In Favor of Thinking wonders why her students seem so intent on reading literature biographically:
. . .in the classroom, any discussion of an author's life inevitably seems incredibly reductive -- 10 minutes, 20 minutes even, to explain a whole life? And worse yet, some students want to take whatever tiny smidge of biographical information I or the anthology have given them, and construct elaborate and usually patently misguided readings of the texts.
This is not an issue only for teachers of literature. Many readers want to similarly reduce a poem, story, or novel to some expression of the author's life experiences, or at least to understand a given work by appealing to biographical information that might "explain" it, and thus this is an issue of concern to literary criticism as a whole. Literary study used to be, in part, about intructing inexperienced or casual readers to overcome this habit, to substitute for it a way of reading that did more justice to works of literature by focusing on how they work, that did more justice to the reader's own potential for reading skillfully by developing more informed reading skills. This is no longer the case, and no doubt most students, even students who have majored in a discipline ostensibly devoted to literary study, now emerge from college likely to go on misreading in the way IFOT describes.
Yet I sense in this post some dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs:
. . .faced with a text that might be deliberately ambiguous in its "message" or alluding to various layers of literary history that my students are relatively deaf to, they fall back on biography as the explanatory model. Obviously, my job is to explain those multiple layers of meaning, and I think I do that fairly well in the classroom. But then I still get one or two papers that insist "Robert Browning wrote this poem because he was jealous of his wife's success" with absolutely no way of backing up their claim. Sure, I can treat it as a problem of evidence, which I often do in my comments. But it seems to me there's a larger question about literary pedagogy here.
Indeed there is. And the real problem is that there isn't much that could be called "literary pedagogy" being practiced anymore. The students come to college with almost no familiarity with specifically literary questions at all--as far as I can tell high school literature classes are entirely about "issues for further reflection," but not about literature--and too many departments of university literary study are now only interested in using literature as just one of the possible subjects of "cultural studies." In these circumstances learning how to actually read works of literature is not just dispensable, but actually works against the larger goal of reducing literature to sociological evidence.
IFOT speculates that the source of the problem is that "our general culture still valorizes a Romantic model of artistic production that equates the text (or song, etc) with the author's own feelings and is very resistant to models of aesthetic signification that complicate or pluralize the possible meanings in a text. And, faced with a text that might be deliberately ambiguous in its 'message' or alluding to various layers of literary history that my students are relatively deaf to, they fall back on biography as the explanatory model." This is certainly part of the explanation, but since students are no longer taught to value "a text that might be deliberately ambiguous in its 'message'"--in other words, a work of literature--and there's no longer much interest in finding out about "various layers of literary history"--as opposed to cultural or social history--the Romantic model can't really be challenged.
Moreover, IFOT actually dismisses the very approach to literary study that did try to counteract the Romantic model. It's not, she says, that "I believe in Transcendent Literature that escapes all place and time (in fact, quite the opposite) or because I'm a staunch Formalist/New Critic /Deconstructionist who only wants to look for linguistic patterns of meaning." About the worst thing that can happen to a current literary academic is to be accused of harboring secret "Formalist/New Critic" sympathies. How dreadful to believe that literary criticism should focus on the literary qualities of texts, that literary study ought to be about literature! However, if students, readers in general, are going to be convinced to leave biography--or sociology, or politics--behind in favor of the actual literay work at hand, they'll have to be instructed in some form of this benighted method. There's no other alternative.
I have of course generalized, even exaggerated, the extent to which literary study has gone over exclusively to the cultural studies model. (I hope that certain very able critics of such generalization will forgive me.) There are, there always are, important exceptions to this practice, but I don't really think it can be argued that attention to the formal and aesthetic properties of literature is a priority among those practicing the predominant methods of academic criticism in the "advanced" quarters of the academy. If IFOT wants students to focus more on "the text," she might try to convince her colleagues to start bringing literature back into literary study in the first place.