The Thresholds of Interpretation: Reading Henry James at 18, at 28, and Every Decade Thence

Abstract for paper presented at ‘Storyville: Exploring Narratives of Learning and Teaching, the 2nd annual HEA Arts and Humanities Conference’ in Brighton, UK, May 2013

This paper considers the significant role played by Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw in the undergraduate literature classroom by investigating two different meanings of ‘threshold’: Meyer and Land’s pedagogic model of ‘threshold concepts’ and the literal architecture thresholds within the novella. Meyer and Land defines a threshold concept as the big idea that students must grasp in order to move toward more advanced thinking in their discipline.

In literary studies, one such threshold concept is that there are no definitive interpretations of texts, but, rather, a much wider critical conversation on texts into which students can and must enter.  Conquering this threshold concept—that no one interpretation of a text is ‘correct’, but rather indicative of the critic’s own experience and occurrence—is a powerfully transformative experience for students, which in turn impacts upon their view of the world around them.  For a large number of reasons, The Turn of the Screw provides a powerful route toward helping students explore and evaluate this particular threshold concept.  By playfully considering the significance of literal architectural thresholds in the text as a mode of interpretation, this presentation will demonstrate how narratives—and the narratives of teaching—can help students to confront the most significant challenges in any discipline.

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