Literary Theory Wrapup

Yesterday I turned in my grades. I had one student who tried to submit a paper after I had already turned them in. I need to tighten up on my late paper policies so that this sort of thing doesn’t happen. However, teaching is a kind of dance, especially teaching a course for the first time. I have goals for the course, and the students have needs and abilities and gaps, as well as their own goals and expectations. The trick is to adapt and adjust until it all pretty much works. I learned a lot about teaching from my students this quarter.

After the first midterm, we read the chapter on Structuralism in Peter Barry’s Beginning Literary Theory and a selection from Fernand de Saussure’s Course in Linguistics from the Richter anthology. The tacit theory that most undergraduate English majors bring to reading literature is that the author is a deep thinker who has intentionally designed the literary work to convey hidden meanings that only careful reading can uncover. Up to this point in the course, it was possible for them to fit most of the criticism we had read into this model. However, the structuralist focus on system rather than utterance, the elimination of the author as a limit on interpretation, and the problematic connection between signifiers and signifieds, all conspired to turn the tacit view on its head. Barry says that it is as if people who were very accustomed to studying eggs were now being asked to study chickens. One student wrote in his blog that his head had officially exploded.

From this point on, the students encounter many counter-intuitive questions. To what extent is the author spoken by the discourse? Do signifiers ultimately refer only to other signifiers? Can a work be free from class and ideology? Is language gendered? Up to the first midterm, the students feel that they are adding to what they know. Once they read Saussure, Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault they are beginning to wonder if they know anything at all, or what it would mean to know something.

New learning and intellectual growth necessarily come out of confusion. To prepare the ground, the teacher has to make the students confused. If that is true, I succeeded admirably in this stage of learning. Of course, the confusion has to be productive.

When I designed the course, I thought that I would write online comprehension-check quizzes using the Blackboard 9 quiz module. The first one I tried to write was on Saussure. Blackboard doesn’t do short answer quizzes very well, so they had to be multiple choice. A multiple choice quiz has to have a clear right answer, but the wrong answers have to be plausible enough that a student might choose them. In general, I think that putting lots of plausible wrong answers in front of students is pedagogically questionable. For structuralism, post-structuralism, and postmodernism, it is hilariously impossible. I abandoned the enterprise. I wrote a second midterm instead.

One the last day of class I divided them into groups and had them do an activity based on the Academy Awards. Each group had to select a theory for each of the following categories:

    Most mind-expanding theory
    Most counter-intuitive theory
    Most useful overall theory
    Theory most deserving of being cast into the dustbin of history
    Theory most useful for impressing your friends

This led to lively discussion and interesting choices. For example, one group decided to put feminist theory, not into the dustbin, but into the “recycle bin” because there were too many conflicts among the theorists, and because they thought that something called “Gender Theory” might be more encompassing and more useful.

Instead of a final, I had each student talk for a few minutes about the paper he or she was about to turn in. Papers were due electronically by midnight at the end of the day, so they had a chance to make some last minute changes if presenting to the class made them want to revise something. This activity was very popular. Several students said that it made the papers more meaningful and several made revisions.

I am teaching this course again next quarter, and I am planning to rework some of the design. All things considered, I’d say the course was a success. I learned a lot. For the students, I think this is a course that plants seeds that sprout a bit now but blossom later. That’s OK.

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About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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One Response to Literary Theory Wrapup

  1. Jim says:

    I liked your discussion of creating confusion (and I think I have some reading to do). Also, I too have wondered whether the plausible distractors on multiple-choice tests might get remembered as fact. I agree that having students talk about their papers in class is productive.

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