Return to Webb Home Page
Literary Theory and English Teaching

This page examines the relationship between literary theory, literature curriculum, and classroom practice. Clearly, theory has played a role in the development of our thinking about curriculum and teaching. At the same time theories have come into prominence in certain periods as part of or a response to particular historical moments and movements. The "contexts" listed below suggest times when approaches were in their hey day-many theories were first conceived or developed considerably before the time they became broadly influential.

In the present there are several interesting new theories and their effect on curriculum and teaching is still being sorted out. These new theories and their potential for teaching are discussed below. This page emerges out of a book project I am working on, Literature and Lives: Response-based Cultural Studies Teaching in High School and College. The book will combine stories of teaching experiences, my own and others, with an introduction to literary theory for teachers.

Archeology of the Literature Curriculum
Literary Theory 
Curriculum / Classroom Practice
Text as sacred & source of eternal truth, priest/teacher as translator, present day understood through proper interpretation of omniscient text, emphasis on allegory, symbol, parable 
Linguistic and literary traditions define ethnic nationhood, emphasis on mythology, national epics, ancient popular folklore, legends, teacher as preserver 
17th to 19th C Enlightenment Nationalism/Racialism of national culture
Emphasis on personal experience of great artists, teacher presents writers as role models
19th C Individualism
Literature as part of class struggle, emphasis on social inequality, social justice, working class literature, teacher inspires students to social change 
19th to 20th C, Russian Rev, 1930s
*Literary Tradition   
Literary periods and movements, relation of authors to each other, emphasis on "representative" works, teacher prepares students for graduate study in field 
1920s, discipline develops in the academy
New Criticism   
Literariness, organic unity of literary work, figurative language, irony, author's life and time not central, emphasis on canonical "complex" literary forms, poetry, teacher helps students discover artistry of writers 
1940s & 50s Cold War, Anti-Communist, University Expansion
Literature emerges from repression of individual (Freud) or social unconscious (Jung); repression, oedipal complex, archetypes, teacher helps students identify human drives 
1960s, challenge to corporate culture
Popular Culture   
Media studies, popular literature & whole range of cultural artifacts, teacher helps students analyze pop culture 
Reader Response   
Meaning created in negotiation between reader and text emphasis on personal response to literature, literary works that inspire the responses of students, teacher helps student develop own response as readers 
1970s Relativism
Literature, experience, perspective of women needed to address history of discrimination and exclusion, later, social construction of gender, orientation 
1970s women's movement

 Literature, experience, perspective of marginalized ethnic groups needed to address history of discrimination, rethink "canon," traditions, emphasis on biography

1980s civil rights movement
Postcolonial Studies 

 Literature of formerly colonized peoples in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, examination of colonial literary traditions of European powers, "Third World" literature 

1980s globalism & decolonization of Africa and Asia

Current Approaches and Practices

Cultural Studies

Integrates a variety of approaches with an emphasis on addressing social inequality. Origins in British social theory (Birmingham School), European socialism (Frankfurt School), American popular culture, and multicultural, postcolonial, and feminist movements.

Lends itself to thematic curriculum with an issues base, might include juxtaposing canonical literary works with marginalized or popular culture, as a pedagogy values self-criticism, close reading, social awareness and activism of students. Combined with Reader Response approaches, Cultural Studies can emerge authentically from student interaction with curriculum, rather than being "politically correct." Poststructuralisms and New Historicism can suggest possibilities.


Consciousness resides in language and is socially made, not uniquely individual or divinely given. English courses can address the discourses from which identity (subjectivity, subject positions) arise. No escape from the "stereotype" only richer and richer explorations of roles and possibilities. Poststructuralism can take different forms, such as postmodernism, deconstruction, post-marxism.


Derrida, the founder of deconstruction, challenges universal ideals, metaphysical certainties, or claims to unchanging truths about the human condition. "Truths" when examined closely, when "deconstructed," turn out to be fictions created by language and particular systems of meaning situated in time and place.

Deconstruction invites English teachers and students to carefully examine the most basic assumptions of the discipline. How might terms such as "literature," "genre," "national tradition," "writer," "reader" even "teacher" and "student" be less precise, more blended into their supposed "other" than they appear to be? (How is the "non-literary" also like the "literary," the "poem" like the "short story," the "American" like the "European" or the "African," vice versa, and so on?) How might meaning in works of literature (or visual or institutional "texts") not really be as clear or straight forward as it might seem at first. The English classroom, rather than being separated from the "real world," becomes a place where meaning and change actually take place as we examine, rethink, and play with the texts, roles, concepts always and already set up for us.


Breaking with certain more rigid marxist ideas such as the necessary determination of a social system by its economic structure, the inevitability of revolution, or the justice of a one-party state, many postmarxist scholars continue to draw insight and inspiration from socialist thought while rejecting its oppressive aspects. A critique of capitalism and materialism, a focus on class and social inequality, and a recognition of the legitimate aspirations for "power to the people" in political, economic, and cultural spheres are powerful ideas that emerge from marxist traditions.

Drawing on these concerns teachers and students might analyze discourses with an orientation toward exposing those that serve the interests of dominant groups, "the hegemonic," as they seek to develop alternative perspectives that bring forward the voice of marginal or oppressed groups, especially the poor and working class, as the "counter hegemonic."


Postmodernism foregrounds the concept of difference, the jarring, collage-like existence of contemporary life The world is seen as a cartoonesque Disneyland, an unremitting play of striking cultural difference, the overflow of an uneven and diverse globalism where African slum dwellers watch the Cosby show, where modern buildings are patterned like gift wrapped Greek temples, where ancient Native American spiritual beliefs set the pattern for cosmopolitan Latin American novels. If postmodernism is, as one recent book is titled, a "Video Night in Katmandu" it is also the startlingly heterogeneous student populations that teachers have in their classrooms everyday, a member of the Crips gang, seated next to a Cambodian refugee, seated next to an internet computer nerd, seated next to a devoutly religious Christian fundamentalist (or all these rolled into one person).

A postmodern approach to teaching would examine the kaleidoscopic variety of contemporary life. It would invite different voices, it would find the historical in the contemporary, and the contemporary in the historical. It might foreground works of magical realism (now written not only in Latin America), explore the carnavalesque aspects of Chaucer, Rabalais, or Swift, or the strangely altered states of science fiction. It would juxtapose different genres, texts and materials that might not normally be thought together but whose thinking together might illuminate modern life. It would read its texts carefully to find the fragmentation already built into the presumably whole and uniform. Postmodernism is thus the most playful of the poststructuralisms, but, like the others it refuses to accept any simple separation between the "individual" and "society." In its best version, postmodernism teaching means respect for difference, recognition of composite, mixture, blending, and examination of the restrictions that prevent people from creative participation in the making and hybridizing of culture.

New Historicism

New Historicism incorporates the insights from multicultural studies, gender studies, political criticism, media studies, popular culture, cultural studies, etc. as it looks literature of the past. New Historicists distrust expressions like "in the eyes of the later middle ages" and tend to see historical periods not as consistent or coherent, but as made up of different social groups in contest with one another. Literature should not be thought of as transcending the time it was written, but instead, as deeply involved in it, reflecting the period's tensions and diversity. Stephen Greenblatt says that New Historicists have "been less concerned to establish the organic unity of literary works and more open to such works as fields of force, places of dissension and shifting interests, occasions for the jostling of orthodox and subversive impulses." New Historicists also try to be conscious of how our position in the present shapes our view of the past and of ways that the understanding of literature and history changes over time.

A New Historicist approach creates the possibility of making the study of traditional literature more contentious, controversial, and considerably more interesting and relevant to students. For example, a teacher approaching Shakespeare from a New Historicist perspective might ask students to compare his portrayal of women with street pamphlets from his day vociferously arguing about women's rights. Or, she might have students explore the Elizabethan treatment of peasant revolts and public forms of torture of disloyal subjects against Shakespeare's presentation of treason and regicide. Or, she might have students compare English or Spanish writing about Native Americans to Shakespeare's portrayal of Caliban in "The Tempest." Or, she might have students analyze contemporary sermons about Jews along with Shakespeare's presentation of Shylock, in "Merchant of Venice." All of the primary historical materials I am mentioning here are readable, relatively brief, and available. Yet, the textbooks and literature anthologies currently available effectively isolate Shakespeare, for example, from the tensions and controversies of his age and our own, instead contextualizing student reading of the plays with simple bucolic descriptions of Stratford-on-Avon or diagrams of the Globe theater. This sanitized "safe" history actually makes it harder for students to see what is really interesting about Shakespeare's time (or that of any of writer's) and why it might be relevant to us.

Revised Date: 6/98