ideas about communication, which has been occurring over the last thirty years, alongside widespread questioning of established notions of culture, value and tradition. (Maybin, 2000, p.190)

Green attributes the post-1960s growth of interest in marginal constituencies (such as the feminist movement and various ethnic groupings) to the development of new forms of identity, the “release of hitherto suppressed and constrained social energies”, and a new “politics of subjectivity” (Green, 1995, p.393). The emergence of ‘youth’ as a distinctive social force also contributed to the change in identity politics, and Green cites Medway’s account (1990) of how the resulting “increased focus on the media and the peer group as in influential forces in socialisation”, which were and remain “oppositional…to mainstream culture and the established social order” (Green, 1995, p.395) were viewed as dangerous and threatening due to their role in realigning social relations of power. These significant social, cultural and political shifts were reflected in the school system at large, and in the English curriculum specifically by the shift away from traditional literary studies toward a model of cultural studies that involved a heightened engagement with notions of rhetoric and textuality as well as an increased valuing of popular culture texts.

The broadening of the content to be studied in English from the traditional, canonical definition of ‘literature’ to encompass ‘texts’ from the media, from youth and popular culture, and other everyday contexts can therefore be viewed as a response to changes in more general social beliefs about the functions of schooling, such as those referred to [earlier in this thesis]. In particular this would have involved significant shifts in discourse surrounding what Hunter terms the ‘regulative’ and ‘political’ functions of schooling, as the ‘preferred political principles of the society’ and the type of citizen and populace that schools were aiming to produce underwent radical change. Hunter’s framework asserts that schools in Australia historically have had a regulatory function requiring the transmission of forms of orderliness and control, and in this light the adoption of cultural studies within the English curriculum reflects the negotiation of control within new paradigms, rather than an abandonment of control and orderliness. The interrelation between functions of schooling is also demonstrated in this case, as changes to the dominant discourses of control were adapted to accommodate a new set of political principles, including an explicitly egalitarian approach to pleasure and empowerment.

In his explanation of the ‘point’ of literary theory, Thomson claims a need for teachers to “ask questions about the purpose and value of the things we habitually do in classrooms”, which includes interrogating our naturalised “intentions with our students in teaching literature the way the Higher School Certificate English papers direct us to” (Thomson, 1992, p.7). To further his argument that everything that a teacher does is informed by some theory of learning, whether they realise it or not, he cites Selden:

Readers may believe that theories and concepts will only deaden the spontaneity of their response to literary works. They may forget that ‘spontaneous’ discourse about literature is unconsciously dependent on the theorising of older generations. Their talk of ‘feeling, ‘imagination’, ‘genius’, ‘sincerity’ and ‘reality’ is full of dead theory which is sanctified by time and has become part of the language of common sense. (Selden, 1985, p.3)

Thomson goes on to provide an overview of what he identifies as the major contemporary literary theories that have significance for use in the English classroom; Expressive Realism (including ‘Leavisite’ criticism), New Criticism, Reception Theory, Psychoanalytical Theory, Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Feminism, and Political Criticism. Using classroom examples Thomson shows how these theories can act as lenses, not only to enable students to read against the text and de-naturalise the discourses presented, but also through which students can gain a reflexive understanding of their own reading processes. Recalling concerns presented by Morgan and Misson in the previous section of this chapter, this argument by Thomson forms another explanation as to how critical reading and a postmodern focus on textuality can result in an enhancement of the reading process, even of taking pleasure in the aesthetic, as students develop reflexive reading practices rather than unconsciously adopting ‘dead theory’ merely because it has been ‘sanctified by time’.

The application of critical readings to texts set for study appears in the HSC English syllabus for the Advanced course in Module B: ‘Critical study of texts’. Although the critical study of a variety of perspectives is not mandated in the Standard English course, critical readings of this nature may be applied at point of need throughout junior and senior English studies as a means to meet other overarching learning outcomes. The difficulty, however, that many teachers of the HSC Advanced course experienced in applying a perceived number of readings to a set text within the time frame set for study of Module B is documented in an official statement by the English Teachers’ Association in NSW (2007), who described the issue of critical reading as being “fraught with controversy” due to incorrect perceptions about there being a number and type of readings that must be covered. The ETA statement refers teachers to sections of the syllabus and to excerpts from examiners reports to show that “the notion that a set of potential readings of the text based on specific ideological approaches (Marxist, feminist etc.) is being encouraged by the course is specifically contradicted by both the syllabus and the examiners’ reports” (2007, p.2).

Misunderstandings about how literary theory could be applied in Module B of the HSC Advanced English course were significant enough to require an official response from the NSW Board of Studies, who state clearly that Module B principally “is designed to nurture enjoyment and appreciation of significant texts” and that practices that involve “discussing and evaluating notions of context and the perspectives of others amplifies the exploration of the ideas in the text, enabling a deeper and richer understanding” (2008, p.1). In response to difficulties faced by teachers attempting to develop their critical pedagogy in a way that does not restrict deep, personal engagement with the set text – the very issue that Morgan and Misson had found to be problematic – the ETA official statement offers a model very similar to Howie’s framework (2005) that applies the concept of frames, in order that research into the perspectives of others is always returned to further inform a personal reading of the text.

The constant reiteration from both the ETA and the Board of Studies, however, that Module B is clearly described in the Advanced English syllabus as requiring the rigorous development of a personal perspective on the integrity of a text might suggest that pressure felt by teachers to ‘cram in’ or ‘tack on’ a number of predefined literary theories had come from other areas of the curriculum. Specifically, the fact that six out of the ten pages of the Board of Studies support document is dedicated to an Appendix modelling the assessment of student work in Module B signals that issues relating to assessment provided a significant amount of pressure. In the following and final section of this chapter I turn to the examination and assessment of English and explore the impact of issues in this area on shaping content and pedagogy.



Board of Studies NSW. (2008). HSC English (Advanced) course – Module B: Critical study of texts – support document. Sydney: Board of Studies NSW.

English Teachers’ Association. (2007). Official statement on Stage 6 Advanced Module B: Critical study of texts. Sydney: English Teachers’ Association (NSW).

Green, B. (1995). Post-curriculum possibilities: English teaching, cultural politics, and the postmodern turn. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 27(4), 391-409.

Howie, M. (2005). A transformative model for programming 7-10 English. English in Australia (142), 57-63.

Maybin, J. (2000). The canon: Historical construction and contemporary challenges. In J. Davison & J. Moss (Eds.), Issues in English Teaching. London: Routledge.

Medway, P. (1990). Into the sixties: English and English society at a time of change. In I. Goodson & P. Medway (Eds.), Bringing English to order: The history and politics of a school subject (pp. 1-46). London, New York and Philadelphia: Falmer Press.

Selden, R. (1985). A reader’s guide to contemporary literary theory. Brighton: The Harvester Press.

Thomson, J. (1992). The significance and uses of contemporary literary theory for the teaching of literature. In J. Thomson (Ed.), Reconstructing literature teaching: New essays on the teaching of literature (pp. 3-39). Norwood: Australian Association for the Teaching of English.


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  1. #1 by Raegina on March 17, 2017 - 2:46 pm

    Reblogged this on Australian Education Blogs.

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