Saturday, February 02, 2008

Access to Theory

Note: I'm playing around in this post, and one thing that's going to involve is me doing some structural things that might be annoying - like having multiple introductions. There actually is a point to it, but I figured I'd warn you in any case, because typically I tend to be more straight-forward in my ramblings.

Anastasia had a couple of posts a few days ago, in which I should note that she wasn't talking about theory explicitly, but rather about how her educational background prior to her grad program has left her with lingering insecurities and doubts about her ability to "belong" in academia (and Anastasia, feel free to jump in if that distillation of what you wrote about isn't accurate). Between that and the hullabaloo of last week (to which I will not link, as if you don't know what I'm talking about you probably don't want to know) and then the material that I was teaching in my one class, I've been thinking a lot, first about what it means to enter into academic discourse and second about who has the authority to speak in that discourse (which actually brings Pierre Bourdieu to mind, particularly what he has to say in Language and Symbolic Power about the production and reproduction of "legitimate" language.... at which I just took a brief glance, which has my notes from when I read it in graduate school, which I suspect many readers might find interesting given my arguments about the potential for class mobility, as apparently my positions were comfortably in line 10 years ago with the ones that I've developed and have today.) There's a reason I just did that name-dropping thing, and a reason why I did it parenthetically in the precise way that I did it. But I'll get to that later.

So there is the first introduction for this post. Now I'm going to offer a second introduction. It takes a certain kind of student to choose to attend a college or university with an actively crappy reputation (and when I'm talking about reputation here I'm not talking about U.S. News and World Report, where such schools tend either not to be ranked or to rank so low on the list that nobody thinks to consult U.S. News when choosing them). Such institutions often have funny names or catch phrases that locals use when describing them, like "Can't read? Can't Write? Blank State," or "No Education University." You might think that it takes a student who couldn't get in anyplace better to choose a school that is widely known (among everybody, even those who themselves have not finished college) for its lack of rigor, but if you think so, you clearly *don't* understand where some (not all) students are coming from in making their decision about where to attend college. And so this is the second introduction, which may not seem to have anything to do with the first on the surface, but I promise, I am going someplace with this.

And now a third introduction. I do theoretically oriented criticism in my own scholarship, but I don't use literature to demonstrate theories. What do I mean? Well, for me, literary criticism begins with the literary text. When I use theory, I use it to help illuminate my understanding (and I hope others' understanding) of the literature, as opposed to the converse operation, in which one uses literature to illuminate a theoretical approach or ethical concern. In other words, what I do more than anything is *practical* literary criticism that is rooted in close reading of literature. And what I'm interested in doing in my scholarly work is not anything more or less than in finding new ways to think about whatever literary text it is that I am examining in a given moment. I would never call myself a cultural critic (although obviously what I might say may suggest cultural critique), and I do not think of myself as a "theorist." I don't *do* theory: I *use* theory. Some would say that this violates the spirit of how theory should be engaged, that it shouldn't be "applied." Now, I would agree that one shouldn't just overlay theory onto a literary text, but I think that this divide demonstrates a real divide in literary scholarship. And I know people who use literature to understand theory, and they do interesting work, so I'm not saying that one is better than the other, but rather just trying to describe my own relationship to theory. Another divide that I think my approach to theoretically oriented criticism may illuminate is that some people who do literary criticism think that literary criticism has activist potential, and I just don't, or, perhaps more generously, the only thing that I think literary criticism does is potentially offer new way of reading literary texts, and that's all I aim to do when I do literary criticism. I do not aim to change the way that people think about bigger theoretical or ethical issues. If that is one result, grand, I suppose, but it's not how I conceive the purpose of the criticism that I do. So if somebody reads an article I write or my book or whatever, the only result for which I hope is that they come away thinking about the literature differently.

The fourth (and last) introduction: I tend to approach literary criticism from a feminist theoretical perspective, which probably isn't exactly a news flash, but whatever. Now, to do so is an inherently political project, which may seem to contradict what I said above about the way that I situate myself as a theoretically oriented literary critic. The politics of choosing to situate oneself within feminist theory are complicated, precisely because it requires that the critic negotiate a difficult terrain between insider status (as a woman in the academy, I am on the inside, and there's nothing particularly radical about doing feminist theory in the academy or about identifying oneself as a feminist in the academy) and outsider status (as somebody doing criticism from a feminist theoretical position, I do think that one of the challenges is to try to imagine and practice a critical language that refuses or attempts to refuse to reproduce certain systemic hierarchies). If one "does" feminist theory without thinking about how doing so can serve to perpetuate those hierarchies, or if one fails to come to terms with her insider status even as she challenges the status quo, I believe that results in bad criticism.

So what do these four disparate introductions have to do with the larger topic of "access to theory," you may be wondering? Well, to me, the first two introductions hint toward a consideration of who, in terms of real people in the real world, is awarded a VIP Pass that gives them access to theory, and who has the moxie to use that pass in order to get attention (much in the way of Rock of Love II). See, not everybody gets the pass (though luckily the pass isn't dependent on having lips that make one look like this). Students at different kinds of universities* receive very different introductions to the world of theory. For example, my introduction was a one semester literary criticism course in which we spent approximately 75% of the semester covering Aristotle through New Criticism. This was in the early- to mid- 1990s people. When I entered graduate school, I'd never *heard* of Derrida. In other words, when I entered graduate school, I was the equivalent of Kristy Joe. And the Destiny types of the world used their VIP passes right when I thought it was my turn to shine. I was out of my depth. And my instructors, I think, thought that this signified a lack of sophistication on my part (in fact, they said so) rather than a lack of experience. And it was on me to learn, independently, how to read this stuff and to talk about it in ways that didn't out me as stupid. Luckily, I am bizarrely overconfident when presented with such challenges, so it didn't occur to me what a difficult thing that would be to do. And so I did it. And obviously I came out on the other side.

Now, you may be thinking that surely students today, regardless of institution, don't face these same barriers. I mean, it's over 30 years since, for example, the English translation of Of Grammatology was published. Surely everybody has "access to theory" now. If you think that, you are wrong. At my current institution, students have, as I did, just one, one-semester theory requirement, and it is rare that they are exposed to theory in contexts other than in that course. (To be fair, this course does a better job of exposing them to theories from 1960 onward, and it does not take on the History of Thought from Aristotle to the Present.) While there is a topics course in which students can study theory, it is rare that the course is offered because it counts only as an elective and fulfills no other requirements in the major, which means it rarely will make the minimum enrollment in order to "go." And so when the best students from my institution are admitted into graduate programs, whether in literature or in writing or whatever, they often return to tell us, their mentors, that they are entirely at sea. And yet, there are people in my department who are shocked when they hear those reports. There are people who think that we shouldn't even require the one Survey of Theory course.

Now what does it mean if students don't get access to theory as undergraduates? Is it really such a big deal? I would say it's a big deal on two levels. First, it's a big deal because the jargon of this discipline, the specialized language that we use to discuss literary texts, is theoretical. If one has not been exposed to that language, entering a classroom where it is engaged can be like entering a class where everybody else is speaking, say, French, and you only know English. This is profoundly alienating and intimidating. (Note: for the bulk of majors, this is not a major issue, as they do not go on to graduate school. So I'm not saying all majors need the theoretical language for discussing literary texts for their future professional or personal lives. That said, if at least a handful are going on each year from our programs to graduate school, we do them a disservice if we ignore the need. Moreover, there is a benefit even for those who will not go on to have been introduced to theory and given access to it, as I do think that it can change the way that we perceive the world around us in ways that are positive. In other words, the "necessity" argument is not all here, as it's also not "necessary" to read Wordsworth's Prelude but that doesn't mean we can't get something out of doing so.) The second reason it's a big deal, and I would say this is for all majors regardless of grad school ambitions, is it means that they're not learning how to engage theoretical, critical, and literary texts simultaneously in their writing, which I think constitutes a major cognitive leap from writing your basic 8-10 page research paper or a traditional 3-5 page analysis essay. In other words, they are not getting an equivalent education to students at more elite institutions. They are not being taught to think in ways that are as sophisticated; they are not being taught certain procedures for integrating disparate kinds of complex material and for producing a coherent whole. Nor are they equipped to interpret what's going on when others do that very thing. This is a liability.

This liability can color the way that one is perceived in the broader world. It can make a person appear to be "stupid" or at the very least lacking in sophistication. And this brings us back to choice of university: why would a student choose a university that is known for its lack of academic rigor? Does that signify "stupidity"? Actually, I think the answer to this is quite similar to what I'm discussing when I talk about access to theory. Students who could do better who choose this sort of university do so because they have not been acculturated to the language of prestige and they make their choice about where to attend school based on other criteria than quality of education. They assume that they'll do just fine choosing the school that's closer to home, that costs less money, that isn't intimidating. I mean, they'll come out with a college degree at the end, right? What's the difference? So what we're talking about here isn't stupidity. It's inexperience. And ultimately, students who make those choices can be penalized for that inexperience. (And this is only if we're talking about traditionally aged college students without other life issues that might structurally prohibit them from going to a "better" university. Students with children, for example, often are in a position where they truly *can't* make another choice, and so if they do not have access, it is because there are very real impediments to access that they have no hope of negotiating.)

But so one of the things that I'm committed to doing at my job is to try to offer my students access to theory, inasmuch as this is possible within the constraints of the curriculum, student expectations, and my other teaching responsibilities. And as I've been teaching one course in particular this semester, I've been thinking a lot about what it means that these students are gaining access to theory through me. We're solidly underway now, and many of the students are frustrated. They are frustrated because they feel like they have no idea what is going on in the reading. They are frustrated with the jargon - "why can't they just spit it out?" - and they are frustrated with the elitism - "where are real people in all of this?" - and they are frustrated with the complexity of the structures of the pieces that they are reading and with the discursive frame that determines (overdetermines?) what they are reading. And these are legitimate criticisms (at least I think so), but the students are feeling stripped of authority, as if they must not be getting something if they are so resistant and if they feel so lost. What's most interesting about this is the fact that all of these "theories" that they are reading are loosely about authorizing voices that don't normally get heard. But because the theories are being articulated in "legitimate language," students are experiencing these theories that are so invested in empowerment (and the institutionalization of empowering theories) as ultimately stripping them of their subjective agency. Ah, theory is not for the faint of heart.

So where do I fit into all of this? Well, as a student I struggled with these same difficulties, though for the most part I went it alone in that struggle. So a lot of what I've been doing as a teacher is supporting them through their resistance and their anxiety, doing my best to make the class a safe space to express such things. I've also been trying to respond to their criticisms as best I can, and to try to situate those criticisms within broader debates within the discipline. And when they ask a question about where I stand on a particular issue, I've done my best to give straight answers as opposed to obfuscating and turning the questions back around on them, which is a technique I found disturbing when I myself was in their position.

Am I succeeding? Too soon to tell. I am providing them with "access to theory," broadly speaking, in that I've assigned them theoretical texts to read. But more specifically, "access to theory" isn't just about putting the texts in front of them. It's also about, more specifically, attempting to give them access to theoretical language and structures of argument, and this project is somewhat contradictory, both for them and for me. Because see, as someone who positions herself as a feminist, isn't the point that we value a multiplicity of voices, of ways of making meaning, of ways of expressing the meaning that we make? I'd say it is. Except it isn't. Because if you can't speak in the "legitimate language" then you don't get heard. And so what a lot of the reading thus far in the course does is it attempts to argue against theoretical discourse that ultimately performs in ways that are exclusive, elitist, and marginalizing even as it uses that very discourse in which to do so. As you might imagine, the students, they are not fans of this approach.

To be honest, I'm not a fan of this approach. Even though, as a graduate student, I was intrigued (as I wrote in the margins of my copy of Language and Symbolic Power) about the potential to use " 'legitimate' language for other (illegitimate) ends," I wonder now about how such attempts make us complicit in a system that is profoundly conservative in the way that it authorizes some voices and silences others, in the way that it accords value to some subject positions and marginalizes others. One of the things that I found most troubling about the hullabaloo of last week was the way that certain kinds of support for arguments were privileged over other kinds, as if quoting from a literary text was more authoritative than citing personal experience, for example. As if one form of argument were "objective" - and thus "true" - and another form was "subjective" or personal - and thus in error. Ultimately, this had little to do with the actual positions that were being espoused. Rather, it was about reifying one kind of discourse and excluding another, valuing one kind of discourse as legitimate and dismissing the other as being merely "the tyranny of personal experience."

In this post that I'm now about to conclude (and I'm sure you're thinking, "finally!"), you will notice that I've referred parenthetically or obliquely to theoretical texts, but I've not cited any. This has been intentional. What I'm playing with is the idea that while theory does give us access to new ways of thinking, for I couldn't have written this post without being theoretically engaged, it may not authorize our opinions. Perhaps, it is possible, that authorization depends not on what one can cite or how often or how compellingly, but rather how one can engage with theory while maintaining a voice that stands outside of the totalizing procedures of academic discourse. The problem with that, though, is that things like tenure, or passing one's dissertation defense, or getting an article published depend on being able to enter into that academic discourse. Only on a blog, where I don't write with my professional name, do I get to experiment in the way that I've done in this post. Perhaps if I were a superstar of some kind that wouldn't be true, but from where I stand in the hierarchy, the fact of the matter is that I have to talk the talk in order to be taken seriously and for my work to get an audience.

But so I started thinking about this post last night, as I was rereading Gayatri Spivak's In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, thinking that it might be useful for the article I'm apparently writing. It was published 20 years ago, and yet, as I read, I came across a passage, in an article from 1980 no less, that really was the inspiration for this post. And so, in closing, I'll leave you with it. I'm not sure that it really serves as an adequate ending, but it is, nevertheless, where I'll end:

"The fiction of mainstream literary criticism - so generally "masculist" that the adjective begins to lose all meaning (on this level of generality you could call it 'capitalist,' 'idealist,' or 'humanist,' as long as you show how) - is that rigorous readings come into being in a scientific field, or in the field of legalistic demonstration of validity. The other view, coming from a mind-set that has been systematically marginalized, may just as well be called "feminist": that the production of public rigor bears the strategically repressed marks of the so-called 'private' at all levels. [. . .] Women must tell each other's stories, not because they are simpleminded creatures, but because they must call into question the model of criticism as neutral theorem or science." (16)

*I actually revised this statement as I thought it through in response to comments from readers. I *should* have written that this varies depending on *specific institutional context*, though I do think the underlying *reasons* for why some students get theory and others don't vary by *kind* of institution. For a deeper discussion of this, do check out the comment thread.


Second Line said...

Interesting post. If I had a blog, I'd probably blog a response. But I don;t, so I'll try to keep my reaction/response as brief as possible.

I come to this issue from a different place. My BA and MA were both in continental philosophy, and when I migrated over to the literary side of things, I managed to walk smack into the teeth of all sorts of prejudices and biases about which I was largely clueless.

See, I was naive. To me, it made perfect sense to explain -- both to myself, and later to my students -- the whole "seems" and "is" bit in Hamlet by way of Nietzsche's spin on metaphor in "On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense." I didn't realize I was commiting "crimes against literature" as one interviewer phrased it. And it made further sense to me to explain the ways political power maintains itself through manipulations of metaphor -- both in Hamlet and, go figure, in real life. Again, another crime.

Bottom line. 9 years removed from graduate school, a career adjunct, and I still do not get what the big effin' deal is. But whatever it isw, it was enough to prevent me from ever getting a job. Oh well. I still have my students read "On Truth and Lies" along side Hamlet. And yes, it makes their heads spin and twist, but I go slowly and they eventually get it.

And at the end of every semester my evals always say more or less the same thing. 'This class was awesome ... he makes us think about the real world through literature'.

Isn't that the point?

The History Enthusiast said...

Wow, what a great post! I didn't encounter theory until graduate school, and I totally felt like an idiot because the first day of my first graduate research seminar everyone was talking about Habermas and Foucault and I had no idea how to jump into the conversation. Thankfully I had a couple of friends in that class who felt the same way.

As a historian, I have noticed this also with how students are taught (or not taught) historiography. I didn't really get much of this in undergrad, and when I did, no one explained the practicality of it. No one said, "hey, this is why it is important to understand what other historians have said about your topic." I was really confused because I thought I was supposed to be doing original research, and I didn't understand how reading a historiographical essay was pertinent to that.

I don't really have the space in my courses to introduce history students to much theory (although I do briefly discuss Habermas), but I make a real effort to help them understand the importance of historiography. I went to a really highly-ranked SLAC, and I didn't get it there, so at my R1 now I make sure to get this message across.

This was such a great post, I may have to write a response on my own site, since I have sorta hijacked your comments. Sorry :-)

The History Enthusiast said...

P.S. I think theory should be incorporated into our scholarship as a way to make our work understandable, not as a way to obfuscate our meaning so only the "elite academic" types can understand it. I think you mentioned this in your post and I totally agree with you. I just wish more historians and American studies people understood that. I know a lot of my AS colleagues incorporate Foucault into their analysis simply because they can, instead of having a legitimate reason. There are many different reasons and ways to use his work, but I get annoyed when theory is used without a purpose. Sorry again about the hijacking ;-)

PhDLadybug said...

Very interesting post! agree with you and I had exactly the same experience. I had to read it on my own and I felt I was inadaquate most of the time. (still do when it's about something I didn't read yet)

I also have a question: I was wondering if in your reflection on access to theory (on which I totally agree) you are considering that this separation between Universities (fancy and crappy) is reproducing a very classist division of our society. who is doing what and where. Depending on that, then you will have access to different jobs and standards of living, etc, etc. and how should/could we change this state of affairs.

Flavia said...

Great post, Crazy, and I admire both the way you're presenting theory to your students and your reflections on why it's important to do so.

My point is really just a tangential observation, and one that doesn't negate your larger point about access, but--like The History Enthusiast, I had NO introduction to theory as an undergrad. As you know, I went to an "elite" university, even one historically associated with a certain kind of theory, but. . . there was no undergrad theory requirement. And I'm 99% certain that I wasn't assigned even a single essay or excerpt from a major theorist in any of my upper-division classes. The situation was only slightly different in grad school--I was assigned the occasional essay, but otherwise received no introduction to or training in theory.

As I've blogged recently, I've been trying to make up for that on my own, and it's been going reasonably well, but I sure wish I'd had a more formal introduction much sooner, even if, as is likely, I'd still have felt a bit at sea upon starting grad school

So maybe my only point here is the one you made in an earlier series of posts about how grad school breaks down and then rebuilds one's identity--that wherever one comes from, one experiences grad school, and the process of becoming a professional, as one of being profoundly lost and needing to scramble to keep up. That doesn't mean there aren't differences in the degree to which one is scrambling, and the fear of not belonging among one's cohort socially or culturally surely makes the intellectual self-doubt worse--but I suspect no one sails easily and confidently into grad school and its theories and practices.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

LOVE this post. I have to reread it a few more times, but just some general responses:

YES on how you "use" theory. Which isn't to say that using literature to understand theory is a bad endeavor at all, but I think it's important for people on both sides to realize they are talking about different things (and also important that neither side claims their's is the only legitimate approach/purpose). It's funny, because I always say that the difference between historians and lit folk is that the former use literature to understand the people who wrote it, while the latter find out about the people who wrote it in order to understand the literature (obviously, some lit folk, that is).

Students who could do better who choose this sort of university do so because they have not been acculturated to the language of prestige and they make their choice about where to attend school based on other criteria than quality of education.
YES. I grew up in a town ALL ABOUT the language of prestige and I went to a school all about the language of prestige, and while in many ways I don't think I necessarily got a better education in a pure intellectual sense (though it was a good one), it's only after the fact that I've realized what being educated in that language of prestige means. There are things my students (often those who think they want to go to grad school) simply do not understand about the organization of power and how education relates to that. (That doesn't make me better or smarter than they - it's just a different understanding of the world that's sometimes irrelevant, but sometimes comes in really handy.)

This is where I thought the history enthusiast's point about historiography was really interesting - because I got taught historiography at my uber-fancypants SLAC, and I wrote a really historiographical honors thesis. And it's true that when I got to grad school, there were a ton of my fellow students who'd never done historiography and didn't like it and thought it was pointless. And that was definitely something they had to overcome. (Granted, I'd say I had plenty of my own weaknesses to overcome, and in fact got some flak for not having had the traditional historical narrative dinned into me - the thing is, it's really hard to create an undergraduate history major that actually achieves both of those things.)

Another random kind of comment (thinking about your ending quote): I once taught a book by Diane someone called The Witch in History (which is an awesome book, BTW), and she has a whole chapter about the construction of the witch as the embodiment of irrationality, and how these Enlightenment scholars at the time had to construct the witch that way in order to maintain their own construction of themselves as these ultra rational creatures (there's more, but it's been a little while since I read it), and what was interesting to me was that in this chapter especially, but to some extent in the whole book, she was playing around with how to present her arguments to try to avoid falling into the Enlightenment (masculinist?) trap - to call into question that very model of criticism as science (or at least neutral). The students HATED it. Why couldn't she just say what she meant? Why did she go round and round?

I think I suffer from the same dilemma as you - how to teach students to succeed in the very discourses that silence many, without supporting those discourses? I'm a sheep, and I come down on the side of teaching them what is, so teaching them to negotiate those discourses, with my fingers crossed that this gives them the tools to critique the very things that they're learning. But I'm not sure how successful it is. (And I'm not sure how coherent this comment is, but I wanted to throw out those thoughts!)

Dr. Crazy said...

Some quick responses, starting with the last comment and working my way back to the first.

Flavia: I was hoping you'd weigh in, because I actually thought of your recent post about not having been introduced to theory as an undergrad while I was writing, but couldn't figure out how to address that issue in the context of what I was doing. First, I agree that grad school, whatever one's background, makes one doubt oneself and feel like one is scrambling to keep up. I'd say background produces more a difference in the *kind* of scrambling one does and in how one explains that scrambling to oneself. So, for example, if you attended Elite Undergrad Institution, you might explain it as a failing of your undergrad program or as something everybody must be doing in some way, whereas if you attended Crappy Undergrad Program you wonder if you're just "stupid" because you don't have the requisite background. I'd also say field probably comes into play a bit, as depending on one's specialization, one can be more or less dependent on theory as a lexicon through which to read literature. With the specialization that I chose, theory is central in a way that it isn't in some others, in no small part because many of the big theory people tend to focus their attention on the texts that are central to that specialty. I don't know how I could have written a dissertation in my field *without* being very theoretical, though this may be a blindspot on my part. I also think that most of my cohort in grad school did come from institutions where theory was taught and where their exposure was greater, and those who come to mind who didn't with only few exceptions dropped out of the program. It was very much a sink or swim sort of situation, and either you caught yourself up or you were out. My sense is that not all programs work in this way.

PhD Ladybug: re: your question about whether I'm considering how "this separation between Universities (fancy and crappy) is reproducing a very classist division of our society. who is doing what and where. Depending on that, then you will have access to different jobs and standards of living, etc, etc. and how should/could we change this state of affairs." The short answer is, yes, I've been thinking a good deal about this. The longer answer is I think it's complicated, and I'm not quite sure what my answer is yet about what I think. On the one hand, I think that yes, the academy does reproduce broader inequalities related to class (and race and gender), but on the other, I see where the glutted job market in English specifically is making a difference or has the potential to make a difference at lower tier institutions. I'm not sure what more to say right now than that, but yes, these questions are rattling around in the back of my head and I'm not entirely sure what I think yet, particularly in terms of how we might upset or disrupt this tendency.

History Enthusiast: You didn't hijack at all! It's a conversation, and I go on and on, so I totally understand when people do the same in comments :) I like the connection you make to historiography in your comment, and I agree with what you say about the best use of theory being for a purpose and to illuminate rather than just to show off.

SL: To be honest, I don't see what the big deal is either, nor why you got such ridiculously hostile responses to your use of philosophy as an index through which to read literature. Except, well, I think that in some corners there can be a really strong resistance against true interdisciplinarity (another reason why feminist scholarship of a certain kind can hold less weight in certain corners), and when confronted with true interdisciplinarity, some see that as an affront to literature as an end in itself. (I should note that I think the whole "literature is an end in itself" thing is pretty lame, but there are many who would disagree with me.) As for, is the point to think about the real world through literature? Sometimes, I think yes. But I'd say that there is value in thinking about literature as an aesthetic object that is unrelated to the "real world" as well. I think it depends on the instructor, honestly.

At any rate, thanks all for your comments, and for indulging me in my early morning musings. I felt like I was being a little big... I don't know... self-important as I posted in the way that I posted, but I also enjoyed the exercise of playing around with the structure in the way that I did, so I ignored the voice in my head that was telling me I was being a self-important hack :)

Sisyphus said...

This is an excellent post! I was thinking of writing a response to Dr. Curmudgeon's "why I teach popular culture" with "why I teach theory," but really, you've said everything I could say.

And I had never really thought before about teaching lit. to illuminate the theory vs. teaching theory to illuminate the lit ---- now I'll have to go back and look hard at my department. What are they/we doing? Why does nobody explain this?

And last, I have no clue what historiography is meaning in these comments --- I hope it's not a terrible thing that I've made it almost all the way through grad school with no clue about it! :)

Brigindo said...

I concur with everyone above, great post! One that needs to be not just read but chewed. I admit I have to do some mental translation as theory in my field is used quite differently. It is often more pragmatic and accessible than either literary or feminist theory.

For me the critical moment of the post is:

"Because see, as someone who positions herself as a feminist, isn't the point that we value a multiplicity of voices, of ways of making meaning, of ways of expressing the meaning that we make? I'd say it is. Except it isn't. Because if you can't speak in the "legitimate language" then you don't get heard."

To me there seems no solution to this problem and little recognition of it as a problem. Unless you're a superstar you can't speak outside of the language and you don't get to be a superstar unless you're fluent. The process of becoming fluent changes your perspective (although some of us try and maintain multiple perspectives I don't think it is the same).

I think coming to terms and recognizing your insider status is the best we've come up with so far but, to me, falls way short of where we should be.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, and there's more.

Another thing in response to Flavia: I also think that there is a different underlying philosophy in elite programs when they don't train students in reading theory than when non-elite programs don't. In elite programs, I think that the assumption is more that students don't need introduction or training because they come in equipped to handle it. (Not saying this is true for the students; just that it seems like what is assumed, or at least what seemed to be assumed in my grad program.) I think at non-elite universities, the assumption is one that comes out of a more negative place, like "our students don't need this" or "our students won't get it anyway," and I think that attitude can color the instruction that they get across the range of their courses. If the faculty don't think students are equipped intellectually to engage or interested in intellectually engaging, I think that sets a different tone than if they assume that the students don't need instruction or introduction because they're bright enough to do it on their own.

New Kid: I totally want to read that book about witches now! And I also agree about teaching my students what is, though I do try to encourage them to think about why what is might be totally screwed up. I think it gets through to a lot of them - but I'm lucky because I have a student population that tends to be really willing to put themselves in that in-between space, where on the one hand they really want to acquire skills that will help them climb certain ladders but on the other they think the fact that those ladders are there and that only certain people get to control them is something that is really screwed up.

Sis: I find it hard to believe that nobody but me has talked about the theory-to-illuminate-lit vs. lit-to-illuminate-theory thing that I discussed, but maybe this is so? I feel like I should throw out some sort of a reference, but none is coming to mind. But I do think that it doesn't get talked about very much, and I think some possible reasons for it are: a) the whole "goes without saying" argument, that obviously we all know those are the options, b) to talk about it explicitly demystifies what we do as literary critics, and maybe that somehow makes us feel like what we're doing is less significant (like we're not discovering Truth or something?) Those are two ideas that come to mind, but who knows. I know I've had conversations about this with my grad school BFF, but as I think about it, I'm not sure I've really had them with anybody else. (And the only reason I know about the historiography thing is because I took a grad research methods in history seminar when I was doing the PhD :) So don't feel bad about that!)

Auto Ethnographer said...

Bravo! Excellent post.

Anonymous said...

you haven't misrepresented me at all. this is exactly what I'm on about and I love your thoughts here. I will probably post a response.

I had a sad half-ass intro to theory in english (my undergrad major) as a directed reading course but I'm pretty sure the point was to convince me I wasn't half as smart/prepared for grad school as I thought. Who hands a 19 year old of grammatology and says "go read it" and then mocks her when she doesn't get it? Oy, I have had some lousy teachers.

part of my issue, actually, is that I didn't do my undergrad major in the same field I went to grad school in. it worked out okay b/c my phd field requires a terminal master's before admission but you know, when I got to the master's they really did expect familiarity with the field and dude, I had not *heard* of *religious studies* as distinct from theology, which is very clearly is. By the time I entered the phd, I had a master's already and well, I should have known who the flip Foucault was. I didn't.

theory functions differently in my field, though, because you can get away with being completely and pointedly untheoretical. It's a stance that a lot of people who work on historical material adopt and it always appealed to me because I didn't really know theory. On the other hand, the appeal didn't stick b/c it's such an obnoxiously conservative intellectual position and that doesn't appeal to me. It goes hand in hand with the oppressed white male and gosh, feminism is sooo shrill, isn't it? Oy, I have had some really bad teachers.

now, the thing is...the degree to which students have an intro to theory depends on their institution but I wonder about institutions that have phd students? I'm just wondering b/c several here have mentioned not getting theory at SLAC's but I know that here at [Institution], there is an undergrad seminar for majors that is the kind of intro to theories of religion that I could have used at some point in my life.

The idea, I think, is that an undergrad major in religion has maybe three choices: ministry, non-profit work, or academia. In all three, a critical perspective on religion could be really helpful.

last thing, I've been wondering how this conversation is colored by what we would have wanted to know as ppl who ended up in academia. some of that might be totally irrelevant to someone who didn't end there. you do address that here.

okay, I'm cutting myself off! I will more than likely post on this. i have another post in the works about my sister as one of those people whose life would be substantially different if she'd had a quality undergrad education. that will go up soon, too.

Hilaire said...

This is a really fantastic post, Crazy.

I wonder - do you find that some of the strategies you use in teaching literature - i.e. close reading - actually help your students grapple with the theory? In teaching my feminist theory class right now (which is going awesomely), I've been very explicit about using the strategy of close reading. Now, I'm not teaching to lit majors (nor am I, for the most part, teaching literary theory), but to a broad cross-section of students. But I do find that doing close readings in class makes everyone feel more comfortable, and less intimidated. Then, being able to move to the macro-level, as theory ultimately asks us to do, becomes actually quite exhilarating for them. Are you doing such things? (I ask because I really admire your pedagogy, from what I know of it on the blog, and I would love to know more about how it is playing out in teaching theory.)

Dr. Crazy said...

Brigindo: That is the difficulty, isn't it? If one talks the talk for long enough, it does change one's perspective, and while that can have positive effects, it also puts one in a difficult position in relation to perspectives outside of the dominant discourse. If, after fluency, you speak outside of that discourse, it's a game, and it's a game you only get to play after you've gained authority *within* that other discourse. And recognizing insider status does seem to be... inadequate. I haven't come up with anything to put in its place, though. And I'd also say that I don't know how one would go about exploring certain questions without the language that the dominant discourse provides, so that's a problem, too. (Though that may just be a lack of imagination on my part.)

Auto Ethnographer: Thanks!

Anastasia: I'm glad that I didn't misrepresent you. That's always a concern when one distills two lengthy posts into one sentence :) I guess doing annotated bibliographies as a student did teach me something :) As for your question about places where there are PhD students, my undergrad institution did have them (though why is something that only made sense to Gov. Rhodes of Ohio) and so too did Flavia's. I probably was a bit too general in describing the issue as one only of *kind* of institution - it's really more an issue of *specific institutional culture* and I think that attention to theory can vary widely even within *kinds* of institution but the underlying assumptions for *why* are similar by kind. So, you might have two elite research universities, one that gives training in theory and one that doesn't, and the underlying assumption at both is that students are bright and engaged and many will go on to graduate school. In contrast, at non-elite institutions, the assumption is that students are either not engaged enough or not bright enough. Though that could well be an overstatement, too.

Hilaire: as for close reading and theory YES. (Actually, Jane Gallop spoke about this on the teaching panel that I posted about, too, and she has an essay about close reading in the most recent issue of Profession that's worth checking out that is based on what she said at the 2007 MLA.) And I do think it helps, but this early on, I think what's getting in the way really is that they don't speak the language enough to really do close reading of it yet. As they get into their presentations in the coming month, this should change (there is a close reading component) and I'm going to have them do some work with close reading in class to model it for them (in addition to the sample presentation that I gave). Also, they have five short papers (the first one is due next week) that are rooted in close reading. In other words, as we move forward they should get better and better about being able to do that. What's giving them the most trouble right now is that they're not getting the terms or the references and so they can't even begin to analyze what they're looking at without my intervention, and they're not used to that, as the class is populated almost entirely with very strong students. (I suspect this is not unlike what Anastasia experienced when she was handed Of Grammatology - and shame on the professor who did that to her!) But so the short answer is yes, close reading is a huge part of giving access to theory I think, and it's a cornerstone of how I've chosen to approach the class, but I also threw them in at the deep end a little (which was in some respects unavoidable, as one thing that theoretical pieces tend to do is to reference other theorists, and when you haven't heard of those people... well, it's not so easy) and it'll take them a bit of time to adjust.

k8 said...

Great post! I had some of the same issues as Anastasia, in that my undergrad major wasn't the same as my grad school area of study. My BA is in German and literary theory was never discussed - we were busy learning the language! When I then decided to take some grad courses in English language literature, I had a lot of catching up to do. And then, when I defected to comp/rhet, I had even more catching up to do.

I mention that background because I remember hearing our former grad director here once state that the phd program's req in theory probably isn't necessary because all of the students coming in have already had at least one theory course already. That didn't seem quite right to me. It does, however, indicate the elitist expectations of some of the faculty and, I would argue, many of the students who come in with that background.

I mentioned my own background. It actually was useful when it came to reading continental theorists - I knew many of the german and other continental texts they referred to. I'm also a research geek (thus the mls) and a very independent learner. I never really played the game of school or the met the ideal of the good girl student, so I really didn't care about how others evaluated my work. I think that shielded me from a lot of the insecurities I see and hear from others without the "right" background.

I worry about all of this too, particularly the issues of engaging others in the conversations/discourses of theory and academia. I've mentioned before that I favor hooks, but I also find Lisa Delpit's work interesting in this regard. She writes about k-12 ed., but I think it makes sense for us, too. She argues that by not providing the tools and skills of the elite to the non-elite, that we take away their ability to be heard by the elite. ok, that was wordy and confusion and I've written a ridiculously long comment, so I'll stop now.

Flavia said...

Yes, I think you're exactly right that the assumptions behind not teaching/requiring theory are different at different institutions (and I think you're also right about the different expectations in different subfields)--but I think your more important point is your first one: I felt embarrassed and unprepared by my lack of a background in theory, on those occasions when it came up in my grad seminars, it didn't make me question my overall intelligence or my ability to grapple with the texts I was looking at. (Though other parts of grad school certainly did!)

So the issue here is really how to communicate that kind of confidence to our students. The most important part is surely teaching them the language of the discipline (which for me means things like the technical language of poetic analysis--and the demystification of poetry and older genres in a variety of ways--probably more than theory), but it's also important to tell those students who are thinking about going to grad school that, in grad school, everyone is fronting.

I certainly didn't realize that when I was a grad student, and students like the ones you and I both teach now REALLY don't know it. It was only much later in my grad career, for instance, that I realized that although most of my classmates had more of a background in literary theory than I did, it wasn't necessarily very deep, and they weren't necessarily more confident in their abilities than I. I also came to realize that those who spoke with such confidence and sophistication in seminar weren't necessarily good or inventive writers or critics.

I recently saw a former student of mine, now in grad school, who's generally doing well, but who made several remarks about having felt out of her depth and less prepared than her classmates. "No you're not," I said. "We-ll, they just seem so confident--" she said. "They're not." I said. "Trust me!"

life_of_a_fool said...

So, your whole post was interesting, but this was the part that really jumped out at me:

"they are not getting an equivalent education to students at more elite institutions. They are not being taught to think in ways that are as sophisticated; they are not being taught certain procedures for integrating disparate kinds of complex material and for producing a coherent whole. Nor are they equipped to interpret what's going on when others do that very thing. This is a liability."

I *hate* that student's "abilities" or "background" are used as some sort of excuse for selling them short in their education. A degree from my university *should* be the same as one from an elite university, at least in terms of content, skills, etc. (or should at least be aspiring to that). (Most of) my students are not dumb and they're not incapable. Often, not all that much is asked or expected of them, and that does them a disservice.

Add to that Anastasia's comment (and I haven't read her complete posts): "The idea, I think, is that an undergrad major in religion has maybe three choices: ministry, non-profit work, or academia. In all three, a critical perspective on religion could be really helpful." The same is true in my field -- the vast majority of students won't go into academia. Many will be practitioners. And, you know what? That's great - and giving them a theoretical understanding and the skills to think critically about the institutions within which they will work is hugely important.

Dr. Crazy said...

Flavia: I like how you applied what I said about theory to the specifics of your specialization, in terms of the technical language of poetics. I think the two are totally analogous in this context. And I agree that the issue is communicating that kind of confidence to our students. I think that *part* of that for me - from the lowest level courses I teach on up - is about first being honest about my own experiences as a students as well as questions that I have, even now, as an "expert." Another part is in introducing them - in however small a way - to the broader conversations (sometimes theoretical but other times within a particular field or practically within the discipline) so that even if they don't get more than that, they might recall having heard something about those conversations if they ever come up in another context. I think the final thing that I do is to provide them with opportunities to *do* the things that they aren't necessarily challenged to do outside of my courses, to give them the chance to participate in the conversation, basically, with an instructor who sees her role as very much about showing them the ropes (as opposed to just giving them a map and hoping they know how to read it). I hope that these things help, and most of the time I think I'm on the right track. And YES about giving them the 411 that everybody's fronting. I can't tell you how many times I've made that speech over the past couple of years, either to people applying to grad school or those who come back freaked out.

LoaF: I *hate that too*! And I'd say the same thing about my students that you do about yours. I can't tell you the number of times that certain colleagues of mine have expressed amazement at the things that I expect and/or the work I manage to convince my students to do. And what I wish I could show them is that *it's just not all about me* - they can *do* this stuff if you just give them the opportunity and the building blocks in order to do it.

K8 - thanks for the tip on Delpit - I'll have to check out her stuff!

And finally, I love this comment thread because a) it's a great conversation and b) it's a great conversation across fields. If there are others out there who want to jump in, do so! This is fantastic!

KF said...

This is indeed a fabulous post. The one thing that I'd add to your assessment of why students sometimes choose crappy universities is that -- well, sometimes they don't get to choose. For one reason or another, a student can be tied to a particular state, a particular town, a particular school. In my case, I was 16 when I started college and was informed in no uncertain terms by my mother that I was not leaving town. I knew all too well that there were any number of better schools out there (where "better" is a function either of actual educational quality or of prestige), but my mother was convinced that I could do just as well at the big state U across town, and so refused to let me venture further. I bear no end of resentment about this, not least because of the eyebrows that continue to be raised, after all this time, when I mention the name of my undergraduate institution in professional circles...

L. Bowman said...

I'm in Classics, so my undergraduate education and most of my graduate education consisted mostly of learning the languages, and then reading Greek and Latin texts with excruciating slowness. And then getting flung into being expected to write about them intelligently, without any theoretical training whatever.

I still lag desperately here, and feel acutely that I am not keeping up with the cool kids and can' play on the same jungle gym or even say hello. I feel acutely also the contradiction of being expected to be give authority to different voices but only in the language of the dominant discourse, theoretical jargon. I hate it, and I certainly don't enjoy reading it, even though I see the necessity.

So. Which theoretical texts do you want your students to read this term? I really want to know because I will go and read them myself (I think it's fair to assume I have not done so), and see how far I get. I am overwhelmed by the huge numbers of theoretical texts, constantly increasing, that one is expected to have read, and I really don't know where to start.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

This is off the top of my head and much more pragmatic than theoretical; but, for students worried about "getting it" and "what it's good for" and the connection to literature, what about including David Lodge's novel "Nice Work" on the syllabus? It involves a theoretically-oriented English professor & a businessman who at first is very hostile to her but eventually finds some practical use to her theories even as she learns to question them a little. Of course there's always the problem of what other work you sacrifice in order to include the novel. But the dramatization, in familiar, novelistic terms, could be helpful for some.

Dr. Crazy said...

KF: I wanted to actually speak about this more (I mentioned that some students don't have a choice in the context of students with children but I didn't say as much as I could have done). Thanks for highlighting this point.

l bowman: I'd rather not put it on blog exactly what I'm teaching this term, but if you email me at reassignedtime at gmail dot com, I'll be happy to tell you what I've assigned - or, if you tell me a bit about what you're interested in, I can give you your own personalized reading list to sink your teeth into.

Dame Eleanor: They're not actually doing Nice Work, though I am familiar with the novel and think it's great. I decided to choose literary texts (4, 2 written texts and 2 films) to intersperse at regular intervals throughout the course to give students a bit of a break from the theoretical stuff, and I chose literary texts that weren't explicitly about theory but that lent themselves really well to theorizing. The idea is that they can start practicing using the theory on these texts, which were chosen because theoretical engagement will really enhance their experience of them. I'm not sure how this part of the course will go, but already my students really liked the first literary text that we read a great deal. I suspect they'll hate the second one and that they'll love the third and the fourth. But what do I know? This is one part of the course that is really open to change should I teach it again. But I figured that I should note that we are NOT just reading theory and criticism straight through the semester from beginning to end, as I suspect if we did that I'd have to be institutionalized at the end of it :)

Sisyphus said...

I mentioned this article in _Pedagogy_ way back in Horace's grad compendium, but I'm going to mention it again: Calvin Thomas, “Moments of Productive Bafflement, or Defamiliarizing Graduate Studies in English.” (vol. 5 no 1, Winter 2005).

I don't actually know how well it would work to teach to undergrads, but it does talk about how theory is hard to wrap your head around and how it is painful to learn; it destabilizes lots of assumptions you have that serve to make you unthinkingly content. I haven't re-read it lately, so I don't know how accessible it is, but he talks about his personal experiences, and about the resistance his grad students often have to theory, so having undergrads read it and see that lots of other people also have troubles with it might help them out.

Bardiac said...

Brava. I really like the way you talk about teaching, especially close reading theory. I think learning to really read theory was one of the hardest things I've done, and it's incredibly hard to try to teach.

For New Kid: I think that's Diane Purkiss' book on Witches you mentioned; it's fantastic and thought-provoking! (But SO hard to get students through.)

L. Bowman said...

Thanks for that reference, Sisyphus; I'll go look for it. And I will email, Dr. Crazy; thanks.

The History Enthusiast said...

Crazy: I posted a somewhat-lengthy post to this on my blog, which duplicates some of the parts of my previous comments but hopefully adds something too. Feel free to check it out.

P.S. Hopefully some of my readers will follow the link to your post and keep this great interdisciplinary discussion going.

Nabil said...

You approvingly quote the following passage from Spivak, which captures a view that seems crucial to your stance in this post: "The fiction of mainstream literary that rigorous readings come into being in a scientific field, or in the field of legalistic demonstration of validity. The other view, coming from a mind-set that has been systematically marginalized, may just as well be called "feminist": that the production of public rigor bears the strategically repressed marks of the so-called 'private' at all levels. [. . .] Women must tell each other's stories, not because they are simpleminded creatures, but because they must call into question the model of criticism as neutral theorem or science."

Why does one need the university if one wants to tell stories? People have been doing this for ages, and they do it best in other forums.

I was quite surprised to read that you feel something morally dubious about teaching your students how to make structured arguments. Why is structured argument, with standards and criteria, so problematic? Aren't you leaving them utterly prone if you don't encourage and strengthen their argumentative abilities? When did such abilities become dispensable? What will we be able to accomplish without the "rigor" Spivak dismisses?

Spivak pooh-poohs "scientific fields," "legalistic demonstrations of validity," "neutral theorems," and "science." I agree that the humanities should not operate on the model of the natural sciences. But there must be reasons, or conversation will go nowhere.

I think it's a shame that students are coming out of high school without the ability to form arguments. However, we do a disservice to these students if we equivocate about the importance of rational debate, because we leave ourselves without leverage to push for better education at that level. We would end up universalizing education by emptying it of its content.

Tony Ward said...

Kia ora from New Zealand,

Loved your post about the accessability of theory.

I just found you through my Google Alerts for Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy. I think that you may enjoy my own website – which you are free to use as a resource. In particular there is a downloadable PDF there that deals with the same issues: Walking our Talk: The Social Construction and Mystification of Critical Language. The URL is:

I am a retired academic with more than 40 years teaching Architecture at Universities on three continents (the UK, U. C. Berkeley and U. of Auckland, New Zealand). I have a PhD in Architecture – specialising in the interface between design education and critical theory/critical pedagogy – but my writings cover a whole range of fields. I have a distinguished teaching Award from the University of Auckland (where I taught for 20 years), and for the last five years served as Director of Academic Programme Development at Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi, (one of three Maori Universities) in New Zealand where I also taught Critical Education Theory and Cultural Studies. This gave me a unique perspective on issues of Colonisation, Education and Cultural Pluralism and Critical Pedagogy. I retired a year ago and have set up the website as an educational resource. I am writing because I thought you might find my own website useful. It covers issues such as:

Critical Theory
Critical Theorists
Critical Practice (Praxis)
Critical Pedagogy
Critical Education Theory
Indigenous Studies
Critical Psychology
Cultural Studies
Critical Aesthetics
Academic Programme Development
Sustainable Design
Critical Design etc. etc.

The website at: contains more than 60 (absolutely free) downloadable and fully illustrated PDFs on all of these topics and more offered to students from the primer level, up to PhD. It also has a set of extensive bibliographies and related web links in all of these areas.

I would be very grateful if you would have a look at the website and perhaps bring it to the attention of your friends and colleagues for them to use as a resource.

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It’s just that I believe the world is going to hell at an unimaginable rate and I want to do something to help to turn it around – for my five children and my grandchildren All that I ask in return, is that you and they let me know what you think about the website and cite me for any material that may be downloaded and/or used.

I would also appreciate a reciprocal link to my site from your own so that others may come to know about it and use it.

Many thanks and well done

Dr. Tony Ward Dip.Arch. (Birm)
Academic Programme, Tertiary Education and Sustainable Design Consultant

(Ph) (07) 307 2245
(m) 027 22 66 563

thefrogprincess said...

I realize I'm coming pretty late to the party but I wanted to comment on the issue of elite colleges versus non-elite and, to some degree, the issue of SLAC vs. R1, where Anastasia implies that institutions with graduate programs are more likely to have undergraduate curricula that approach the theory issue. If only that were true.

Actually I suspect it is in some fields. I went to an R1 for undergrad and I'm at another R1 now. My experience with the religion departments, particularly the one here at my grad institution, is that theory has been part of the undergraduate picture. The school I went to for undergrad had one of the top literature departments in the country and the one class I took in the department wasn't theory-heavy but it was definitely theory-informed. I'm sure other classes less tailored to attract non-majors covered theory more comprehensively. However, I was a history major and theory couldn't have been further from the discussion in the courses I took. Had I taken European intellectual history, I'm sure some aspects would have been covered but outside that, the focus was more on sources and narrative. This focus certainly had its uses; it got me and other students passionate about history. However, not combining that with an understanding of historiography, basic theory and their uses with regards to the actual practice of history left me and probably a few others completely out of the conversation when we arrived in graduate school. While I know that not all or even a quarter of students in any discipline continue on to graduate work, those who seek out advanced work or choose to write theses should be introduced to all the facets of the discipline.