As anyone knows who’s been following this blog, I’ve created a method of teaching and studying literature that helps us to get out of an othering view toward a text’s characters, instead identify with them, and through this process, learn wisdom about ourselves and our lives which we can then put into practice by transforming our selves and world. This process enacts itself through a series of five simple steps that can be conducted privately, in groups, and that I’ve provided the steps for through a series of posts over the past several months.
But, followers of the blog—or even casual passerby—may want to ask: isn’t all this just a hoity-toity thing that will attract a privileged few? Doesn’t it have no place in mainstream education, which after all is dominated by tests, behavioral controls, and bottom lines? Even if it did have such a place in mainstream education, who cares?
To these questions, I want to insist that this method of teaching and studying literature does have a place in mainstream education, and moreover, that it transcends that function in a way that helps us to understand our lives and our roles in the world writ large. In this latter application, this method of reading literature helps us to alleviate some of the damaging patterns which are inculcated by mainstream education.
First, this method of reading literature would work well for students who are just beginning the practice of reading literature, by which I mean anyone in an English course from Kindergarten through 12th grade. I’ve presented my method of teaching and studying literature several times throughout my graduate program in Education, and nearly every time, one of the questions I’m asked is whether this method would have an application with any but the most advanced students. After all, teachers want to ask, doesn’t this method rely on the students’ having comprehended the text? That is, don’t they have to first comprehend the text in order to be able to do the more advanced things of identifying with characters, deriving wisdom from this experience, and applying that wisdom to the context of their lives? And isn’t comprehension precisely what stymies most teachers in K-12 education?
Yes, I would respond, but this method of teaching literature is also one that aids in comprehension. The fact is, a story is the sum of a characters’ perspectives, the ways in which their actions, responses, and biases aggregate to form what appears to be a definable plot. That is, the plot of a work of literature exists only because that work is composed of a group of characters, none of whom can see what the other characters can see, but all of whom act as though their partial knowledge is objective and right; in this way, the characters clash and converge, producing either tragedy or comedy.
This being the case, one of the best ways to perceive a text from the ground up is to start with the characters’ perspectives: it is to break the text apart into the perspectives of a distinct group of characters, then to analyze each perspective unto itself in order to see what that character is contributing to the plot, and why, a method that enables us to question the eventuality of the whole. In other words, through seeing that each character’s actions in a plot, derive from that character’s own biases and experiences—and that those biases and experiences are changeable—by seeing this, we make the text alive in a way that it wouldn’t be if we merely took the plot for granted, and this aliveness is what enables the later stages of accessing the text as a means to teach us about our own lives and world.
Similarly, this method of literature has application after we have already risen to the more complex stages of textual analysis and explication, by which I mean those of us who have chosen to go on to college, or graduate school, and to become English majors (like me). For this group, there is a certain exhaustion that comes from the overanalysis of text that is taught in higher education, an imbalance that leads to the story of perfection, a sensation of being distanced from the content of one’s life, and ultimately violence—as I have described in previous posts. For this group of people, there is a certain invigoration in unlearning the distancing processes of analysis that have been indoctrinated in us through literary theory, a process which once again places the focus on us as readers, the excitement of the text, and transforming our lives and acting positively in the lives of others. I refer to the people who would benefit from this method in this way as recovering English majors, and it was as a recovering English major myself that I initially began hypothesizing the method.
As an analogue, this method of reading literature is also applicable to theater, as getting into the perspectives of characters in the first-person and present-tense through the foundational acts of engaged reading and annotation, and character identification, is an excellent means to understanding those characters from the inside such that we can more persuasively act them. In this case, the only difference in our instruction would be that we prioritize speech, rather than writing; and group processing, rather than individual reflection; but the outcome would be the same in that we would be expanding our understanding of ourselves through stepping into the vantage of persons different from ourselves. In theater, we would not necessarily need to round out our process of identifying with characters with the later steps of psychic mapping, executive summary, and community mapping, although I believe that those steps are always beneficial and that they fulfill the essential arc of teaching. In this case, we could merely utilize this method as an entree to the characters we wish to inhabit.
As an application outside the box of education, this method is also obviously applicable to therapy, as it is a means of forgiving ourselves for things which are outside our control, claiming responsibility for those things which are in our control, and most subtly, recognizing ourselves as no different from any other person, a realization which makes us comfortable with both reaching out for and giving help. With this realization, we become able to act as teachers and healers on behalf of others, a transition which could serve as a mark of success for the therapy.
Similarly, this method is also obviously spiritual, as recognizing ourselves as no different from, nor better than any other person helps us to access bodies of knowledge which are prevented from the ego, which is to say bodies of knowledge that are intuitive and esoteric. For instance, in recognizing ourselves as just one person among many—and as a person who, like any character in literature, has a perception of the world limited by our experiences, biases, and emotional intentions—in recognizing ourselves in this way, we open ourselves up to the knowledge which all such beings must possess, which is the knowledge of life and death, of cycles, and the kind of knowledge that makes our lives themselves as limited beings possible. That is to say, this method of reading literature inculcates in us a vast and abiding humility, and that humility is the same catalyst which naturally births wisdom, mysticism, and wonder.
A last thought I have in this sequence is that this method of reading literature is always political, as it both helps us to alleviate and let go of burdens which we might have been carrying with respect to others, and also grants dignity and love to those who otherwise might not receive them. In effect, when we identify with a character who is different from ourselves, we let go of and dissipate judgement which would have formerly prevented us from forming relationships with that kind of person; and when we do that, the possibility arises for us to form a relationship with just such a kind of person in the real world. In this way, expanding our sense of self and letting go of judgement through reading literature heightens our capacity to form coalitions in the real world.
As a separate, but no less important consequence, the more we understand ourselves through the lens of the experience of others, the more we sympathize with and thus forgive ourselves for our experience and choices; and when we do this, we grant power to those (ourselves) who might otherwise not receive it: for instance, let’s say we are black and suffer the lack of confidence that arises from having grown up in a racist society: when we read ourselves into a character who is also black, but who perseveres in this circumstance; or who is white, but who suffers like us; we realize that the pressure and indignity under which we suffer, is not a comment on our worth as individual selves, and this realization in itself helps us to do things which otherwise we would not have had the confidence or autonomy to do. To sum this section up, the act of identifying with characters different from ourselves is political because it simultaneously chips away at boundaries between groups of people and helps the oppressed—even the perceptually oppressed—to forgive, then even to love themselves for who they are.
If you would like practice with this method of teaching and studying literature, whether as a teacher, or student, please use my contact page and write me a note. I am currently offering this work for pay, but I am also more concerned with spreading the work and its benefits than I am with making a profit, so if you feel that you cannot pay me at this time, I encourage you to write me anyway.
In solidarity, and with hope,
Jackson Holzberg Buckley