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2-Presentation: Literary Theory

What’s in a name? Uses, misuses and abuses of metalanguage in the Literature classroom: the case of the character.

Summary of the presentation delivered at 2008 FAAPI Conference

Until recently, at Teacher Training Colleges, Literature teachers moved about their job undisturbed either by discipline or by teaching issues since no theory was considered necessary to explain or justify decisions. The teaching of literature in FL usually focused on literary history and on the dictates of national canons.
The growth of theory in the sixties and seventies revealed the provisionality of categories, drew attention to the text, and away from (and later back to) the context. In this new scenario historically and canon-oriented curricula have, gradually, been replaced by theory-driven ones.
In this presentation we focus on a single category: character. We revise the ways in which the Bakhtin Circle, Structuralism and Cultural Studies have defined it and explore how this category may shape our reading and teaching practice for our purpose is to reflect on the ways theory has entered the classroom as metalanguage and how our choice of words involves theoretical decisions and conveys ideological affiliation.
For Bakhtin and his followers the character is an other the author and the reader relate to. Structuralism views characters as agents that acquire meaning by virtue of the relations they establish. In the framework of Cultural Studies characters are defined in terms of race and gender, and the relationships among them are explained in terms of power. No doubt these schools envisage the character according to their theoretical perspectives and their views bear ideological implications.
Theory driven curricula, of necessity, usher metalanguage into the classroom. We often observe a use of metalanguage that contradicts the theoretical perspective teachers claim to endorse, as well as nonchalant claims to eclecticism that may mask a certain ignorance of the ideological foundations of the theories combined. Besides, a lax use of metalanguage usually testifies to a weak formulation of theoretical positions. On the other hand, the consistent use of metalanguage contributes to foster critical reading and thinking and to improve production. Therefore, as literature teachers we should be careful so as neither to stifle students with theory and buzzwords nor to favour naïve readings. We propose that the literature class should become a hospitable environment for the encouragement of autonomous, informed, critical reading and production.

Susana Ibáñez
Universidad Nacional del Litoral
I.S.P. Nº 8 “Almirante Brown”

Raquel Lothringer
Universidad Nacional de Entre Ríos
Universidad Nacional del Litoral

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