Literature―Before, Behind, and Beyond
A few years ago, I attended a workshop by Larry Johannessen in which he advised
framing our classroom invitations to write about texts in terms of prepositions―write
before literature... write into
literature... write behindliterature.
Around ... across ... along with―well, you get the idea. I liked thinking
about writing this way. I understood what he meant, and I thought it was as true
for reading as it was for writing. For example, to read (and write)
beforeliterature is what some now call frontloading.
The word into suggests constructing meaning while reading
and writing. And usually assessments of some kind follow behind
I was thinking about these prepositions as I planned for my English students' reading
of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, a novel that I
had taught each fall for the past half dozen years. This was a challenging read
for my seniors. The book is long, the interwoven family relationships confusing,
and the vocabulary, the dialogue, and even the syntax are unfamiliar and difficult.
I thought of the ways I usually prepared my students with an opinionnaire, a documentary
film about the Brontes and Haworth in the nineteenth century, and a presentation
by my colleague, a Scots-born history teacher who had lived in northern England.
We also made journal entries on dating, on lost loves, and in response to a recording
by Kate Bush about someone named "Heathcliff." Then I recalled the assessments that
followed our study of the novel. Students wrote web-based research reports, poems,
short essays, and a literary analysis.
Reviewing Johannessen's framework of prepositions, I realized that I had created
many before and behind strategies
for Wuthering Heights. What was lacking was the into. The real difficulty for my students was reading
through the book. Study guide questions and journal
writes just weren't enough. How could I sustain their interest and encourage their
persistent effort to read and engage in a 300+ page novel filled with passages such
With that concluding word the whole assembly, exalting their pilgrim's staves, rushed
round me in a body; and I, having no weapon to raise in self-defence, commenced
grappling with Joseph, my nearest and most ferocious assailant, for his. In the
confluence of the multitude, several clubs crossed; blows, aimed at me, fell on
other sconces. Presently the whole chapel resounded with rappings and counter-rappings;
every man's hand was against his neighbour; and Branderham, unwilling to remain
idle, poured forth his zeal in a shower of loud taps on the boards of the pulpit,
which responded so smartly that, at last, to my unspeakable relief, they woke me.
Aw wonder hagh yah can faishion tuh stand there i' idleness un war, when all on
'em 's goan aght! Bud yah 're a nowt, and it 's noa use talking--yah'll niver mend
uh yer ill ways; bud, goa raight tuh t' devil, like yer mother afore ye! (p. 20)
Just a few weeks earlier at NCTE's annual convention, I had attended two teacher-led
workshops on using literary theory to enrich literature instruction. I had been
trained in the era of the New Critics (explication and close reading). I often defaulted
to historical criticism (applying historical information about the time in which
an author wrote), and I was experimenting with more current reader-response approaches
(focusing on the connection between the reader and the text). But my repertoire
was limited, and I had never overtly taught my students about literary theory by
naming and explaining the theoretical contexts that we were using to explore and
In one of the workshops a teacher demonstrated how she had employed psychological
critical theory to teach a novel, using "the psychology of a character...to figure
out the meaning of a text" (Appleman, 2000, p. 157). This was an ah-ha! moment for
me. The characters in Wuthering Heights―tempestuous
Catherine, brooding Heathcliff, nosy Nellie, resentful Hindley, and sniveling Linton―had
always fascinated my students. This was the approach I was looking for.
To introduce literary theory and multiple perspectives, I brought to class a clear
glass prism and a pair of 3-D glasses. When my students peered through the prism
at any object, they saw one image, the same image, repeated over and over within
the range of view. No matter what was targeted through the prism, only one flat
aspect, cloned a hundred times, was visible. While the view was momentarily interesting
to students, when I asked them what it would be like to see the world all the time
in such a way, most felt it would be a limited way to exist.
Next, they tried out the 3-D glasses. These lenses altered what they saw, bringing
some parts of the image closer, lending hues of red and green to portions, making
them stand out, highlighting what was there. What 3-D glasses did for the view,
I explained, is what literary theory does for reading. Donning the different lenses
of literary theories, among them Marxist criticism, feminist criticism, structuralism,
deconstruction, and reader response, helps us see a novel or play or poem from different
perspectives, guides us in ways to think about texts, and adds depth to our perceptions
and understandings of those texts.
And so began our psychological study of Wuthering Heights.
We invited our school psychologist to class to discuss the background and development
of the field of psychology, including the theories of Carl Jung. Jung was the first
to propose that every person has a personality type. Personality typing is not meant
to simply label individuals; rather it is a tool for self-discovery. Jung proposed
three categories of personality, and, later, Myers-Briggs proposed a fourth:
- Our flow of energy―how we are focused
- How we take in information/do we trust...
- How we make decisions/do we use...
T (thinking and logic)?
- How we deal with the world, day to day
J (judging, meaning organized/structured)?
P (perceiving, meaning casual/flexible)?
According to the theory of personality type, individuals have natural preferences
in these four categories which indicate ways they are likely to deal with life situations.
Sixteen possible combinations can be formed using these preferences. The letters
that represent the preferences combine to provide the Myers-Briggs personality types,
such as ENTP (extrovert, intuition, thinking, perceiving) or ISFJ (introvert, sensing,
feeling, judging). (If you're not familiar with Myers-Briggs or just want to refresh
your memory, see Box 1
to view the version of the Myers-Briggs chart I use with a class assignment. More
detailed information about Myers-Briggs and personality types is available on the
web at Wikipedia.com and many other sites―search under the name
My students and I answered questions on a short temperament sorter offered online
at Humanmetrics.com and AdvisorTeam.org. Students were enthusiastic when they came
to class with the results and were eager to share and compare. We began by sorting
ourselves, physically, by category. Introverts moved to one end of the room while
extroverts gathered at the other. There were both exclamations of surprise and murmurs
of agreement as they regarded each other. Lots of discussion ensued. We moved from
one side of the room to the other as we revealed our categories. Every student participated,
and their lively discussion continued, even as they left the room at the end of
class. In the weeks that followed, students continued to look at and talk about
their personality preferences, considering how those proposed tendencies might relate
to their learning styles, career choices, or, someday, marriage partners. I cautioned
them that these preferences were based on a very abbreviated form of the real temperament
sorter. Yet even I, a supposed INFJ, began to examine how my apparent preferences
could influence my teaching style and, in turn, how that style could affect the
learning of my variably typed students.
Interwoven with these explorations into personality types were regular class discussions
about Wuthering Heights and its strange and conflicted
characters. Each of us attempted to type the main characters, Catherine and Heathcliff.
All classes agreed that Catherine was an EFP but could not reach consensus on S/N.
Conversely, one class overwhelmingly saw Heathcliff as an ISTJ. A second class,
however, was evenly split between I and E, S and N, T and F, and J and P. All their
decisions, of course, grew out of the text, based on the actions of characters and
their relationships, on the points of view of the narrators, and on the rich dialogue
and what it revealed. For the first time in teaching this novel, I had students
keeping up on the reading schedule, thinking carefully and thoughtfully about the
book, and ready for our class discussions. In tandem, students continued to talk
about their own preferences and how those apparent leanings might affect their own
relationships in family settings, in school, and in life. I now had students not
only reading the novel but also reading the world and their place in it.
Proof of student engagement in Wuthering Heights was
evidenced in the final assessment I gave―an out-of-class paper that required students
to overlay their knowledge of the characters with their new-found insights about
personality and temperament. These were the instructions:
Every student had an opinion. Almost every student used detailed textual support
to prove that opinion. Above all, their papers showed an extraordinary depth of
The value of exploring multiple perspectives in literature revealed itself to me
in another extraordinary way. One of the many writing options offered to students
(poems, character obituaries, imaginary newspaper articles about the story, book
buddy journaling, and quick-writes) invited them to submit an original fictional
piece related to the novel. The paper in
Box 2 shows how one student explored the mysterious origins of Heathcliff,
a waif found by Mr. Earnshaw in the gutters of Liverpool. Bronte never reveals Heathcliff's
lineage or his history. But this student's masterful use of dialogue modeled after
the dialect of North Yorkshire used in the novel, her fictional characterization
of the parenting that Heathcliff received (and the implication of how that parenting
affected the boy), and her surprising plot twist at the end of her story all told
me she had journeyed not only into this text but actually
In her book Critical Encounters in High School English,
Deborah Appleman (2000) states that using literary theory as an approach in our
classes helps us "consider multiple perspectives as we find our place in the texts
we read and the lives we lead" (p. 147). Using the tools of Carl Jung and Isabel
Briggs Myers enabled my students to actually walk with Catherine and Heathcliff
over those bleak and blustery moors surrounding Wuthering Heights. Ultimately, this
is what every English teacher hopes her students will experience through literature.
AdvisorTeam. Accessed December 7, 2005, at
Appleman, Deborah.(2000). Critical encounters in high school English.
New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.
Bronte, Emily. (1993, originally published 1847). Wuthering Heights.
New York. Signet Classic.
Humanmetrics. Accessed December 7, 2005, at
Wikipedia Foundation. (2005, December). Myers-Briggs type indicator.
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