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Fantasy Literature - Challenging Genres
Date Reviewed: December 12, 2017
Although it is not immediately apparent from the title this is a book on pedagogy, and it contains many useful ideas for the teaching of religion and theology. Each of the chapters in this volume suggests a way in which teachers in secondary and university education can use popular works of Fantasy Literature to teach critical literacy. Fantasy Literature is difficult to define, but it is hard to deny the enormous influence it has had on popular culture. Rather than dismiss this literature as mere genre fiction, the authors of this book see the popularity of Fantasy Literature as an opportunity to reach and engage a variety of students in serious questions about race, gender, class, and privilege.
The book begins with a brief introduction that defines critical literacy broadly, noting that as a blanket term it encompasses Marxist, feminist, postmodern, and other critical theoretical discourses. Following this, most of the chapters in the volume focus on one or two works of Fantasy Literature, demonstrating how they can be used to teach an important concept in critical discourse. Here I will mention a few examples. In the first chapter Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto assess the conservative, patriarchal, and heterosexist autocratic ideology at play in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin. Given the current popularity of the latter’s works, this chapter could inspire a variety of pedagogical interventions. Martha Johnson-Olin reads a current text using historical example in her chapter, “Strong Women in Fairy Tales Existed Before Frozen: Teaching Gender Studies Via Folklore.” Several other chapters use the Harry Potter series: Editor Mark Fabrizi’s chapter uses Harry Potter to teach Machiavelli, while Claire Davanzo uses the actions of Dolores Umbridge and Cornelius Fudge, especially in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, to teach Marxist ideas about oppression and resistance.
While most of the chapters in the book examine one or a few works in light of one critical concept, Nathan Frederickson’s chapter follows a different approach, and is the chapter that would likely be of greatest interest to the readers of this site. In his chapter, Frederickson lays out his plan for a course on religion and Fantasy Literature that focuses on critical pedagogy. This course is divided into eight sections: (1) defining key terms, (2) colonialism, (3) capitalism, (4) perspectivism and pragmatism, (5) feminism and queer theory, (6) interrogating the self, (7) royal ideology and the monomyth, and (8) critical pedagogy and reflexivity. Frederickson provides annotated lists of suggested texts for each of these sections. He also helpfully breaks these lists into those works that are best suited for high school, undergraduate, and graduate classrooms, making this syllabus useful for a wide range of educators.
The syllabus chapter is particularly useful, but given its broad scope, it is likely that many teachers of religion will find helpful ideas and suggestions in this book for weaving popular culture and critical literacy into their courses.
Critical Pedagogy and Marx, Vygotsky and Freire: Phenomenal Forms and Educational Action Research
Date Reviewed: August 22, 2017
Luis S. Villacaňas de Castro, an assistant professor in the department of Language and Literature Education at the University of Valencia in Spain, wrote Critical Pedagogy and Marx, Vygotsky, and Freire as a companion volume to his earlier book The Copernican Turn and the Social Science, which was published in Spanish in 2013. Villacaňas de Castro writes extensively in epistemology, critical pedagogy, political philosophy, and language education and publishes in both Spanish and English.
This volume has three sections and an introduction. In the introduction, the author explores the Copernican turn, which involves paradigm-shifting theories. He argues that four scientific theories qualify as Copernican turns: Freud’s psychoanalysis; Marx’s works in sociology; Neo-Darwinism; and the Theory of Relativity. Villacaňas de Castro explains that “a Copernican turn thus involves two kinds of knowledge: about the object and the subject; knowledge about specific realities; and also new knowledge about how human beings should understand themselves in relation to those four objects” (2). He argues that each Copernican turn creates epistemological obstacles, and he engages these obstacles through the lens of the German concept Erscheinungsformen, which he translates as phenomenal forms. The author explores “the threats and difficulties that the Erscheinungsformen pose to teaching and learning, and how educators should negotiate these obstacles” (5). Villacaňas de Castro uses the works of Marx, Vygotsky, and Freire to translate the epistemological obstacles into pedagogical problems and then engages pedagogical approaches to solve the problems (7). The author argues that these pedagogical approaches justify participatory action research as the most effective educational approach.
The first section deals with Marx, Freud, and pedagogy. In Chapter I, Villacaňas de Castro introduces the major concepts of Marxist sociology and Freudian psychoanalysis in terms of pedagogical approaches to address the epistemological obstacles. Section II explores epistemology, critical pedagogy, and the liberal principle. The two chapters in this section engage concepts from Marx and Vygotsky to unpack and engage Erscheinungsformen. Villacaňas de Castro argues that this chapter reveals “a theoretical blind spot in Vygotsky’s pedagogy…which it is in the interests of critical pedagogues to resolve” (46). The work of Freire becomes key as Villacaňas de Castro develops this critical pedagogy in the form of social democracy.
The last part of the book, Section III, explores the theory and practice of educational action research. Using Freire’s pedagogical approach and John Elliott’s liberal pedagogy, the author concludes “that John Elliott does not provide educators with a liberal pedagogy, but rather an appropriate method for them to fulfill their main critical goal: to help students understand the nature of the key subject matters that determine their life in society” (114). This supports Villacaňas de Castro’s argument and he concludes that participatory meta-action research is “an effective measure to break the vicious circle both students and I have fallen into” (144).
This book is a very complex and abstract argument. Villacaňas de Castro’s academic writing style will throw off many readers. His sentence structures are very long (including a 141-word sentence on pages 86 and 87) with many embedded clauses. This makes attempting to unpack the already difficult concepts of Marx, Vygotsky, and Freire more challenging. However, the author develops a solid case for a stronger critical pedagogy rooted in participatory action research.
Theological libraries that support programs with components of theological methodology should add this text to their collections. In addition, faculty and graduate students who are working with participatory action research should read this book to explore the epistemological foundations of their methodology.
Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning: A Guide to Theory and Practice, Edition: 3
Date Reviewed: January 30, 2017
In the third edition of Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning, Patricia Cranton provides new insights into the field of transformative learning. Cranton promotes transformative learning, addresses transformative learning theory, and offers strategies for the concept itself. The author examines and promotes transformative learning in multiple contexts: higher education, business industry, government, health professions, nonprofit organizations, and community development. Cranton traces the origin of the concept of transformative learning and then gives a full description of the theory from an integrative perspective. In doing so, she shows the reader that transformative learning takes place both individually and communally.
A minor weakness of the book is its use of specialized psychological terminology; the reader unfamiliar with it may lose focus on the overall purpose of the book as they strive to understand the meaning of particular words and phrases. That said, the book is helpful for understanding transformative learning theory, practice, and strategy. These insights alone aid faculty in developing effective teaching strategies to advance student learning. In addition, the author shows not only the importance of the subject, but how it can be used in real life applications.
This book is valuable because it focuses on the core of what it means to learn. At the forefront of this learning is an acknowledgement of various ways of knowing and the author provides examples of these. I was particularly drawn to the section that discusses dialogue, discourse, and support. This section of the book resonates with me because it fits into my own theory of critical pedagogy. The student should be impacted by learning in such a way that it transforms not only the learner, but the learner’s society as well.
Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning is particularly valuable for helping educators see their role in the learning process. The methodology described throughout the book leads to self-reflection, critical reflection, and thinking about how one’s teaching may fit into contemporary contexts. Furthermore, it converts the process of reflection into active participation in society. Additionally, the book discusses empowerment and the importance of dialogue to this process. This book is valuable in its demonstration of how dialogue is critical to transformative learning and can help the reader see how this affects student self-awareness and consciousness.
Overall, I found this book to be a valuable asset for those interested in social justice and especially for teachers interested in transformative learning.
Reflective Teaching in Higher Education
Date Reviewed: April 15, 2016
A group of English, Scottish, Irish, and Australian scholars has produced a thorough and insightful resource for effective teaching in higher education that seeks “to bring together the latest knowledge and understanding of teaching, learning, and assessment in higher education” (xi). The editorial team developed the approach to reflective teaching on the basis of the ten point Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP) developed in the UK. The chapters in each section refer to the relevant principles in TLRP and put forward credible arguments grounded in recent empirical research. The editors intersperse useful reflective activities and case studies throughout each chapter in order to promote reflective inquiry by individuals and groups of teachers.
The editors organized the book into five parts: Becoming Reflective; Creating Conditions for Learning; Teaching for Understanding; Reflecting on Consequences; and Deepening Understanding. Taken together, these five elements constitute a model for the development of effective teaching in higher education that is comprehensive, open-ended, and ongoing. The approach offered here functions like a dynamic spiral toward adaptive expertise. The emphases on evidence-based theory and practice, constructivism, teaching as jazz improvisation, assessment as a crucial component of learning, and robust inclusion all recommend this book to contemporary educators in higher education.
I find only two deficiencies in this impressive body of work. At four hundred pages, only the most dedicated teachers or administrators in higher education will read the work as a whole. I tried to plow my way through to the end several times, but could only make limited progress in any one session of reading due to the density of the material. I think a book half the size of the existing volume would have sufficed.
The second problem concerns the commitment of the authors to critical pedagogy. Toward the end of the book, the editors advocate ever more strongly for a largely Frierian-based approach to diversity and inclusion as the best – perhaps the only – way forward in higher education today. While I have more than a passing interest in critical pedagogy, I find the narrowing of the philosophy of education bandwidth advocated here to be overly confining and surprisingly uncritical. I would have liked to see a treatment of multiple approaches that would support the establishment of egalitarian and inclusive communities of learning in higher education.
I see four likely uses for this book. Those charged with leading doctoral seminars on teaching in higher education may find this a particularly valuable resource. I know that I will. It could well serve as a viable alternative to Barbara Gross Davis’s Tools for Teaching (2nd ed., Jossey-Bass, 2009). This book could also help new professors develop the kind of reflective practice that will enable them to become expert practitioners of the craft of teaching. Many individual chapters of the book could find use by those leading in-service faculty development sessions. Finally, academic deans or committees responsible for promoting effective teaching in faculties could profitably work their way through this resource in its entirety as a way to gain a 360° sense of effective teaching and learning in higher education today.