“What does any of this have to do with literature?”
As a literature professor, that’s not a question I hear very often. It’s rare, in fact, that my classes (other than my film classes) spend much time outside of the literary texts. Don’t get me wrong; I can get off topic with the best of them. However, students almost always see what our digressions have to do with the literary texts.
Almost always, because this is becoming less and less true with my courses on literary theory.
I have taught an introduction to literary theory three times now, and increasingly, I am spending less and less time discussing literature. Part of this, of course, is because I am spending a great deal of time working through the theoretical works. Literary theory is, for most of the students I work with, very difficult to work with. Many students – rightly so – have a tough time grasping Derrida, Halberstam, Irigaray, Spivak, etc. I give historical and intellectual background, cover major concepts and terms, and walk students through the logic of the piece (and, as many of you know, some of these writers consciously work to challenge their readers). Then, we spend time exploring how these works (the short selections included in Rivkin and Ryan’s massive – but sadly dated* – anthology).
However, increasingly, I spend less and less time working with the literary texts we read for the class,** and engage students in discussion about the application of these theories to the world they live in. This semester, for instance, we have spent much time discussing the fashion industry (particularly when reading about Feminism, Gender Studies, and Queer Theory), popular music and television (particularly when reading about Structuralism and Deconstruction), etc. Students are always more engaged when we can get out of the books for a bit, when they can bring their own interests, passions, hobbies, etc. into the class. (This does not mean that they are not interested in literature. This class carries no general education designation, so it only satisfies graduate requirements for English students, though now and again non-English students do register. However, much as they love literature, homework and class time is always work.)
I have long included references and allusions to work done outside of class. I teach “Call Me Maybe” in Introduction to Literature (to show them they really do understand scansion; I show clips of popular television shows to discuss characters types and common tropes. (In fact, at the introductory level, much of what I do is show students that they grasp the concepts I want to teach them; they often just apply them in a haphazard fashion and without the proper critical terminology.***) This semester, however, I seem to have (inadvertently) spent more time on the digressions and less time on the literary texts.
So last week, I was taken aback when a student asked me “What does any of this have to do with literature?,” because that’s honestly not a question I hear very often at work.
It was easy to answer, and just as easy to move discussion back to the literary text (Frankenstein). But since this happened last week, I’ve been thinking about it often. And something I have come to realize about the two sections I am teaching this semester is that the students seems to understand the theories better than before. Maybe I have better students (sometimes, we just get lucky with out courses), and maybe I have become better at teaching this material over time.^ But to be honest, I think it’s because I spend more time talking about “Hannibal,” “Project Runway,” Batman movies, and Dr. Pepper commercials, among other aspects of popular culture that students have a working knowledge of. One of the best moments of the semester was when a student and I started talking about the Lord of the Rings movies as a ay of understanding Deconstruction. Things may have become a bit silly (which I’m certainly not opposed to), but after a few minutes students were contributing to the discussion, trying out connections, and most importantly, pushing the discussion forward without the fear of being wrong. As I have discussed earlier, students are often terrified of failure. Even brilliant students, in my experience, will often remain quiet in class out of a fear of being wrong (though there are certainly many reasons why students do not engage with their classmates). But when discussion moves beyond the literary works, students lose that fear. In fact, I find that discussing popular culture is a great way of getting students to talk at the start of the semester. Perhaps I need to do a better job of getting outside of the texts more often.
But, I can hear some of your asking, this is a course on literary theory. Shouldn’t you be spending all your time in the literature?
Maybe. But I’m not convinced.
Over the past week, I’ve been asking myself what the value of an introduction to literary theory is for my students. In our department curriculum, it’s the gateway course to 400-level special topics courses, making sure students have a foundation in advanced literary analysis and research. And in that regard, it’s an important course. But increasingly, I have come to feel that there’s no reason why the course should be limited to such myopic goals. Most of my students will never do graduate work in literature (by choice, as most of them are not interested in such work; many are going on to K-12 teaching, or aspire to be creative writers). Personally, I think literary theory is the cat’s meow. But I know that my students aren’t going to find something fun and exciting just because I insist it is.
And then it occurred to me that most of what we are reading is not, strictly speaking, literary theory. Judith Halberstam did not write Female Masculinity, for instance, solely so we could better understand literary works. Sure, such works have become important for literary analysis, but there’s no reason why class discussion should be so limiting. I hope that most of my students will continue to read after they finish their degrees, and will enjoy reading more because of their background in theory. However, I know for a fact that they will all live in the world. They will all engage with a variety of media, and will continue to be a part of a complex social fabric. And while a grounding in critical theory will be of use for their immediate academic pursuits, I think it might be more interesting – as well as more important – to show my students see how critical theory can help them better navigate the world they live in. (This semester, more so than any other, students are letting me know about how these theories are helping them make sense of things outside of class.)
So I think that, in the future, I will spend less time on the literature and more time on the extra-textual material. Hell, I may even generate assignments designed to force them to engage in the world outside of the classroom. In general, I think it’s always a good idea to get students to bring the class into their world while also bringing their world into the class. I may just do a better job of formalizing that work.
If anyone has any thoughts, comments, or suggestions, I’m all ears.
*I should look for a new anthology that would include more contemporary theoretical work, as I can allude to such approaches as Disability Studies, Critical Animal Studies, Cognitive Studies, etc. Admittedly, I didn’t even look this semester because, as I am also teaching two new upper-division courses (outside of my research areas, no less), I simply didn’t have the time.
**James Joyce’s “The Dead,” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
***Despite often understanding the differences between poetry and prose, or imagery and metaphor, they often just shorthand everything to “story” or “symbolism.” They cognitively understand the differences when explained to them, even if their limited terminology often suggests otherwise.
^Admittedly, I did not do a very good job my first time. The assignments I had designed did not generate the kind of work they should have been doing. I had not prepared for any kind of resistance (active dislike of the material or persistent confusion). I did not manage the reading load as well as I could have, and hoped the readings would provide the contextual background that I now do with class discussion.