Wednesday, December 26, 2007

In anticipation of pedagogy questions at the MLA: my upcoming theory course

[EDIT: by the way, the title doesn't mean that I'm on the market. It means maybe you're on the market, getting pedagogy questions at this very moment. Best of luck, everyone!]

As our Master's Program website indicates, I'm teaching the Intro to the Theory course this Spring. Some of you might be appalled by my getting the keys to this particular clown car, but believe me I understand that I'm teaching the course to become qualified to teach the course. Over the past week or so, I've been reading introductions to theory to pilfer lecture structures and to decide which book, if any, I'll assign the class. I thought I'd share my initial findings: what follows is a version of my reviews at Goodreads (where I continue to self-promote and to make myself available for neoliberal surveillance) of Steven Lynn's Texts and Contexts: Writing About Literature with Critical Theory (5th edition), Mary Klages's Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed, and Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction.

(picture: this year's hell: grading exams at the in laws, not that there's anything wrong with the in laws; better than last year's (MLA) hell?)

Most importantly, most predictably, none of the books get the Middle Ages right. We can't get the Middle Ages right, either, but theirs is deplorably confident in its wrongness. It's one thing not to know; it's another not to know and to think one knows. I can't, however, just damn them for this error, because who, other than us, would escape whipping? Perhaps I should be grateful that none offers an example earlier than Shakespeare?

With that out of the way: the Klages is thorough and sophisticated, although its choices are sometimes idiosyncratic: the "Ideology and Discourse" chapter devotes many pages to Bakhtin, and only a few to Foucault (which, given the relative importance of the two thinkers, should be reversed); in the review of the history of criticism, Addison gets an entry, but not Kant, Reynolds gets one, but not Rousseau, Burke gets one, but not Dante. It is, however, always a model of clarity, particularly in its explanations of Cixous and Irigaray. That said, it's very rare that Klages descends into linking these various critical schools with interpretation. Examples are a prerequisite for this kind of overview, especially given its audience. Certainly the long discussion of Freud and Lacan could have benefited from explaining what any of this has to do with literature, and it would have been useful to anticipate the objections of the more thoughtful, savvy students, who might find psychoanalytic narratives ludicrous and wonder about their truth value in comparison to cognitive science and psychiatry. As Klages presents it, it seems that one learns psychoanalysis only because other people use it. She knows the stuff, and given her great notes, I'm sure she's a fine teacher, but this book will not work, at least not without a lot of supplemental work (some might call this “teaching”).

Lynn steers past the shoals that sunk (toot! toot!) the Klages, first, by providing clear examples of how each school reads (but on 'schools,' see below), and by anticipating objections to their weirdness and (pretensions to?) political engagement. He expects that many students won't be feminists, and his section on Freud, for example, congenially (which is the tone, throughout) explains that the concept of penis envy "continues even today to drive people up a wall." And the examples are superbly detailed: they walk students from the rudiments of simply understanding some work, to brainstorming, to research, and finally to several examples of good final papers. In this regard, Lynn eludes the disgust Gerald Graff feels for an educational system in which it is “as if the goal of college admissions were to recruit a student body that is already so good that it hardly needs a faculty to teach it” (“Our Undemocratic Curriculum,” MLA Profession 2007 130). My primary objection concerns Lynn's humanism. Klages divides criticism into humanist (outmoded) and posthumanist (hip and with it since at least 1980) and rapidly dispenses with humanist approaches: her preferences are mine. By contrast, Lynn's psychoanalysis multiplies motives rather than decenters the self, so his example of a psychoanalytic reading is a character study of Hamlet, not, for example, a study of language and representation itself. And his "historicist" reading is a biographical exegesis of the relationship between John Cheever's life and a short story. This will probably comfort the high school teachers who will be my own students this Spring, but it misrepresents how we read. And, as I want to teach them how we read, and not only how to read, I think the Lynn is a mistake, unless, of course, I do a lot of this "teaching" thing I hear so much about.

I'm probably going to assign the Culler, because of its cost (it's less than $10), its brevity, its denseness, and, above all, because of its organization. Rather than setting out boxes each containing a critical school, it's organized thematically: the first chapter considers the particularity, or lack of particularity, of literary language, which leads into the second chapter's consideration of cultural studies, which leads into the question of meaning and the distinction between poetics (how it means) and hermeneutics (what it means), and so forth. Given that many of the best theorists overlap in many fields--is Judith Butler a psychoanalyst or feminist? is Althusser a structuralist or Marxist? and what is Foucault?--I think Culler's approach best represents how theory actually works. After all, poststructuralism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis tend to do much the same thing in a theoretical context: they all call 'the natural' (of language, of the state and economics and the working and consuming self, of the person and personality) into question and thereby transform the self into subject. That denaturalization is the key difference from what came before, not the differences between, say, a politically informed feminism and a merely linguistic poststructuralism.

For now, Culler gets my vote. If you're still with me, and you've taught this kind of course before, or you've given some thought to what you'll be teaching someday, what have you done/what will you do? A textbook? Which one? A reader? Or do you send students to JSTOR for everything, compelling them to mix themselves up in primary works of theory? What problems have you encountered in transferring your genius over to your students or in helping them discover theirs?


Adam Roberts said...

"Some of you might be appalled by my getting the keys to this particular clown car..."

I'm irresistably reminded of the line from Spongebob Squarepants: the Movie when Sponge and Patrick get into Mr Crabs's hamburger-shaped car to go recover King Neptune's crown, and Patrick queries whether Bob has a licence: "Patrick," the Sponge replies, "you don't need a license to drive a sandwich." Wise words, I feel; especially where Critical Theory is concerned.

J J Cohen said...

Clown car indeed -- with passengers like Foucault, Derrida, Cixous, you were not expecting a limo, were you?

Seriously, though, the theory survey is one of my favorite undergrad courses to teach (what a bonding experience, and doesn't every English major style herself an existentialist, a philosopher? It's the perfect meeting of materials and desires) AND my least favorite graduate seminar (grad students already know how to interpret literature; why else would they have been accepted into grad school? Doing theory is doing time.)

Your audience may well be different, Karl. I hope they don't offer the resistance that wears me down (from adults).

I teach almost all primary sources, relying mostly on that Rivkin and Ryan anthology. I have also used the anthology by David H. Richter, Falling into Theory, to good effect, since it stages good conversations.

Let us know how your course goes. And your in-laws set a cute table.

Gavin Robinson said...

What do you think of Peter Barry's Beginning Theory? Would it be too simple for this course? I found it a useful introduction when I knew absolutely nothing about theory. The range of theorists covered is quite narrow - no mention of Deleuze, for example. Also you might not like the way it puts everyone into boxes, but again I found that useful when I was just starting. British historians tend to lump all theory together and label it all as "postmodernism", which isn't always very helpful so it was good for me to separate things out.

Karl Steel said...

In re: clownishness. Well, yes, from this place it does seem clowny, equally applicable whether we read that as absurd, fun, chaotic. But with the students I'll at least have to project some degree of, well, not mastery....maybe a picture of my well-considered confusion, especially because the students may--rightfully!--see this class as only a hurdle on their way to the $$ that a master's brings them. My goal, then, is to convince them that they're not wasting their time.

In other words, your reluctance for grad seminars for this class probably matches my reluctance, but at least I've been warned.

Gavin, I don't know it, but thanks for the rec. I'll order an exam copy ASAP, as I have already with the books JJC rec'd.

Karl Steel said...

Totally off topic, and probably not deserving a post of its own, but has anyone else read this peculiar article on the assassination (!) of Bhutto? It's stuffed with unfortunate metaphors.

Most appalingly:
But her record in power, and the dance of veils she has deftly performed since her return -- one moment standing up to the Pakistan president, General Musharraf, then next seeming to accommodate him, and never quite revealing her actual intentions -- has stirred as much distrust as hope among Pakistanis.

Ms. Bhutto saw herself as the inheritor of her father’s mantle, often spoke of how he encouraged her to study the lives of legendary female leaders ranging from Indira Gandhi to Joan of Arc.
Thatcher would have been a better choice, since, uh, she was simply voted out rather than murdered....

Liza said...

Karl, the book from which I was taught in the first undergrad theory survey I had was the Rivkin and Ryan anthology that JJC mentions, and I truly got a lot out of it. We also read a book called "Theory Toolbox" to start us off before diving straight into primary texts, but it sounds like the Culler would be a much better introductory tool. I would suggest only one survey type book -- the introductory stuff was interesting, but it was reading Foucault and D&G straight up that really turned me on.

The R&R excerpts very nicely and includes introductions to groups of topics (Foucault does, indeed, appear in a number of different sections). It's the book I point friends to when they tell me they want to give themselves a better background in theory.

What fun! Update often?

J J Cohen said...

One more thing about R&R: it doesn't have a medieval component to it at all, but there is a good essay on Singapore Airlines by Geraldine Heng in the PoCo section. I have taught it alongside an excerpt from Heng's medievalist scholarship ... and students love that she is renowned in both fields. Also, to get medieval I use some of Getting Medieval when we do queer theory (or the intro to Glenn Burger's _Chaucer's Queer Nation_, a book that deserves much wider attention). I've also used Karma Lochrie as an excursus under gender theory.

Next time I teach graduate theory, it will heavily draw from medievalists. It'd be fairly easy to construct such a course, and fun.

Liza, why didn't you take Critical Methods with yours truly? That dinner is now OFF.

Liza said...

I don't think you were teaching it when I was taking it (as a wee sophomore), Jeffrey! I chose it without paying attention to the professor because I wanted an early morning class, but that ended up being Carolyn Betensky's class and she did an amazing job. Helped make me into the (proto/pseudo)scholar I am today!

Unless you mean the graduate critical methods, in which case the answer would be that I was still quiveringly afraid of you at that point.

meg said...

I am not a fan of Rivkin and Ryan, I confess. I don't much care for their summaries/intros (it's been a while since I taught from it, so my memory isn't the clearest), and their snippets are too snippy for me.

That last criticism may make it all the more bizarre that I love Bennett and Royle's *Intro to Lit, Crit, and Theory* (or whatever order the nouns are in). It has very short (4-7pp.) essays on a bunch of topics (beginnings; war; ideology...), which despite their brevity are very provocative. Supplement that with some free-standing essays (or, say, *The Dialectic of Enlightenment*...) and you've got yourself a great class.

J J Cohen said...

Karl, that is some unfortunate writing. Since medievalists and PoCo theory came up already in this thread, perhaps the author of the piece should read Kathleen Davis's essay on the veil as a time travel device signifying "medieval."

Liza, I don't think you could ask for a better teacher than Carolyn Betensky; you are very fortunate to have had her. It was unfair for me to make threats and rescind invitations because I did not in fact teach 'Critical Methods' while you were an undergrad. In fact a reason you took so few courses with me is that during your time at GW I believe I was on leave for 18 months (a fellowship and then sabbatical not long after). So, you are forgiven.

Ancrene Wiseass said...

Culler's great; I've used extracts in courses before, to good effect.

Sarah Rees Jones said...

For sure the assassination of Benazir Bhutto deserves a separate entry. Her father was hanged two months before Thatcher was first elected to power in June 1979, so MT could not have served as inspiration for the young Benazir(although they famously later met as fellow PMs). When Benazir was growing up there had only been two elected female pms apart from Ghandi (Golda Meir of Israel and Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka).

What's striking is how rarely mature democracies elect women to power, compared to states where powerful family dynasties provide a route for some women to rule even over strongly patriachal societies. This is something that medievalists (and possibly American medievalists in particular?) could certainly comment on.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for the suggestions, everyone. I have a another hoard of exam copies being flung at me at this very moment.

SRJ: thanks for the comment, and yes, that's something to think about. I've been inspired to study these lists (here and here in some detail: clearly the US is far behind things, and it's a pity that H. Clinton merits being only my third choice for president...)

Mary Kate Hurley said...

A bit late to the party here (or is it the circus?) but I'd throw my hat in with Culler too -- however, I should note that I never had an undergraduate theory course (I wanted to audit; the professor didn't believe I'd do the work, so said no) so I'm entirely basing this on personal experience. Culler saved me when I was trying to understand Derrida first year of grad school, if only by helping me refine some of the terms I was using (and realize that I wasn't entirely off base in what I was reading) -- he's also written a lot of other books that some students might find helpful if they then want to delve into something more specific without getting in *too* too deep.

I'll also second Liza's request for updates while you teach; a good theory survey is something I missed out on throughout my education thus far, and so I'll be interested to see how it goes for you.

Karl Steel said...

Meg: I just finished the Bennett and Royle, and thank you VERY MUCH for the suggestion.

It has all the virtues of Culler's Very Short Introduction except extreme brevity. It's not useful ONLY for classes that require students to know a particular set of data at the end (like the one I'm teaching); for those, a more 'traditional' approach, one divided by critical schools rather than by topics, would be most useful. Unfortunately.

Like the Klages and Lynn and Culler, B and R are clear as heck; unlike the Klages, B and R always come back around to reading particular texts (even some Chaucer! in Middle English!); unlike the Lynn, B and R never dumb things down. Highly, highly recommended.

I have Rivkin and Ryan and the Richter on my office shelf; they're next.

Thanks AGAIN VERY MUCH for the recs.