Monthly Archives: July 2008

Putting the “fun” in Formalism

I’m now realizing that formalism has suffered from a bad reputation. And I don’t really wonder why. We’ve all probably had enough formalism/structuralism shoved down our throats in the early part of our English study to last a lifetime. I remember hating it. Learning dry facts about meter, for instance, seemed to kill poetry. As a high school student, I was filled with resentment and confusion about these teachers who (to my mutinous, adolescent eyes) were trying to turn English into math. Though I excelled in my literature classes, I loathed them. I remember how much I rejoiced when I got to college and found out that there was more to literary study than just a strict analysis of how the words were put together.

Considering things from a teacher’s perspective, I understand why formalism was such a frequently used focus: it’s safe. Rules exist. Feelings don’t have to get involved. Parents won’t call to complain. Bland? Perhaps. Simple? Yes. Secure? Definitely. Hence, probably why a lot of teachers stress formalism in their English classrooms and avoid the thought-provoking but risky idealogical discussions that I so savor.

But that being said, when one learns the reasons behind it, formalism does have a fascinating side. It doesn’t have to be “blah.” If we blend discussions of formalism with the text’s larger themes or other aims, things get a whole lot better. Sometimes, I think, just simply going that extra step further to why a certain device was used makes discussion much more fulfilling. Part of the reason that I was so bored with formal elements as a student was that I never understood how they connected to the parts of literature that mattered to me: themes, truths, characters’ struggles, and my personal response to the reading. The connection between form and function never solidified for me in high school. If it had, maybe I’d be a published author by now. (Besides the blog–ha ha!)

Since the path I’m on is the one of the teacher, I’m hoping to sensibly balance safety and risk in my practice, and hopefully illuminate some of the “why’s” of literature that were never explained to me until college. I think it’s possible, but not easy, to put the fun in formalism. Form is where meaning begins, not where it ends.

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Knowing When to Speak

In one of our discussion forums this past spring, one of my colleagues wrote about how reading through a feminist lens might be too intimidating, repelling, or complicated to approach with high schoolers. I vehemently disagreed with him, as I believe that high schoolers *can* handle literary theory lenses and *should* be exposed to feminism–as long as gender inequalities continue to exist and effect our students, it is still an important viewpoint to take. After this interchange, I wrote a reflection which spun off into ruminations about how to relate to colleagues when we disagree. Below are my thoughts, followed by my mentor-professor’s response.

AMY: This little interaction got me thinking about myself, as a strong-minded individual. There will certainly be times where I don’t agree with my colleagues, just as I did not agree with Chris here. Of course, I always aspire to make my arguments clear and respectful, no matter strongly I feel that I am right. That all goes over pretty well among peers with roughly the same amount of experience. In this group, we are all fairly tolerant and even embracing of each other’s (sometimes opposing) views.

But that’s not the real world. I know there will come a time when I have a strong conflict of teaching philosophy with a colleague who is not on the same level of authority as I am. It might be a principal, head of department, or veteran teacher. Take any of those examples and hold it up to my young, just-starting-out standing, and I get trampled. I would be very tenative to stand up to authority, especially if the whole system was more or less against me. Perhaps it would be in my best interest to ignore my true feelings. But, then again, shouldn’t my best interest be the benefit of my students?

The questions I am left with are: (1) When is it worth it to stand up for your beliefs, even if a fuss will be made amid dissenting colleagues? (2) Is it ever ok to compromise your values to keep everyone happy? (3) How can I defend my honor as an educated individual, despite my youth and lack of experience? (4) Will I just have to shut up until I am tenured?!

I love to speak my mind, and I often feel that I have a strong rationale behind my opinions… Maybe that’s the secret–supporting an argument with unquestionable facts. However, I do know from experience that even facts can sometimes be… overruled.

PROFESSOR:The fact that you are asking the four questions that you do suggests to me that you will stand up for your beliefs (providing strong rationales/justifications for them) when you feel you need to–to maintain your integrity, and to offer your students what you know they need. We do have to pick our battles, however, and so we need to be sure that the underlying principles for which we are fighting are truly significant. It’s impossible to “keep everyone happy,” but we shouldn’t be naive about whose ire we’re likely to trigger by our stance. And, finally, the way in which we conduct our “battles” has a lot to do with how contentious they get. Driving one’s opponents into a corner, becoming hot-headed and vituperative, expressing condescension and disgust, failing to see others’ points of view–in essence, being close minded and intolerant–does disservice to the very causes we are upholding. Creating acrimony rarely succeeds in winning people over.

That is not to say that there will not be times when we have to “stick to our guns” and refuse to be silenced–even if it costs us. But I suggest that these times are fewer than we sometimes think. My suggestion is that you save your ethical mettle for the times when you’re going to need it. My hope is that you’ll have the wisdom to discern when these times come.

And one other thing: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Frequently, change needs time; finding the patience to wait–although difficult–can be fruitful.