In this reflection, I describe my own experiences learning about symbolism to consider how an efferent stance to teaching literature creates a hegemonic “reader” and suggests a hegemonic “truth” of the text. I argue that this stance can decrease the likelihood that students will express and value diverse readings of texts, and I consider how a lack of diverse perspectives can impede dialogic learning.
Objects, images, numbers, words, and logos, I watched as my mentor teacher clicked the different types of symbols his ninth-grade students encountered daily onto the projector screen. He was leading them through a lesson on literary symbolism to scaffold their reading of James Hurst’s The Scarlet Ibis. “A symbol refers to something it is not, makes the reader see and feel something beyond the word,” he read the definition on the screen.
It was one of the first times I could conceptualize myself as “the reader” in a way that was not flattening and constraining all at once. When I read the story in ninth grade, our teacher had handed us a “reading guide” packed with the phrase, woven into questions like: “The color scarlet represents _______for the reader” and “the coffin foreshadows ______ for the reader.” The phrase’s definite article and singular noun told me there was one “correct” way to be “the reader.” The reader was one who “unlocked” the text, reached into the representing phrase to pull out the represented image: one that could be right or wrong, one that my teacher and the readers before her had found. To understand symbolism as my teacher presented it, I had to be what Rosenblatt (1982) calls an efferent reader, one concerned with “extracting the public meaning of the text” (p. 271). The reading guide calibrated my “mental set” (Rosenblatt, 1982, p. 269), told me to focus on the “logical conclusion…what is to be carried away at the end of the reading” (Rosenblatt, 1982, p. 269). For me, a symbol was never synonymous with a sign. A sign—such as a word—prompted a reaction, spun a chain of associated words and images in my mind. A symbol, I believed, was something to be pried and pulled. It had a central, collectively held meaning that “the reader” discovered.
Because of the boundaries I put between signs and symbols, I never would have never thought to ask a question like Lilly, who’s had shot up in the second row as she said, “if a word can be a symbol for what the word referrers to, and we learned yesterday that a word might refer to different concepts and associate different things for different people, can there ever be one “right” way to interpret a symbol? Could you ever get it “wrong” on a test?” A boy next to her turned to his neighbor, pointed at the McDonald’s logo on the screen and whispered, “like that means a good dinner to me but a stomach-ache to my mom.” Clearly, the students were viewing reading—an act linguistic symbols made possible—as Rosenblatt (1982) described: “a two way process involving a reader and a text” in which the words “stir up elements of [each reader’s] memory, activate areas of [their] consciousness” (p. 268). I thought about the ways in which my mentor teacher presented both the symbol and the reader differently from my own, which seemed to shift his students’ “mental sets” more to the side of the aesthetic experience, to the response “being created during the actual reading” (Rosenblatt, 1982, p. 269). I believe he created this mental set through positioning the symbol as something with a referent, not as a “stand-in” for a represented concept. Whereas “the reader” my mentor teacher described had to look to their response—to where the symbol referred them— to decode its meaning, “the reader” my high school teacher described had to neglect the personal reaction to which the word referred for the act of “decoding” it for some public meaning, the “mental token” (Rosenblatt, 1982, p. 271).
As I began to see the differences in how a teacher could present symbolism, and consider how I might frame literary symbolism for the students I will one day have the pleasure of learning with, I considered Rosenblatt’s (1982) argument that “in our society the emphasis at home and at school, is almost entirely on that decontextualizing…abstracting out-of words so that they can be applied to other instances of the same category” (p. 274). Despite all of the composition lessons in which my teacher told us that word choice was intentional, that words were not neutral or definite, that we had to consider our intended audience, we rarely had the opportunity to feel the non-neutrality of words as readers. “The author uses _____ to symbolize ______ for the reader” gave us no chance to question the different “readers” the author’s words were positioning, to consider how those “readers” differently positioned the author’s words.
Particularly, I think about how this efferent stance can limit who can be “the reader,” can define what types of experiential knowledge is valuable in school in that it allows “the reader” to access a hegemonic meaning. A Christian student might quickly identify a religious symbol and perceive that it carries within it similar “truths” that other Christian students might also identify. But what about the students who do not identify as Christians? What about the students who may make the symbolic connection between the albatross and God’s creation in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” but may not associate Christian creation with innocence? As Sumara (1998) notes, “it is generally interpretations of the text—not interpretations of the reader/ text/ context relationships—that are developed” in school (p. 209). If we subscribe to the notion that “the act of reading out to be considered an important site for the constitution and negotiation of already slippery and shifting identities” (Sumara, 1998, p. 206), we must consider how asking student to look for only the “hegemonic symbolized” de-credits the work that counter-hegemonic readers do and the knowledge and ideas they can bring to the classroom. We must also take responsibility for the ways that continually narrating to our students things like “white means purity” can be a form of colonization, establishing control over the fact that, in Eastern cultures, white can mean death and mourning.
Lewis (2000) notes that “interpretation itself is a social act and that understanding the transaction between the reader and text involves examining the many social conditions that shape the statuses readers’ take up as they interpret and respond to literature” (p. 258). I think it is essential to let the students experience the texts, to react to them in specific ways, and to discuss why symbols can connote different things to different readers. One of the reasons why I loved Helena Maria Viramonte’s The Cariboo Cafe was that it allowed me to discover why, on first read, I experienced some symbols differently than my Chicanx studies instructor. It allowed me to experience dissonance in the sense that I associated the brand “Coke” with “happiness” and she associated it with the ways that the United States company used cheap products to prey on the Mexican-American communities our laws policies made impoverished. Had we only paid attention to one reaction, one reading of the symbol, I wouldn’t have seen the ways my White privilege clouded the things I saw. I would have missed an opportunity to challenge my own color-blind reading. I would have lost the chance to read critically.
Lewis, C. (2000) Critical issues: Limits of identification: The personal, pleasurable, and critical in reader response. Journal of Literary Research, 32 (2), 253-266.
Rosenblatt, L. M. (1982). The literary transaction: Evocation and response. Theory into Practice, XXI (4), 268-27
Sumara, D. J. (1998). Fictionalizing acts: Reading and the making of identity. Theory Into Practice, 37(3), 203-210.
Hi Ashley, thanks for your thoughtful reply to this week’s readings. I can imagine that your experience with literature and the way you were expected to approach it in high school might have felt limiting or suffocating. As I explained in my own post this week, I received a version of Reader Response theory in high school, but it was incredibly watered down, almost to the point of being unhelpful. In my experience, the act of finding meaning within a text seemed to rely on the abstract and elusive talent within a reader to detect important elements within a text, and then draw up a meaning from within themself that was based on prior textual, historical, and experiential knowledge. Which is why I connected with your example of the non-Christian reader missing out on some of the nuances of biblical symbolism. I was (and am) that reader! And although I was submerged in Reader Response theory as a teen, I still felt like I lacked the necessary textual awareness to analyze literature well. Although I was never made to feel completely wrong for not detecting biblical symbolism, I still felt like I was operating on a more superficial level than my classmates who had this knowledge, and to an extent I was.
I say all of this because I think that Reader Response can be both freeing and limiting, depending on how it is taught. Cynthia Lewis articulates three main assumptions that are taken for granted in Reader Response Theory, and I think they can offer us some guidance in ensuring we don’t continue to dilute this theory:
1.) The primacy of the individual’s mind/imagination
2.) The notion that one’s personal life and personal choices are their own
3.) The detachment of aesthetics from politics, culture, and social relations (Lewis, 2000).
I think your example of the color white and its different meanings is a helpful way to illustrate these points. While Reader Response can be great for opening up a text to multiple interpretations, I think it can also be limiting in a homogenous classroom, where, for example, all of the students are WASP Americans from affluent homes. In this hypothetical classroom, how does a teacher respond when all of the students decide that the white object symbolizes purity? The students aren’t necessarily wrong, but a different interpretation could problematize a text in a way that engages and mobilizes students so much more than if they were to all agree on the meaning and move on to the next thing. To sum up Lewis’ point on 260, I worry that this watered down version of Reader Response theory, much like the English education I received early in life, passively allows readers to resist the political messages in literature. So how do we make sure that doesn’t happen? As I noted in my blog post, I experienced this shift during a semester-long writing process in which I engaged with multiple texts that were chosen for their ability to question my thinking. While this experience is useful and effective, I don’t think it has to be the only way. Thought experiments can be a great tool for shifting people’s mindsets, as can class-wide discussions. The key (I think) is being an educator who is always open to and looking for knowledge and information to better understand the world, and especially knowledge and narratives that are counter-hegemonic, as you also point out in your post. I’d love to know what you think about this, and what ideas you have for getting students to engage with other ways of being and knowing, in order to broaden their thinking and in turn, their capacity to interpret the word.
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