Theses Doctoral

The Story of the Moral: On the Power of Literature to Define and Refine the Self

Kobrin, Jeffrey Bernard

This study employs a hybrid research method. My religious background has led me to find a great affinity for certain literary criticism, that which sees literature as a source for moral thinking and moral decision-making. I offer a history of my transactions with texts, texts that were initially formative for me as a moral thinker, then useful for me in a variety of ways as a teacher of texts, then which I later began to appreciate in a more critical and theoretical way as I developed a deeper understanding of how those texts had influenced me and how they had – or had not – influenced my students.

I borrow heavily from the theory and method of autoethnography in this study, in the sense that I will examine a variety of “internal data” from my memories of books, teachers, and classroom situations, along with “external data” including interviews, report cards, lecture notes and exam questions, and will subject my data to a number of critical lenses with the goal of what Anderson (2006) describes as a commitment to “an analytic research agenda focused on improving theoretical understandings of broader social phenomena” (375). Using the lenses of the literary theory and criticism of Wayne Booth, Martha Nussbaum, Robert Coles and Aharon Lichtenstein, I will analyze my experiences as a reader and teacher, and I explain how literary works I read and taught can serve as vehicles for the development of a student’s moral sensibility – and how teachers can help facilitate that development. I use my own unique vantage point, that of an Orthodox Jewish boy who initially found friends in secular texts, then found that those texts were among his great teachers of values, to offer a singular perspective on the power of these texts. These lenses, which are (to mix metaphors a bit) filtered through my unique perspective, provide an interpretation that will at first lead me to explore the field of moral education as a whole, if only because I shared many of its desired outcomes in my literature classroom. After a brief overview of this field, I use the work of Hanan Alexander, David Hansen, Carl Rogers, and others to present a more general yet nuanced account of how “spiritual awareness” and the humane fusing of reason and emotion can be fostered in students, with a flexibility and understanding that learning is a way to learn a process, not a process towards a specific set of intellectual goals.

I humbly call this hybrid method a literary-auto-ethno-pedogography, as I seek to produce a critical history of my education as a reader and teacher of literature. After an inquiry into my own reading and teaching to understand my own and my students’ development as moral decision makers; I then seek to expand the depth and quantity of moral conversations and bring them to the classrooms of others. As such, my study includes ideas for how to bring about moral conversations in English classrooms, both through student writing and oral exchange, based on ideas from Sheridan Blau, Jeff Wilhelm, David Hansen, Barry Holtz, and others. I conclude with the still unanswered questions that my study has raised for me and for other researchers who share my interest in the relations between secular and religious education and the problem of teaching literature to shape character and refine a reader’s moral sensibility. I also offer some concluding suggestions about how future students and teachers might build on and expand upon my work.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English Education
Thesis Advisors
Blau, Sheridan
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 10, 2018