ERIC Identifier: ED284274
Publication Date: 1987-00-00
Author: Probst, R. E.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading and Communication Skills Urbana IL.
Transactional Theory in the Teaching of Literature. ERIC
Transactional theory, as it applies to literary criticism and the
teaching of literature, suggests a "reciprocal, mutually defining relationship"
(Rosenblatt, 1986) between the reader and the literary text. Rosenblatt argues
that the term "interaction" conjures a picture of separate objects encountering
one another but remaining essentially unchanged, like billiard balls bouncing
off one another, and thus is an inadequate and misleading label for the mutually
shaping exchange between reader and text. That exchange--a transaction--is more
accurately characterized by Annie Dillard's metaphor. She writes, "The mind fits
the world and shapes it as a river fits and shapes its own banks" (1982).
Transactional theory proposes that the relationship between reader and text is
much like that between the river and its banks, each working its effects upon
the other, each contributing to the shape of the poem.
TEXT AND POEM
A teacher who applies transactional theory will not view a literary
experience as identical with the text from which it emerges. Rosenblatt argues
for a redefinition of terms, suggesting that it is misleading to speak of the
text as "poem" (which will serve here as a general term for any literary work).
The text is simply ink on paper until a reader comes along. The "poem," on the
other hand, is what happens when the text is brought into the reader's mind and
the words begin to function symbolically, evoking, in the transaction, images,
emotions, and concepts. That symbolic functioning can happen only in the
reader's mind. It does not take place on the page, in the text, but in the act
of reading. As Wolfgang Iser (1978) describes it, "Literary texts initiate
'performances' of meaning rather than actually formulating meanings themselves."
The text in the absence of a reader is simply print--it does not become a poem
until the act of reading makes it one.
Transactional theory thus places a great deal of emphasis on the role of the
reader. If meaning resides not in the text but rather in the enactment by the
reader, then the discussion of literature demands consideration of the mind of
the individual reader or groups of readers. It requires us
"...to see the reading act as an event involving a particular individual and
a particular text, happening at a particular time, under particular
circumstances, in a particular social and cultural setting, and as part of the
ongoing life of the individual and the group" (Rosenblatt, 1985).
Such a conception affirms the significance of the unique reader, suggesting
that reading should not be submission to the text or an effort to suppress the
personal and idiosyncratic in a search for a purified reading, uncontaminated by
the reader's individuality. Transactional theory insists that the reader's
individuality must be respected and considered; that readers initially
understand a work only on the basis of prior experience. They cannot make sense
of a text except by seeing it in the light of other experiences, other texts.
The reader's background, the feelings, memories, and associations called forth
by the reading, are not only relevant, they are the foundation upon which
understanding of a text is built. And so transactional theory invites the reader
to reflect upon what she brings to any reading, and to acknowledge and examine
the responses it evokes.
STANCE AND SELECTION--EFFERENT AND AESTHETIC
Transactional theory demands attention, in other words, to who the readers
are, what they bring to the text, the expectations they have of texts, and the
choices they make as they read. The choice of stance may be most crucial.
Rosenblatt distinguishes between the efferent stance, in which the reader is
primarily concerned with what he will carry away as information from the text,
and the aesthetic stance, in which the reader focuses primarily upon the
experience lived through during the reading.
The efferent stance is that appropriate to one seeking information. It is the
stance adopted by the amateur mechanic intent upon learning, from the manual,
how to repair a carburetor. The mechanic reads to extract from the text the
information necessary to accomplish a particular task. The rhythms and sounds of
the language are of less interest than its accuracy and simplicity. If the prose
is graceful, so much the better, but the primary concern is with the task at
hand. The efferent is also the stance of listeners attempting to judge the
claims and promises of a political candidate. In their transactions with such a
text, not only may they not wish to be swayed by the felicities of the prose,
but they may also have to guard against the possibility that the pleasures of
the language, its compelling rhythms and vivid images, may obscure defects in
logic, inadequacies in evidence, and other such matters significant in the
analysis of the message.
The aesthetic stance, on the other hand, is that of the reader who comes to a
text in a less directive frame of mind, seeking not particular information or
the accomplishment of an assigned task, but rather the full emotional,
aesthetic, and intellectual experience offered by the text. A reader adopting
such a stance attends not only to content--the information, story, or argument
offered--but also to the feelings evoked, the associations and memories aroused,
the stream of images that pass through the mind during the act of reading. Such
reading, in other words, is not undertaken simply as preparation for another
experience--fixing a car or voting--but as an experience itself.
Which stance the reader takes--or more accurately, where the reader stands on
the spectrum represented by aesthetic and efferent--determines the extent to
which experience of a particular text will be "literary." Although the text may
contain strong clues that suggest the appropriate stance (as does a poem, with
its obvious arrangement in lines and stanzas, and a legal document, with its own
set of distinguishing features), a reader may choose to approach it as a source
of information--efferently --or as a source of poetic experience--aesthetically.
Some texts--those of Annie Dillard, Jacques Cousteau, James Michener, and Lewis
Thomas, for instance--seem to invite readings from either or both stances. It is
the reader who must determine the stance, selecting for attention certain
elements in the reading rather than others, and it is the teacher's task to make
students aware of the possibilities.
IMPLICATIONS FOR TEACHING
Transactional theory offers the teacher of literature several assumptions and
principles. It suggests that the poem is within the reader, created in the act
of reading, rather than in the text. The poem--any literary work--is thus
changeable, variable, different for each reader, and differing even for a single
reader from one reading to the next. Teachers therefore do not lead classes
carefully along to foreseen conclusions, sustained by critical authority, about
literary works. Instead, they face the difficult but interesting task of
acknowledging the uniqueness of the reader and each reading, accepting the
differences, and crafting out of that material significant discussion and
--Primary responses are considered. Students are encouraged to respect and
examine their responses--emotions, associations, memories, images, ideas. Out of
those elements they will create their understandings of the text. Teaching
guided by this theory becomes a matter of encouraging students to articulate
responses, examine their origins in the text and in other experiences, reflect
upon them, and analyze them in the light of other readings--those of other
students and critics--and of other information about the literature.
--Classroom atmosphere is cooperative. If students are to deal with these
matters, many of which will be personal, the literature classroom must be
cooperative rather than combative. Debate--where one wins and one loses, one is
right and the other wrong--is not an appropriate model for most discussion of
literature. Discussions should encourage students not to win but to clarify and
refine. Students are encouraged to enter into a "reciprocal, mutually defining
relationship" in their discussions with students and teachers, as well as in
their readings of texts.
--The conception of literary knowledge is expanded. The results of such
reflection and discussion might be greater knowledge of self, of the text, and
of the others with whom the student talks. Although the ability to read
intelligently, to observe features of language, to draw inferences about
writers, texts, and genres, to express critical judgments, and all the other
goals traditional in the literature classroom remain important, transactional
theory also suggests that literature may lead to sharpened understanding of
ourselves and our society:
"The literary transaction in itself may become a self-liberating process, and
the sharing of our responses may be an even greater means of overcoming our
limitations of personality and experience." (Rosenblatt, 1984)
--Relationship to other literary studies. Transactional theory does not deny
the validity of other approaches to literature. Historical, biographical, and
cultural perspectives may all yield insight into literature. But the theory does
assert that the fundamental literary experience is the encounter of a reader, a
unique individual, with a text. Hans Robert Jauss (1982) points out that
"...even the critic who judges a new work, the writer who conceives of his
work in light of positive or negative norms of an earlier work, and the literary
historian who classifies a work in its tradition and explains it historically
are first simply readers."
PRINCIPLES OF INSTRUCTION
The principles of instruction implicit in transactional theory might be
1. Invite response. Make clear to students that their responses, emotional
and intellectual, are valid starting points for discussion and writing.
2. Give ideas time to crystallize. Encourage students to reflect upon their
responses, preferably before hearing others.
3. Find points of contact among students. Help them to see the potential for
communication among their different points of view.
4. Open up the discussion to the topics of self, text, and others. The
literary experience should be an opportunity to learn about all three.
5. Let the discussion build. Students should feel free to change their minds,
seeking insight rather than victory.
6. Look back to other texts, other discussions, other experiences. Students
should connect the reading with other experiences.
7. Look for the next step. What might they read next? About what might they
The epistemology at the base of transactional theory returns the
responsibility for learning to the student. Knowledge--especially knowledge of
literature--is not something to be found, not something the teacher can give to
the student. Rather, it is to be created by the individual through exchanges
with texts and other readers.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Dillard, Annie. LIVING BY FICTION. New York: Harper & Row, 1982. Howell,
Suzanne. "Unlocking the Box: An Experiment in Literary Response." ENGLISH
JOURNAL 66, no. 2 (1977): 37-42.
Iser, Wolfgang. THE ACT OF READING: A THEORY OF AESTHETIC RESPONSE.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.
Jauss, Hans Robert. TOWARD AN AESTHETIC OF RECEPTION. Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 1982.
Rosenblatt, Louise M. LITERATURE AS EXPLORATION, 3d ed. New York: Noble and
---."Towards a Transactional Theory of Reading." JOURNAL OF READING BEHAVIOR
1, no. 1 (Winter 1969): 31-49.
mmm. THE READER, THE TEXT, THE POEM: THE TRANSACTIONAL THEORY OF THE LITERARY
WORK. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.
---. "The Literary Transaction: Evocation and Response." THEORY INTO PRACTICE
21 (1982): 268-77.
---. "The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work: Implications for
Research." RESEARCHING RESPONSE TO LITERATURE AND THE TEACHING OF LITERATURE
---. "Viewpoints: Transaction versus Interaction--A Terminological Rescue
Operation." RESEARCH IN THE TEACHING OF ENGLISH 19 (1985): 96-107
---. "The Aesthetic Transaction." JOURNAL OF AESTHETIC EDUCATION 20, no. 4
Scholes, Robert. TEXTUAL POWER. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press,