Private experience, textual analysis, and institutional authority: the discursive practice of critical interpretation and its enactment in literary training

Allington, Daniel (2012). Private experience, textual analysis, and institutional authority: the discursive practice of critical interpretation and its enactment in literary training. Language and Literature, 21(2) pp. 211–225.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0963947011435864

Abstract

Academic literary criticism emphasises both the private experience of reading and the analysis of formal textual features. Since the early twentieth century, this double emphasis has been sustained through the production of ‘readings’ or ‘interpretations’ in which claimed responses to literature are accounted for through textual analysis. This article asks how this discursive practice is reproduced and resisted in literary training, carrying out a qualitative turn-by-turn analysis of an undergraduate tutorial on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Within this classroom context, students use claimed private experiences to challenge a lecturer’s reading of this work, treat those claimed responses (some of which appear homophobic) as unnecessary to account for, and account for responses they reject in non-textual terms. For contrast, a short extract is provided from an established department member’s tutorial on William Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’ (1798). It is argued that the two instructors’ very different levels of institutional authority are reflected in their teaching styles and in the resistance or compliance that their students exhibit towards the discursive practices of literary criticism.

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