Source-Based Unseen #1

Reclaiming Pedagogical Criticism in Literature Education with Dr Suzanne Choo’s Reading the World, the Globe, and the Cosmos  

In our new feature column “Source-Based Unseen”, Dominic samples some of the main thrusts of Dr Suzanne Choo’s Reading the World, the Globe, and the Cosmos in the style of source-based responses, before scattering brief personal musings about her arguments. With shades of Social Studies and History SBQ (Source-Based Question) formats, Dominic examines how understanding our literature teaching and studying experiences are shaped by wider forces in the history of how literature as a subject was designed, promoted and executed in schools over time.


Image result for Reading the World, the Globe, and the Cosmos
The purpose of this book is to restore the centrality of pedagogy in governing the ways literary texts are received, experienced, and interpreted by students in the classroom. More importantly,
Reading the World, the Globe, and the Cosmos discusses how these values have been shaped by broader global forces and key movements in the discipline of English literature. To varying degrees, these approaches are aimed at cultivating a hospitable imagination so that students may more fully engage with multiple others in the world. Given the reality of an increasingly interconnected twenty-first century, literature pedagogy plays a vital role in schools by demonstrating how approaches to teaching literature can facilitate the prioritization of the other, challenge us to think about how we can be accountable to multiple others in the world, and push us to continually problematize the boundaries of our openness towards the other.

Suzanne S. Choo is Assistant Professor at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She received her Ph.D. in English Education from Columbia University. Her research in literature education has been recognized with the Walter Sindlinger Writing Award from Teachers College, Columbia University and the International Award for Excellence from the International Journal of the Humanities.

(Adapted from back cover of Reading the World, the Globe, and the Cosmos)  


In the context of the classroom, the literary text is never purely received by the student without direct mediation by the teacher or indirect mediation by the school administration that directs educational goals and the state that establishes national curriculum standards. One particularly important aspect of mediation concerns the way the literary text is taught, which then governs how it is received, perceived, and interpreted by students.
In the everyday reality of the classroom, literature teachers consciously or unconsciously enact values concerning beliefs about the good of teaching literature that area then conveyed through the choices of texts they select and the teaching approaches they employ. By introducing teachers to the different approaches of teaching literature, it is hoped that this will broaden their consciousness and repertoire of pedagogical approaches as well as equip them to be more purposeful in their applications of these to the classroom.

(Extracts from ‘Chapter One: Introduction – Toward a Pedagogical Criticism of Literature Education’, pp.3-4, 27.)

The source extracts are long but detailed, so I will keep my comments brief and open-ended rather than prescriptive.

Reflecting on Source A, I have often wondered about the underlying motivations of my wanting to study and teach literature. I was never very sure if there were links to character education, but I have suspected for me they remain inevitably connected. What motivations are these exactly, and why am I not conscious of what they are? How have the ways in which my literature teachers introduced and taught the subject influenced my worldview on what literature can and should do for me (and by extension, others)?

Choo’s interest in “how the processes of globalization correlate with particular turns leading to changing beliefs about the good of teaching literature. In summary, the four waves and their relation to four pedagogical paradigms are as follows:

  1. The first wave of globalization (late eighteenth century to the nineteenth century): Nationalistic approaches to teaching literature
  2. The second early wave of globalization (early to mid-twentieth century): World approaches to teaching literature
  3. The second later wave of globalization (mid- to late twentieth century): Global approaches to teaching literature //
  4. The third wave of globalization (late twentieth century to the present): Cosmopolitan approaches to teaching literature” (Choo 26-27)

(Adapted from ‘Chapter One: Introduction – Toward a Pedagogical Criticism of Literature Education’, pp. 26-27.)

This may be a rather strong and aggressively pitched personal intuition after reading Source B, but I clam it would be naïve for me to read literature without acknowledgement of wider forces of globalisation in shaping what and how we read and study literature. Perhaps I do not have to rigorously apply such a perspective onto every text I read, but it may be helpful for me in unforeseen ways to be aware of how English literature as a subject and discipline came to be, and how these curriculum decisions were influenced over time at various stages of globalization?

First, the emphasis on the concepts of nationalistic citizenship and taste in literature education points to approaches to teaching literature that center on the promotion of elitism. From the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, the teaching of literature contained the functional aim of increasing literacy, since a more literate population would contribute to greater political stability. More importantly, the teaching of literature centered on the mission of fashioning the ideal citizen as one who exhibited civilized values of Englishness and who was nationalistic in spirit. One of the most effective strategies for supporting elitism was to center approaches to teaching literature on texts deemed worthy of being read. The emphasis on older, more classical English texts served to dichotomize classical works from popular vernacular fiction. Only the study of ‘valuable’ works was legitimized in the early national curriculum and this was similarly observed in schools.
Second, the relation between the concept of taste and the concept of the Absolute suggests the connection between teaching literature and the teaching of moral and religious values. For example, another common approach adopted during this period involved didactic pedagogy. Here, poems and stories that promote desired moral virtues were read aloud by the teacher to young students who passively listened. The prevailing view during this time was that literature, and poetry in particular, needed to be explained to students and therefore explanation should comprise a large part of teaching (Michael, 1987). Once again, this suggests a pervasive distrust that students could read and formulate opinions on their own. Teachers primarily directed students to particular virtues and moral messages, such as courage, that students were to appreciate from texts, and students would then passively regurgitate their teacher’s explanations in their written responses.(Extracts from ‘Chapter Two: Nationalistic Approaches to Teaching Literature’, pp. 54-55, 57)

I was really bothered by Source C because I began to realise how the beginnings of my favourite subject were rooted in colonialism and a certain project of cultural elitism. It is no wonder then why some friends (See also in Issue Five: “2-Hour Group Therapy with NTU Lit Lurkers”) sense an underlying and lingering connotation of atas-ness and class consciousness surrounding associations and the study of literature itself. But what do I do now with this newfound understanding of the history of my subject? I feel mixed.

World approaches to teaching literature can center on the idea of boundary recognition, and the first approach involves facilitating students to read within the boundaries in which literary texts have been categorized. Indeed, teaching students to read across historical time and geographical space seems to be the most common way in which the world literature curriculum was organized in schools between 1900 and the 1930s.Boundary recognition also involves the second approach of facilitating students’ reading of the constructedness of boundaries. Such an approach enables students to become aware of how global forces across history contribute to developing literary categories and forms that themselves reflect a kind of progress in the world history of ideas.

The third approach of boundary recognition is to read around boundaries. Reading around the text involves getting students to think beyond the constructedness of the text. One way is the integration of subjects, literature and history. Another way is the integration of literature with other subjects through thematic units. Some of the problems with an integrated literature in the world curriculum, in which literature is integrated with history or other subjects under a common theme, is that literature becomes marginalized and either used to supplement the teaching of history or used to elucidate a theme.
The fourth approach of boundary recognition involves reading against boundaries. Teachers can have students examine instances where the text transcends the borders (historical, geographical, or generic) in which it has been categorized. By doing so, students become aware that literary texts refract rather than reflect cultures and nations (Damrosch, 2009). Reading against boundaries also entails recognition of the fluidity of boundaries. This is why Lawall (1994) insists that teachers must emphasize to students that world literature provides only a starting or entry point to understanding the world so that students become aware of the limitations and restrictions of the boundaries categorizing literary texts in the curriculum.

(Extracts from ‘Chapter Three: World Approaches to Teaching Literature’, pp.84-87)

In Source D, we observe several possible directions outlined by Dr. Choo on exactly what kind of critical thinking the study of literature could promote.

One of the four suggested approaches in a global paradigm to teaching literature addresses the concept of empowerment by aiming to equip students with discriminatory powers and with the capacity to produce cultural texts.

The first way is to expand the scope of text studied in the literature classroom to include media texts in a variety of modes such as words, images, and sounds as well as in a variety of genres such as film and radio. The second way involves the incorporation of media and cultural studies’ emphasis on active ccritical engagement in literary studies. For example, this would involve replacing new criticism’s passive close reading of literary texts, especially poetry, with semiotic criticism’s active close reading of all forms of textualities. The latter centers on equipping students to recognize linguistic, visual, gestural, and other semiotic signs in all forms of texts. They can do this by analysing concepts of representation, stereotypes, and bias in texts.
Finally, the third way is to incorporate a media and cultural studies’ production component into literary studies. In order to promote more active engagements with texts, instead of passive consumption of texts, literature teachers have increasingly required students to produce original creative works such as a fictional work or a play script that are then counted as part of students’ formal assessment.”

(Adapted from ‘Chapter Four: Global Approaches to Teaching Literature’, pp.111-112)

I believe Source E is useful to a large extent in enthusing me with the idea of having creative projects be taken seriously as part of literature assessment, something I can only find at university-level modules presently. On the other hand, Source E is not very useful in suggesting how the administrative and logistical difficulties of implementing such assessment formats can be overcome.

A cosmopolitan paradigm to teaching literature is tied to concepts of responsible engagement and alterity. The first approach proposes to reimagine literature education as a space that can accommodate explorations of the different conceptions of alterity through integrating both philosophical and religious reflections.

In order to facilitate an other-centric classroom culture, I propose a second approach to teaching literature that emphasizes responsible engagement with the other through the strategy of responsible interruptions. By using the term ‘interruptions’, I imply that the task of the teacher and student is to look for moments where the literary text or criticism objectifies the other and then to resist closure in the interpretation of the other.

The third approach to teaching literature that can promote a consciousness of alterity is through the use of transnational literature. Three broad areas of discussion can be summarised in the following questions:

  1. ‘How does the text construct the other and what is my relationship to him or her?’
  2. ‘To what extent does the text reflect philosophical-religious beliefs of the other and how do these beliefs influence the actions of the other?’
  3. ‘What are my own philosophical-religious beliefs that lead me to interpret the other in particular ways?’

(Adapted from ‘Chapter Five: Cosmopolitan Approaches to Teaching Literature’, pp. 149, 152, 154, 156.)

After reading Source F, I cannot help but wonder how deeply personal philosophical-religious beliefs can be aired in a literature classroom safely and honestly, especially when there are students and teachers who are likely to disagree with each other and oh no will it spiral into classroom politics inadvertently and we start judging each other based on how we judge literature texts?

To be captivated by the other, caught in the gaze of the other, perhaps this then is the significant role that world, global, and cosmopolitan approaches to teaching literature can play in pushing toward moments when absolute hospitality can be glimpsed or imagined. It is this captivation that interrupts and disrupts systems and language used to designate identities of power so that a greater consciousness of the human may be reached.(Extract from ‘Chapter Six: Conclusion – The Teaching of Literature and the Cultivation of a Hospitable Imagination’, pp. 163)

Source G is similar to perspectives that argue literature teaching has much potential to promote empathy in students. However, Source F is different from perspectives that argue literature teaching is not primarily steered towards cultivating empathy, but may perhaps develop interpretive skills such as understanding the design of texts and their effects on audiences and readers (See also in Issue Five: “Resituating Literary Studies: Mellowers Café and Flat White with Dr. Nazry Bahrawi” for an alternative perspective on teaching and promoting literature studies to STEM students).



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