Posts Tagged literature

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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The influence of the canon

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.


The influence of the canon

The extent to which curriculum content should focus on the teaching of literature that has been officially acknowledged for its ‘greatness’, such as from a recognised list, or ‘canon’ of work is a prominent area of contention relating to the content of English curriculum, whether framed as a factor in finding a balance in content, or as a means for enculturation that will ‘regulate’ the populace. Mathew Arnold famously argued that we could escape our difficulties by pursuing “culture”: that as a society we could pursue “total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world” (Arnold, 1869, Preface). Such a pursuit, however, demands that choices be made about what constitutes the body of works that exhibit ‘the best which has been thought and said’, and the development of such a canon involves people or groups exercising their power and authority in determining what is worth reading and knowing about. While the term ‘canon’ was originally used to refer to books that had officially been chosen by the Church for inclusion in the Bible, the source of authority for a ‘literary canon’ is not as clear-cut. As Eagleton puts it, “the so-called ‘literary canon’, the unquestioned ‘great tradition’ of the ‘national literature’, has to be recognised as a construct, fashioned by particular people for particular reasons at a certain time” (1983, p.11).

Notable attempts to create literary canons (for example, Bloom, 1994) have been criticised for their narrowness, particularly their lack of contributions by and representation of the perspectives of the lower classes, women and non-white authors (Maybin, 2000). Attempts to come to terms with the limitations of a canon are reflected in the way in which the term ‘literary canon’ is often further qualified as being a ‘western literary canon’, to acknowledge the deliberate lack of cultural diversity in a list that is intended to be representative of the keys ideas and attitudes in western (often English) history. In addition to criticisms that the canon is too culturally exclusive, the confinement of the canon to traditional textual forms (in particular to written works of fiction, drama and poetry) has also been met with disapproval from those who value a wider variety of textual forms. With the rise of electronic media over the past few decades and the growing acceptance of multiliteracies in the English classroom, the traditional composition of the canon as being exclusively of printed material has also been challenged.

It is for these reasons that, in his overview of the concept of the canon, Pope (2002) describes the “assumption or assertion that ‘the canon’ (singular and definitive) has always simply been ‘there’, a universal and timeless entity, is a convenient but misleading myth” (p.187). Prescribed reading lists, however, continue to feature works from the western literary canon in the English curriculum both in Australia and abroad. In his discussion of the prescribed reading list in the U.K. National Curriculum for English, Benton describes how “school English has been corseted in a National Curriculum which has no qualms about spelling out who it regards as the ‘major’ and ‘high quality’ authors worthy of study” (2000, p.269). This is despite long standing recognition that “any definition of literary heritage in terms of specific books or authors distorts the cultural significance of a literary tradition by failing to recognise that what the Great Books offer is a continuing dialogue on the moral and philosophical questions central to the culture itself” and the proposition that “contemporary thought is of foremost importance” (Applebee, 1974, pp.247-8)

In her account of the historical construction of and contemporary challenges to the canon, Maybin (2000) explains the impact of the Leavisite model on extending the canon to the prose novel, which, until Leavis’ publication of The Great Tradition (1948), had “held a rather tenuous place in the literary heritage, in comparison with poetry and drama” (p.185). Although a tracking of English curriculum theory since the rise of Leavisite literary criticism reveals a move away from philosophies that treat literary texts as “independent, self-contained objects, with a fixed meaning and literary essence waiting to be discovered by the skilful reader”, Maybin argues that “The [Leavisites] most significant contributions to the development of the subject were their establishment of a canon that has influenced syllabuses ever since, and a form of literary criticism that has become the chief method for studying literature in school and university” (2000, p.185). However, while acknowledgement of the novel as a valid literary form and the use of literary criticism might persist in the academic disciplines this legacy must be reconciled with knowledge about the need for curriculum to operate as what Applebee (1996) calls culturally significant ‘domains of conversation’. That is, when curriculum is viewed as a process of conversation between the individual and various traditions of knowing, then potential fields of activity (such as literary criticism) must “foster students’ entry into living traditions of knowledge-in-action rather than static traditions of knowledge-out-of-context” (Applebee, 1996, p.5). This ‘knowledge-in-action’ requires more than an adoption of respect for the prose novel and methods of literary criticism; because knowledge-in-action requires ‘tacit knowledge’, students must be empowered to become involved with the traditions themselves, to speak back to them, and to become participants in the formation of discourse.

Much work has been done on the relationship between knowledge and power, and the ways in which the sanctioning of ‘official’ knowledge has led to the endorsement and perpetuation of dominant discourses in education and society. Poststructuralist theorists (see for example Foucault 1969) as well as sociologists of education (see for example Apple, 1997; Teese, 2000) have argued that social oppression is perpetuated through the silencing of ‘other’ knowledge and the limitations placed on people’s capacity to explore multiple understandings of mainstream knowledge. Foucault’s call to “question those divisions or groupings with which we have become so familiar” (Foucault, 1969) invites an exploration of the ‘familiar groupings’ that are found not only in the actual 1999 HSC English syllabus (in terms of its rationale, objectives and outcomes), but also in the related curriculum materials including the prescribed text list.

While debates about which texts should be considered for inclusion in a literary canon will continue to take place, discussion of the way in which these texts are then treated as part of an English curriculum should be framed by more explicit thinking about the necessary and desired functions of schooling, such as those identified by Hunter (1993) earlier in this thesis. While the cultural-heritage function of schooling, for example, may call for young people to be introduced to the ways of thinking and acting that have existed and been valued over time, the pastoral function of schooling also calls for caring and humane environments in school in which to grow and develop (which may imply in this case the use of texts from children’s own experience, and which they will enjoy), and the function of developing individual expression requires schooling to provide a context in which individuals can learn to explore, develop, and express their personal goals and aspirations (which may not relate to their cultural heritage).

Attention must be paid to this diverse range of functions when considering the selection of texts for study in the English classroom, in order that judgements about ‘worthy’ or ‘valuable’ texts are closely linked to visions of the type of schooling we are aiming to provide, rather than decontextualised arguments about the nature or value of the literary canon itself. It is also essential to consider the relationship between content and pedagogy – while texts from the canon might provide students with a means to access ‘cultural heritage’ this is not necessarily to say that their study of canonical (or any other) texts should be uncritical. In the following section of this chapter I discuss the significance of critical literacy pedagogy, and explore some of the ways in which it has been conflated with ideas about postmodernism and ‘the aesthetic’.



Apple, M. W. (1997). Official Knowledge. London: Routledge.

Applebee, A. (1996). Curriculum as conversation: Transforming traditions of teaching and learning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Arnold, M. (1869). Culture and anarchy.

Benton, M. (2000). Canons ancient and modern: The texts we teach. Educational Review, 52(3), 269-277.

Bloom, H. (1994). The Western Canon: The books and school of the ages. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Eagleton, T. (1983). Literary theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Foucault, M. (1969). The archaeology of knowledge (A. M. Sheridan Smith, Trans.). London: Tavistock Publications.

Hunter, I. (1993). The pastoral bureaucracy: Towards a less principled understanding of state schooling. In D. Meredyth & D. Tyler (Eds.), Child and citizen: Genealogies of schooling and subjectivity. Brisbane: Institute for Cultural Policy Studies.

Leavis, F. R. (1948). The great tradition. London: Chatto & Windus.

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

Pope, R. (2002). The English Studies Book (2nd ed.). London and New York: Routledge.

Teese, R. (2000). Academic success and social power: Examinations and inequality. Carlton South: Melbourne University Press.

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Coming to Voice

Looks like the theme for this blog at the moment is VOICE!

A little while ago I was alerted to this excellent production of student work from South Western Sydney, and I’d like to share it with everyone here on the blog.

Coming to Voice is a collection of ‘literary videos’ from students at Sir Joseph Banks High School. The video production by Westside is 5 minutes long, and showcases an innovative layering of student stories, voices, and animation:

Coming to Voice from BYDS on Vimeo.

From the press release:

Thirteen students from year 7 worked with the Chief Editor of Westside Publications, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, to develop writing that was then animated by 2012 SHORTCUTS film festival winner Vinh Nguyen.
The literary video, called ‘Coming to Voice’ will be screened at an assembly at Sir Joseph Banks High School and will also be launched on the BYDS website as a new web series on August 23rd.

Digital stories, literary videos etc.

BYDS (Bankstown Youth Development Services) seems to have a range of resources relating to the local community on their website: including oral history and photomedia materials. I’m so glad that these kinds of digital arts-based resources are flourishing!

When I talk about ‘digital stories’ or ‘digital narrative’ with teachers, it can be hard to explain the possibilities for the genre. There is of course the Daniel Meadows school of thought that advocates for 2 minute, 12 frame, voice-only digital biographies. The digital storytelling project at QUT uses a similar form.

I think the folks at BYDS have cleverly carved out a different kind of genre here for what they’ve produced – a “literary video”. As the students are reading their POETRY, the production is not quite of STORYTELLING. Could they have called them “digital poems”? Perhaps. But that might distract from the multimedia nature of the production, and the way that animation and video shots add meaning to the piece.

Literary videos… I like it! Thanks for sharing Mariam!

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Literature v literature

I always spell literature with a lower case ‘l’. Unless having to use title case forces me to do otherwise, and even then I only do it grudgingly, preferring to write the whole word in CAPS. ‘Literature’ is not a proper noun, no more than the words ‘music’ or ‘drama’ or ‘visual art’ or ‘sociology’ are. No, ‘literature’ is a field of study, as vulnerable to attack, redundancy and dissolution as any other. ‘Literature’ is not like ‘The Bible’, it is not one definable thing. It is not like ‘Shakespeare’, it does not have a personality nor is it an old friend. It is a field, a part of the landscape that is identifiable, but that can also shift and erode or be crowded out, given enough time. It is important, oh yes, like an atomic bomb, or a legacy – but it is not a proper noun.



List of Artistic Media

Some more thinking about what we mean when we say ‘medium’ in English curriculum…this list of artistic mediums has been helpful in contextualising English as a subject area within a broader notion of ‘arts’:

In the arts, a media or medium is a material used by an artist or designer to create a work.

  • Architecture
  • Carpentry
  • Digital
  • Drawing
  • Film
  • Light
  • Literature
  • Natural World
  • Painting
  • Performing Arts
  • Photography
  • Printmaking
  • Sculpture
  • Sound
  • Technology
  • Textiles

Wikipedia ‘List of Artistic Media’

Within that list, the medium of literature appeared with the following explanation and links:


Main articles: Literature and Writing implement

The art of writtenwords and typography is traditionally an ink and printed form on paper or is creatively written with many forms of media.

Common writing media

Common bases for writing

This is food for thought.

The investigation into medium continues…

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An Introduction to the CLDR Project

Children’s Literature Digital Resources.

Australian schools can now access the full texts in this online resource.

Others can access the Auslit resource through university and other library databases.

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Put your money where your mouth is

Stepping it up this week a bit in the ‘modelling-best-practice’ stakes…

It occured to me that as I am advocating the importance of studying texts and their traditions to…well basically, the development of human society as we know it, that I’m not doing enough of this in my own university classes.

Last week I got a real buzz relating the theoretical material in this unit to contemporary texts and practices, namely to the story of Terminator II and to the ‘Pirates vs Ninjas’ meme.  So this week I am using another text as a way to relate to theory, this time going into even more depth.

I have chosen the film Pleasantville.  I am going to use this film to explore ‘critical literacy’ and interrogate the resistance to critical reading of text in secondary English.

Yes I am.

Now, to construct the learning experiences.

In the lecture I am going to focus in on metalanguage, showing students how historical paradigms of English curriculum (skills, cultural heritage, personal growth, critical-cultural) have been revisioned in two more recent literacy frameworks that have had significant influence on contemporary English curriculum – Luke and Freebody’s ‘Four Resources’ model, and Green’s ‘Three Dimensions’ of literacy (which we have already been using at length).  I’m also going to rock their world by showing them how subject-specific pedagogy relates to more general theories of pedagogy, such as the ‘Productive Pedagogies’ that are used here in QLD, as well as to theories of learning such as Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy.

The two hour tutorial though.  Hmmm.

My message in the coming weeks will be to embrace ‘workshops’ as well as individual and group ‘project based learning’ as alternative approaches to lesson organisation.  I want them to start thinking about how we traditionally do “class” and what learning experiences are encouraged there.  As I’m electing to ‘put my money where my mouth is’ this week I suppose I should give them a taste of this too…but what to do?

Perhaps I will split the two hours into a ‘workshop’ and a ‘project’.  Will I have time for both?  I’d like to also screen the first ~20 minutes of the film in class, giving me 30 minutes for the rest of the workshop.

That leaves ~50 minutes for students to complete a seperate project.  But what?

I’ve been watching Bianca do this – I know I need to start with a driving question or challenge

…and thus I am away to make coffee and have a think about this.

Ideas welcome x

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