In our conversation below, Sheridan Blau and I discuss how education changes not just what a person knows and can do but who a person is. Learning carpentry makes someone the kind of person who measures, cuts, and builds things out of wood. Learning literature makes someone the kind of person who reads, thinks, talks, and writes about texts. Learning these things means becoming the kind of person who does these things. This dynamic solves, Blau suggests, the problem of transfer, that much discussed difficulty many students have in taking what they learn in one class and applying it in another class or outside of class altogether. More specifically, Blau offers, “The problem of transfer is a fake problem. It assumes that it’s knowledge that transfers but if students are learning they’re becoming different people.” In short, it’s transformation that transfers.
Having served for thirty five years as the founding director of the South Coast Writing Project, Dr. Sheridan Blau is currently Professor of Practice in English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Most importantly to me, he also authored what is pretty much my favorite book on teaching: The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers. I first read The Literature Workshop, which is the focus of our conversation, a decade ago as I began my doctoral studies. The book resonated with me deeply and shaped the trajectory of my literary pedagogy as it unfolded over the next ten years, culminating (at least for now, since I hope to keep growing) in the book I am writing, which will owe as much to Blau as I do. More recently Blau has co-edited Deep Reading: Teaching Reading in the Writing Classroom and written a number of fine articles, including “Fostering Authentic Learning in the Literature Classroom,” which would be the perfect introduction to his writing if you want to start with a shorter text.
In addition to transformation and transfer, Blau and I also discussed a range of other topics related to teaching, learning, and literature. When I asked him about the model of collaborative pedagogical inquiry he describes in his book as operating in the National Writing Project, he stressed the value of the workshop model that teachers often experience there and then take back to their own classrooms. It’s not merely about putting people in small groups, for instance. It’s about “being in a community of inquiry where people are actually trying to figure things out.” “The workshop idea is to have people working on a problem that’s a legitimate problem.” We talked about how lectures can have a use, particularly if they are given in the wake of collaborative inquiry, answering questions learners actually have, solving problems they have already been working on.
When I asked Blau about Louise Rosenblatt, whose influence he acknowledges in The Literature Workshop, he observed, “It’s almost as if Louise said everything. There’s nothing left to say. Things I thought I was discovering, she had actually said one way or another.” He teaches her book Literature as Exploration regularly in a course on germinal texts in English education. We rounded out the discussion with his Milton workshops (he runs workshops on problems in Paradise Lost with doctoral students), the place of literary theory in the teaching of literature (he wants students to study established theories but even more importantly to develop their own theories), and a commentary assignment he has developed since writing his book, through which students find themselves “developing a repertoire of things you might do when talking about literature, things you might say,” what critical moves they and their classmates might make. I so enjoyed talking with Blau. I remain indebted to his work.