Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 295-303
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Practicing What We Teach:
A Response-Based, Cultural Studies Approach to Reviewing Literature and Lives
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.
Most book reviews are predictable: here's the good; here's the bad. The task placed before my colleagues (and now, I hope, my friends) David Swerdlow and John Allen and me was an intriguing one: we would discuss Allen Carey-Webb's Literature and Lives among ourselves, and out of that discussion would emerge three individual reviews. Our discussion, conducted via e-mail, became a kind of postmodern response to Carey-Webb's text. We drifted into examining our own philosophies of learning and telling stories about the practices common at the places where we have taught, all the while reminding each other and ourselves why we do what we do. I found myself trying to define and explain my approach to how and what I teach. I attempted to name my pedagogy, something I had never been asked to do. In trying to capture the essence of critical pedagogy, Joan Wink (1997: 27) explains, "It is often said that a definition of critical pedagogy is to name; to reflect critically; to act." Reviewing Carey-Webb's text—reading it, thinking about it, and discussing it with my colleagues—has compelled me to do all three. What I share here, then, besides the more generic aspects of a book review, are the results of this process of naming and reflecting critically. (My students are experiencing the "acting" as I write.) Literature and Lives has compelled me to think hard about my identity and my choices in the classroom. Too few books geared to preparing teachers do that.
In his acknowledgments Carey-Webb thanks a long list of colleagues, administrators, students, and mentors. This book—twenty-five years in the making, he explains—is a collaboration among people who approach teaching, learning, and literature from diverse perspectives, some with a particular theoretical bent, others with an eye to pedagogical techniques; some focused on administrative concerns, others simply trying to pass a class. If his debts to these many people are great, Carey-Webb nevertheless repays them by addressing concerns and raising issues that are important to everyone who accepts the challenge and the responsibility of teaching and learning literature. [End Page 295]
Like Carey-Webb, I came to English education with a Ph.D. in literature. Perhaps that is why I so often find that the texts designed to prepare future English teachers treat them as "clerks of the empire" (Henry A. Giroux): they offer plenty of discussion about and models for the how of teaching but very little in the way of why—not the little why that defers to some familiar rubric like Benjamin Bloom's taxonomy or conjures generic learning objectives, but the big why that asks us teachers to ponder what we are doing here in the first place. Such "philosophical" discussions are the domain of critical pedagogues who follow in the vein of Paulo Freire, educators like Giroux, Ira Shor, Peter McLaren, bell hooks, Sonia Nieto, and Jennifer Gore.
Too often my English education undergraduates (and graduate students) are unfamiliar with how the critical theories they may have encountered in their subject areas or education classes can be applied to their work in the classroom. What they are missing is a sense of what Freire calls "praxis," or theory-based action. As subject area departments assume increasing responsibility for preparing teachers, this vacuum becomes an ever greater concern. I find that faculty members in my discipline know literature and theory, but most do not know pedagogy. Not many have made the paradigm shift from literary study to teacher preparation. Those who have cannot help but embrace Literature and Lives.
Reading Carey-Webb's text, I recalled my own experience seeking teacher certification, a process I began five years after receiving a...