This is the slide show from a round table presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English convention (NCTE) that I didn’t get to do. I had a conflict with a panel presentation at the same time. I know, I’m that cool. I’m putting it here now as a reminder that I need to flesh it out and submit a manuscript for it.
I am in the final stage of my PhD studies. My official study runs August and September, and, Lord willing, I will defend my dissertation in March or April of 2019. The central theory in my studies is what I call transactional semiotics.
Because academic writing has its own rules, I am challenged when trying to explicate my idea because I have to interrupt myself with APA citations (lest I miss one upon revisions). This post is my attempt to share my concept without adhering to the strict rules of academia. For the most part, my ideas reflect a blend of the philosophies of Louise Rosenblatt and Charles S. Peirce.
Rosenblatt developed the concept of reading as a transaction with a text. Taking her lead (and the term) from Dewey, Rosenblatt considered reading more than decoding words on pages. She taught that a readers’ background experiences, personal histories, and internal philosophies inform or affect how they understand texts. Transactionalism, as she called it, meant that readers looked at texts through the lenses of their personalities, and their interpretations of what they read came from their experiences. Additionally, Rosenblatt postulated that reading is a cyclical transaction, made complete when readers create something new based on their interpretations of a given text. The reading transaction triad was made up of three parts: the text, the reader, and the poem (or creation of a new text by the reader.) Part of her philosophy was segregated from its based and labeled the reader-response method of teaching reading. The most important element of reading, according to this view, is the reader.
Focusing intently on the reader was part of Rosenblatt’s perspective, but she didn’t believe the context of the text or the message of an author was unimportant. It was along this line that reader-response theory cracked and fell into disfavor. As a writer myself, I want readers to understand what I am trying to convey before they begin to reinterpret it according to their experiences. Rosenblatt did not intend for readers to divorce the text from the author, but rather wanted readers to expand how they understood a text by adding their voices and the voices of others to its meaning. Hers was a broad view of interpretation, one wherein the author and readers engage in a conversation through the creation and recreation of texts.
Rosenblatt looked, not only to Dewey, but also to Peirce. Peirce was an American philosopher and scientist with a broad scope of interests, but his primary focus was logic and a theory of sign that he called semiotics. (He later changed the spelling to semeiotics because his original theory was misunderstood and connected to a language theory by Saussure, but that is another conversation.) For Peirce, understanding required three elements of equal importance: an object, an interpretant, and a sign. The object is the easiest part to explain–the object is, well, an object. A person, place, thing, feeling, idea, or text. The interpretant is the person who recognizes the object. The sign is the way the person describes the object and the way he/she communicates it to others. There are a lot more elements, but in its simplest form, the essence of semiotics is the system of how a person assigns identifying symbols to an object.
Sign systems vary by context and culture. Letters are a form of signs. In Language Arts, words, particularly written words, are the most common sign for giving meaning to things. But the culture and context matter. The letters F,A,C,E means one thing to to musicians (namely the named spaces on the treble clef in a sheet of music), but more commonly put together as a reference to the part of the body containing nose, eyes, and mouth. Face also describes part of clocks and watches, along with other objects I can’t name at the moment. The object and the signs exist independently of one another; only the person (the interpretant) makes the connection between them.
As in Rosenblatt’s theory, Peircean semiotics relies on the experiences and prior knowledge to make meaning of the object. Like Rosenblatt assumes the importance of works to convey meaning, Peirce assumes a knowledge of a particular sign system. For both, a person (reader or interpretant) sees a thing (text or object) and makes meaning of it using personal experience, prior knowledge, and language/signs. The meaning is conveyed by connecting the person and the thing through a newly created assignation (text or signs).
The concept of transactional semiotics in English Language Arts (ELA) is a mix of the two ideas applied to meaning making and composition. Because I am focused on teachers in ELA classrooms, my application is specific to how transactional semiotics works in educational settings. Broadly I think it applies to any kind of study. Peirce was not an educator (although he wanted to teach at university), and he applied his semiotic theory to science and mathematics more than to the humanities. Literature and composition may fall under the auspices of the arts, but only in a world that has segregated studies into subject areas. The living world and the experiences of it are holistic, and therefore, logic matters in all realms of observation and knowing.
When students enter a classroom, they bring with them a rich diversity of prior knowledge and experiences. To require all students to read, think, and write the same way is to validate only one part of the complexity of human life. Literature is a reflection of life, and so will resonate differently with students based on their experiences and prior knowledge. Students in high schools are developing unique world views based on their experiences in their families, communities, and instruction. Transactional semiotics as a theory values burgeoning world views by offering students a platform on which to build texts that reflect both an author’s intent (and context) and their own experiences, prior knowledge, and sign systems.
The idea is to begin with a text. Using one required by the school or district is always a good place to begin. As students read, they should look for similarities to people or situations they have experienced. Let them talk about their experiences and how what they’re reading connects to it. So far, this is standard procedure for many teachers. This is the beginning of transacting with the text. The semiotic piece comes next.
Ask (assign) students to create something that represents the life experience and/or connection to the literature. I’ve used altered books, photography, painting, music, and remix as suggestions to begin, but students sometimes have their own ideas. Let them run with it. As they create, they will begin to create a semiotic system that allows them to put their creative work with the text, although they won’t likely recognized it. Teachers will recognize some of the parallels to essay writing, still part of standardized assessments. Students choose a point of view, locate their evidence (materials), consider how to assemble their creations (outlines), and put it all together (writing). When students present their creations–and presentation is important, they explain what they did, how they did it, and why they made the artistic choices they did. Their signs will have come from their experiences and past knowledge.
Now the fun part begins for the teacher. Sometimes students will be first to see the parallels between their creations and written composition. Sometimes they need a little prodding through questions. Ask other students to identify the object, interpretant,and signs. Allow for discussion about student answers. As a reflection writing project, ask each student to revisit how they constructed their creations and assigned meaning to each element. Then ask them to look at the original text again, looking for clues about how the author did the same.
At this point, students have done the thinking, creating, questioning, and journaling that makes up a transaction with a text. They have also created something, devising a semiotic system that afforded them a mode of expression that is more comfortable than the five-paragraph-essay or the free-response questions (FRQ) on mamy of the high stakes exams. The final step of ELA transactional semiotic practice is to have students take the PROCESS they used to construct their creations and repeat it using ELA semiotics: words, paragraphs, evidence.
Employing transactional semiotics in a high school ELA classroom can be challenging. It means teachers relinquish control of the learning products. It means trusting students to use their skills responsibly. It may mean learning from and with students about culture, technology, and what makes literature relevant. It also may mean convincing administrators and parents that the skills developed through the process will translate to whatever standards are expected. In my experience, it is worth the challenges. When reluctant students get enthusiastic about creating something, the atmosphere in the classroom becomes one of anticipation instead of anxiety.
This practice is the heart of my dissertation study. I’ve done this kind of teaching with good results; now to learn how it may work for other teachers. I will know more in the next nine months.