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Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 304-311
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Literature, Lives, and Teachers
Literature and Lives: A Response-Based, Cultural Studies Approach to Teaching English. By Allen Carey-Webb. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 2001.
In their "Editors' Introduction" to the inaugural issue of Pedagogy, Jennifer L. Holberg and Marcy Taylor (2001: 1) declare that this journal "strives to reverse the long-standing marginalization of teaching and the scholarship produced around it and instead to assert the centrality of teaching to our work as scholars and professionals" (my emphasis). They add, "We envision a scholarly journal that will energize the conversation about teaching excellence in higher education; in particular, we expect to radically affect the shape of undergraduate and graduate instruction in English studies" (1). It seems to me that Allen Carey-Webb's Literature and Lives represents an ideal text to read, study, and discuss in this context. Carey-Webb, who takes teaching very seriously, situates it in the context of research and scholarship, indeed at the very center of what we do in English studies. He also asserts that "a response-based cultural studies approach to English teaching . . . has the potential to transform our curriculum and purpose" (9). Not only is Literature and Lives particularly well suited to the goals of this journal, but Carey-Webb's desire to link literature and lives can be held up as a lofty but attainable pedagogical goal for all teachers.
In fact, Carey-Webb has already helped "energize the conversation about teaching excellence in higher education": Jeraldine Kraver, David Swerdlow, and I have noted in our e-mail exchanges that the book lends itself to dialogue and discovery and has helped us rethink our teaching methods. Literature and Lives covers a variety of topics that will interest English instructors at any level. My colleagues address some of its limitations in their reviews, but they also share the concern that Holberg and Taylor raise about the need to address the gap between pedagogy and scholarship, particularly literary theory. (In his review David states, "So often, committed teachers lack the time to reflect critically on their pedagogy. . . . We relish opportunities to debate literature, but not teaching technique"; in hers Jeri remarks, "I find that faculty members in my discipline know literature and theory, but most do not know pedagogy.") In an interview with Martha Nussbaum, the editors of the Hedgehog Review capture the essence of this shortcoming, which Carey-Webb addresses head-on: "We often assume the validity of two dichotomies in the academy: one is between teaching and research, the other is between [End Page 304] the world and the academy" ("The University in Question" 2000: 128). How do we bridge these gaps? Carey-Webb provides one model for us to emulate.
As the book's subtitle indicates, Carey-Webb favors reader-response and cultural studies approaches to literature. Therefore he allows his students to reach their own conclusions about the readings and issues, and he draws on a wide variety of themes and texts from several different cultures and genres. In a wonderfully accurate sentence, Jeri states, "Throughout Literature and Lives, the reading selections reveal the author's uncanny ability to balance the canonical with the noncanonical and the familiar with the not-so-familiar." Carey-Webb covers notable texts such as Things Fall Apart, Oliver Twist, Heart of Darkness, Huckleberry Finn, I, Rigoberta Menchú, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, The Tempest, and Native Son in detail, as well as many other films, books, and other media. He covers topics such as homelessness, the Holocaust, sexism, violence, censorship, racism, and the canon. In each case, Carey-Webb explains how he taught these issues, what texts he used, and how his students reacted. However, specific discussions of assignments that could be used for these topics are relatively few. While he mentions several assignments—such as computer conferences, autoethnographies, "video logs," and interviews—and discusses how to contextualize texts with supplementary materials in detail, Carey-Webb does not always provide similar detail about written or "homework" assignments. One noteworthy exception is an extended explanation of...