Transactional Consciousness: A Framework for Reading Genocide in the English Classroom
Donovan, Sarah J.
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Maxine Greene has noted that teachers, in order to avoid accommodating ourselves as “functionaries,” must have in mind a “quest for a better state of things for those we teach and for the world we all share.” In a quest to make education better, states have adopted standards and developed high stakes tests. These modern mechanisms have promoted teaching practices and learning outcomes that are quantifiable and thus measure progress. I argue that in doing so states have minimized and even excluded experiences and knowledge that might actually lead to “a better state of things” in our world. Drawing on my experiences as an Illinois middle school English teacher during the No Child Left Behind era, I offer my inquiry into the ethical implications of education reform on reading practices. I offer a specific example of trying to teach about genocide within a culture focused on meeting Adequate Year Progress. Having little knowledge or training about how teach about genocide, I primarily focused on knowledge accumulation and measurable outcomes. After a few years of teaching this unit, I became concerned with the ethics of teaching genocide in this way and began to rethink not only my approach to teaching genocide but my approach to teaching reading. Thus, my dissertation explores these questions: How ought we to be teaching English in this modern, globalized era? How can genocide literature illuminate the ethics of reading and help us rethink the purpose of education? And how can ethical reading prepare students to read, think, and act in the world more ethically? This inquiry has resulted in a theoretical framework for ethical reading that I call transactional consciousness. It is based on several fields within English studies: transactional reading theory, rhetoric, witnessing, and studies in the novel. While I suggest ways to develop transactional consciousness specific to genocide literature, I hope teachers will consider how it can be expanded to other genres and, more broadly, a way of being in the world.