Reader-Oriented Theory and Technology in the Literature Classroom

Ann Woodlief, Virginia Commonwealth University, 1995

[Please do not copy this unpublished paper without notifying me at]

One of the major problems in the teaching of literature (though it is one shared to some degree by most disciplines) is how to empower the student as reader and creator of meaning. How much does someone learn by watching demonstrations, including a teacher's most skilled enactment of his or her own reading/interpretation process? For some bright students, possibly a great deal, because they can relate the teacher's experience to their own, or because they have learned to accept the teacher's reading over their own original tentative one (a problematic accommodation). But what about the other students, those who will not become star English majors, who come from the class confused and disempowered because they see little or no relationship between the teacher's reading and their own?

 Class discussion, usually teacher-led, has been one answer to this problem, and for certain inspired teachers this seems to work very well. At best, the teacher reinforces the discussing students' original insights and builds on those, empowering the students to notice and think about the text in added ways. Yet this too has problems. The particular student or students that the teacher interacts with do have an opportunity to think out loud and see the value of their ideas, but what about the other students in the class, those who do not talk or who say very little but keep noticing that their readings produced somewhat different results. Whether it is the teacher or the other students talking in class, they frequently leave wondering "where did they get those ideas and why was mine different?" What they often learn is that they are not "capable" readers and they have little idea how to become such, even if they wanted to (although one wonders why they would). As a result, their reading becomes more passive because they trust themselves less; though they may venture an occasional opinion in class, especially if pressed by the instructor's grading policy, they are not truly part of the conversation.

 Surely this scenario sounds familiar to most teachers of literature, unless they are so enamoured of their own readings and those of their brighter students to be unaware of what is happening to most of their other students, especially in a class with a large percentage of non-English majors. Rarely do they hear from their more silenced students, who may not even recognize that they have been silenced.

Over the past ten years or more, I have had my students turn in reading response cards at the beginning of the class period, before they have been party to any discussion of the work or works at all. Beginning this in desperation when I found that students had not read the assignments, I have continued it, regardless of the time required to read and sometimes comment on these cards (particularly in a sophomore-level class of 125!) because I have learned so much about what students are doing when they try to make meaning of a work without "help." Over the course of the semester, for those few who find their "interpretive voices," there are many others who learn to question their own. One response to this among my colleagues is to bemoan how terribly underprepared our students are and how their anxiety to "find THE answer" has been encouraged by high school teachers. I do not doubt that there is truth there, but it does not account for how a sophomore student in his or her first literature class in college often becomes more distrustful of his or her personal ability to make "acceptable" meaning, not more confident and able. This process is usually not reflected in grades, for we so often test on how well the students have listened and can tell us back the interpretations we presented or drew out in discussion.

 This dilemma becomes even more pressing in the larger classes we often find ourselves teaching today. In smaller classes, it is possible to draw more students into discussion, with the teacher and with each other, but once a class has more than 30 students or so, it becomes more difficult, even for the most skilled teacher. With larger classes, particularly those in large lecture rooms, it becomes almost hopeless, although a few students can be "cultivated" to verbalize student readings. Yet we face large classes of sophomore-level students more and more, especially if we wish to keep the small upper-level and graduate courses we find essential.

 Dissatisfied by the traditional answers to this pedagogical problem, I decided to turn to technology. This is a visual/video generation, as Marshall McLuhan prophesied, and our students feel more involved with a visual medium, for they grew up with television as most of their instructors grew up with books. Rather than complaining about this situation, perhaps there are ways we can use it to the students' advantage, even to teach them how to live in books as they do with screen images.

 One of my first experiments was with videos, presenting them as readings which could be analyzed and revised. In particular I used two kinds of videos: productions of works and lecture presentations, or "talking heads." However, just presenting them as "illustrations" was inadequate; aside from helping students sort out a plot or giving them images of characters, which would supersede whatever they had previously imagined, there was little value. Besides taking up large chunks of class time, the videos and films encouraged passive reading and reinforced the reading of the director/screenplay writer. That was little improvement over watching m present my reading of a work, although it often held their interest more (at least for those who didn't fall asleep in the darkened room!) The "talking heads" were even more soporific and time -consuming, since they were often making points not relevant to our particular course focus. Yet I noticed that students often had more to say about works they had seen presented visually, and often their insights were more original and showed more comfortable fluency about the work. The medium was effective, but the message was often garbled.

 My solution required the cooperation of colleagues in American literature who are equally committed to teaching. I convinced four of them (and myself) to sit in a studio before a video camera and talk for ten to twenty minutes about their approach to a work found in many American literature anthologies. I was a bit surprised at their "stage fright" and hesitancy about "performing," for each was well known as a master teacher and perfectly at ease in a classroom (where the good video camera could not go). However, I found signs of lack of polish rather reassuring to students, as they could see the teacher thinking through ideas.

 When I presented these videos in a class, generally at the beginning, it gave an excellent basis for discussion, for the person in the video was not in the room and the students felt more free to respond and question. I would present a somewhat different reading, and compare it with the video; sometimes I would have a senior English major to come do a reading and respond to the video (which she had not seen previously). The concept of the range of interpretation possible became a live concept for the students, allow them to present their own differences. Perhaps the strangest moment was when I presented my own video on Walden (watching the monitor and not the thirty-foot screen!) and the students applauded. Then we proceeded to analyze the approach far more objectively than we had been able to work with my other readings (distance is easier to find when one has some time and second thoughts).

Other visual experiments included using projections from the computer in the class. Careful adjustment of the lighting and very large, boldfaced print was essential for this to work. Initially I would project an electronic text, especially a short work, and then point out key words and passages, almost "dancing the text." I had the students' focused attention, not on me but on the text. After I developed hypertext capabilities, I could also "flash" notes and follow through on linked passages for discussion. Sometimes I would link class discussion questions, projected early in the class, to specific passages which we could then explore.

The experiment with the most exciting pedagogical implications, however, involved using hypertext outside of the large class environment and, at present, in classes which meet in a computer center.

 Hypertext has been used pedagogically primarily to embed and link texts, allowing the adventuresome reader the opportunity to not only receive information but develop intertextual ideas. Although this can be undeniably valuable in teaching, using hypertext interrogatively and interactively as directed by reader-oriented literary theory has even more pedagogical possibilities.

 The first reading, or readings, of a text by most students who have not developed a number of intuitive reading strategies is quite linear, as the reader reconstructs the text to decide, in fiction and drama, "who is doing what?" (and maybe "why") and "what happens and when?," and in poetry, "what is this saying? or "what could this mean?" Rarely is "how is this written?" asked, except for a few who have been innoculated by a teacher to find "symbolism" every where. At the same time, the reader is naturalizing the work to his or her own experience, trying to recognize some personal connections and responding to characters as if they were real people, often identifying with particular perspectives and situations. They read quite selectively, ignoring passages which don't seem to connect well to their concerns for plot sequence, character motivation, and other preconceived expectations (many genre-related) or which do not somehow square with their own personal agendas. They are unaware of possible meanings under the surface, of ambiguities or subtexts. When asked to question the text, they will most likely point to ambiguities about sequence of events or motivation. One might say that they are reading "through" the text.

 Such a first reading has its potential pleasures and values, superficial though it may be. Perhaps its primary value--and drawback, for the usual classroom situation--is its personal perspective and emphases, even though it may lead to selectively ignoring aspects or portions of the text. Such a reading is the one that students generally bring to class, if they bring any reading at all. When one considers that the teacher is not only an experienced reader, whose first readings are far more alert to nuances and questions, but one who has read--and taught--the text, as well as numerous critical readings of that text, multiple times, then it is a wonder that there can be any communication about the two very different "texts" created by such very different reading strategies. The art of teaching comes in negotiating these differences, but even the most skillful teacher can leave students feeling that their readings are "wrong" and that the best strategy is to delay the reading until after the class, which is a logical though hardly a wise conclusion.

 Recognizing this pattern in my sophomore-level students, I decided to create ways to give students the opportunity to encounter text more intensely and learn how to read more productively. I wanted them to experience at least one text or group of short texts as creative re-readings and to increase their own available reading strategies for later readings in the course. I had tried in the classroom every way I could think of to make this happen, but with little success; so I turned to the computer for help for the kind of imaginative and empowering re-reading experience I wanted them to have.

 My goals were clear. I wanted their rereading to be holistic rather than linear or fragmented; I wanted them to interact with the text to ask questions, make guesses, see cultural emphases, and make discoveries about themselves by encountering the work's "otherness." I also wanted them to become more aware of their own reading strategies and the personal and cultural agendas they brought to to their reading, as well as develop new and more productive strategies.

 The conventional way to get students to re-read--by requiring the writing of a paper--simply does not work, as a rule. Most of the papers I received reduced the work to a thesis of some sort, argued with different levels of persuasiveness and linguistic skills, but ignoring its most interesting complexities and gaps. The pleasures that many had found in re-reading were difficult to translate into a thesis-oriented "critical analysis" paper which, by its nature, discourages students from delving into any self-discovery the reading process may have invoked.

 The out-of-class "informational-interrogative-interactive" hypertext projects that I set up met these goals better than I had imagined possible. Drawing from a scheme of reading responses set up by Marcel Cornis-Pope, I set up five projects in an American literature I (Puritans to Civil War) sophomore level class: on the poetry of Anne Bradstreet (five love poems) and Phillis Wheatley (four poems), the prose of Jean de Crèvecoeur, ("What is an American") and Thoreau (chapter two of Walen), and (as make-up, for students who had not done well earlier) Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." These projects were done with the GUIDE program (which works on an IBM-Windows base) and were posted on a number of computers in the university, as well as available for "take home" work for students with computers.

 Each of these projects (the students chose one early in the semester) were done in stages. The students received sheets with pre-reading and first reading questions on them which they were to write informal answers to before and after reading the selected works in their textbook. For example, the Anne Bradstreet pre-reading questions were as follows:

  • What are your general impressions about Puritan life in the first generation to settle in Massachusetts? What do you know about the social culture or the religious ideas? Are there any literary works you have read about this period? How have they influenced your thinking?
  • What do you think relationships between husband and wife were probably like in early Puritan times? Why do you think that?
  • What do you think the best relationship between a husband and wife should be? Do you think women should be domestic helpmates of their husbands? Should the husband be the clear head of the household? Should they be very close emotionally, almost interdependent? Do you think the wife should be as intellectual and educated as the husband?
  • Do you consider yourself a romantic, or are you cynical about romantic or sentimental ideas? Do you think that your gender affects how you see the ideal marriage relationship? If so, in what way?
  • How do you feel about poetry? What have been your experiences in reading it? Have you ever read any poetry that was not assigned to you in a class? Have you ever written any? On love?
  • These questions were designed to elicit from them the personal, cultural, and historical "readings" which they were likely to impose on the text; by verbalizing them they were in a position of seeing how they operated as they read the text. Although it is hard to measure whether such an exercise in self-consciousness really helped the reading, it was clear that they were ready to read, wondering what relationship there might be between them and such "ancient" poetry. In addition it was clear that the project was focused on their ideas, and the idea of writing interactively was established.

     After reading the work(s) in their textbook (or as copied), the students then wrote again, this time to develop their responses into words. Again going to the Bradstreet project, the questions were:

  • Describe the overall effect(s) of the poems upon you. Consider why you like or dislike them or if the text has confirmed or challenged your expectations as you described them in your pre-reading response notes.
  • Find your dominant responses, describe the major impact of the poems on you, your strongest reactions.
  • Referring closely to the poems, analyze the effects of specific images, phrases, or words on you. Note in particular the extended images in each poem.
  • Focus on difficult or problematic areas of the poems, ask questions, point out gaps, contradictions, ambiguities, intriguing aspects. Is there anything else you feel you need to know? Or are there other questions you would insert in the text?
  • Describe connections with other texts or personal experiences that this work has triggered in your mind.
  • Some papers were extensive, some were not, but the students were intrigued. They had been asked for their ideas and what they had noticed; what would they learn from the hypertext (whatever that was!)
  • The dynamic of responses to the computer environment is a subject of its own. However, the program did prove to be very user-friendly, after a bit of coaching from computer center assistants, and eventually proved to have a fascination of its own.

     The hypertext is made up of embedded definitions, notes, and questions and associated materials (biography, information about the historical context, information about analyzing literature, other related works by the author and by critics, and--eventually--the student projects themselves). Italicized words and phrases in the text signal the presence of embedded materials. In addition, clicking on a Write or WordPerfect icon launches a blank file at the bottom of the screen, beneath the hypertext, ready for students to respond as they read. (This can also be launched as a full screen and toggled between the hypertext and the wordprocessing file, but at this point, most students do not want to see what they are writing but just to respond freely.) Students are encouraged not to censor their thoughts as they read/wrote or to worry about how well they are writing, just to think in words as freely as possible, realizing that the best ideas might prove to be those they would ordinarily dismiss at first. The program also allowed students to cut and paste from the hypertext, if there were passages they wanted to pay particular attention to, and to do a search.

     There proved to be several messages, even illusions, fostered by working with a computer on hypertext. Since the text is the base as students use the mouse to bring to the screen embedded materials, it is read repeatedly with readers having a growing sense of discovery. The text becomes an entry point to ideas, questions, and connections, and not an end point in itself (as it should be). Another useful illusion is that of control. It is the student who decides what words to "open" and "follow" as he/she reads the hypertext by clicking the mouse over each italicized word or phrase; in addition, he/she has the choice of responding to the material or ignoring it.

     I had assumed that reading and responding to the hypertext would take 2 or 3 hours for most students. What I discovered is that many took far more time than that, not because they had to but because they chose to, intrigued by the discoveries they were making. Paragraph tag

     Next they wrote two more stages of responses, drawing from their notes as appropriate for the "meat" of their ideas. The second reading responses were open, although asking for details about their reading. These questions, like the first reading questions, were fairly consistent though adapted for each project:

  • Go back and re-read your first reading notes. How have your reactions and impressions changed or been reconfirmed in this second reading?
  • Explore in detail your responses in the following key areas :

  • response to certain words, phrases, or images (tell what they are!);
    response to the genre of love/marriage poetry;
    response to the Puritan context;
    identification with the poet's situation and emotions
  • Explore your own reactions, biases, and expectations, as they have emerged in your notes. How have they affected your understanding and appreciation of the poetry?
  • What kinds of questions or notes would you like to see embedded in this hypertext version of the essay? Which ones here open up some ideas for you?
  • The "final analysis" was the one where the writing "counted." They were instructed to write in full paragraphs, clearly and with textual support. They had generated so many ideas and thought so much about the works that that was not a serious problem for most of them (note that Write does not have a spell check!). This final stage is designed for an overview of their reading process and what they have learned, not only about the text but about themselves and their own reading strategies and cognitive agenda. It also pointed out that the project was intended to "explode" possibilities in the text, and not to produce the kind of thesis/critical paper which could, in fact, result from such a careful reading process. The questions, again for the Bradstreet project, were as follows:
  • Look over your responses. What have you learned about Bradstreet in your readings? What have you learned about poetry? What have you learned about yourself?
  • What do you find most distinctive about Bradstreet's love poetry? The person you see in the poem? The feelings expressed in the imagery? Some aspect of the relationship with her husband?
  • Are there any particular themes or patterns of imagery that strike you as significant? What are they and why do they seem important?
  • If you were going to write a more extensive paper, drawing from the ideas you have generated in this project, what subjects would you like to explore?
  • The computer part of the project, turned in on disk, printed out at an average of more than five single-spaced pages. Comments and the grade, which took into account the fullness of the responses as well as the writing of the final analysis, were incorporated into the file (and saved under a new name). Many students who had not given themselves enough time to do a thorough job chose to do the make-up project. The best projects were collected and "published" (with the writer's permission), appearing with the projects on the computers so that students could see how theirs compared with others (a learning experience in itself).

    Judging from the quality of the final papers, the projects did help students to become far more alert and thoughtful readers. Their insights were, in many cases, thoughtful and well-supported, and they clearly thought they had learned to read much better. The hypertext was perceived as "help"; some students said there should be more words defined because they had needed to use the dictionary (a valuable resource, as they had discovered by exploring the definitions offered in the hypertext). One student came to my office with a collection of Pope poems, asking that some be included in the Wheatley hypertext since the hypertext had mentioned some similarities.

     Some faculty colleagues had feared that hypertext might make students dependent readers, but my experience was the opposite. What they had learned was how much the reading of texts could be enhanced by knowing more about the language, the author, the culture, etc. and by learning how to interrogate the text, and they carried these insights into the literature they read for the rest of the semester. The differences in the response cards handed in to each class before and after doing the project were dramatic. They came to class with more interesting ideas and questions, sometimes personal yet text-based. Much of what they had learned by careful rereading of these selected texts had become part of their first reading repetoire and they were more confident--and empowered--readers, willing and even eager at times to venture forth ideas and questions which were different from my own.

    Beginning in Fall 1994 I am developing some of the same pedagogical strategies in a computer center with two relatively small classes, including one on "Critical Reading and Writing" where the students will eventually work in small groups to develop their own hypertexts for the class. There will be another crucial element to these classes. I will be using CONNECT, a communication program from W. W. Norton, which students will use to post their responses to their reading and comment on other responses in some detail. Everyone will speak, and everyone will listen, as we negotiate and develop a range of interpretations of the works we read. At last, reader-oriented theory of literary interpretation, with the personalizing and collaborative aid of the computer, found new life in the virtual classroom. 

    Note: To see how these courses are evolving into a Web-based format, see my home page.
    For the latest version of these ideas, see "The Rereading/Rewriting Process: Theory and Collaborative, On-line Pedagogy

    Chapter to be published 2001 in Reading from a Writer's Perspective.