[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?