To many of us in Modern Languages, literature seems almost made for teaching. Here’s why.
People outside the Arts are sometimes disdainful of subjects that never seem to arrive at conclusive answers and spend endless time defining and re-defining their terminology. They see it as a weakness when, arguably, it is the unique strength of our family of disciplines. It is testament to the complexity of the issues we study, and an indicator that we are actively engaged in shaping them. Literature in particular seems to invite us to get involved, and the most exciting form this involvement can take is the open-ended enquiry we conduct into literature with our students in the classroom. So what does the particular affinity between literature and teaching look like, and how can we cultivate it?
In some way, literature is a model of the world – it is, in itself, an interpretation of something we might recognise or try to understand in our every-day lives. It may shed light on an aspect of our lived experience and help us, in turn, to make sense of the world by making sense of a text. Literature comes in all shapes and sizes of course, but sense and meaning will always involve text, context and our own experiences alike. When I say ‘us,’ I mean, in the most practical terms, teachers and students.
Literature means relationship. “The meaning of a literary work is never fixed […] and it is this ambiguity that allows us to experience identity and alterity,” writes Anna-Lena Demi, a Berlin-based researcher focusing on Resonance Pedagogy, an approach to teaching that prioritises relationships. “We can respond in many ways, and all of these ways should be welcomed.”
Demi’s take on teaching literature is grounded in the desire to activate student experiences. “Teaching literature should not be a matter of testing bits of knowledge.” She adds, referencing one of the foundational texts on Resonance Pedagogy in literature teaching by Kristina Bismarck and Ortwin Beisbart: “Individual perspectives should come into play, and these can then be explored and extended through communication with others.” In other words, by appreciating our students – and ourselves – as socially and culturally situated people, we make heuristic and intellectual gains as well. Bismarck and Beisbart’s succinct summary of this approach is that “Learners, teachers, objects of enquiry, symbols and forms should be brought to bear on one another so that real relationships can emerge” and be cultivated and explored.
In Demi’s eyes, this approach will benefit those in particular whose access to canonical literature has previously been limited or who may have been put off by a narrow set of precepts or intended learning outcomes.
So what does this mean in practice? Demi’s focus is on what she calls “symmediality,” and on breaking down the barrier between production and reception. “Symmedial” seems related to what people like me, in Translation Studies, may call “multimodal.” Think of a book that has been turned into a film which was then put on stage in order to be redesigned as a video game, followed by a board game, which inspired a sequel to the earlier film. Demi even calls it “multisensory.” The result (so far) is what gamers call “storyworlds,” or constellations of works based around a common – albeit elusive – core. Symmediality means that our teaching can be more inclusive, because students with different experiences or preferences can find entry points into the subject matter.
There’s a second side to this coin though, which Demi explored in an empirial study: students should also be invited to respond symmedially. Rather than making each and every one of them write a standard 500-word reflection, why not encourage them to record a video, be creative, paint, draw, or work together to produce a symmedial work as a group.
If we’re serious about saying that literature itself is a heuristic process, responding to it can only enhance its world-making qualities. This, in turn, should produce a variety of “different types of resonance” in which students feel their insights and capabilities are appreciated. Creativity can then lead to critical discussion; there is a path from intuitive to discursive engagement, but what matters is not the ultimate verdict on what is right or wrong but the fact that differentiated tasks and individual approaches strengthen student agency and will bring heuristic, psychological, social and educational benefits.