Day 20 Critical Theory for AP Lit with a Slice of New Criticism

lensesOver the course of the year, my Advanced Placement English Literature seniors have been studying different lenses of literary critical theory. They have been analyzing works of literature through a psychoanalytic, historic, deconstructivist or Marxist point of view. They know there is more than one way to read a text.

I have been using the work of Deborah Appleman who, in a keynote address What We Teach and Why: Contemporary Literary Theory and Adolescents* stated:

Offering students several ways to look at texts does more than help them learn to interpret literature from multiple perspectives; it  also helps them develop a more complex way of thinking as they move from the dualism of early adolescence to the relativism of adult thinkers.

The students usually develop their own particular “favorite” lens, but I have been very clear that the lens favored by the Advanced Placement tests creators is New Criticism (Formalism), which is not so coincidentally favored as an approach to literature by the Common Core State Standards. A St. Bedford Martins Press definition notes,

Because it stresses close textual analysis and viewing the text as a carefully crafted, orderly object containing formal, observable patterns, the New Criticism has sometimes been called an “objective” approach to literature. 

Deconstruction (“there is nothing outside the text”), a form of New Criticism, is very helpful when a student has no idea how to approach a text. I tell students that finding patterns or associated motifs is a bit like working a puzzle. Sometimes tearing a work apart to see what makes it tick can be a successful approach for an AP Lit response.

New Criticism had been, for the most part, dropped in practice, so seeing its ideology embedded in the Common Core is a little like watching the return of the 1970s textbook. Then again, the Advanced Placement Literature Test dates from those days. Maybe this is the Déjà vu of critical theory.

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