Practical Application of Literary Criticism in Everyday Life

I work at a school of technology, where the humanities take a back seat in most two-year and certificate programs. Students enrolled in tech programs are generally enrolled in hands-on courses, and some find the classroom environment contrary to their learning styles. General education requirements entail that these students will eventually find their way into one of my literature or creative writing classes, where their resistance to lecture-based learning is very apparent. The most pressing question I hear is, “how is this going to help me (in my life/in my career)?”

I recently had one of my classes critically analyze Rita Dove’s “Driving Through,” a poem about exploring one’s past, coming to terms with the fact that who we were inevitably influences who we become, and how the person we become grows to wish they could change their past so that their history becomes one with who they are. Dove’s poem is about regret, a feeling that can push us forward because we can’t transmute the past *

After we analyzed the poem a few of my students asked what the point of critical analysis was. I never really thought about justifying it before. I always found literary analysis personally enriching. Some of the first lenses I was exposed to changed not only my perception of texts, but my perception of the world around me. The texts became a microcosm of society upon which I could test these lenses for application in the real world. Feminist critique of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale led me to feminist critique of advertising. Incidentally, after reading The Handmaid’s Tale through a feminist lens, I never looked at the cover of magazines in convenience stores the same way again. My life had been irrevocably changed.

Alright, I guess you don't need The Handmaid's Tale or a feminist approach to literature to see something's wrong here.

The value I attribute to this is great. This knowledge is power. It feels like I’m staring through the glare caused by social veneer. I’m able to discern what truly matters, not what the media and corporate America tells me is important. When it comes down to it, the semiotic observation that everything is a text is true, and learning to critically analyze literature is to learn how to critically analyze our world. It is a way to construct meaning, and thus construct knowledge about what is truly being conveyed to us in the thousands of media messages that we are bombarded with on a daily basis.

But I’m not sure I’d see it that way if I never would have been exposed to media messages contrary to my own beliefs. I think, for the younger generations exposed to advertising online, those contrary messages, messages that contradict one’s personal understanding of the world, aren’t as apparent as they were when the digital immigrants were viewing advertisements in print and on television.

Online advertising targets the consumer with more accuracy than ever before. Advertising doesn’t try to get you to buy into a cultural idea. They cater to your notion of culture and identity through keyword targeting and profiling, and sell you the products that reinforce your notion of selfhood and social belonging. Society and the self have become streamlined, and the world of advertising becomes an extension of the self. Teens and young adults are at a vulnerable point in their lives where they’re still discovering who they are. Taking a cold, hard look at themselves in the mirror results in metamorphosis. If they don’t like what they see, they become something or someone else. Today advertising transmutes in accordance. Digital natives don’t get the same opportunity to gauge what they were with who they become like previous generations. When they do, they’re not doing it in the same way that we did.

For example, as I began to change, the media messages contained in popular magazines I enjoyed stayed the same. The underlying agenda or lifestyle my favorite magazines were trying to perpetuate remained static for the most part. The disparity between this agenda, which I once bought into, and who I became-a person who wholly rejected that agenda-forced me to confront my values, and made me aware that, even as I was changing, I might still be buying into particular notions of a suitable lifestyle pressed upon me by society. I began exploring, very often in an unconscious capacity, how I could transcend social construct and find my own path. I began to see myself and society at large as two very separate constructs.

I’m not sure that disparity exists in the same capacity it did when I was growing up. The skepticism of society at large was one of the huge incentives for me when learning how to critically analyze literature and the world around me. With online advertising, corporate America isn’t at odds with the digital natives. It is one with them. Instead of advertising telling them, “this is what you should be,” it tells them, “you are who you are, and here are some products that might work for you.” I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. But it does offer instructors and professors of literature, at least those who found the same value in literary criticism I did, a challenge. We can’t always sell it to today’s students in the same way it was sold to us.

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