Sunday, February 26, 2012

Ruminating on Distractions

I have been reading through two separate texts on the topic of digital literacies (Adolescents and Digital Literacies by Kajder and The Digital Writing Workshop by Hicks). Both of these books cover relatively the same topics of integrating technology in the classroom. For another class of mine I have been reading Response and Analyisis by Probst, and it has greatly informed my ideas about teaching English. Last week I posted about the importance of distinguishing between using technology to entertain and using technology to instruct (here). This post will follow a similar line of reasoning under the much broader umbrella of “distractions.”

Standardized Testing
Certainly technology can be considered a distraction if not used correctly. What about other things that distract the English teacher? Well for starters, there is standardized testing. A typical high school teacher’s time is severely lessened due to the need to “teach the test.” I first saw this when I observed at a high school, and one of the teachers showed me the schedule for the few remaining months and over a third of it was marked for preparing students for standardized testing. Now perhaps this should not be called a distraction. This is something that, although it may be inconvenient, is mandated by the state. Teachers often complain about losing precious class time to standardized testing, and I do not blame them for that, but there may be other distractions that the teacher does have control over.

This is probably the biggest distraction in the English classroom. In order to teach literature a student must read a text, but the student must also interact with that text. That interaction can be a cognitive one or perhaps even an emotional interaction. It is the experience with the piece of literature that enables it to be something discussed, studied, and written about. Reading for information is not what defines the study of literature in the English classroom. At least I would argue that this is not the primary goal of studying literature.

The reason for studying literature is because it enables is to create something upon reading a text. A poem, short story, or novel is more than just a sequence of events recorded on paper. It is something, which is dynamic, but only by being acted upon by the student. Perhaps you disagree.

But how is that a distraction? Well there is a delicate balance between a student engaging in a discussion of an experience with a text, and simply discussing himself or herself. Discussing literature is not simply discussing what we think the author was saying, (although that is important) it is about discussing how our perceptions have changed based on that piece of literature. This can be distracting because many students (and teachers) will see this as a means of simply blathering about oneself.

Some teachers would consider any response from the students to be a good one. But the discussion should still be focused on the literature itself and how it has informed or changed the perceptions of the student. It is not simply an avenue for self-promotion. In this way, literature can become a distraction, because the literature is no longer the substance of the class. The students, rather than the academics, become the center.

English is dynamic. English is a discipline that permeates all the others. You can read a literature anthology without encountering any Chemistry or Algebra, however, you cannot read a Chemistry or Algebra textbook without encountering any English. It informs the other disciplines and for this reason is not easily taught. Because of this, English is greatly affected by the other disciplines as well.

Good luck teaching Emerson without a solid grasp of Philosophy (especially transcendentalism). I hope you paid attention when you took your liberal studies history course, because you need historical knowledge to teach literature. Modernist literature is greatly informed by the scientific and industrial advancement of the time period, and so in order to teach literature from that period it is good to have knowledge of those advancements even if it is a very basic understanding. All of these are distractions (albeit these are good and important) are what makes the teaching of English so difficult. There is a lot of knowledge needed in order to teach literature.

Overall I think that some distractions are good. It is nice to wander away from the main path every once in a while to explore something that is barely related to the subject at hand. I think all of the things detailed above are things that teachers should be aware of as possible distractions from course material.


  1. Tim,

    Your section on literature echos the works of Louise Rosenblatt. Have you read her before? Her texts "Literature as Exporation" and "The Author, the Text and the Poem" also discuss reading as an interaction. If you aren't familiar with her work, you may want to check her out. I think you would value her voice. I have the first text if you are interested in taking a look.

    1. Thanks! I have been interested in reading some of her work, mainly because Probst is constantly citing her in the text I mentioned in the first paragraph. I do not have time now but at some point I would like to study it more in depth. In reading about how to teach literature I have actually begun to enjoy studying literature even more...which I was not expecting