The usefulness of teaching
literature courses at teachers colleges and universities in China has been greatly
challenged by professionals such as Durant and Fabb (1990): "Many traditional ways of
studying literature have been questioned and undetermined, to an extent that it is hard to
press on with the old methods and oxthodoxies." The results of Chinas national
follow-up investigation of literature teaching (1991, see Appendix) reveal that the
current teaching of literature may have failed to achieve its purpose. Among all the
university subjects being investigated, a mere 5% of graduates declared that they used
their knowledge of literature in their present classroom teaching, and 46% suggested that
literature be an optional course. This reveals two facts:
1. For most of the graduates,
there is a wide gap between what they learned in literature courses and how they can use
the knowledge to enrich their teaching.
2. The knowledge they learned in literature courses does not seem to be relevant to
Many educators believe that if teaching literature fails to enhance todays
classrooms, it is not the fault of the literature or the learner, but rather of the
teachers and the strategies and approaches they used: "Learning what is meaningful
and relevant depends partly on what is taught and partly on how it is taught"
(Brandes and Ginnis 1986:12).
This article explores ways of making the teaching and learning of literature more
meaningful. The discussion focuses on the current teaching approaches used in literature
classes in teacher training courses and in some universities and colleges.
Partly because of the special features of the academic content of literature courses
and partly because of the deep-rooted, long-prevailing traditions of teaching in China,
the teachers role is basically that of instructor and knowledge transmitter. Thus,
the teaching approach in literature courses is mainly lecture-based with teacher-centered
transmissive models. Because of this, there are very few classroom activities that are
learner-centered. Consequently, interaction between the trainer and trainees is rare. The
approach thereby ignores the learners potentials and resources.
For example, in most courses the teacher first assigns a text for teacher trainees to
read before class. Then, in the classroom, the teachers lecture centers on the
background information: the historic period of the author, the society of that time, and
explanations about the thematic or stylistic features of the authors work. Thus, the
approach to teaching is mainly an historical-biographical critique, focusing on the
historic and social background of the literary works being dealt with and on the lives of
With the emphasis on the events in stories, teachers focus on comprehension skills.
This kind of teaching approach is described by Benton (1992:1) as the tyranny of the two
Cscomprehension skills and critical skillsover the two Rs
the role of reader and the nature of literary response.
Since the classes are teacher-centered, learners have few opportunities to process
their own learning experiences and to formulate their own feelings about the literary
text. Thus, all the information about the literary work, the author, the history, the
society, and the style or theme of the work are taught before the learners have the chance
to explore and to experience the text. Consequently, direct interaction between the
learners and the literary work is nonexistent because the teachers influence and
authority preempts any opportunities for the learners to make their own discoveries. As a
result, learners read a comparatively large amount of literary work, but whether their
capabilities of understanding, appreciating, and analyzing literary texts have been raised
From transmission to interaction
Should the teacher encourage and foster learners open-ended responses to a
literary work? McRae (1991:69) points out that elementary, imaginative engagements must
arouse curiosity or stimulate a reaction like puzzlement, laughter, a wish to find out
more, or a wish to avoid involvement. In doing so, they open up interactive possibilities.
McRae believes that a literary work that provokes no reaction is counterproductive to
Imaginative literary texts possess a multifarious richness and depth that far
transcends any thorough discursive investigation. Literature can always provoke thought,
reflection, associations, and various responses in students. In many literary works, the
meanings can be interpreted differently by each person, and by the same person at various
moments in his or her life.
Because reading occurs through time, the students responses to a literary work in
language classrooms must be revised continuously as their perceptions, ideas, and
evaluations change. During the learners interaction with the text, many elements
such as moral issues, decisions, revisions, anticipation, retrospection, defenses,
expectations, fantasies, transformations, mental images, associations, reversal,
evaluations, and recoveries will involve the learner in the class. In other words, the
meaning of literary work is realized through the process of reading and reception.
Understanding literary work is not a product, but a processa dynamic series of
events dedicated to building consistency.
The teacher can encourage learners to have direct and spontaneous interaction with the
literary work by focusing on creative participation. The teacher can act as mediator to
help learners interact with the text more profoundly. The teachers role, as defined
by McRae (1991:97), is as "intermediary between author, literary work, and
receiver" in order to "open up a multi-directional sphere of interaction."
In the traditional teaching model, when dealing with a new literary text, teachers
first gather information from related sources, and then lecture the learners, allowing
them to absorb the information. The intention is to help learners better understand the
work. But as our experiences have shown, the result impedes direct interaction between the
learners and the text, simply because the teachers influence and authority preempts
the opportunity for the learners to make their own discoveries.
With the intention of looking for a more open-ended approach, I have altered
Bentons Four-Elements Response Model (1992) so as to engage our learners in the
process of interacting with the text material. In our present training course, one class
normally has 12 learners, so we divide the class into four groups of three, with each
group being assigned a task (Figure 1).
Reading literary work is both anticipatory and retrospective. Since reading is
forward-bound, the readers can anticipate what is to come. Thus, it is important to allow
time for readers to satisfy their curiosities or imaginative anticipations so that they
can enjoy the text.
I have chosen one passage from Ulysses to demonstrate an alternative approach. In
chapter 18 of Ulysses (Joyce 1996), the heroine, Molly, lies in bed thinking over the
occurrences of the day and of her lifetime. This excerpt provides the reader with a
typical example of the unfettered flow of the stream of consciousness.
Mollys soliloquy seems to be filled with unorganized sequences of events and
people, yet the fertile chaos of everyday historical time coincides with the structuring
principle of art. Her stream-of-consciousness narrative is a literary work of colourful
life experiences, presented by "both a welling up of suppressed images from memory
and an aesthetic shaping of a new version of things" (Kearney 1988:40). Therefore, I
ask one group of learners to reconstruct the events of the passage, so they may discover
how narratives work in novels.
Mental imagery is a way of making meaning from literary texts. Whatever our
idiosyncratic mental images, readers commonly experience this sort of picturing as an
important element in responding to the text. While reading, every reader will have his/her
own picture that is made out of all the things the reader has seen or experienced
throughout the readers own life. Thus, the reader will interject personal meaning or
significance into the characters development and the events. Therefore, I may ask
those in the second group to focus on presenting their own images of the passage.
Interacting on an affective level
Another response to the text can be gained by associating that which is in the
readers own lives with what is presented or described in the text. In other words,
we consider how to bring learners own experiences into the responding process. So, I
ask the third group of the learners to associate the passage to their own life
Evaluating the elements of narration
Since readers responses are fundamental to interpreting the meaning of the text,
each learner should decide whether he/she is enjoying the text, and if the author is
achieving the desired effects. Thus, I may ask the fourth group to concentrate on
evaluating the mechanics or stylistics of the narration.
This interactive teaching works well since it can actively involve the learners at the
very beginning of, and throughout, the learning process. When the focus of teaching shifts
from a top-down teacher- knowledge approach to the participatory student-response
approach, the meanings of literary texts become personal through the spontaneous reaction
and direct response of the learners. Most learners enjoy this interactive approach because
they are actively involved and can discuss the literary texts. Above all, this approach
makes the materials meaningful. Working together in groups, the learners come to realize
that literature is not fossilized knowledge, but is a rich and vigorous resource that can
be explored and used in their future teaching.
Benton, M. 1992. Secondary worlds: Literature teaching and the visual arts. Buckingham:
Open University Press.
Bleich, D. 1975. Readings and feelings: An introduction to subjective criticism.
Urbane: National Council of Teachers of English.
Brandes, D., and P. Ginnis. 1986. A guide to student-centred learning. Oxford:
Carter, R., and M. N. Long. 1991. Teaching literature. Harlow: Longman House.
Chen, Z. 1992. Retrospect and some tentative ideas of English teaching in
teachers colleges. Journal of the Foreign Language World, 46, 2.
Durant, A., and N. Fabb. 1990. Literary studies in action. London: Routledge.
Joyce, J. 1996. Ulysses. (the corrected text) London: The Bodley Head.
Kearney, R. 1988. Transitions: Narratives in modern Irish culture. Manchester:
Manchester University Press.
McRae, J. 1991. Literature with a small l. London: Macmillan Publishers. r
Shu Wei is an associate professor of
English in the Department of Foreign Languages, Yan Shan University,