Citation
Writing between the lines

Material Information

Title:
Writing between the lines college students respond to literature in informal journals
Creator:
Pitchford, Paula Jane Nelson
Manufacturer:
University of Colorado Denver
Publication Date:
Language:
English
Physical Description:
v, 125 leaves : ; 29 cm

Thesis/Dissertation Information

Degree:
Master's ( Master of Arts)
Degree Grantor:
University of Colorado Denver
Degree Divisions:
Department of English, CU Denver
Degree Disciplines:
English
Committee Chair:
VanDeWeghe, Richard
Committee Members:
Wiley, Catherine A.
Stratman, James F.

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
Reading (Higher education) ( lcsh )
Literature -- Study and teaching (Higher) ( lcsh )
English language -- Composition and exercises -- Study and teaching (Higher) ( lcsh )
English language -- Composition and exercises -- Study and teaching (Higher) ( fast )
Literature -- Study and teaching (Higher) ( fast )
Reading (Higher education) ( fast )
Genre:
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

Notes

Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 95-98).
General Note:
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree, Master of Arts, English.
General Note:
Department of English
Statement of Responsibility:
by Paula Jane Nelson Pitchford.

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
30696457 ( OCLC )
ocm30696457
Classification:
LD1190.L54 1993m .P58 ( lcc )

Full Text
WRITING BETWEEN THE LINES:
COLLEGE STUDENTS RESPOND TO LITERATURE
IN INFORMAL JOURNALS
by
Paula Jane Nelson Pitchford
B.A., University of Colorado at Boulder, 1967
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
English
1993
V1
5As


This thesis for the Master of Arts
degree by
Paula Jane Nelson Pitchford
has been approved for the
Department of
English
by
Richard P. VanDeWeghe
a m3
Date


Pitchford, Paula Jane Nelson (M.A., English)
Writing Between the Lines: College Students Respond to Literature in Informal
Journals
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Richard P. VanDeWeghe
ABSTRACT
Teachers can create classroom environments in which students at all levels can
have meaningful literary experiences. Students who are encouraged to read widely and
reflect on their reading orally and in writing can begin responding to literary texts
thoughtfully and with feeling. They thus become more confident members of what
teacher and writer Frank Smith calls "the literacy club." Because literature by nature
has many "blanks" or gaps in detail, one way that readers discover meaning and evoke a
work of art from a text is by imaginatively filling in those blanks. Keeping an informal
journal in which they record their thoughtful responses to fiction is an effective way for
students to fill in the blanks by writing. As students write to learn and reflect on the
text to create meaning, they can use their journals to "write between the lines," or
clarify parts of a text that they find difficult to understand. This thesis describes some
ways that twenty-one college students wrote between the lines, filling in gaps and
blanks, in informal journals, demonstrating their development as imaginative and
critical thinkers and as full-fledged members of the literacy club. It includes the
students own thoughts on the value of reflecting on reading by writing.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I recommend
its publication.
Signed
Richard P. VanDeWeghe
m


CONTENTS
CHAPTER Page
1. A CLUB FOR LITERACY...................................... 1
Who Can Join the Literacy Club?..................... 3
How Can Teachers Help Students Join the Club?....... 9
2. A SUBJECT FOR LITERACY ................................. 12
The Stories of Literature .............................. 12
Literature as Experience ............................... 16
Thinking, Reading, and Writing about Literature .... 20
3. TRANSACTIONS AND RESPONSE............................... 29
Transacting with Texts.................................. 29
Reading and Responding .................;........... 35
Filling in the Blanks in a Journal ................. 43
4. WRITING BETWEEN THE LINES .............................. 54
The Nature of the Literature Course ................ 54
Writing Between the Lines: Asking and Answering
Questions in Journals................................ 57
Types of Responses and Purposes for Writing...... 58
Writing Between the Lines to Close the Gaps ..... 65
Thinking and Writing Critically......................... 69
Writing to Understand Complex Stories................ 70
Writing with Greater Tolerance for Uncertainty
and Ambiguity...................................... 74
iv


I
5. THE VALUE OF INFORMAL JOURNAL WRITING IN RESPONSE
TO LITERATURE ..................................... 80
The Value of Journal Writing in a Literature Course. 81
Students Write about Their Journal Writing ......... 91
REFERENCES .................................................. 95
APPENDIX
A. Course Objectives, Materials, and Requirements ..... 99
B. Responses to the Survey on Journal Writing ......... 105
v


CHAPTER 1
A CLUB FOR LITERACY
Kelly can hardly get her books published fast enough. They are bound
with shiny, plastic spiral "combs" and illustrated with her own drawings. With
titles like When My Mom Went Bananas and My Adventures of Being a Witchs
Cat, her books contain both imaginative and "true-to-life" stories that she
writes herself. Her teacher at Centennial Elementary School in Denver, where
her books and those of other students are published, often comments on how
much ten-year-old Kelly enjoys writing and illustrating her own stories.
Paul, Brad, and Nicholas are studying short stories in a college
literature course entitled "Introduction to Fiction." They are a little older than
many of the other students in the class, and they are not English literature
majors. Sometimes, as they discuss these stories in the courtyards and
hallways before class begins, their conversations become very animated. Often,
they relate the stories to events in their own lives.
Kelly, Paul, Brad, and Nicholas are all full-fledged members of "the
literacy club," as it is described by teacher and writer Frank Smith (Smith
1988a). Not all the members of this club write and illustrate their own books;
not all of them have lively discussions about short stories with other students of
the genre. But all members take part in many different kinds of activities that
involve thinking, reading, and writing. Some of these activities, and the ways
that teachers can provide time and opportunities for them in the literature
1


classroom, enabling students to develop their literacy skills, are the subjects of
this thesis. Of particular interest to teachers of literature and writing are the
ways that students can be encouraged to think and write about literature
informally, purposefully, and authentically, recording their thoughts and
feelings about literary works and writing their way through puzzling or difficult
passages to charter membership in the literacy club.
This chapter describes that club and its members in more detail.
Chapter 2 focuses on literature, one of the primary subjects of literacy, briefly
describing literatures narrative and aesthetic characteristics, illuminating the
transactional nature of the literary experience, and outlining ways that
students think, read, and write about literature. In Chapter 3, Louise
Rosenblatts transactional theory of literary criticism is briefly described, along
with a related reader-response theory developed by Wolfgang Iser that suggests
how students can enrich their literary experiences by writing purposefully,
imaginatively, and critically in informal journals. Chapter 4 is a descriptive
case study of a university literature class in which students wrote their
responses to short stories in journals; their journal entries show how the
students became more confident, sophisticated readers by writing their way
critically and imaginatively through the gaps and problems they encountered in
the stories. Finally, Chapter 5 discusses the value of this teaching method and
how it develops students critical and imaginative skills, ensuring them a
permanent place in the literacy club.
2


Who Can Join the Literacy Club?
"The literacy club" is the name that Frank Smith ascribes to "the
community of written language users," which includes all those who read and
write (2). Smith describes the literacy club, the spoken language club, and the
writers club as communities that "function in much the same way as any
special interest group" in which members share common interests and activities
(Smith 1988a, 2):
Members are concerned about each others interests and welfare,
and . occupy themselves with whatever activities the club has
formed itself to promote, constantly demonstrating the value and
utility of these activities to the new members, helping them to
participate when they want but never forcing their involvement
and never ostracizing them for not having the understanding or
the expertise of more practiced members. Differences in ability
and in specific interests are taken for granted. (3-4)
This description shows that Smiths conception of clubs underlies a basic
philosophy of learning and teaching that allows learning to take place
naturally. Smith uses the metaphor of these clubs to suggest how teachers can
employ pedagogies and methods that reflect, and take full advantage of, the
ways that people learn and acquire skills as a matter of course, within the
contexts of their various cultural communities (Smith 1990, 124-133). For
example, even very young children acquire and develop a wealth of skills, such
as the spoken language of their communities, by interacting with older children
I N
and adults but without being "taught" directly. Smiths theory of teaching is
based on this natural capability for learningand teachingand on
researchers findings about the ways that people of all ages think and imagine
and remember and learn (Smith 1988a, 1-4; 1990, 124-133).
3


A natural approach to learning and teaching thus builds on what
researchers like Smith are learning about learning. For example, in the past
few decades researchers have learned a great deal about language acquisition.
These researchers observations of infants and children strongly suggest that
our capability for language is innatethat people are physiologically
predisposed, so to speak, for language, and that language develops in children
in predictable stages, as they interact with the language users around them
(Fromkin and Rodman 1988, 382-391). Since language learning is a natural
process, adults support the process best when they treat it as such, allowing the
learner to proceed largely at his or her own pace. Teachers enable students to
develop literacy when they use "methods of. . intervention which reflect an
informed attempt to enhance the quality of naturally occurring processes,"
according to teacher and researcher Bill Corcoran (Corcoran 1987, 53).
Teachers can effectively promote this natural process of learning by
structuring their classrooms and guiding students along lines that reflect the
principles of learning illuminated by such investigators as Smith and Corcoran.
Smith believes, for example, that teachers can make effective use of students
natural ability and desire to learnto develop and use the students thinking
skills and apply the new knowledge they continually acquire (Smith 1990, vii-
ix). He states that
we have become so persuaded that learning is difficultfrom
those occasions when, usually at someone elses behest, we have
deliberately applied ourselves to a learning taskthat we want
to call it something else when we gain knowledge,
understanding, or new behavior simply by virtue of our
particular club memberships. Yet we read the newspaper or
watch a television program, and the next day we can discuss the
4


experience with a friend. We remember what we had for
breakfast yesterday, what we wore to the picnic last week,... all
without effort, usually quite unconsciously, and sometimes even
against our will. All of this is learning, all of this is doing the
things done by the kind of person we see ourselves as being,
keeping up with the activities of the club. (Smith 1988a, 5-6)
Similarly, in his studies of research on the acquisition of literacy skills among
primary school students, Bill Corcoran found that students naturally acquire
new skills and knowledge when they have numerous encounters with literary
texts. However, the specifics of their learning, including what and when they
choose to learn, are typically the students own and not the teachers:
They will. .. gain access to lives other than their own; they will
become more self-aware; and they will be left with a capacity to
critique themselves and the culture in which the text is
embedded. It is presumptuous, however, to suggest that the
teacher can guarantee the nature of that critique, or even that it
will be exercised. (Corcoran 1987, 49)
Why does all this learning take place? Smith states that it does so
because we all want to keep our club memberships, which enable us to continue
to be "the kind of person we see ourselves as being" (Smith 1988a, 6) and
because this learning fulfills a purpose. For example, children join the spoken
language club because they have immediate and important uses for language:
Learning about language is not the primary aim, but rather the
by-product of some other activity. I call this my "Can I have
another donut?" theory of language learning. Every child learns
to say "Can I have another donut?" not as a linguistic exercise,
not as an expression of curiosity about language or even because
of a biological predisposition to make meaningful sounds, but in
order to get another donut. . Language is learned for its uses
at the time." (7)
This usefulness is only one of seven attributes of the learning we do to maintain
membership in our clubs:
5


There are seven important aspects or characteristics of the
learning that takes place through membership in such clubs as
the club of spoken language users. The learning is always (1)
meaningful, (2) useful, (3) continual and effortless, (4) incidental,
(5) collaborative, (6) vicarious, and (7) free of risk. (Smith
1988a, 6)
Teachers can make use of these characteristics as they create environments in
which learning cam take place in natural ways, or, in other words, in the ways
that most people learn most things outside schools as well as in them.
For example, Smith (1988a) states that meaningful learning will be
relevant to the needs of the learner; useful learning will have a purpose; and
continual and effortless learning will take place as students engage in
meaningful activities in such ways that they hardly notice that learning is
occurring (6-7). Moreover, learning will be incidental, the by-product of these
meaningful activities rather than the focus of them; it will be collaborative,
whether the collaboration involves other people or books, films, poems, other
media, or any combination of these as resources; and it will be vicarious,
because children (and adults) often learn by watching and imitating others,
provided they are the kind of people the children see themselves as being" (7-8).
Finally, learning, ideally, will be risk-free, in the sense that students will
not have to risk ridicule or "failure" in order to learn. Smith states that this
aspect could be the most important one. He asks, "How much risk of
punishment, failure, or embarrassment would anyone run in order to learn in
any clubbefore learning that the club itself might be hazardous?" (9) In light
of the punishments, failures, and embarrassments of some peoples early school
years, its somewhat amazing that many of them decided to pursue a traditional
6


formal education. Too much of the knowledge many people acquire in school,
the knowledge they try to absorb in lectures and repeat back in endless drills
and tests, is peripheral to learning at best (such as how to punctuate sentences)
and useless at worst (such as how to write dull, uninspired, and uninspiring
book reports). Teacher Ken Macrorie states that "most of the time the
uselessness of school knowledge in students lives is absolute and unarguable.
The doings ... of students are not. . evaluated by those outside the classroom
because they arent worth looking at" (Macrorie 1984, 236). Richard Paul, of
the Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique, adds that many schools
are not accomplishing even their own stated learning objectives:
The rhetoric of reason ... is everywhere. Yet classroom
instruction around the world, at all levels, is typically didactic,
one-dimensional, and indifferent, when not antithetical, to
reason. ;Blank faces are taught barren conclusions in dreary, .
drills. (Paul 1990, xvii)
The didactic tradition of teaching and learning thus appears to be the polar
opposite of a natural approach. In neglecting students needs for learning that
is meaningful, collaborative, and risk-free, in particular, educators may be
observing poor performance in response to traditional didactic methods not
because the learners are defective but because the pedagogy is simply an
unnatural one. Frank Smith suggests that students may simply be repeating
mechanically the impersonal attitudes being modeled for them, in many cases:
Schools should be places where people demonstrate the things
they value. The values demonstrated in schools today tend to be
impersonal, bureaucratic, and mechanistic, if not vapid. (Smith
1990,131)
7


The best alternative to the "lecture, drill, and test" pedagogy, in Ken Macrories
view, is to encourage teachers to become "coaches" and "enablers"in other
words, people who guide students in their learning and allow them to be
"finders, rather than simple keepers of someone elses knowledge" (246).
Students cannot find knowledge without seeking it in some way, which implies
that they have become active participants, not just passive receptacles, in their
own learning. The knowledge students find then becomes useful to them, and
interesting and meaningful. Teachers who are coaches and enablers tend to
foster the kind of unhurried, natural learning experiences that Frank Smith
describes as taking place in the clubs of learners:
Learning is not difficult. It does not require deliberate
motivation. Most of the time we learn without knowing we are
- . learning. . Learning, like breathing,isia natural and-necessary
function of the living person. (Smith 1990, 38)
If learning is natural and continual, why are some of our schools
apparently failing to take advantage of these characteristics? John Goodlad of
UCLA and his colleagues undertook a comprehensive study of American public
schools about a decade ago to find out whether the rampant criticism of our
schools was justified, and if so, what could be done to improve them (Goodlad
1984). The study team investigated 38 schools intensively in urban, suburban,
and rural communities around the country, interviewing more than 1,300
teachers, 1,800 parents, and 17,000 students (18). Notable among the teams
conclusions was the need for more "teaching designed to involve students more
meaningfully and actively in the learning process" (271). Purposefulness,
meaningfulness, involvement, and ownership appear to be critically important
8


to naturally occurring learning and problem-solving among learners (and
teachers) of all ages.
How Can Teachers Help Students Join the Club?
To qualify for membership in the literacy club, children only have to
want to read and write and have access to a place where they can become
readers and writers. Frank Smith states that "members of the literacy club are
people who can read and write, even the beginners" (Smith 1988a, 11). He adds
that researchers in literacy in many cultures have found that children already
know a lot about reading and writing even before they get to school:
They know many of the uses of written language, its role in
signs, labels, lists, letters, books, and television guides. They
know what people do with written language, even if they cannot
do these things themselves. They also know roughly how written
language works, that it consists of letters written on lines, that it
is laid out in various conventional ways, and that there are rules
or regularities of spelling. They also have ideas about why
people read, even before they can read themselves. They pretend
to read and write in their role-playing games. (9)
For example, about two years before Kelly began to attend school, she would
look up at the sign on one of her favorite restaurants as she passed it and
confidently announce, "Burger King." This is not necessarily proof of Smiths
"Can I have another donut?" theory as applied to literacy, but it is certainly
suggestive. Pointing out signs and repeating stories aloud as she paged
through her picture books, Kelly was already showing an interest in reading at
the age of three.
Smith believes that most children naturally want to join the literacy
club because they see other people around them engaging in club-related
9


activities, and they view themselves as being like these people, doing the kinds
of things they do (10). "Children get involved in an ever-broadening range of
literate activities as these make sense to them, and the learning follows" (10).
But he recognizes a critical role for teachers in fostering literacy:
Those who are in the clubwho see themselves as readers and
writers, and who readwill become literate without any further
direct help. Therefore a teachers basic role in literacy education
might be seen as encouraging [students] who dont want to, or
who feel there is no place for them, to join the club. (124)
Why would children not want to join? Some reasons might be that they do not
have access to books or magazines at home, they have not been able to watch
other people reading and writing, or no one has ever read to them. Perhaps
they are reluctant to try to do something they arent comfortable doing, or they
may be afraid someone will criticize or ridicule them if they make a mistake.
In any case, there are two requirements for bringing such students into any
club, according to Smith. The task for the teacher "is to make the club
interesting . [and] to make the club accessible, to show that every [student]
can join" (124-125). Bill Corcoran adds that "the teachers task ... is to make
accessible to students . institutionally sanctioned and empowering ways of
talking about the literary productions of the culture" (Corcoran 1987, 48).
Teachers can begin to do this by making sure the learner is actively involved:
The trick is to find something involving reading and writing that
interests the learner and to engage the learner authentically in
that area of interest. (Smith 1988a, 125)
Teachers such as Donald Murray seem to agree. Murray points out that
because every student has important concerns, has had many experiences, and
knows or wonders about many things, each student thus has a variety of
10


subjects for writing in his or her own voice (Murray 1982, 129-34). Because
every student is interested in something, all students can profit from
opportunities to engage and enlarge that interest by reading, as well. Smiths
insistence that no student be excluded from the literacy club calls for a
pedagogy in which teachers see all students at all times as actual or potential
club members (unless they have profound physical disabilities that
unquestionably exclude them):
Children who have not become members should find the
classroom the place where they are immediately admitted to the
club. The classroom should be a place full of meaningful and
useful reading and writing activities, where participation is
possible without evaluation and collaboration is always available.
(Smith 1988a, 11-12)
To qualify for membership in the literacy club, then, we must want to be
members and have opportunities to read and write and to; share those activities
with others, including teachers. Club member Kelly takes full advantage of the
opportunities her teacher provides for publishing her original stories in school.
Club members Paul, Brad, and Nicholas not only took advantage of the
opportunities in their literature class to read, write about, and discuss short
stories, they also spent extra time outside class discussing those stories.
Chapter 2 explores aspects of the nature of stories themselves to
illuminate the narrative and aesthetic impulses that pull people so powerfully
toward literacy. The reflections in Chapter 2 on the nature of the literary
experience itself can provide a good foundation for an approach to teaching
literature that almost guarantees a place in the literacy club for every reader
and writer.
11


CHAPTER 2
A SUBJECT FOR LITERACY
One of the greatest attractions of the literacy club may be the
opportunity it affords us, its members, to understand and enjoy the wealth of
stories that make up so much of our cultures body of literature. Stories in
many forms, including the stories inherent in poetry, drama, and nonfiction, are
the great subject matter of literacy; stories may also provide the basic structure
for everything we think about and know, as I discuss later in this chapter.
Briefly reflecting on the nature of stories can shed some light on our powerful
impulse toward literacy. And examining the nature of the literary experience
can suggest some powerful ways that teachers can encourage students to read,
think about, and write about literature, in order to make students literary
experiences more meaningful to them and more fully their own.
The Stories of Literature
In the third century B.C.E., Aristotle reflected on the nature of stories in
The Poetics. He agreed with Plato that stories, in the form of poetry or drama,
were peoples attempts to represent or imitate the world around them. Greek
poetry and drama presented the culture of the age to the community that
embraced that culture, within certain conventions of plot, character, action,
and setting.
12


The tragic stories, in Aristotles view, also served a valuable
psychological function. They excited the emotions of pity and fear in the
audience, as they witnessed the downfall of the protagonist, the central
character "whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by
some error or frailty" (Aristotle 1970, 63). The chief aims of these stories,
then, seem to have been to show the audience what their culture expected of
them, to portray the often pitiable human condition, and to arouse intense
feelings in the audience. Poets and dramatists thus labored for the audiences
pleasure (including the pleasure of being saddened, terrified, or horrified) and
for their concomitant social and political edification. Jane Tompkins
emphasizes the social and political functions of these intensely emotional
stories:
Two features of the classical attitude toward literature that
distinguish it most markedly from our own [are] the identifica-
tion of language with power and the assimilation of the aesthetic
to the political realm in Greek life. . The reader, in antiquity,
is seen as a citizen of the state, the author as a shaper of civic
morality, and the critic as a guardian of the public interest:
literature, its producers, and consumers are all seen in relation
to the needs of the polity as a whole. (Tompkins 1980, 204)
The stories of classical Greece thus reflected Greek social values and political
ideals. Western Civilization has not been unique, though, in representing and
communicating cultural rules, traditions, and expectations in stories. James
Pickering points out that
examples of short fictionsimple, straightforward narratives in
prose or verseare to be found in the folktales, ballads, fables,
myths, and legends of all nations and all cultures. . Stories
constitute an important part of our cultural heritage. They serve
our need to share knowledge and experience, to teach, and to
amuse and delight. (Pickering 1988, 1)
13


Moreover, many cultures seem to have strong preferences for particular stories
or mythssuch as the youthful hero on some kind of questthat continually
thrill and delight the members of that culture. Pickering notes that
there is a special excitement in the discovery that a story
centering around ordinary-seeming modem events shows traces
of a relationship to some of the cultures earliest forms of story-
telling: folk and fairy tales, myths, sagas, epics, the Bible. (38)
The patterns (of characters, plots, and themes, for example) to which
people pay most attention in stories tell them not only what kind of people they
ought to be in society but also what kind of people they are:
For most readers of fiction the primary attraction lies in the
characters, in the endlessly fascinating collection of men and
women whose experiences and adventures in life form the basis
of the plots of the stories and the novels in which they
appear. (6)
However, Erank JSmith suggests that there is another reason why we express
ourselves so readily in stories. He makes a strong case that stories are what
constitute the basic structures of thought and language:
We experience the world in terms of "things going on"
because we impose a structure of events on everything. . .
In particular, we see and think about the world in the patterns
of stories. . We learn in the form of stories. We
construct stories to make sense of events. (Smith 1990, 62)
Thus, the very way we think can serve to explain our desire and need to tell
stories. "The brain is a story-seeking, story-creating instrument," Smith writes
(63), suggesting that stories are the basic mechanisms of the imagination:
The key elements in every story are purpose and order .... A
story is a world that can be entered and explored; it hangs
together. (All this is relative .... What is a story to you may
not be a story to me if you can make sense of it and I cannot.) .
. Without stories, there would be no events. . Stories are our
14


way of perceiving, of conceiving, of creating; they are the way the
imagination works. (63-64)
Stories, then, not only thrill and delight us and tell us who we are, who we
ought to be, what we ought to do, and what we must not do in our culture in
order to remain members in good standing, they also reflect the basic patterns
of human perception and imagination.
As members of the literacy club, we read, talk, write (and think) about
stories. Many of our stories, like those of Aristotles day, have such a powerful
emotional effect on us that we give them the special status of "art." Frank
Smith points out that, although we call one set of experiences "life" and another
set "art," the feelings we experience as we respond to the events of both life and
art are essentially the same. The intensity of many of those feeling responses
have not diminished since Aristotles time. Smith (1990) writes that
encounters with art are driven by the same impulses that compel
us to find experience in realitythe need to create and explore
meaningful worlds. The appeal of art is the appeal of life. . .
We respond [to art] with feelingsof happiness or sadness,
acceptance or rejection, inspiration or discouragement,
enlightenment or confusion. . The essential qualities of great
artof the novels, poems, paintings, symphonies, and songs that
have come to us through the agesare the intensity and value of
the experiences they make possible. (79-80)
As we experience a powerful work of literary art in the form of a novel, story, or
play, such as Melvilles Moby-Dick, Bucks The Good Earth, OConnors A Good
Man Is Hard to Find, Millers Death of a Salesman, or any number of others,
we are conscious of the powerful emotions evoked in us even if we never
actually sailed in a whaling ship, grew up in China, traveled in the South, or
sold things for a living. The characters emotional experiences, as well as their
15


life experiences, become our own, if only for the moments we share them in the
readingbut most often, for the rest of our lives.
Literature as Experience
People deem great literature to be art not just because it is emotionally
compelling, however. Especially as their encounters with literature increase,
readers also sense how wondrously wrought some stories are, and how vivid
and imaginative is the language of literature. Such stories provide us with
aesthetic literary experiences made possible by virtue of our membership in the
literacy club.
Earlier in this century, teacher and philosopher John Dewey described
an "experience" as an interaction between individuals and their environment (or
something in it) "that runs its course to fulfillment" (Dewey 1934, 34). In other
words, an experience, like a story, is an event that people perceive as having a
beginning and an end. Experiences can be nonaesthetic, anaesthetic, or
aesthetic, according to Dewey, depending in part on the degree of ones
emotional involvement:
I have spoken of the esthetic quality that rounds out an
experience into completeness and unity as emotional. . .
Emotions are qualities, when they are significant, of a complex
experience that moves and changes. . All emotions Eire
qualifications of a drama, and they change as the drama
develops. (41)
Moreover, Dewey sees patterns and structures as inherent in all experiences,
including the experience of art, as Smith does. Dewey illuminates the nature of
pattern and structure as being one of perceived relationship:
16


[A]n experience has pattern and structure, because it is not just
doing and undergoing in alternation, but consists of them in
relationship. To put ones hand in the fibre that consumes it is
not necessarily to have an experience. The action and its
consequence must be joined in perception. This relationship is
what gives meaning; to grasp it is the objective of all
intelligence. (44)
A .perceived relationship, then, or the apprehension of an interaction between a
person and his or her environment (or something in it), is what gives meaning
to experience. Similarly, our apprehension of patterns (such as a motif),
emotions, completeness (for example, in the plot), and relationship is also
inherent in the literary experiences that have meaning for us. Dewey adds,
In an experience, things and events belonging to the world,
physical and social, are transformed through the human context
they enter, while the live creature is changed and developed
through its intercourse with things previously external to it. (246)
Thus we have at least two transformations taking place in every experience, in
Deweys view: that of the perceived and that of the perceiver. Bill Corcoran
echoes this view when he describes the reading experience as a dual
transformation: "We shape the reading, and in a direct way the reading shapes
us" (Corcoran 1987, 48).
Writing specifically about the literary experience, and building on
Deweys and others work in philosophy and aesthetics, teacher and literary
critic Louise M. Rosenblatt extends their approach to education and literature
in her own theories and analyses. She describes the interactive and mutually
transformational nature of the literary experience as a unique, highly personal
transaction:
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There is no such thing as a generic reader or a generic literary
work. . The reading of any work of literature is, of necessity,
an individual and unique occurrence [or experience] involving the
mind and emotions of a particular reader. (Rosenblatt 1978, xii)
Here, Louise Rosenblatt is reacting in part to the tendency of some literary
critics to emphasize texts (or authors and texts) and downplay the role of
readers. Perceiving art, including the literary arts, as experience, however, as
Dewey, Smith, Rosenblatt, and others do, one is hard pressed not to include
readersin other words, not to account for those having the experience.
Rosenblatt goes on to state that a literary text, "once it leaves its authors
hands, is simply paper and ink until a reader evokes from it a literary work"
(ix). Her point, if not examined closely, might be mistaken at first for a
diminishment of the authors contribution. However, thinking of texts as
analogous to. musical scores, as she suggests, makes it clear that the author is
still important:
The text of a poem or of a novel or a drama is like a musical
score. The artist who created the scorecomposer or poethas
set down notations for others, to guide them in the production of
a work of art. Some might say that the performer, whether
musical or literary, has only ... to obediently hit the exact notes
decreed by the author of the work, but a contemporary composer
reminds us of "the preponderant role of the personality of the
performer": "honesty compels me to admit that the written page
is only ... an indication of how dose the composer was able to
come in transcribing his exact thoughts on paper. Beyond that
point the interpreter is on his own" [Aaron Copland, Music and
Imagination (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
1953), 51]. ... In the literary reading, even the keyboard on
which the performer plays ishimself. From the linkage of his
own experiences with works, from his own store of memories, he
must draw the appropriate elements symbolized by the score or
text, to structure a new experience, the work of art. (13-14)
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It is apparent here how complex and important are the workings of the
readers imagination as he or she experiences a text as a work of art. Jerome
Bruner remarks on this complexity as he describes the rich, uncommon
experiences that literary works provide:
[T]he function of literature as art is to open us to dilemmas, to
the hypothetical, to the range of possible worlds that a text can
refer to. I have used the term "to subjunctivize, to render the
world less fixed, less banal, more susceptible to recreation.
Literature subjunctivizes,. . renders the obvious less so, the
unknowable less so as well.... Literature, in this spirit, is an
instrument of freedom, lightness, imagination, and yes, reason.
It is our only hope against the long gray night. (Bruner
1986,159)
One can conceive, as Bruner does, of the literary experience as an
instrument not just of emotion and intuition but of reason as well. Stories give
us opportunities to think as well as to feel, as Louise Rosenblatt also contends:
[C]ertainly the good and great stories, novels, and plays possess
a strong cognitive or intellectual or ideational element. The
mark of the readers aesthetic activity is precisely that he does
not respond to either [the cognitive or the affective] elements
separately but, rather, fuses the cognitive and the emotive, or
perhaps more accurately, apprehends them as facets of the same
lived-through experience, thus giving it its special meaning and
quality. . Apprehension of what a poem [or story] is "about,"
what a novel "says," the human meaning, the "sense" of the
words, what they refer to "in the world" is an essential element,
which cannot be dissociated from the affective impact on the
reader. (Rosenblatt 1978, 46)
Thus, teachers can help students join the literacy club by providing them with
opportunities to experience literature fully, to respond to great stories with
feeling and with thoughtfulness, exploring the full range of what the story is
"about," not only in literal or plot-related terms, but also in terms of the
statements the story makes about the human condition. Encouraging students
19


to articulate thoughtful responses to literature also helps them understand
their culture and its goals and values, their place in that culture, and their
responsibility to it. Teaching for thoughtfulness can help prepare students to
take their place in society with greater understanding and commitment.
Literature provides students with a wealth of opportunities to recognize,
explore, and examine their own and their cultures values, attitudes, and ideals.
Thinking, Reading, and Writing about Literature
In Teaching for Thoughtfulness, John Bareli states that "to create the
conditions that foster thoughtfulness," teachers can "nurture the disposition in
our students to pose and resolve good questions" (Bareli 1991, 1). Bareli has
doubts, though, about the ability of some schools to develop thoughtful
students. He cites a 1986 report by the National Assessment of Educational
Progress that shows only 28% of a representative sample of eleventh graders in
the United States as being able to "satisfactorily provide evidence for their
conclusions" (5). And only 18% of these students could write "adequate
responses" when they were asked to "project themselves imaginatively into a
scene and . provide a lively and interesting description of what was going on
around them" (5). Educators who are hoping to see more critical and
imaginative thinking in young people will not be encouraged by these data.
In contrast, Bareli describes thoughtful students as those who are "good
at analyzing complex situations to discover what they mean"; they also
"generate alternative solutions or interpretations and "select from among them
using criteria such as reasonableness" (5). They show a high tolerance for
20


complexity and ambiguity, suspend judgment until they have considered
multiple viewpoints, and make choices based on rational criteria (5-6), as Frank
Smith and Richard Paul also suggest (Smith 1990, 129; Paul 1990, 46). Like
Smith, Bareli sees the nurturing of students ability to ask their own questions
as. key:
As educators,. . we often give our students clearly defined
problems without providing them with opportunities to define
what is problematic for them. We can ask students, "What
puzzles you? What questions do you have about this situation?"
We want our students to define the problems for themselves.
(Bareli 1991, 11)
Bareli advocates that students be in charge of their own learning, echoing
Smiths assertion that learning takes place naturally "when the brain itself is in
charge" (Smith 1990, 27)and learning is self-directed.
Bareli sees the teacher as primarily a creator and nurturer of good
learning environments. This view echoes Ken Macrories vision of the teacher
as an enabler of learningone who supports students in a search for knowledge
that is meaningful to them, as noted earlier. This role also is reminiscent of
James Moffetts analogy of the teacher as a "coach" who, above all, gives
valuable, meaningful feedback and clarifies students questions and problems,
guiding them in their search for answers (Moffett 1983,188-210). Such an
environment, according to Bareli, will "invite students to think, take risks, and
ask good questions" (Bareli 1991, 93). Here, Bareli is referring to the risks
students take when they question, propose, and explore ideas and hunches,
rather than the risk of failure or ridicule that Smith describes in discussing
"risk-free learning" (Smith 1988a, 6-9).
21


Questioning, thinking, and learning build on all our prior experience,
our understanding of what we already know and are interested in (Smith 1990,
32-44). Perceiving, thinking, and learning are ultimately inseparable, in Frank
Smiths view; they each involve interactions of the human brain with its
enyironment, as mediated by the senses, in which the brain creates "order out
of chaos," imposing patterns of events, or storiespatterns of
meaningfulnesson incoming neural "clues" from the environment (1-44). In
other words, thinking and learning are transactions between the mind and the
world, the perceiver and the perceived, that create our experience of that world,
as reflected in the patterns and stories of thought itself.
This idea of the transactional nature of human experience, from
perception itself to the most sophisticated forms of dialogue between
individuals, communities, and cultures, threads through Frank Smiths theories
of thought and learning (and those of Jerome Bruner, cited earlier), John
Deweys theory of art as experience, and Louise Rosenblatts theory of literature
as a transaction between reader and text. A multidimensional transactional
theory of perception and experience can thus be apprehended as a theoretical
foundation for the transactional theory of literature discussed in Chapter 3.
The transactional nature of human thought and experience informs, directs,
and supports a transactional approach to teaching and learning; exploiting the
transactional nature of learning enables literature teachers to create a
classroom environment in which students are encouraged not to be passive
receiversmere keepersof knowledge, but to be explorers and finders of
knowledge, and to engage personally with powerful stories.
22


Moreover, the literature classroom is an ideal place for creating an
environment that fosters thoughtful learning, especially in the way it provides
opportunities for transacting with texts that can stimulate reflection,
imagination, and critical thinking. A literature class can introduce students to
stories about who people are and who they ought to be, and these stories can
provoke a wealth of thoughtful responses as teachers guide students in both
classroom discussions and meaningful writing activities.
Encouraging students to transact with literature by responding
thoughtfully and critically to stories is one of the aims of Louise Rosenblatts
transactional approach to teaching literature:
Since 1938,1 have urged that students be made aware of the
implicit underlying cultural and social assumptions of any
evoked work, and that they be helped to make these the basis for
scrutinizing their 'Own-assumptions: -: My ainr;^. is to develop
a discriminating attitude of mind, a' readiness to question and to
reject. . unjust assumptions, but a willingness also to accept
and build on what is sound in our culture. (Rosenblatt 1990, 106)
Rosenblatt weaves democratic ideals similar to Deweys and Smiths into
her philosophy of teaching when she advocates that each students thoughts be
heard in the classroom, that each be given the opportunity to examine problems
and propose solutions that will sustain and improve all that is best in the
larger democracy, the nation itself. In this respect, her approach to teaching
literature reflects the interweaving of the aesthetic with the political, which
Jane Tompkins found in the literature of classical Greece but did not observe
markedly in modem literature, as noted in Chapter 1 (Tompkins 1980, 102).
Louise Rosenblatt, however, believes that teachers can (and should) use all
kinds of literature as a basis for political dialogues in the classroom:
23


[T]o claim absence of any political orientation in the classroom
only serves confusion. Students should be actively helped to
develop criteria based on democratic assumptions about the
freedom and well-being of individual human beings. . Our
democracy is still threatened ... by social and economic
problems that, if not solved, will prevent the education and
development of a people capable of the decisions and
responsibilities of a full democracy. (Rosenblatt 1990, 107)
Teacher Robert Probst echoes this notion of using literature as a
springboard for discussions of cultural values and attitudes. "To absorb
attitudes unthinkingly from the literature would be as indefensible as to absorb
them unthinkingly from soap operas or political speeches. Students must be
encouraged to assume intellectual responsibility for the conceptions with which
they face the world" (Probst 1990, 35). If students are to face the world as
responsible, decisive citizens, they will need to be sophisticated critical thinkers
who are capable of recognizing cant, propaganda, prejudice, and bias for what
they are. Sophisticated critical thinkers will also be better able to tolerate the
significant amount of ambiguity and tentativeness that characterize the modern
world. James Pickering agrees with Smith, Paul, and Bareli on the need for
todays students to be able to deal with ambiguity, tentativeness, and
uncertainty:
As readers, we must be careful not to credit literary works with
solutions and answers where such issues and questions are only
being explored or where only tentative answers are being
proposed. (Pickering 1988, 22)
The poets of the ancient world usually left the audience little to doubt about
what was going on in terms of the greater social themes and messages of their
work, as Jane Tompkins noticed. Modem literature, in contrast, is
characterized by ambiguities, uncertainties, and apparent or actual
24


contradictions. Particularly in multicultural societies such as ours, it is no
longer easy to readily identify values and purposes shared by an entire
community of any size (including classrooms as well as whole nations).
Pickering believes that these complexities nonetheless provide many good
opportunities for developing the speculative attitude needed for critical
thinking:
[C]ontradictions [in the themes of a story] are the means by
which authors give their works the feel of philosophical weight
and depth and stir readers into speculation over their own
values. (37)
Such complexity can be bewildering to the beginning student of modem
literature, as is shown in Chapter 4. However, Frank Smiths examination of
the nature of reading itself suggests that literature teachers can help to guide
students through these complexities by first and foremost encouraging students
to read widely and to discuss their reading with others. The reflection,
speculation, and judgment needed for critical thinking are skills that can
develop naturally as students become more experienced readers and reflect on
their reading. In other words, the act of reading itself involves reflecting or
thinking back on what weve read, speculating about or predicting what will
come next, and evaluating or judging what is going on now, in constant
alternation and interrelationship (Smith 1988b, 148-179).
Smith believes that experienced or fluent readers "take control" of texts
"through the four characteristics of meaningful readingtheir reading is
purposeful, selective, anticipatory, and based on comprehension" (175). While
beginning readers depend more on "the actual words in the text" (175) to make
25


reading meaningful, fluent readers depend more on "nonvisual information,"
which they gain chiefly from prior knowledge and prior experience in reading;
"experience increases the ability to read different kinds of texts" (175). And
fluent reading "involves pursuing a complex and ever changing set of objectives
in order to make sense out of print in ways that are relevant to the purposes of
the reader" (175). Smith believes that
reading is thinking .... And the thinking we do when we read,
in order to read, is no different from the thinking we do on other
occasions. Just as we cannot talk without thinking, or make any
sense of the world without thinking, so it is impossible to read
and not think. . Reading ... is thinking that is stimulated and
directed by written language. (177)
Bill Corcoran adds that "experienced readers will be committed, discriminatory,
yet catholic on the question of taste. Both Harold Robbins and Tolstoy will
have their day (or hour) as the mood takes them" (Corcoran 1987, 51).
Corcorans experienced readers are critical readers (and thinkers) as well: they
"comprehend verbal ambiguities . constantly predict how a story will unfold .
. suspend judgment [and] expect to help the author make the story"; they are
also able to "evaluate an authors point of view [and to] fuse emotional and
intellectual responses" (51).
Just as reading is thinking, so is writing. James Britton and his
colleagues describe writing as a way of calling on memory, calling on the "whole
imaginative and constructive process" (Britton et al. 1975, 45):
We arrange our experiences, and they then make more sense to
us, and the "sense" they make is our own contribution, not part
of the direct experience. We compare what happens with what
we think might happen. We even think about what we know
cant happen. We tell stories. We guess, and compare, and make
moral judgements. We create theories and works of art. We
26


may, with Sartre, "conclude that imagination is not a contingent
and superadded power of consciousness, it is the whole of
consciousness as it realizes its freedom" [Jean-Paul Sartre, The
Psychology of Imagination (transl. by the Philosophical Library,
New York: Methuen, 1940), 216]. It is what we choose to do with
our consciousness of our experience. It is also, in a sense, what
we choose to do with our memory. (45-46)
To write, people use mind, memory, and the written language to create
new knowledge from experience. Just as fluent readers can become more
critical and imaginative thinkers the more they read, so can fluent writers, the
more they write.
Teachers can enable students to become fluent writers while they guide
their development as fluent readers. They can provide ample opportunities for
students to write about things that are meaningful to them in the ways that
"professional" writers write, including the informal, exploratory writing that
professionals often engage in. James Moffett states,
The most natural assumption about teaching any symbol system
should be that the student employ his time using that system in
every realistic way that it can be used .... If the student has to
work with language constantly in the functional way the
professional does, he will come to know it in the professionals
intimate way. Through reading, writing, and discussing whole,
authentic discourses .. students can learn better everything
that we consider of value in language and literature than they
can by the current substantive and particle approach. (Moffett
1983, 7)
Frank Smith believes that not only are such authentic discourse
activities important in the classroom, these activities should also ensure that
classroom reading and writing stand a good chance of developing students
imaginative skills and of being relevant to students own purposes for learning:
Reading and writing are two activities that promote
thoughtprovided that what is read is worth thinking about and
27


that writing is used for extending the imagination of the writer.
(Smith 1990,128)
He adds, "Writing is a traditional, obvious, and easy way to encourage students
to become creative and critical themselves" (126). And James Pickering notes
that writing about literature enhances or "extends" students experience of it:
Writing critically about what we have read provides us with the
opportunity and occasion to extend the relationship with a given
work in a way that makes that work finally and fully our own.
(Pickering 1988, 35)
In this chapter, I reflected on the nature of stories, suggesting that the
structure or pattern of a storyin which things happen, there is a beginning
and an end, there are relationships, and there are causes and effectsis
fundamentally the same structure as that of human thought, knowledge, and
experience. I also presented some ideas about the transactional nature of the
literary experience as being grounded in a transactional view of all human
experience, including perception and thought. I concluded that encouraging
students to have a broad range of experiences transacting with
literaturereading stories and writing about themis one way that teachers
can effectively enable students to develop their critical and imaginative powers.
In Chapter 3 I examine briefly the transactional and reader-response
approaches to literature, as described by Louise Rosenblatt and others. These
approaches take readers into account and respect the readers as well as the
writers who belong to the literacy club. The approaches also, in varying
degrees, suggest an interesting hypothesis about the imaginative contributions
of readers to the literary experience, and they suggest some specific ways that
teachers can enhance that experience for student readers.
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CHAPTER 3
TRANSACTIONS AND RESPONSE
Jerome Bruner uses the term "transaction" to describe "how human
beings relate to one another, especially through the use of language" (Bruner
1986, 57). Similarly, as people read literature, they use language to relate to or
transact with a textwith what are an authors guidelines in ink on the page
until the reader evokes a literary work of art from them. "The work exists in
the transaction between reader and text" (Rosenblatt 1990, 97).
Transacting with Texts
This transaction transforms both the reader and the text; in a version of
"epistemic feedback"the "inevitable interaction of two factors . wherein
knowledge alters being" (LeShan and Margenau 1982,136-137). People are
transformed or changedemotionally and intellectuallyby literary works
throughout their lives. And texts are transformed by readers, as readers are by
texts, in the literary transaction. As readers, we are sometimes acutely aware
of how we continually recreate a literary work as we reread a familiar story or
novel that suddenly begins to seem new. Readers often report "finding
something new" each time they read a particular poem, especially at different
times in their lives. Every reading is a new experience, a new transaction:
[L]iterary works of art exist in unique personal experiences. The
reader attends not only to the formal aspects of the work, but
also, perhaps primarily, to the situations, thoughts and emotions
29


called forth during the reading. . Thus the literary experience
provides the opportunity to help students [and all readers] think
rationally about issues with which they are emotionally involved.
(Rosenblatt 1990, 100)
Rosenblatt proposes that readers respond most fully to literary art when
they respond emotionally as well as thoughtfully. She states that this response
entails adopting the "the aesthetic stance," and that this stance is essential to
ones experience of a work of art:
To produce a poem, the reader [has] to pay attention to the
broader gamut of what these particular words in this particular
order [are] calling forth within him: attention to the sound and
rhythm of the words in the inner ear, attention to the imprints of
past encounters with these words and their referents in differing
life and literary contexts, attention to the overtones of feeling,
the chiming of sound, sense, idea, and association. Sensing,
feeling, imagining, thinking under the stimulus of the words, the
reader who adopts the aesthetic attitude feels no compulsion
other than to apprehend what goes on during this process, to
concentrate on the complex structure of experience that becomes
for him the poem, the story, the play symbolized by the text.
(Rosenblatt 1978, 26)
The aesthetic stance is an attitude in some ways different from the
critical attitude described earlier by Smith, Paul, and Bareli, though readers
often find themselves adopting a critical attitude (evaluating the relative merits
of a story and whether it says anything "true" about the human condition) as
they read aesthetically. Frank Smith observed, as noted in Chapter 2, that the
critical attitude involves judgment, evaluation, or conscious assessment; an
aesthetic experience, however, though not devoid of judgment (especially in
terms of evaluation), is very much like our "direct" experience of the events of
life itself. Literary experiences, for example, can affect us as powerfully as
"real-life" experiences do.
30


One interesting aspect of the aesthetic stance is that even small children
seem readily able to adopt it. When they say, "Tell us a story," children often
show visible signs of the excitement and anticipation they feel about the
imaginative experience to come; they seem to be thinking, "Now were going to
hear something interesting and wonderful and completely made up." Both
children and adults know that it is "only a story," but if it is a good one, both
will suspend disbelief to enter the world of that story and experience it both
cognitively and emotionally. And both children and adults are aware, on some
level at least, of the presence of one or more of the literary conventions of their
cultures stories: characters who are heroes, villains, comic foils, friends, foes;
plots that require some kind of resolution or outcome; conflicts that make the
story interesting or suspenseful; special language that is rhythmic, imaginative,
and vivid; and universal themes or a moral truth that makes understanding the
story important to maintaining membership in the club of ones culture.
Though older students sometimes worry that they are taking a story
"too literally" (see Chapter 4), they would probably be hard pressed to describe
a story only in terms of its action elements"who did what and when"and not
mention at least one or two of its aesthetic qualities. When students are
reading aesthetically, the greater part of their focus will be on what the words
on the page "make them see and hear and feel and think"in other words, on
the images, scenes, emotions, and thoughts that they are evoking from the
words the author placed on the page (Rosenblatt 1978, 40).
The aesthetic stance differs too from what Rosenblatt (1978) describes as
"the efferent stance" (24), in which one reads for information, to "carry away"
31


something from the text, adopting not only a different attitude toward the text
but often using different reading techniques (such as scanning or skimming) as
well. The concentrated attention the reader pays to the literary text in terms of
sound and rhythm and image, when adopting the aesthetic stance, is not
needed for efferent reading. Adopting the efferent stance,
the reader disengages his attention as much as possible from the
personal and qualitative elements in his response to the verbal
symbols; he concentrates on what the symbols designate, what
they may be contributing to the end result that he seeksthe
information, the concepts, the guides to action, that will be left
with him when the reading is over. (27)
The stance that readers adopt with a text depends, then, on their purposes for
reading, though sometimes these purposes overlap. In other words, it is
conceivable that a reader might adopt an efferent stance in reading a work of
fiction. For example.,, in reading Torn Jones, students can obtain information
about what life was like for people of the landed gentry and lower social strata
in eighteenth-century England (reading efferently), in addition to becoming
immersed in and delighted by a great novel (reading aesthetically) And they
might have aesthetic reasons to read what seems to be chiefly an informational
work, too; this is especially true in regard to the work of such skilled essayists
as Isaac Asimov, Joan Didion, Loren Eiseley, Stephen Jay Gould, Doris Lessing,
and many others.
Sometimes, though, the two stances will not overlap; Rosenblatt (1978)
suggests that "to adopt the aesthetic stance toward items in a newspaper or
toward the directions for constructing a radio, is possible, but would usually be
very unrewarding" (34). She adds, "Recognition of a continuum of possible
32


stances that the reader might adopt. . provides, however, for a systematic
understanding" of works such as the Bibles book of Isaiah and Emersons
essays, for example; these works are not traditionally regarded as aesthetic, but
they do provide aesthetic experiences for many readers (35).
It is easy to see how teachers and students might be led away from the
aesthetic stance, however, and from experiencing literature as art, by certain
kinds of study questions in anthologies, study guides, and workbooks.
Rosenblatt (1978) suggest that questions which ask readers only for "facts" (39-
40) or for information ("Who was Tom Joness mother?")and even some
thematic questions that imply there is only one correct answercan confuse
student readers about why they should be reading at all. Such questions could
discourage some students from pleasurable reading, causing them to think they
must read only to memorize details and come up with the "right"
interpretations of works (for example, Bartholomaes literature students, who
worried about memorizing and finding the "correct" interpretation [1986]).
Louise Rosenblatt, in contrast, respects every readers individual
experience of a text (1978). She also expects that any reader will transact
differently with the same text at different times. She does not, however,
suggest that "anything goes" in the readers response. "Emphasis on the
readers role does not in any way minimize the importance of the text," she
writes (34). In addition,
two prime criteria of validity [of interpretation of a text] as I
understand it are that the readers interpretation not be
contradicted by any element of the text, and that nothing be
projected for which there is no verbal basis. (115)
33


Later in this chapter, though, I show that there are times when it is
helpful, and even necessary, for readers to project things into texts to evoke
them as works of art. Primarily, Rosenblatt asks here that readers not read
things into texts that are suggested otherwise by the texts themselves.
But how Eire readers, especially student readers, to know whether any of
their interpretations actually represent the text? How can readers be sure that
their necessarily subjective experience of a literary work is grounded in the
work itself? One answer is that they probably can never be totally sure,
because of the individual nature of the aesthetic experience. But teachers can
foster in students a respect for texts by encouraging them to refer to the work
as they talk about their responses to it with other student readers and with the
teacher. Robert Probst writes that
students should be encouraged to experience the literary work,
allowing it to stimulate images, feelings, associations, and
thoughts, so that reading might be personally significant. . .
[Gjroup discussion will yield insight into varied readings and
perspectives, and both will deepen the capacity to respond to
literature and sharpen the powers of analysis. (Probst 1988, 63)
Teachers can also assist students in finding out about an author and his or her
beliefs and environment, to add background to their interpretations. Rosenblatt
writes, "Whatever knowledge or insight we might gain by nonaesthetic means
will be valued if it enhances the work-as-experienced" (Rosenblatt 1978,125).
Frank Smith adds that meaning is not something that resides in texts for
readers to simply discover there; it is rather the result of the aesthetic
transaction:
34


Readers must bring meaning to texts, they must have a
developing and constantly modifiable set of expectations about
what they will find. This is their specification of the text. But
obviously writers make a contribution too. They must have their
own specifications. And there must be a point at which readers
and writers interact. That point is the text. (Smith 1988b, 168)
When teachers encourage students to respond to texts personally and
individually before they have shared their responses with other readers, the
students can think through, reflect on, and clarify their initial responses.
Writing their responses enables "students involved in an initial reading to
adopt a more reflective stance" (Corcoran 1987, 47). Such reflective responses
form the heart of reader-response literary criticism.
Reading and Responding
Aswemotedi-Louise Rosenblatt believes that the personal, initial
response to a text, the original transaction between text and reader, is
important to the aesthetic experience and is the result of adopting an aesthetic
stance:
The habit of explaining the literary qualities of a work by
pointing to elements in the text (such as rhythm, imagery,
metaphor, and departures from ordinary diction) has prevented
the realization that the reader must first of all adopt [the]
"aesthetic stance"that is, focus attention on the private, as well
as the public, aspects of meaning. ... To call forth a literary
work of art. . the reader must first of all permit into the focus
of attention . the personal associations, feelings, and ideas
being lived through during the reading. (Rosenblatt 1990, 104)
In contrast, "traditional and formalist methods of teaching literature treat it as
a body of information to be transmitted, rather than as experiences to be
reflected upon" (104). In other words, didactic teaching methods favor an
35


objective epistemology, as James Berlin described it, which is the transmission
of truths, discovered (and thus presumably located) in the world "out there,"
from one generation to the next (Berlin 1987, 36-42). But Rosenblatt does not
advocate abandoning discussions of the formal elements of fiction in the
classroom, by any means. She is simply placing the emphasis, even for student
readers, on a need for a subjective first reading. She writes that "plot," for
example, "is often discussed in terms of exposition, rising action, crisis, falling
action, and denouement. These .. imply, and indeed require, the
understandings and awarenesses and responses of a reader" (Rosenblatt 1978,
91). To fully understand literary elements, we must first of all be readers of
literature.
As students discuss their first responses to texts, teachers will have
excellent opportunities to enhance those responses by making the students
aware of formal elements and conventions of literature such as genres, plot,
character, theme, symbol, imagery, and special diction. Such an awareness
provides students with what we might call "gold card" or "charter membership"
in the literacy club by enabling them to discuss their personal responses to
texts at length and in depth, using the vocabulary of a knowledgeable,
experienced reader. In learning to regard stories in the ways that experienced
readers, writers, and critics do, students can expand their own experience of a
work to include not only the entertainment provided by fiction but also a sense
of the structural and formal elementsand special use of languagethat make
fiction art. This sense of structure (or pattern) and form renders the readers
experience of the work more fully aesthetic!
36


It was an emphasis in the critical community on the text and its formal
elements, however, that prompted Rosenblatt and others in the first half of the
century to begin proposing the critical theories which we now call reader-
response criticism. I. A. Richards sought in the 1920s to place textual criticism
in a framework of artistic experience, and he began exploring the importance of
the readers individual response (Freund 1987, 23-39). But it remained for
Rosenblatt and others to shed greater light on the role of the reader.
Reader-response critics share an interest in what happens to the reader
as he or she encounters a text. They often differ, though, in their areas of focus
and in their philosophical or psychological approaches. Norman Holland, for
example, uses a Freudian psychoanalytic model to explain how readers
construct their identities through literary experiences (Holland 1980, 118-133).
David Bleich takes an epistemological approach, suggesting that response is an
expression of the self in a local context that reflects a set of "choices, motives,
and interests in knowledge" formed by an interpretive community (Bleich 1980,
134-163). Stanley Fish explores "meaning as event" and the cognitive and
affective elements of response in a number of provocative essays; at times, he
appears to locate the text almost entirely in the reader, with little concern for
its transactional nature (for example, Fish 1980a, 1980b).
In Germany, Wolfgang Iser has explored a theory of reader response
with a philosophical and psychological basis in phenomenology and gestalt
theory (Iser 1980, 50-69). In other words, Iser is interested in what the reader
does, the readers "actions," as he or she encounters a text, and in how the
reader forms a "gestalt," a consistent whole, grouping, or pattern, in reading a
37


text. Iser speaks of the "convergence of text and reader" as bringing "the
literary work into existence" (50). If we think of this convergence as a kind of
transaction, we see how similar his conception of the literary experience is to
Louise Rosenblatts. Iser also notes how the act of reading transforms the
readerthe "real me" that is the reader is continually being modified by the
results of anticipation and retrospection in the process of reading. In other
words, the reader must continually modify, and thus be modified by, his or her
changing expectations and interpretations of the emerging text (56).
It is Isers conception of the gestalt, or apparent wholeness, of the text
that may be of particular interest to literature teachers, however. Everything I
have presented so far in terms of the nature of stories, the patterns of thought,
the dynamics of reading, and the imaginative, experiential, and transactional
nature of aesthetic reading can be brought to bear on Isers conception of what
readers do to create a whole work of art from a text. Iser writes,
It will always be the process of anticipation and retrospection
that leads to the formation of the virtual dimension [the virtual
text created by the convergence of text and reader], which in
turn transforms the text into an experience for the reader. . .
This experience comes about through a process of continual
modification. . While expectations may be continually
modified, and images continually expanded, the reader will
strive, even if unconsciously, to fit everything together in a
consistent pattern. (56)
Frank Smith described the act of reading as this same process of anticipation
and reflection, continually modifying the readers specification of a text, as
noted in Chapter 2. Here again, human experience appears to be bound up
with patternsnot just those of letters or words on a page, but those of entire
stories.
38


"In Isers account," Elizabeth Freund states, "the reader actively
participates in the assemblage of literary meaning" (Freund 1987, 139). She
explains Isers theory in terms of texts as guidelinesbut guidelines full of
gapsfor imaginative readers, echoing Louise Rosenblatts theory of texts as
being analogous to musical scores. Freund states that
the virtue of [his] model, as Iser sees it, is that it avoids
identifying the aesthetic object either with an objective self-
sufficient text (the artistic pole) or with the subjective experience
of an individual reader (the aesthetic pole). Iser insists that the
literary text does not point to a referential reality (as does a
"document") but represents a pattern, "a structured indicator to
guide the imagination of the reader" [Wolfgang Iser, The Act of
Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response, (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins, 1978), 9]. This set of instructions, however, is
incomplete, full of "gaps" or "blanks" or "indeterminacies" which
must be filled by the reader, both according to his disposition and
to the perspectives offered by the text. Meaning is not directly
accessible or even present in any way either in the reader or in
the textual .object, but is something that emerges (a product or
assemblage) in the process of interaction between the two poles. .
. The reader is free to fill in the blanks but is at the same time
constrained by the patterns supplied in the text; the text
proposes, or instructs; and the reader disposes, or constructs.
(142)
Louise Rosenblatt proposes a similar dynamic when she describes the
simultaneous "openness" (to the readers imaginative projection) and
"constraints" (on that same projection) of texts (Rosenblatt 1978, 71-100).
It is apparent how the openness of literature engages readers
imaginative abilities as well as their need to apprehend a pattern, a whole, or a
gestalt, or to have a complete aesthetic "experience," as Dewey said. Suppose
for a moment, though, that what Iser calls "blanks" or "gaps" in texts did not
exist. In that case, authors could not leave anything to the readers
imagination, and a familiar novel might have to begin like this:
39


I am an American man of average height and girth with brown
hair and blue eyes. I am modest in dress and means, moderate
in speech, neither young nor old, unmarried. Observing much,
judging little, I passed my twenty-fifth year in relative peace,
save for that longing that comes upon me every other year or so,
taking me away from my various postsschoolmasters
apprentice, dry goods clerk, etc.in the city. As the tale Tm
about to tell you unfolds, you may begin to think of me as
"Everyman," someone such as yourself. But for the presentcall
me Ishmael.
If novels continued in this way for several hundred (or thousand) pages, all but
the most patient readers would probably give up reading books for much livelier
pastimes, such as watching "the Weather Channel" on television. If we try to
imagine literature without any blanks, gaps, or indeterminacies, poetry
immediately disappears, followed by short stories, and then by all other literary
genres. Language itself is full of gaps that are continually filled in by those
who hear arid read it, by virtue of their experience and imagination; in
recounting an event to friend, could we ever supply every detail of it? Would
we ever need to?
It is hard to imagine, though, how anyone could contribute more of his
or her own imagination to the enjoyment of a work of art than does the reader
of literature. Readers are continually called upon to fill in gaps or blanks by
supplying the missing details from their own experience, or to overlook those
gaps and create (by imposing patterns on what they perceive) a coherent,
meaningful whole out of the text, gaps and all. I suspect that real readers do
bothfilling in some of the gaps and ignoring others.
Iser writes, "The readers enjoyment begins when he himself becomes
productive, i.e., when the text allows him to bring his own faculties into play"
40


(Iser 1978, 108). Some of the stories readers enjoy the most are no doubt those
in which the author has skillfully selected only enough details to cause readers
to imagine, predict, assume, anticipate, or guess many other details, as they
read. James Pickering explains that sometimes
conflict and complication . are neither shown nor prepared for,
but only revealed; the situation and the "story" are to be
understood and completed through the active participation of the
reader. . [T]he author, in constructing his or her plot, will of
necessity be forced to select those incidents that are most
relevant to the story to be told. (Pickering 1988, 4)
Moreover, when authors adopt a dramatic point of view, employ a first-person
narrator, or use a "cinematic" technique, they provide many blanks for the
reader to fill in. Pickering states that readers are often responsible for a great
deal of imaginative filling in of blanks when such literary techniques are used:
Although the author may supply certain descriptive details
[using the dramatic point of view], particularly at the beginning
of the work, the reader is called on to shoulder much of the
responsibility for analysis and interpretation. He or she must
deduce the circumstances of the action, past and present, and
how and why the characters think and feel as they do on the
basis of their overt behavior and conversation. (20)
Altering chronologies, using flashbacks, beginning stories in medias res, and
many other literary techniques are more ways that authors create blanks that
allow readers to participate in the imaginative evocation of a work. Bill
Corcoran pins down the imaginative element of Isers theory when he writes
that "it is the gaps in a text, its very indeterminacy, that allow the reader to
picture and image" (Corcoran 1987, 46).
Emrys Evans states that Isers notion of blanks or gaps comes out of the
field of social psychology (Evans 1987, 32). Because individuals cannot know
41


each others thoughts and perceptions directlyin other words, we cannot
possibly experience firsthand one anothers exact experiencesthere is a "realm
of uncertainty and unpredictability," a gap, between all people; individuals deal
with that gap by forming ideashypothesesabout what other people are
experiencing when they interact with them (32-33). If people did not
communicate any of these hypotheses, they would remain mere projections, or
attributions of our own experience to other people, without verification. Evans
writes that texts have "a similar effect on their readers" (33):
It is of the nature of literary texts, in particular, that they are
full ofdeliberately riddled withthese gaps, which [Iser] calls
blanks. Some of the gaps are in obvious placesbetween
chapters or longer sections of novels, for instance, or between the
scenes and acts of plays. More subtly, some authors require us
to read, as we say, between the lines. (33)
Evans says that as people read between the lines, "the text comes to life" and
"our lives interact with the authors written instructions" (33). He believes that
the most important instructions are the ones in the blanks. Though Evans
doesnt explicitly state why, I believe that the gaps or blanks Eire most
important because they not only invite readers to participate in the imaginative
creation of a coherent work of art, they almost require readers to do so, as
Corcoran suggests (though, as we noted, readers may decide to overlook them).
As readers make connections that are not explicit, combine themes and details
that are not apparently related, fill in gaps of time with assumed events and
blanks of intention with assumed motives, they continually predict "what will
happen next" and continually modify their predictions because of what does
happen next. Readers "read between the lines" in a transaction with the text
42


that creates their literary experience (33-34). They project their experiences of
life and art into the literary scenes unfolding before them. Thus, filling in the
gaps in texts is at the heart of the readers personal engagement with, and
response to, literature.
Filling in the Blanks in a Journal
If reading between the lines is a natural response to literature, even for
those just beginning to enjoy literary texts, should teachers be concerned about
it? One answer is that teachers do not have to be too concerned at all, beyond
providing many opportunities for students to respond imaginatively to
literature, and assisting students who are having difficulty filling in the blanks
with imaginative details that reflect the text or that fit logically into it.
Recalling Frank Smiths suggestion that teachers axe most needed when
students dont want to join the literacy club, or when they believe that they
cant, I think that teachers can be of greatest help when they notice, in class
discussions and in students informal and formal writing, that the students are
having difficulty understanding and enjoying literature. Students may be
having difficulty because they lack sufficient experience in reading and
discussing literature, because they lack confidence in their own responses, or
because they lack knowledge about the wide range of "acceptable" cognitive and
affective responses to a work of literature. Teachers can guide students to
works that reflect the students interests, and that are thus likely to increase
their confidence as readers. Robert Probst writes,
43


[I]f a work touches upon matters in which students have a vital
interest, and if the students can read it with enough ease to be
able to grasp the fundamental issues, then they may react
strongly enough to the text to need to speak [i.e., to respond].
(Probst 1988, 40)
Readers can never be completely sure that all their assumptions Eire
supported by a text. But readers can discuss their responses with other
readers. This is where the concept of a "community of responders" or a
"discourse community" can enter in, as noted earlier. Louise Rosenblatt has
identified communities of responders among any number of different reading
"publics":
Recognition of each reading as a personal event does not
necessitate disregard for the more usual criteria of evaluation,
predicated on some kind of consensus. .. [A]s soon as one looks
for such a consensus, one finds not one but divergent publics,
each achieving its own consensus through commonly held
criteria. Some judgments rely on evidence in the text of appeals
to the common human experiencesof birth, death, family,
ordinary social relationships. Others depend on the reactions of
a highly select group of verbally sophisticated readers.
(Rosenblatt 1978, 160)
Teacher Nancie Atwell states that one such reading public or response
community, student readers, can discuss their individual responses to stories
like any group of literate people having a conversationin other words,
discussing "literary gossip . around the dining room table" (Atwell 1987, 171).
To help students stay oriented in the text as they discuss their responses,
teachers can encourage students to refer to the text as they interpret it, both in
class discussions and in their writing. Louise Rosenblatt points out that
the adequacy or inadequacy of a reading can be demonstrated by
indicating the parts of the text which have been ignored, or
which have not been woven into the rest of the semantic
structure built on the text. The readers sharing a similar
44


"background" take for granted their commonly held assumptions.
Yet, . even within the same general cultural situation,
differences in what the reader brings to the text and differences
in criteria of adequacy will make possible different though
equally "acceptable" readings. (Rosenblatt 1978, 129)
But even before discussing texts with other students and the teacher, student
readers can engage in a kind of dialogue with themselves, discovering and
elaborating their responses to a text by writing purposefully and informally
about it in a personal notebook or journal. Toby Fulwiler provides a persuasive
explanation for the effectiveness of such informal, personal writing in fostering
understanding (and thus learning) by comparing this kind of writing to
conversations we have with others:
We cany on conversations with others to explain things to
ourselves.. . The intersection between articulate speech and
internal symbolization produces comprehensible meaning. This
same intersection helps explain the role of writing in learning.
(Fulwiler 1987, 5)
James Berlin adds, "The purpose of free writing and journal writing is to
capture ones unique, personal response to experience," including the experience
of literature (Berlin 1987,152). And Richard Beach cites several research
studies that show the value of students informal journal writings in response to
literature. The research he describes suggests that informal writing is a
powerful way for literature students to reflect on their initial, personal
responses, working toward meaning by thinking through and developing those
responses in writing:
[Students] gradually discover insights through articulation,
reflection, and application of related experiences or texts. . .
Through informal writing or discussion,. . students use their
initial reactions, conceptions, or autobiographical connections to
discover novel insights about a text. . The more students were
45


willing to explore their own responses, the more insightful were
their interpretations. (Beach 1990, 66)
Beach concludes that it is the exploratory nature of such informal writing that
leads students to meaning:
[I]nformal, personal writing fosters insights into literature. . .
Informal writing, by implying a tentative, spontaneous, and
exploratory stance, encourages students to discover meaning
through their writing. (68)
Moreover, Beachs research summary strongly suggests that informal writing is
one of the most effective means of enabling students to fill in the gaps in
literature, especially if such writing is coupled with a wide variety of reading:
[S]ome research suggests that readers understand texts in terms
of evoked "intertextual" literary knowledge. . With each new
text, readers apply an evolving literary "data bank" of prior
literary experiences, learning to "read resonantly".... We ..
found that, the more stories [students] read, the richer their
intertextual links, which, in turn, related to the quality of their
interpretation of the story. (69-70)
Beachs observations and those of the researchers he cites suggest,
therefore, that students own life experiences, their literary experiences, and
their exploratory writing about the texts they read all serve to enrich their
reading experiences, allowing them to fill in textual blanks with prior
knowledge and thus "read resonantly." These research results also support
Frank Smiths assertion, cited earlier, that students read with more
sophistication and fluency the more they read. And these findings support
Wolfgang Isers contention that readers must bring all their imaginative
faculties, including those enhanced by prior experience with literature, to bear
on the text at hand in order to deal effectively with its gaps, blanks, and
indeterminacies (Iser 1980, 58-59). Paradoxically, in doing so, the reader often
46


enters a very unfamiliar world; "indeed, it is only by leaving behind the familiar
world of his own experience that the reader can truly participate in the
adventure the literary text offers him" (57). Bringing a known world to an
unknown one, the reader builds on, stretches, and extends his or her experience
in the same way that all learners do. As the teacher encourages readers to go
beyond their "comfort zones" into uncharted literary domains, learners become
more and more able to travel those domains with confidence.
Robert Probst acknowledges that many students newly introduced to
responding personally to texts in journals will insist, for a while, that the
teacher tell them how to respond. Students who are used to being told whats
important and then being tested on those things might worry that they are
being expected to figure out, in their writing, the teachers response to the text.
Probst states,
Teachers who try to encourage [students] to think independently,
to reason out their own understanding of a text, soon come to
hear in their dreams the constant refrain, "But tell us what it
means." . The teacher, after all, is the one with answersthe
answers that count, at least, on important things like tests.
(Probst 1988, 39)
It can take time for students in a response-based class not only to begin to trust
their own responses, but also to trust that there are no "trick questions" in
store for them, as they try to write authentically about literature. Probst adds,
In an untrained class that expects a great deal of telling and
explaining, the teacher must move cautiously, withholding her
own thoughts to give the students room for theirs. But when the
class comes to understand the process of responding and building
on responses, and sees that differences in readings are not only
expected but desired, the teacher may state opinions with less
fear that they will be taken as law. (54)
47


Probst has organized the responses of students in both journals and
classroom discussions into five broad categories: personal, topical, interpretive,
and formal responses, and those having to do with broader literary concerns
(56-60). Among personal responses, he notes, are those that relate to the
student and the memories and feelings that are called up by the literary work
as the student reads and reflects (56). Probst suggests that teachers must help
students see that literary response is not just feelings and personal memories,
however, but that response also involves analysis, interpretation, and
conclusions based on evidence (56-57). Topical responses focus on "the issue
raised by the literary work" and the "attitudes it expresses toward those issues"
(58). Interpretive responses involve the formation of inferences, which require
textual evidence; teachers can help students distinguish text-based inferences
from feelings and opinions (59). Formal responses involve literary elements and
conventions such as the rhythm, sound, and images of the language, as well as
the structural elements of literature.
Probst cautions teachers, however, to introduce formal response
elements in conjunction with "questions raised by the text" rather than in
independent exercises that may end up replacing aesthetic readings with
efferent ones, as noted earlier (59-60). Finally, teachers may want to encourage
students to consider such "broader literary concerns" as authors biographies,
literary periods and movements, the social and historical setting of the work,
and the way the author worked and wrote (60), as these concerns illuminate the
nature of the work.
48


In a study of 70 journals that college literature students used to respond
to questions about the stories and poems they read in introductory courses,
Richard VanDeWeghe explored students informal written responses to
literature. This study analyzed responses from the perspective of students
purposes for writing rather than in terms of the broad nominal categories that
Probst created (VanDeWeghe 1988). Building on James Brittons ideas about
the value of heuristic writing, "in which writers write to discover and extend
their learning in informal ways (40), VanDeWeghe posed four questions for
students to answer in writing about and reflecting on the literature they were
reading:
(1) What is your immediate response to the reading? e.g., Did
you like it? Dislike it? Why?
(2) What dont you understand?
(3) How is the work a "document of human experience?"
(4) How do the writers techniques relate to one another?
(41)
These questions were intended to enable students to begin reflecting in writing
on their responses to the texts. Later, they would share and compare their
responses with other students and the teacher in class discussions. The
questions were also meant to help the students begin to write their way toward
topics for more formal class essays. Because the writing was intended to be
exploratory and tentative, "students were encouraged to . take risks in their
interpretations by playing around with ideas and exploring hunches, and to
persevere in writing when faced with difficulties in interpretation" (41).
49


Of particular interest in the follow-on study reported in this thesis are
the students answers to the second question posed for the journals, about what
the students didnt understand as they read. This question brings to mind John
Barelis contention, noted earlier, that one of the most important things
teachers can do to "create the conditions that foster thoughtfulness" among
students is to "nurture [their] disposition ... to pose and resolve good
questions" (Bareli 1991,1). Smith, Macrorie, and Moffett also have pointed out
the importance of supporting students in their search for meaningful answers to
their own questions, as noted in Chapter 2. To respond thoughtfully as well as
with feeling to literature, and to make the work more fully their own, students
can thus be encouraged to articulate their own problems with the work,
identifying the gaps or blanks in a text and in their understanding of it, and
then write their way through those problems and gaps before theyve -
encountered the responses of the teacher and their classmates. Robert Probst
points out that
the student of literature who parrots the thinking of classmates,
learns the critical judgment of scholars, or memorizes peripheral
information about authors lives and historical periods has not
begun to learn the literature [or] to confront [it] and test herself
against it. Insofar as the classroom permits students to avoid
dealing with responses, it permits them to ignore the literature.
(Probst 1988, 38)
Urging students to respond personally to a text in writing before class
discussions begin, then, is an effective way to encourage them to read
aesthetically and explore their responses with greater confidence.
Richard VanDeWeghe observed some clear patterns of response
emerging among the journal writings of the students in his study, in terms of
50


their purposes for writing. He and the study assistants who examined students
journal entries found that the students wrote with five purposes: (1) to
generate meaning hypotheses, (2) to create heuristic moments, (3) to overcome
difficulties with reading, (4) to find meaning through analogy, and (5) to find
meaningful problems (VanDeWeghe 1988, 41-49).
First, using "could be," "might be," and "maybe" kinds of statements
(such as one student did in writing, "The author could be portraying two
aspects of human experience"), students generate hypotheses to explore possible
interpretations or to propose "multiple perspectives" on a work and "test them
against textual evidence" (42). Second, in creating heuristic moments, students
explore their hypotheses to a moment of insight and "deeper understanding" of
the text ("Come to think of it, Bradbury is playing a bit with the concept of
point of view") (43-44). Students who pose an interesting question, form a
hypothesis about the answer, and then reveal a sudden insight into the problem
have made good use of informal writing as a way to learn.
The third purpose for journal writing found in the study, overcoming
difficulties with reading, is one way students can work their way through
"blocks" they encounter in the literature class. VanDeWeghe cites the work of
Thomas Newkirk, for example, on such blocks as the "attitude block," in which
students who are conscious of their inexperience with literature have little
confidence in the soundness of their responses and interpretations ("I had a
hard time keeping my mind on the poem [probably] because I am not used to
reading poetry at all") (44). A fourth purpose, to find meaning through analogy,
allows students to respond to texts by finding an analogy in their own lives or
51


in a metaphor they create to illuminate the meaningfulness of the text. They
relate their observations of human nature to the characters and events in the
work and, in doing so, ground their experience of it in the experiences of their
own lives ("Some people can accept the truth as another game like George did,
but others can never accept the reality that their . dreams have been shot
down in a single second of failure and despair") (45-46).
Finally, students write to find meaningful problems. Just as Barelis
thoughtful students "pose and resolve good questions" (Bareli 1991,1), students
who find meaningful problems in their exploratory writing are those who
"discover, or find, problems that do not have routine methods of solution, and .
. these problem solvers themselves create, pose, and perhaps solve the problem"
(VanDeWeghe 1988a, 46-47). Students typically identify a problem they find in
the work, ask some questions about it, pose some possible answers, and then
settle on an acceptable solution, usually writing with greater confidence than
they did when they began (for example, "This play is somewhat confusing .... I
wonder why Arthur Miller changes situations so quickly? I guess this would be
to show just how many problems Willy was experiencing .... There are two
tragedies in this play, . the downfall of Willy and the separation of brothers")
(47-48). VanDeWeghe notes that "students who use the writing process to find
problems become far more interested in these problems than problems that are
posed for them" (47). Again we see the concept of ownership, of being in charge
of ones own learning, emerging in these observations.
The natural, inevitable gaps in literature are good places to which to
"direct" students as they respond to works in writing, and one way teachers can
52


direct them there is by asking the second question mentioned in the
VanDeWeghe study: "What dont you understand?" Not only does such a
question afford students the opportunity to generate hypotheses, create
heuristic moments, overcome reading difficulties, find meaning through
analogies, and resolve meaningful problems, it also allows them to participate
imaginatively and knowledgeably in the creation of a work of art as charter
members of the literacy club. In the next chapter, I show how another group of
college students responded thoughtfully and imaginatively in journals to
questions they posed as they encountered the gaps in a number of intriguing
short stories. By participating in the evocation of a work of art, these students
made the stories "their own," and they demonstrated Louise Rosenblatts and
Wolfgang Isers concepts of the work of art emerging in the transaction that
occurs between reader and text. Asking questions, making and testing
assumptions, imposing patterns, consulting their own experiences, and then
writing between the lines, these students did not just discover meaning in
literature, they helped to create it.
53


CHAPTER 4
WRITING BETWEEN THE LINES
In the fall of 1992, Paul, Brad, and Nicholas1the college students
introduced in Chapter 1took advantage of an opportunity to develop charter
membership in the literacy club by enrolling in a literature course entitled
"Introduction to Fiction." As a graduate student that semester, I observed Paul,
Brad, Nicholas, and 27 other students enrolled in that course and studied the
informal journals, or "reading logs," of most of the students in the course. In
this chapter, I describe the course and the responses to literature that the
students recorded in their informal journals. I also examine how their
responses show the students ability to "write between the lines'to fill in
blanks and gaps and to respond to literature purposefully, thoughtfully,
imaginatively, and knowledgeably in their journals.
The Nature of the Literature Course
The majority of the 30 students enrolled in the course, which was held
at the University of Colorado at Denver and taught by Professor Richard
VanDeWeghe of the Department of English, were young adults, although they
probably ranged in age from under twenty to nearly forty, which is typical of
'The names of all the students who allowed me to use their journals
were changed; spelling was standardized in the quotations from their journals.
54


class enrollments on this large, urban campus. A few of the students enrolled
in the course were English majors; there were also students majoring in
engineering, math, and many other disciplines. There were only slightly more
men students than women students.
At the beginning of the semester, the instructor distributed detailed
handouts describing the course as one that would focus on "Reading, discussing,
and writing about fiction ... as an expression of human experience and as a
work of art." He told the students that they would be reading a lot of stories,
discussing them in class, and writing their ideas about them and responses to
them (see Appendix A for the handout on course objectives and requirements,
which included two formal essays as well as informal journal writing). The
handout also described the goals of the course, which were to help students
enjoy reading fiction, become better and more thoughtful readers of fiction,
understand how fiction "works" as art, clarify their understanding of stories,
and understand fiction from a writers point of view.
The handouts also described the informal journals or reading logs that
students were to maintain throughout the semester. The instructor explained
that students should write their responses to a story in their journals before
discussing that story in class with other students and the instructor, and be
prepared to hand in their most current journal entries at various times
throughout the semester (see Appendix A). The students were to answer four
or five questions in their journals for each story. The first two questions for
each assigned story did not vary: the first question asked whether the students
liked or disliked the story and why; the second asked them to write about the
55


questions the story raised for themin other words, to write about the things
that stumped them, things that they could not quite figure out. The students
were to choose the third question from a list of 10 open-ended options (see
Appendix A); the instructor would put the fourth question on the blackboard
before a story was to be discussed in class. The students chose a fifth question
from the list of 10 options and applied it to an unassigned story they selected
themselves from the text each week. The text for the class was Fiction 100, an
anthology of short stories edited by James H. Pickering (6th edition, 1992).
Professor VanDeWeghe assigned 27 of the stories in the text over the course of
the semester (see Appendix A for titles).
The instructor also told the students to spend the first 15 to 20 minutes
of each class period in small-group discussions of the story or stories assigned
for that day. Students were expected to join a small discussion group (of four to
six students) on their own. After the small-group discussions, the instructor
collected journal entries and began discussing the assigned stories with the
entire class. Different groups of students were asked to hand in some of their
journal entries each week, so the instructor saw each students journal entries
about three or four times during the semester.
For the question posted on the blackboard, the instructor often asked
the students to relate or compare characterization, conflict, plot, setting, point
of view, theme, mood, diction, or another literary element in one or more
stories. From time to time, he also asked the students to represent a literary
element (or two) in a story visually. Students used paper and colored pencils to
express, without words, "what was going on" in a story, in terms of the conflicts,
56


psychological plots, and relationships among setting, theme, and mood, for
example (see also Chapter 5). And from time to time he asked the students to
think about a story from the point of view of an author (for example, "If you
were writing a story like this, what plans would you make before writing?").
Except for the first question ("Did you like the story?"), nearly all the
journal-response questions (including those asking for a visual representation)
addressed the gaps and blanks in the storiesthe things, as we noted, that are
implied but not expressly stated, such as the psychological plot, the meaning of
a characters utterance, or the overarching theme. These are things the
students had to supply by "reading between the lines"using their imagination,
their experience with life and literature, and their knowledge of literary
conventions to reflect on texts and "write between the lines" in their journals.
Short stories, with their characteristic textual economy, are exceeded
perhaps only by poetry in the number of textual blanks or gaps they contain.
Short stories thus provide student readers with many opportunities to reflect on
such things as the themes, motives, and conflicts that are suggested by texts
but not expressed. As they reflect, students adopt an aesthetic stance (paying
close attention to the literary qualities of the text), impose patterns of meaning
on the text, and participate with the author in the creation of a work of art.
Writing Between the Lines:
Asking and Answering Questions in Journals
Twenty-one of the 30 students in the course provided their journals for
this descriptive study. My analysis of their responses supported many of the
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results of earlier studies described in this thesis. The analysis also showed how
students attempted to fill in the gaps in the stories by reflecting in writing in
their journals.
Types of Responses and Purposes for Writing
Examining the students journal responses to the assigned stories, I
noticed examples of all the response categories Robert Probst described:
personal, topical, interpretive, and formal responses as well as a few that
addressed broader literary concerns (1988, 56-60). For example, in a personal
response to the first question ("Did you like the story? Why?") as applied to
"Sonnys Blues" by James Baldwin, Peter wrote a journal entry that sounds as
if it could be a starting point itself for a short story:
I sure did like this story, mainly because it brought back cool
memories of the time I spent with Lester Bowie and the New
York Organ Ensemble in Berlin, as well as some images of
childhood.
In a topical response (that also contains elements of a personal
response) to the same question about the same story, Gwen found a theme of
sociopolitical importance in the text and wrote this:
I dont believe there are different races of humans. It seems
absurd that so much suffering and despair can be caused by a
myth, and I am always astounded by the forbearance of the
Black Movement.
Tina, in contrast, responded negatively to the first question about the
same story, chiefly because of the way she interpreted the uneasy relationship
between the two main characters, Sonny and his brother. In her interpretive
response, which also contained personal elements, Tina wrote,
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A reader cant like the characters when the characters dont have
personality. I felt like the two brothers didnt like each other
and really didnt care what happened to each other, so why
should I?
Paul was more "impressed with the story, and his journal response to
the first question, though not entirely concerned with formal and literary
elements, might still be considered a type of formal response as well as an
interpretive one because of the attention he paid to the language and themes in
the story. He often quoted passages from the story to illustrate his points:
The descriptive language in this story really gave me a strong
impression of life in Harlem. ... I felt it insightful as [Sonnys
brother] reflected on growing up. How all the adults could see
"something a child cant see," and how "a child knows that this is
bound to end.".. The last time [Sonnys brother] saw his
mother was important. Her story of [his] uncle helped him
understand what [it means to have] a brother.
Though the-majority of the students wrote that they liked "Sonnys
Blues," none of them explored in their journals such broader literary concerns
as autobiographical material about Baldwin or the literary and social milieu in
which he wrote. But several students mentioned that they liked the story
because it seemed so real. They seemed to be recognizing Baldwins ability to
depict vividly and realistically a world he knew well and to evoke strong
feelings in many readers. For example, Sam wrote,
This story attracted my attention because it dealt with real
people in real life situations dealing with the things in life that
we all encounter at one point....
And Susan explained,
This story is one I admire because it sounds real. It sounded like
it came from the older brothers mouth.
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Similarly, Jerry -wrote,
I enjoyed the story because it was about real people dealing with
reed life in all of [its] confusion and misery.
Though Jerry was probably also invoking his characteristically dry humor in
juxtaposing "enjoyment" with "confusion and misery," he did seem to like the
story, judging from his other written responses to it.
A few students indicated in their journals that they had consulted the
biographical notes about some of the authors in the textbook, usually because
they were trying to understand a story (such as Franz Kafkas "A Hunger
Artist") better. And others indicated an awareness of various literary styles
and a willingness to address stylistic concerns discussed in class. But for the
most part, although the students responses contained much about literary
elements such as plot and theme, they included little about authors or literary
movements. Chiefly, the students wrote about the stories as independent
entities, even when they compared them with other stories. As they wrote their
way through the gaps and problems they encountered, these students also
exhibited the purposes for writing that VanDeWeghe found in his 1988 study:
they generated hypotheses, created heuristic moments, overcame some of their
difficulties with reading, found meaning through analogy, and identified
meaningful problems.
For example, John Barths "Lost in the Funhouse" may have been the
most problematic assigned story for many of the students (though Kafkas "A
Hunger Artist" and OConnors "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" posed some
problems having to do with interpretation and meaning, as well). With its
60


constant shifting back and forth between the narrative (chiefly about an
adolescent boys confused awakenings to adult problems of sexuality and
relationship) and its monologue of sorts about fiction (in which the author
appears to address the reader directly about the nature of writing, authorship,
art, and life, and to weave this element into the narrative), the story
represented an unsettling and unfamiliar literary experience for some of the
students. Several students said they liked it, however, and enjoyed the fact
that it was "different" or seemed "experimental."
Tina, however, did not like the story, and she expressed in her journal
her frustration over Barths confusing way of "jumping all over the place.
Nevertheless, she generated a meaning hypothesis in her journal entry that
showed her willingness to consider a possible meaning and explore it in writing:
Is this story actually about John Barths adolescence? If so, is it
nonlinear because hes trying to answer some of his own
questions about his childhood instead of actually conveying a
story to the readers!?] ... I believe the funhouse represents the
maze and confusion that teenagers go through. . The story
jumped around just as a teenagers mind would dining a class
period.
Tina thus came to a tentative conclusion about the storys meaning
during her journal writing. We see in her journal entry an example of a
student writing to learnin other words, encountering a gap or problem and
writing her way to greater understanding.
Gwen, who liked Barths story and thought it flowed in spite of its dual
points of view and multiple concerns, was more certain about her conclusion.
In framing a question for herself and then exploring an answer in writing,
Gwen appeared to have created a heuristic moment in her journal entry. She
61


explored a theme having to do with human relationships rather than one that
deals symbolically with the nature of life and art (though the seeds of the
second theme were apparent in her writing):
Why does Ambrose decide to construct funhouses for other
people? The funhouse, of course, represents the uncertainty and
danger involved in human romantic relationships. Ambrose does
not discover why this is "a place of fear and confusion" for him.
The author asks, "Yet everyone begins in the same place; how is
it that most go along without difficulty but a few lose their way?"
But Ambrose shows signs of preferring to just observe earlier
when he sits on the shady side of the car rather than play the
game of spotting the towers.
Another student, Kristy, was not that confident when she wrote about
"Lost in the Funhouse." As Newkirk and VanDeWeghe both found (and as
noted in Chapter 3), younger students especially, and others who lack extensive
experience with literature, can experience an "attitude block" in attempting to
find meaning in a work (VanDeWeghe 1988, 44). Their difficulty stems in part
from a lack of confidence in their own responses and interpretations. Kristy,
who disliked the story, was one of several students who were unsure at first
about the "correctness" or validity of their responses. Her journal entry showed
that she was not only able to write about her frustrations and ideas in a lively,
humorous way, she was also willing, despite her lack of confidence, to explore at
least one hypothesis in an attempt to overcome a difficulty in reading this story:
The questions raised by this chaotic blitzkrieg of ideas passing
itself off as a story are over my head, I guess. ... I have no idea
what the one point of the story was!! Was it that all boys going
through puberty are psychos with no attention spans or bi-polar
disorders or what? .. The storys main subject was supposed to
be a funhouse, yet it seems the author didnt mean it literally. I
dont knowat times we just seemed lost in the head of a
pubescent, crazed boy. I could be wrong.
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Many students expressed the same kind of uncertainty about their
ability to understand certain stories or write intelligently about them. Their
expressions of frustration and doubt were both serious and humorous ("While
writing this I think I got lost somewhere"; "I had a little trouble following this
one,. perhaps because I am an idiot"), and these expressions appeared
primarily in writing done in the first half of the semester. But many students
also took advantage of the opportunity to show their ability to think in
sophisticated ways, particularly by exploring meaning through analogy in their
journal writing, although none of the journal-response questions specifically
asked for this kind of response. Though several students discovered analogies
by relating the events in the stories to events in their own lives, more often
they expressed analogies as metaphors and symbols (such as Gwens
exploration, above, of what the funhouse "represents"). Bill, for example, wrote,
I think that "Lost in the Funhouse" is a great metaphor for
adolescence. It is confusing, frustrating, challenging, bewildering
and yet is deliciously and naughtily tempting. I think all of us
have experienced the tortuous feelings of guilt/ecstasy that
Ambrose experienced.
Finally, the students wrote to find, meaningful problems, as
VanDeWeghe and his assistants noted. Brad posed the following question
himself as a result of one gapan uncertainty or ambiguity in meaninghe
found in the story; he then explored a possible answer, which he, like Gwen,
formulated from his knowledge about human relationships and human feelings:
Why does Ambrose wish he had never entered the funhouse and
wish he were dead[?] He was the one who wanted to go there in
the first place. So what if he got lost[?] What in this story
indicated that he had such an awful experience that he would
think this way after the ordeal was overt?] I believe the answer
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lies in his feelings for Magda. He wanted to go in the funhouse
with her because he loved her and she ended up going in with
his brother. This set off all his feelings of being alone and
rejected and feeling stupid for not saying what he wanted to
to Magda.
Brad explored the gaps having to do with the nature of the relationship
between the fictional characters and, for the time being, he set aside the gaps
having to do with the symbolism of the funhouse. He was willing to pose his
own questions, out of his own uncertainties about the meaning of the story, and
to propose some possible answers that were meaningful to him. Brad and other
students who explored their responses to this complex story in their journals
did so apparently without asking either the instructor or their classmates what
the story was "supposed" to mean. As Robert Probst found, such risk-taking
can be rare even among college students, or perhaps especially among them,
because theyve had so many years of experience relying on the expertise of
others to explicate the meaning of stories and answer the questions that
literature poses (Probst 1988, 39).
Even though the instructor asked the students to take risks in writing
their responses, many students were reluctant to do so at the beginning of the
semester. Interestingly, two of the most articulate students posed a number of
good questions for each story but for some reason (perhaps an unwillingness to
take such a risk) did not speculate about most of them. Those who did
speculate displayed a great deal of evidence that they made a story "their own"
by exploring personal, tentative, and thoughtful hypotheses and interpretations.
Their strong involvement or engagement with the storiesas shown in many
enthusiastic and strongly emotional responseswas apparent in their journal
64


entries. One young student, Brett, even wrote that he was glad to discover the
gaps in stories (as he wrote about Kay Boyles "The Astronomers Wife"):
[T]he story ... was, as you said it would be, hard to understand.
But I found that if you stuck to it, eventually it made sense. I
like the fact Kay Boyle did not just come out and explain what
she was talking about. A little bit of reflection on a storys
meaning is good.
As we noted earlier, Louise Rosenblatt, Wolfgang Iser, and many other
theorists would no doubt agree with Brett about the value of reflection in
understanding and enjoying literature.
Writing Between the Lines to Close the Gaps
We have seen how several students dealt in their journal entries with
their frustration in trying to understand John Barths "Lost'in the- Funhouse:"
A number of students became frustrated by the blanks and gaps in other
stories, as well. One of the most frequently mentioned gaps for these students
was that of an unspecified motive for a characters behavior. They often asked
such questions as "Why did he do that?" "Why did she say that?" "Why did she
go with him?" Their journal entries showed how these students tried to
understand a characters motive for a particular action (or lack of action) in
light of the clues they could find in the story, in human nature, or in their own
experiences. Another major gap for these students involved the theme of a
story; they often asked, "What is the point of this story?" But as these students
explored some possible answers, writing to learn and to understand, it is
remarkable how often they were able to move from frustration to insight.
65


For example, Joyce Carol Oatess fascinating and rather creepy story
about a teenage girls emerging sexuality"Where Are You Going, Where Have
You Been?raised some questions for a number of students, especially in
terms of its overall meaning and the characters motivation for their actions,
which added up to some significant gaps. For instance, Fred and Nicholas both
professed virtual "cluelessness" in their initial written responses to the story,
but as they wrote, they formulated some hypotheses about the storys meaning
that seemed to satisfy them. Fred wrote,
A question I have for this story is "Whats the point?" . Why
was it written? Was it written to show the hidden desires within
a person? ... Now that I think about it I begin to think that I
might just have a clue what this story is about. The character
Arnold Friend becomes .. familiar. Now that I think about it, I
thought he represented the dark side of all kids in their teens,
hidden desires, mostly within boys .... In one scene . Connie
describes him ad dressing the way all of them.dressed.
Fred moved in his journal entry from not understanding the meaning of the
story to finding a meaning based on his experience with life as well as on clues
in the text. For him, one of the characters became a symbol for a characteristic
Fred found in all teenagers: a "dark side."
Nicholas found a similar meaning in Oatess story as he wrote in his
journal to gain greater understanding:
Did Arnold Friend really exist? Is Connies life really over, or is
this all just a dream? ... Is the point to the story that everyone
has a personal demon . ? Connie . seemed to have conflict
with her mother. She also had some internal conflict with her
sister June. Was Arnold then a representation of her dark
side[?] If so, then do people like Connie have this type of
confusion within themselvest?] ... I think this story shows that
everyone has their own "personal demon" ....
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These students reflected on the text, on their own experiences, and on human
nature in their journals to create meaning hypotheses for a story that initially
puzzled them.
Gwen and Beth tried to do essentially the same thing with Flannery
OConnors funny, grotesque, terrifying story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."
Struggling, with limited success, to find a purpose or theme, and bringing in
such broader literary concerns as biographical information about the author,
Gwen wrote,
I cant remember the last time I disliked a story so much. . .
Why write something like this? Perhaps OConnor was still in
the angry phase of her illnessbut why would I want to read
about this aspect of life? ... I dont understand the themewhat
is OConnor trying to tell the world? Life sucks? . The misfits
main section of dialogue is when he tells the grandmother,
"Nome, I aint a good man, but I aint the worst in the world
neither." This is when we know that the grandmother is going to
have an exceedingly difficult time finding a good man.
In the margin of her journal entry, Gwen added, "OKIm sorry, this was
shallow," and "I liked the story better as we discussed it in class." Gwen
obviously had to contend with some strong negative feelings both in her journal
writing and in class discussions to try to bridge the gaps she found in the story.
Beth, too, struggled to overcome her negative reaction to the story and wrote
her way to some intriguing insights about it, creating a meaning based on her
knowledge of human nature as well as the text:
I guess I disliked this story; simply, it depressed me. ... I dont
think the world is this bad off. Not only is the whole family
murdered, I really didnt like them much anyway. I just didnt
need to have a story make me feel the way this one did. It
served no purpose. It wasnt tragic, dramatic, or full of insight.
. . Whats the point of this story? Is it saying that people have
no morals and are basically evil? Is it saying we cant trust
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anyone? Is it a statement about growing old and having even
our families lose respect for us? ... I think the story can be
taken as a statement of the world gone awry. ... It almost seems
as if OConnor was trying to deal with too many huge awful
issues at once. I mean, I think the main point is that people
have in many ways become faithless. Without belief in
something life becomes hopeless and meaningless. . Maybe
this story can serve as a reminder to keep hoping.
As VanDeWeghe found in his 1988 study, when students find meaningful
problems in a story that puzzles them, they will often explore those problems at
greater length in their journals (VanDeWeghe 1988, 46-48). Oatess story, full
of major gaps for Beth at first, became a catalyst for some very thoughtful
writing about finding hope and meaning in life. Beth first generated some
hypotheses about the storys meanings, showing her willingness to consider a
number of possibilities, and then discovered a theme that appeared to be deeply
meaningful to her. As she made good use in her journal ofithis .opportunity to
"pose and resolve good questions," in John Barelis words (1991,1), Beth
showed how thoughtful and powerful a students analysis can be when she is in
charge of her own learning, as Bareli and Smith suggest students ought to be
(Bareli 1991, 11; Smith 1990, 27).
Using such expressions as "maybe" and "I think," Beth indicated that
her conclusions were still rather tentative. As she and other students
proceeded from confusion and dislike to greater understanding and tolerance of
a story, they also showed the tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity that
Richard Paul (1990, 46), John Bareli (1991, 5-6), James Pickering (1988, 37)
and others have found among students who are developing critical thinking
skills. These students journal writing became a vehicle for the kind of critical
68


thinking that Smith, Bareli, Paxil, Pickering, and Rosenblatt (1990, 106) believe
to be important if students are to become thoughtful citizens of the modem
world, as noted in Chapter 2. In the next section I describe some of the ways in
which the students in this study displayed in their journals their increasing
ability to think and write thoughtfully and critically about the gaps they
encountered in a number of short stories.
Thinking and Writing Critically
As noted in Chapter 2, thoughtful students are those who not only show
a high tolerance for complexity and ambiguity, they also are "good at analyzing
complex situations to discover what they mean" (Bareli 1991, 5). They also
have a tendency to "generate alternative solutions or interpretations [and]
select from among them using criteria such as reasonableness" (5). The
students in this study demonstrated their ability to analyze complex situations
to discover meaning while showing a considerable tolerance for the gaps in a
story caused by its ambiguities. (Often, students first expressed some
frustration about these ambiguities.) Many of the students also generated a
number of possible meanings or interpretations for a story and then analyzed
them, using criteria such as textual clues and reasonableness (for example, in
terms of their knowledge of human nature). In this section, I present some
journal entries that further demonstrate the students ability to think critically
by considering different points of view and by skillfully dealing with
uncertainty and ambiguity in thoughtful ways.
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Writing to Understand Complex Stories
Although several students felt lost themselves while reading Barths
"Lost in the Funhouse," as we noted, a few others seemed comfortable with the
story and its complexities and ambiguities. Karen, for example, wrote,
I liked the story even though it was laced with narrative about
how to write a story [and] contained sentence fragments and
obscure words. . The setting of the story tells us a lot about
the morals and increasing permissiveness of our society.
Here, Karen identified some important social themes and symbols that recur in
modem fiction and adopted a critical, questioning attitude toward them, which
both Paul and Rosenblatt believe are essential if young people are to assume
responsible positions in society (Paul 1990, 56-60; Rosenblatt 1990,107).
Focusing more on personal issues than on social ones, Peter wrote with
characteristic humor about the adolescence of the.main characters in the story:
Lost in the Funhouse? More like Lost in the Pretentious
Ramblings of a Middle-Aged Fool! Actually, it wasnt that bad. I
rather enjoyed it, mostly due to its uniqueness [and] humor.. .
Why exactly did Mr. B choose this method to tell his story?
What exactly did Ambrose and Magda do? How come there
werent any girls like that when I was thirteen? ... I think [the
authors style] is appropriate in the sense that it helps to convey
the stream-of-consciousness thought patterns of a precocious
youngster. Then again maybe it isntit often becomes
needlessly difficult to understand and thoroughly jumbled.
In his journal entry, Peter seemed relatively comfortable with his own
uncertainties about the ambiguities and uncertaintiesgapsin the story,
though his frustration with its style and structure was also apparent.
Nevertheless, he displayed a willingness to tolerate a complex, confusing story
that he did not completely understand (although he enjoyed it) and that
somewhat exasperated him.
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Similarly, John enjoyed reading Flannery OConnors Southern gothic
tale about how hard it is to find a "good man." Specifically, he appreciated its
apparent contradictions in mood and theme and the unexpected developments
in the plot:
I liked reading this story even though it had a sick plot to it. I
liked how the story took a sudden change of direction halfway
through it. I never expected the events of the accident to the end
from reading the first five pages. After the accident and the
meeting of the misfit, I was compelled to read more to see what
was going to happen. The conclusion was very shocking and
unexpected (ironic) from the way the story started out. There
was even some humor involved which made the story more
enjoyable. The actions of the Grandmother when facing the
misfit made me laugh. The story had an interesting mixture of
humor and sickness.
Here, we observe a student appreciating the gaps and unexpected turns of
events in a storysome of the same elements that distressed several other
students. John had enough sophistication to recognize and appreciate the dark
or "sick" humor in OConnors tale, especially in the character of the
grandmother; this was an element that a number of students apparently
missed. In going along with the twists and turns and surprises in the story,
John also showed evidence of being able to suspend judgment until "all the facts
were in" and the story was over. The ability to suspend judgment is an
important skill in the development of thoughtful, critical thinking, as is the
ability to recognize and entertain different points of view (Paul 1990, 54).
In writing about Susan Glaspells "A Jury of Her Peers," a kind of tum-
of-the-century rural American murder mystery, Ray was struck by the two
different points of view woven through it. In fact, he expressed great
satisfaction with the story because of its multiple points of view:
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I enjoyed this story more than any so far in the course. It
brought to light views and feelings that I usually do not get from
a story. As I read this ... it was as if I were there among the
two women .... I would keep asking myself if they would or
would not tell the men of their findings. All throughout the story
you [saw] that the men and women live in different worlds. The
men would see things as a linear view whereas the women would
see into things with depth. For example, the quilt[:] the women
would see [Mrs. Wrights] suffering in the way she would tie a
knot or hem a seam, as if it were a crystal ball of sorts into her
feelings, but the men saw it as just two different knots. I loved
the way the story was written.
This passage shows that Ray responded strongly to the story in both
intellectual and emotional ways. As he brought his reflections on life and
literature into his response and was willing to respond personally, thoughtfully,
and with feeling to the story, he was transacting with the text in just the way
that Louise Rosenblatt hoped readers would in adopting an aesthetic stance
(Rosenblatt 1978, 46). Rays thoughtful response also showed his ability to find
a major themeor fill a substantial gaphaving to do with the men and
women characters different responses to what they found (or hardly noticed) in
the small house in which a murder took place (or perhaps, two murdersone
physical and one spiritual).
Cara, another student who often responded to a story thoughtfully and
with feeling in her journal entries, was similarly delighted with Raymond
Carvers "Cathedral," in which a rather shallow, prejudiced young man gains
extraordinary insight from an unlikely teacher. In her journal, Cara showed
that she was comfortable with the complexities of the story and with
experiencing a variety of feelings in reflecting on it, rather than wondering
what she was "supposed" to feel about it. She wrote,
72


r
I loved it! It was such a touching storypeople learning about
something they were completely ignorant about; [for example,]
the blind mans handicap. The main characters (narrators)
attitude was hilarious. . But by the end of the story the
husband [the narrator] realized that you could give a compliment
without seeing, that a person has . other senses.
Cara and severed other students revealed a marked ability to address and
explore the complexities, ambiguities, and ironies of modem life in their journal
responses. As we noted in Chapter 2, these themes in modem fiction, which
James Pickering has described at some length (Pickering 1988, 65-67), often
require careful readers to think in discriminating and critical ways about such
issues as individual alienation and social inequities. Cara identified and
explored some of these modem themes in writing about Patricia Zelvers
poignant, unsettling, yet funny story, "Love Letters:
Emilys most important section of dialogue is one: simple
line"Do rats get married?" It completely relates her husbands
attitude towards her and . her childrens attitude. No wonder
she feels invisible. Her husband is supposed to be a tower of
knowledge on relationships, yet he can only deal with her by
using sweeping generalitiesand not by listening to what she
has to say. Her sons, even though they seem to communicate
with her, are more likely to communicate when they need money.
Her daughter is not willing to accept her until Rebecca thinks
Emily was exciting as a youth.
Here, Cara also displayed her ability to formulate a hypothesis about the
meaning or theme of a complex work and then support it at some length with
evidence from the text, another characteristic of thoughtfulness and skill in
critical thinking, as we noted. Most of the students in this study formulated
one hypothesis about meaning and explored it, but some of themshowing the
critical thinkers tendency to form a number of tentative conclusionswere
willing to explore more than one possible meaning, interpretation, or theme.
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Writing with Greater Tolerance for Uncertainty and Ambiguity
Note, for example, how Karen proposed two possible motives for the
puzzling behavior of the main character in Kafkas "A Hunger Artist":
Is the reason he fasts because he hasnt found any food he likes
or is it because he is in a world without security and is isolated
and unprepared and this kills him?
Karen based her first hypothesis on a statement in the story itself. She seemed
to base her second hypothesis on her observations of the modem world (one
"without security") and the predicament of the isolated, alienated modem
individuala thoughtful analogy and interpretation.
Paul also proposed a few tentative hypotheses about what was going on
in Kafkas story. He seemed comfortable with considering a few different
interpretations rather than settling on one. He wrote about some of the gaps in
the story that puzzled him the most:
I dont fully comprehend the duality of the role of the artists
spectators. Those that stayed far away from him . and those
that came up close .... Do these spectators reflect the artists
relationship with society and realityt?] The spectators who doubt
him annoy him. These are people who question his artistic
fervor and commitment. Maybe the people reflect the artists
own personal dissatisfaction with his performances. ... I also do
not fully understand the symbology of [the] panther. .. The
panther ate with passion and the people could barely stand the
shock. So is the panther the new art the people demand[?] Is
the panther what is vogue today?
Tina also proposed several questions and possible answers when she
encountered gaps in Richard Fords intriguing story "Rock Springs," which
explores the disconnections between individuals (as well as between individuals
and society):
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I want to know what was the point of Edna telling the story
about the monkey? Was it supposed to help characterize Edna or
show a relationship between Edna and Earl? What was the
purpose of the episode with the woman and child in the trailer
park? Was it to show Earl his life wasnt as bad as it could be or
telling the truth does pay off[?]
After considering these different possibilities, Tina went on to write
thoughtfully and insightfully about the storys meaning for her ("Earl could be
any one of us"). Though she wanted "to know," Tina still appeared to be willing
to consider a number of possible meanings and interpretations as she reflected
on the story and the questions it posed for her. Again we observe a student
suspending judgment and continuing to write until she felt she understood or
"mastered" some of the storys themes and meanings, thus claiming her
ownership of the literary experience.
Sams journal entries about Fords story revealed that he considered
some different interpretations of the role of the protagonists small daughter:
Although [Earl] wasnt the worlds biggest humanitarian, I felt
that he possessed a kind heart. His love for Cheryl seemed to
outweigh the negative aspects of his character. . What role did
Cheryl play in the story[?] Was her part just to help characterize
Earl, or did she represent a bigger picturet?]
After the class discussed this story, Sam seemed to settle on one interpretation.
He wrote in the margin of his journal, "I know now that Cheryl was [a]
representation of the caring nature of Earl. She served to reflect Earls
feelings."
Brett, too, showed in his journal an ability to entertain more than one
possible interpretation, even for an entire story. Writing about Oatess 'Where
Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Brett explores a couple of
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interpretations, each of which seems plausible to him based on his knowledge of
the text, relevant literary anecdotes, and literary conventions:
I guess my big question is whether or not Connie is dreaming. I
think she is. There is one passage, before Arnold shows [up],
[where Oates] has her waking up and not at first recognizing her
surroundings. This is a classic way of setting up a dream scene.
Also there are many times in the story where things that should
be familiar are not. ... 1 think the story is about a girl (Connie)
getting seduced by the devil. I heard Oates used the last name
of friend, because it is close to fiend. If this is true, it might also
be true that if you take the "r" out of both the first and last
name, you get An old Fiend (Satan). The "Devil theory" would
also explain all of the surreal events in the story. She could also
even be dreaming and Satan manifested himself through her
dream.
Here, Brett made use of his knowledge about the authors intentions and about
conventional patterns in literature, drama, and religious traditions to better
understand a story. John, in contrast, first analyzed Connies character and
motives to find an overarching meaning in this story, and then proposed two
hypotheses about it:
I have two different thoughts about what the story might be
about. First, I think the story is about living ones own life and
escaping expectations .... Connie wants to escape her family
and innocence and Arnold is the door to this escape. On the
other hand though, this story reminds me of the cult priests on
TV you sometimes hear about that pick on the "weak" and
brainwash them into disbelieving reality and following their
beliefs. This is how I picture Arnold and that the story is about
how he persuaded Connie into his "world."
John thus found a thematic interpretation in the plot and in the character of
Connie and a topical interpretation in the character of Arnold, having to do
with religious cults. The question marks he added at the end of this journal
entry indicated that John was not sure about his interpretations though he was
willing to risk exploring them.
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Sam was not only willing to risk forming some hypotheses about the
gaps and blanks he encountered in the stories, he also expressed delight in
being persuaded otherwise. Just as John enjoyed the unexpected elements in
"A Good Man Is Hard to Find," so Sam seemed to enjoy the fact that he was
wrong about nearly all the events he predicted would happen in Alice Munros
"Thanks for the Ride." His journal entry is also a good example of the way
readers continually predict what will happen next as they transact with a text,
as Frank Smith (1988b, 148-179) noted:
I liked the story because it took a different course than I had
expected at the beginning. When George and Dickie were sitting
at the diner, ... I felt as though these two young men would sit
and talk about how boring the town and those in it really were.
However, the introduction of the character Adeline then set me
in a different direction. I began to think that [Adeline] would
eventually be repulsed by the wit and lack of respect for women
that George possessed. I was wrong .... I figured that Adeline
would shift her affections towards "Old Dick," and we would be
taught a lesson on the value of respect for the opposite gender.
Well needless to say I was wrong again. But I love being wrong
when it comes to fiction. If you could predict fiction, then it
wouldnt be fiction at all, [but] rather history.
Though all readers of literature are in a sense "predicting fiction" the entire
time they are reading, in what Frank Smith described as a recursive process of
anticipation and reflection, Sam articulated well one of the great satisfactions of
the literary experience: the element of surprise. Interestingly, several students
expressed their enjoyment of the opposite (but perhaps no less satisfying)
element: predictability. Students such as Linda and Cindy wrote that they
enjoyed a storys "happy ending," indicating they had been anticipating it. Beth
wrote that she enjoyed a story that turned out the way she predicted: "I always
enjoy a story when I feel the characters make the choices I want them to."
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A few students wrote that they neither liked nor disliked some of the
stories. And some students expressed their ambivalence; they both liked a
story and didnt like it, for various reasons. Penny wrote this, for example,
about Munros "Thanks for the Ride":
I did and didnt like this one. I did because I liked the
characterization, bad girls, stereotypical bad boys, "lets get
drunk and make out" type thing. I didnt like Lois. She was too
detached and empty. . Lois was too cynical. But I did like the
simple story line, with its little bits of intrigue underneath. Why
is Lois so weird? What kind of a moron wears a prom dress to
park with some guy? I just wonder why shes so cynical and
seemingly mad all of the time. . She acts like shes getting
teeth pulled, or like its her civil duty to the town.
Pennys ambivalence might be an indication that she has suspended judgment
for the time being about this story, as students thinking critically will, or it
may be that she will always have mixed feelings about it. In any case, what I
find noteworthy in her journal entry, in addition to her clear expression of a
mixed response, is her willingness to express herself in ways that sound
authentic and appropriate for a young college student. Like nearly all of the
students in this study, Penny seemed to be writing about the stories in her own
voice, mixing current popular expressions with the vocabulary of an
increasingly thoughtful reader. Describing the character of Lois as "weird" and
"a moron," Penny used the vernacular of a youthful college student. But she
also noted that the character seemed "detached, empty, and cynical," and
seemed to be fulfilling a "civil duty"; this is a fairly mature, sophisticated
description. In the next chapter, I present some examples of this kind of
writingcolorful, insightful, thoughtful, original, playful, authentic, and
resonant with the students own voicefrom the students journals. I believe
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the examples show the students strong engagement with the literature as they
wrote not just to complete a class assignment nor even just to close the gaps
they encountered in a story. They also, in many cases, wrote to explore further
their honest, personal responses and thus to make their literary experiences
uniquely their own.

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CHAPTER 5
THE VALUE OF INFORMAL JOURNAL WRITING IN
RESPONSE TO LITERATURE
In this thesis I have described how students can explore and expand
their transactions with literature by writing purposefully and thoughtfully in
informal journals. Exploring their initial, personal responses to literature
enables students to understand literary texts better and to transact with
literature in personal, meaningful ways. When students record their initial
responses to literature and write to bridge the gaps in fiction in their journals,
they seem better able to understand and learn in natural waysthat is, they
are motivated by their own curiosity, and interests, and by their .own natural
impulses to discover meaningful patterns in experience, rather than by other
peoples opinions about what is interesting or meaningful.
As the students in this study were encouraged to respond thoughtfully
and confidently to short stories, they seemed to trust their own responses more
and more. Their personal engagement with the literature, and thus their
ownership of the stories, seemed to increase. At the beginning of the semester,
at least 12 of the 21 students in this study seemed reluctant to do much
speculating or to explore the things that puzzled them. As we noted, two of the
most articulate students neglected to explore possible answers to many of the
interesting questions they raised. However, toward the middle of the term,
most of them began to speculate and explore at greater length and with more
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apparent involvement in a story. By the end of the semester, most of the
students responses revealed their "card-carrying" membership in the literacy
club: they wrote thoughtfully and with feeling; posed questions and possible
answers for many things that puzzled them; showed their personal, emotional
engagement with the literature; demonstrated an ability to think critically
about the ideas and issues raised in the stories; and showed their
understanding of many elements of fiction (such as plot, theme, symbol, and
characterization).
In this chapter I present some observations about the value of journal
writing in response to literature as shown in the writing of the students in this
study. I also summarize the results of a short questionnaire about informal
journal writing that the students answered at the end of the semester.
The Value of Journal Writing in
a Literature Course
As the students directed their own learning in their informal journals,
under the guidance of the instructor, answering open-ended questions about the
text that could include their emotional responses, they were able to adopt what
Louise Rosenblatt calls the aesthetic stance. This stance, as we noted, calls for
that special attention readers pay to literary works to derive a special kind of
artistic enjoyment from them. In other words, students reading aesthetically
are learning to pay special attention not just to a tale being told but to one
being told particularly wellone rich with the language of image and symbol
and full of rhythm, color, and sound as well as sense. Using the text as a
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guide, students create experiences and meaning from literary works and evoke
or recreate various measures of the wonder, intrigue, humor, irony, triumph,
joy, despair, conflict, and resolution that we find in good stories.
In their journals, the students in this study validated earlier studies
findings about the nature and purposes of journal writing in response to
literature. They wrote the kinds of responses that Robert Probst (1988)
identified: personal, topical, interpretive, and formal, and occasionally they
addressed such broader literary concerns as biographical material about an
author. They also often asked, in the journals, one of the most common
questions that students asked Probst in his classroom: "What does this mean?"
As they explored answers to that question themselves, they wrote with all the
purposes for exploratory writing that Richard VanDeWeghe identified in his
1988 study: to generate meaning hypotheses, create heuristic moments,
overcome reading difficulties, find meaning through analogies, and identify and
explore meaningful problems.
Examples of students journal writings in this thesis have shown, too,
how students participate imaginatively in the creation of a literary work of art,
as Louise Rosenblatt, Wolfgang Iser, and others have described it. In
speculating about the gaps and blanks they encountered, or "writing between
the lines," the students also showed their growing ability to deal with sill the
elements of stories that are implied but not stated. The students often found
meaning in a story that at first seemed to baffle them. They proposed some
insightful hypotheses and interpretations that seemed plausible. By referring
to the text as well as to their experiences with life and other works of
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literature, they demonstrated Louise Rosenblatts transactional theory in
action. They also demonstrated that writing is a powerful way to understand
and to learn.
There are also many examples in the students journals of their ability
to .think critically, not merely by critiquing a work in traditional "literature
class" ways ("it had an interesting plot") but by spending considerable time
thoughtfully analyzing a storys meaning. By analyzing complex stories for
clues to possible meanings, considering a number of plausible interpretations,
suspending judgment about a story, changing their minds as a story unfolded,
supporting their conclusions with evidence from the text, and showing a
relatively high tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity, the students
demonstrated their ability to think critically and write thoughtfully about
literature.
I dont know that the development of critical thinking is critically
dependent on journal writing. But journal writing appears to foster and
enhance critical thinking by its very nature: journal writing is usually
personal, tentative, and exploratory, and critical thinkers are those who, often
independently but also in collaboration with others, explore ideas and options in
search of those that seem most reasonable to them. Again, the transactional
nature of this process is evident: the student discovers an idea or experiences a
powerful emotion (or both) in encountering a literary text, and he or she
explores this response through a medium (informal journal writing) in which
thoughts and ideas can readily evolve. Critical thinking may or may not be
"higher order" thinking; Frank Smith, for example, objects to assigning
S3


hierarchies to thinking that can diminish or devalue the valuable "everyday" or
"commonplace" thinking we do (Smith 1990). But what we call "critical
thinking skills" do appear to be important attitudes and habits of mind if we
are to live responsibly in a democracy, as Smith himself (1990), John Bareli
(1991), Richard Paul (1990), and Louise Rosenblatt (1990) have pointed out.
To encourage this critical or questioning habit of mind, teachers who
assign informal journal writing in response to literature will want to encourage
students to take intellectual risks, ask questions, explore possibilities, and write
in their own voices. When David Bartholomae analyzed his literature students
essays several years ago, he was dismayed at his findings; most of the students
did not take risks in their essays, and they all seemed to be writing in the same
strange, smooth voice:
There were no obvious gaps or moments of disintegration, no
places where the mask would fall away to reveal an 18-year-old
kid who was puzzled, bored, lost or confused. (1986, 102)
This "mask" was the one that the students apparently thought they were -
expected to wear as they tried to write with the voice of "academic authority,"
Bartholomae concluded (102-105). This authoritative voice sounds a little like
one found in introductions to anthologies and in critical works on literature in
libraries. As Bartholomaes students struggled to imitate it, the effects were
sometimes unintentionally comical. These students were bright enough to
recognize the style many experts use in writing about literature, but their age
and inexperience, for the most part, made it impossible for them to use it in
convincing ways. They ended up playing it safe and saying rather ordinary or
irrelevant things in ways they hoped would sound important:
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In the Phaedrus, Socrates discusses his rules of rhetoric. On the
whole, these rules are in agreement with my personal rules... .
However, I do not agree that writing is a less noble art. I believe
that writing is vital to the dissemination of information to a wide
and varied audience. (97-98)
My amusement at this passage is tempered by my awareness that I have no
doubt written this way many times as a student (but not, I hope, in this thesis).
How many students, feeling the need to say something grave about literature,
have found themselves lurching along in what Ken Macrorie calls
"Engfish"that important-sounding, pompous, vacuous, "scholarly" sing-song
that sometimes seems like the only style to use to get through a school essay
(and get a good grade)? Even though the instructor advised the students
enrolled in the "Introduction to Fiction" course to take risks, "play around with
ideas," and write inquisitively, trying not to lose their sense of humor, a few of
them offered some journal entries at the beginning of the semester that began
to veer dangerously close to Engfish, such as these entries from one student:
Stephen Cranes story of the bridegroom from Yellow Sky seems
to rely more on concrete descriptions of character and setting
than does Barths story. Barth creates more imaginary "twists
and turns" in visualization and forces the reader to either press
forward or put the story down unfinished.
I think Hemingway captures an important set of nuances in the
context of the dialogue.
We can almost see phrases such as "concrete descriptions of character and
setting" and "in the context of the dialogue" leaping out of this students
memory of a high school literature class and onto the page of his journal, as he
tried to write with detached authority and conviction about the stories. But to
the students credit, he soon abandoned this awkward style and started writing
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in a more conversational, natural-sounding style that seemed to be his
ownone that became a pleasure to read:
Cool story!! I want to read more by this author. I think its cool
to take a class like this, because it makes you . experience new
literature like this. Thanks!!
The way London writes, you are really left without any questions
or doubts. As I discussed this story with a co-worker, he hit the
nail on the head. He explained how he feels London touches
readers on so many different levels, it amazed him. To a child,
London is a great adventure. (I read Call of the Wild in 5th
grade, and it was an adventure.) But to an adult it becomes
something more. You gain life experience with age, and
suddenly you realize there is a terrifying sense of reality that
grips you while reading London, and somehow wont let you go. .
. What a natural conflict between character and setting. It
made me have to put the book down before the end, just to take
a breath, slow my heart rate, and "warm up" so to speak. I felt
empathy with the character, having been in -60 or -70 degrees in
winter in Canada. I could relate.
This student was not the only one who tried to adopt the mask and
rather stilted voice of a student literary critic early in the semester, only to
abandon them both later on. Other students struggled at first, too, as these
examples suggest, before finding a more authentic way to write in their
journals:
I enjoy reading about the Old West because it was a time when
lawlessness and ignorance [were] slowly shaping our country as
we know it today. The way Crane writes, with such clarity and
detail, makes the readers feel as if they are a third person
watching all the events unfold right in front of them. ... A witty,
humorous, and exciting short story I would recommend to
anyone.
The title does not bring to mind any significant impressions. I
will assume the setting is mountains, with very large peaks,
monotone in color.
Bonapart is able to communicate well to us a sense of objectivity
in his description of his fellow characters as well as color the
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narration with several good descriptions like, "I never in my
short experience seen two men . take to the country as they
did.
Since I cannot find any relevance to questioning a characters
dialogue, ... I would like to question the point of the whole
story. Is the story asking the question, "Does a traumatic event
change individual perceptions differently, or is it simply saying
that two relatively similar individuals perceive an event and its
recourses [repercussions?] di£ferently[?"]
As I read on in these students journals, though, I was struck many
times by the liveliness, imagination, and wit of their writing. At those times, I
often thought what a pleasure it was to encounter such writing, so devoid of
Engfish and of the uncomfortably strained, stuffy voice of the student literary
critic. Interestingly, the voice of authority that Bartholomaes students tried to
achieve in their essays actually appeared in the journals of the students in this
study. That voice often had a "diamond in the rough" quality, but it
nevertheless frequently sounded authoritative and confident. The writing
resonated with voices full of intelligence and wit, as shown in some earlier
examples. Though some of the journal writing was rambling and circular,
"going nowhere" by the students own admissionand some of it definitely
seemed uninspiredthe crisp, insightful, imaginative, and humorous writing
was there, too, as I found in these examples:
I love Aunt Mary. She reminds me of my grandma, a woman
who can drink any man under the table, flash the bird at a police
officer while doing 85 mph in her jet blue T-bird. Tough and
tangible and a damn good poker player. (Bill)
The mother is as relentless as the blistering hot sun. (Bill)
These descriptions are coming from Sammy, so they tell us how
much he is noticing. The boy seems like a walking hormone.
(Beth)
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I think this story makes a really huge statement about human
experience. [A] theory that my Mom and I came up with a few
years ago . really applies to this story. There are two kinds of
people in the world: the "whats for lunch" type and then the
others. The "whats for lunch" person has little or no self-
awareness; they simply worry about whats for lunch. . The
other people are the ones that have self-awareness. These two
different types of people have am incredibly difficult time relating
to one another. The self-aware cannot imagine being unaware,
much as they might like to be. The "whats for lunch" type have
no inkling as to why the self-aware are so tense. . George is a
"whats for lunch" person and so is Adelaide. Both the narrator
and Lois are cursed with self-awareness. (Beth)
Mother[:] I think she is old, frizzed hair, wrinkled, and hard.
She is a hard person to make happy. . Stiff and hard-nosed .. .
an old, wrinkly, hard, dried out old piece of leather. (Nicholas)
The cathedral brought the narrator and Robert together even
more closely. What separated them also in the end brought them
together. The story is about opinions we gather from being
narrowly focused. We need to look at a bigger picture before we
make our judgments .... (Nicholas)
I dont quite understand why such a hairy man interested in
finding his independence and experiencing the roots of his
childhood would need to confront his beast with a backup. (Paul)
Earl shows us he has no grip on reality. "Between the idea and
the act, a whole kingdom lies." He says he has a hard time with
his acts and his ideas. . Earl is full of shit. He has no grip on
the consequences of his acts. ... I am still trying to understand
characters such as Earl. Trying not to judge him is difficult for
me ... (Paul)
I think the very last scene in the story, where they decide to see
their friends, is most important. It brings the story together, and
kind of states that an unexamined marriage is best worth living.
(Brett)
No one seems to be content with their lives. They all seem to be
running from something and at the same time searching for the
part of themselves that they lost. The only person who seems to
escape is the little girl who dies, but she doesnt escape by
deathshe escapes by the ciy she lets out before she dies.
(Cara)
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Even though your parents may tell you not to go into the woods,
sometimes you just have to talk to the big bad wolf yourself.
(Ray)
I thought that the narrator was an attitude adjustment just
waiting to happen. He was so shallow and rude. I knew hed
experience a change of heart, or at least get in touch with his.
(Kristy)
It seemed to fit into that "quiet-suburban-housewife-who-realizeS'
she-is-a-person" story. . The fact that the first thing she talks
about is her family (daughter, sister, husband) rather than
herself shows where her identity is. (Penny)
The first story also had well defined main characters with
colorful secondary characters. The second had well defined main
characters (heaven knows we know that Magda is well defined
for her age, it was only mentioned three times) but lacked the
depth and colorfulness of [the] secondary characters. (Brad)
The plumber was offering her escape. Maybe not from her
husband or to take care of his own hormones as might be
implied, but just escape from her dull routine .... Its too bad
her husband is such a twit that he cant see how lifeless his wife
has become. This is the sort of thing that dooms couples. To
find a plumber truly interesting is kind of far fetched but he at
least is used to communicating with people where[as] the
astronomer has his head forever in the clouds. (Brad)
The mood of the narrator, and therefore the story, was rather
upbeat, even though it seemed to me that he was in a difficult
situation. From his point of view, nothing bad was happening; it
was just another day in that crime spree we call life. (Jerry)
Why did Boyle choose an astronomer? Perhaps because his
world would serve to separate him further from his wife. . The
plumber seems to be everything her husband is not. She seems
to feel trapped by her husbands work and identity, so much so
that she is denied her own identity. The plumber seems to be
more real, connected to the earth .... She goes with him
because he provides revelation about mankind and a novel
comfort. (Peter)
Michael is a cad. I guess I get tired of this act and that is why I
didnt like this story. (Karen)
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Why does the main character decide to quit? ... I think that he
wanted to be recognized as a hero .... I think he followed
through with his action because he thought it would be "fated"
(only to his ego) not to ... (Cindy)
In the end I couldnt distinguish if he was lost in the funhouse or
on the carousel. I was lost in the funhouse. (Fred)
As these students practiced writing honestly and authentically in their own
voices, they were acknowledged for doing so with relevant feedback from the
instructor (such as "Try to explore ideas like this a little more," "I agree with
you about the character of Edna"). They gained valuable experience in
composing the exact opposite of Engfish: clear, colorful, interesting prose. This
is the kind of writing teachers often say they want students to do. In
encouraging them to do it, though, teachers must also be prepared to encounter
and accept writing that can get slangy, "streetwise," and rough at times, in its
honesty (and perhaps also in its new-found boldness and freedom).
If teachers are willing to take such a risk, they can enable their
students to take risks as well, becoming better writers and more thoughtful,
more confident readers in the process. It would be interesting to see whether
students who are encouraged to write playfully as well as thoughtfully in
journals also produce formal essays that are substantially less Engfishy than
those of students who dont write in journals. My hunch is that extensive,
authentic journal writing would help students write more interesting essays in
a more authoritative voice than ever before. As Bill Corcoran said about
students who are encouraged to respond authentically to literature,
They will. . gain access to lives other than their own; they will
become more self-aware; and they will be left with a capacity to
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critique themselves and the culture in which the text is
embedded. (Corcoran 1987, 49)
As they write, students will also usually come to a different (perhaps more
insightful or more sophisticated) conclusion about the stories they readas we
see in the next section, which summarizes the students own descriptions of
what happens when they write informal responses to literature.
Students Write About Their
Journal Writing
At the end of the semester, the instructor asked the students to fill out a
course evaluation questionnaire that requested their comments on various
aspects of the course. He also distributed a questionnaire that I prepared
which specifically addressed the reading log or journal. It contained three
questions (see Appendix B). The first question asked the students if writing in
their journals ever caused them to change their minds about whether they liked
a story or not. The second question asked them if the journal writing helped
them understand better the parts of a story that stumped them. And the third
question asked whether the writing helped them understand how authors solve
various problems in fiction, such as those having to do with character, setting,
and plot. In class, the instructor asked a fourth question about whether the
students found the visual representations of various stories helpful. Though
only 20 of the 30 students returned the second questionnaire, and the smallness
of the sample makes this survey merely indicative, the results are interesting.
In this sample, nearly all the students said that writing in their journals helped
them understand stories much better.
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For example, many of the students answered the first question in two
parts, even though they werent asked to. In other words, they distinguished
between liking a story better and understanding it better. Although the results
were almost evenly divided between students who liked a story better (or less)
after writing in their journals and those who felt the same way, several
students said they understood the story better after writing about it, even if
they didnt like it more. Nine students said they changed their minds about
whether they liked a story after their informal journal writing (for example,
"The more I wrote in my logs the more I understood and liked the story"). Four
students indicated that they at least understood a story better after writing,
although their opinion about it didnt change ("I never changed my idea about
liking a story or not just because of the log[;] I may have gained insight"; "I
dont think I ever changed my mind, but I did get a better understand[ing] ...
almost every time").
The second question specifically asked whether the students believed
that writing in their journals helped them understand a story. Of the 18
students who answered this question, 17 said that writing helped them
understand, at least somewhat. Many were decidedly in favor of journal
writing, "writing between the lines," as an aid to understanding literature:
A lot of times I said, "Whats the point?" and as I wrote,
oftentimes, a theme would be revealed through my own
observations and notes.
Yes, definitely. I would cite an example, but it would be almost
every time.
Yes. I would be asking a question . and after writing it and
thinking about it, many times I would answer my own questions.
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As I wrote about my confusion I had to think about the story
more. In doing this I began to understand the things that
werent so obvious.
These results indicate that the students continued to value writing in the
reading logs. About midway through the semester, the instructor had asked
th.em if they wanted to continue both writing in their logs and discussing
stories in small groups; most students wanted to continue doing both.
Interestingly, nine students specifically mentioned the helpfulness of the class
discussions in the questionnaire, even though they werent asked about them.
A few students even said that the discussions were more helpful than writing in
the journals.
Thirteen of the students said that writing in their journals helped them
understand better how authors solve problems of characterization, setting, plot,
and so on. Three said journal writing didnt help. And 13 students also
mentioned that the visualizations, the drawings about various elements in a
story, were somewhat helpful to very helpful. A few were very enthusiastic
about this technique:
I didnt mind the drawing, it considerably contributed to learning
how to "represent" mood, theme, etc. I think the drawing should
be continued. It adds variety to the log, as well.
I enjoyed the drawing part. ... It made you think of the story in
another dimension. Excellent!
I hope that this descriptive analysis of journal writing in response to literature,
along with some theoretical considerations, will support the decisions of
teachers who want to assign informal writing as a method to enhance learning
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and understanding in a literature course. If such a study hasnt been done
already, it could be helpful to analyze the insights and the amount of personal
involvement in the subject matter that different groups of students show in
their term papers and essays when some of the students write purposefully in
journals, tackling the blanks and gaps in fiction, and some do not. The results
might allow us to make an even more informed decision than we are able to
make now about whether to assign journal writing in response to literature.
In any case, when students themselves tell us how helpful a practice or
method has been, and we ourselves observe how thoughtfully and imaginatively
students write in journals about complex literary works, I think it is
worthwhile for teachers to continue assigning this kind of writing. As one
student in this study wrote, "A little bit of reflection on a storys meaning is
good." It is hard to think of better ways to reflect on a storys meaningand to
become a charter member of the literacy clubthan by thinking, talking, and
writing about literatureespecially in an informal journal.
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