Teaching Literary Theory

Now that I have stepped down as writing center director, my new job is to teach three courses a quarter. One of these is an introduction to literary theory. Long ago, when I was an undergraduate, the department where I was studying had three courses in major critics. The first was called “Plato to Pope,” which I remember because the professor complained that the computer shortened the title in the catalog to read “Plato to Pop.” The second was probably Victorians and Modernists (Matthew Arnold, Walter Pater, John Ruskin, on the one hand and T.S. Eliot on the other), and the third was probably mostly New Critics and perhaps people like Northrup Frye and Harold Bloom. This was not seen as literary theory so much as literary criticism.

Most of my professors in those days were backsliding New Critics. They had heard of Jacques Derrida and deconstruction, but they thought it was faddish nonsense and were waiting for it to go away. It wasn’t until I got to graduate school that high literary theory became an important topic of conversation. Now the standard texts, such as the one I am using, The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, edited by David Richter, contain everything from Plato and Aristotle to gender studies and queer theory, all to be covered in one course.

My syllabus starts out with the following questions:

    What is literature? What is non-literature?
    How is literature created?
    What does literature do? How does it work?
    What do literary texts mean? How do they mean? Is there a correct reading? How do we know?
    Is authorial intention important? Or is literature created by the reader?
    What role does literature play in society?
    Is literature political? Ideological?
    Is literature esoteric and exclusive, or part of popular culture?
    Is literature nationalistic, ethnic, or gendered?

I write reading questions for each reading selection so that students read with the purpose of finding answers to the questions. I think this gives them a way into difficult texts. I then use the questions to structure the discussion. If a question provokes insight, discussion, and more questions, I allow that to happen until the vein peters out. Then on to the next question. I think that this is more engaging than lecturing. However, what has happened a number of times is that we end up applying literary theory to popular culture and taking up a lot of time with that. We spent an hour last week talking about what Aristotle would think of slasher movies. Some of the more serious students become frustrated when we do that, but the majority of them are quite engaged.

Some of the students are quite passionate about finding out how literature works. One of them came up after our discussion of Aristotle’s Poetics to say that he was disappointed in Aristotle because he seemed to be saying that the purpose of art was to create emotion. He hoped that subsequent readings would provide more satisfactory theories.

Most of the students merely tolerated classical and neo-classical theories of mimesis and rhetorical effects. They became much more animated when we read Wordsworth and Coleridge, especially after we applied their different poetics to actual poems, Tintern Abbey and Kubla Khan. However, in that activity I found myself teaching literature, something I never contemplated doing after I made my rhetorical turn, back in about 1983. I quickly sampled some critical articles on J-Stor to see what has been said. J-Stor is like a Hubble telescope that allows one to see what critics have been saying about a literary work over a long period of time, sometimes back into the 19th century. Different times, different critical approaches, different critics, different interpretations. Each search is the Literary Theory course in microcosm. So it is rhetorical after all!

I am also going to use a book by Peter Barry called Beginning Literary Theory. Another brief introduction to Literary Theory by Jonathan Culler is like a helicopter overflight of the landscape. The Barry book is like a bus tour where you actually get out and walk around a bit and look at things. Barry starts with structuralist theories, and for every theoretical perspective he gives you a historical overview with major figures, a bulleted list of what critics of that persuasion look for, a summary of a sample article, and questions to ponder. I think this will serve students well for the more recent, and more philosophical, approaches.

So far, this is all a lot of work, and I am having difficulty keeping my head above water. It is great fun, however, and it will get easier. I think the students are learning something. I know I am.


About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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5 Responses to Teaching Literary Theory

  1. Alison says:

    What would Aristotle think of slasher movies?

    And can I just observe, for someone who swore off teaching lit, you seem to be doing a first-rate job? You can keep talking about it in rhetorical terms all you want. You should have seen me rationalize my linguistics degree. But really, I think it’s all connected. And so are we: philologists, in the strictest sense of the term.

    • guitarsophist says:

      When I was an undergraduate, I thought that lit theory was really cool. When I was in graduate school, I was a rhetorician, but I thought that lit theory was the bridge to rhetorical theory. Now I am not sure what I think, but I am enjoying the poems.

      Aristotle says that we enjoy seeing representations of things that would be unpleasant to see in actuality. This is what led to slasher movies. They were comparing the qualities of Saw I versus Saw II and III, I think. I haven’t seen any of these, nor do I want to. Most of the sweet young things in the class had seen all three, and argued that the earlier ones were better than the later, somehow. I was somewhat distressed. I think Aristotle would have been also.

  2. Alison says:

    Isn’t that funny. When I was an undergraduate, I thought theory was worse than irrelevant; it was distracting. I managed to avoid taking the class you’re teaching, in fact, by substituting linguistics courses. Then I went and got an MA in linguistics, thinking early in the program that it was the most scientific and therefore worthwhile branch of English, and late in the program, the best bridge possible back to the literature I loved.

    Now I think I would have been well-served by taking that theory class. It would have saved me many moments of thinking I was faking it in grad school, and would have been easier than doing the outside reading I subsequently did to make up for it. My rhetoric I got in philosophy classes, Latin (when we translated Cicero and others), and one absolutely spectacular seminar on Medieval Rhetoric and Poetics. I would have done well to take courses in that too. That’s another reason why I think we need an integrated curriculum. The earlier students find out that all these facets of the study of words are connected, the better.

  3. Alison says:

    Eesh. Must proofread before responding. irrelevant. integrated. Ratsa fratsa blogs that don’t let you edit comments….

  4. guitarsophist says:

    I fixed it for you. I don’t see a way to let commentators edit comments, so I guess Guitarsophist will remain a ratsa fratsa blog.

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