Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Opening Day Jitters and the Challenge of Bringing Theory to Undergraduates

Today I'll begin teaching the theory class required of our majors for the first time, and I am nervous. Yes, it's true: actively nervous. Like nervous for how the entire semester will go, not just for today's class or something, though I do think the first day will be an important tone-setter. Nervous.

See, this class is a strange animal, particularly at an institution like mine, I think. Students get very little exposure to theory, theoretical writing, or even critical writing in their regular classes in the discipline. Sure, they have to write papers with research in upper-level courses, but let's just say that they are often shocked when I insist that sources need to be, for the most part, published within the past 20 years. Or when I say that they have to have some sort of broader argument of their own - not just offer summaries of other people's ideas without explanation. They typically are not expected to read and analyze this kind of writing in their classes, and so using it in their papers is an activity completely disconnected from what they do in the classroom. And so. Unless they have taken courses with a handful of more recently hired faculty, the likelihood is that "criticism" is very divorced from "literature" in their heads, and they may even be hostile to the very idea of "criticism." (Aside: this is sort of hilarious to me, since what English professors like to shout from the rooftops is how we teach critical thinking. Maybe some of us do, but I am fully willing to suggest that many students who major in English feel deeply hostile to the idea of critical thinking and they have no interest in criticizing those books they love so much.)

So this, my friends, is the audience for this course. An audience of students who come to the class either openly hostile to its material or who at the very least are horrified by this requirement in the major. I'd imagine that if we have one "weed-out" course, this one is probably it, except for the fact that since students don't typically take it until they are juniors or seniors it's not an effective gateway that separates the strong from the weak. Instead, students grumble and do what they can to squeak through because they're typically close enough to graduation that changing majors isn't an option. They probably have had very, very little exposure to theory in any form, and the whole shebang is very intimidating to them. (This is what perhaps distinguishes them from students at, say, an institution like the Fancy Research University where I did my doctorate. Even if students weren't reading theory in their undergraduate classes, they were theoretically engaged by virtue of how the professors approached the material.) Just one section of the course is offered per semester, and historically, the same two professors (both men, both hired 20 years ago) taught the course.

So, the teaching rotation has only changed in the past couple of years. First, one of the two people who had always taught it decided he needed a change. So another female colleague of mine got a bite at the apple, and she taught the course once, with results that I think she would characterize as uneven (for lots of reasons, including when the course was scheduled). In the meantime, I taught an elective seminar in feminist theory (to a class made up of many students that I'd had before), and I agreed to teach a grad class in theories of gender and sexuality in an upcoming semester for our MA program. In the meantime, the colleague who had taken on the required theory course had an opportunity to do something else that meant she wanted to drop teaching it, and so now, all of a sudden, I'm apparently one of the people who "teaches theory" in my department - in fact, I'm the person who teaches the most theory. Like, as far as I can tell, I'll be teaching 3 theory classes next year, and I think I'm slated to keep teaching the required theory course every spring (though I suppose if I hated it, I could get rid of it, even though I do think in theory - ha! see what I did there? - that I'm a good person to teach it).

So here are the strikes against me going into this course:

  • Likely an audience that is quite hostile to the class, which I will need to win over for the class to work.
  • A class filled with students whom I don't know, which could be a problem if they haven't heard about how I run a class.
  • Theory is hard. And I can't just teach theories that I like or am into, but am obligated to teach things that are my own personal theory roadblocks (*cough* Derrida *cough*).
  • We don't (yet) have an intro to the major course, which I think would go a long way to informing students about the theoretical context in which most criticism in the 21st century is written.
And then, there is the fact that I do think that it is possible to use theory irresponsibly and I don't really conceive of myself as a "theory person." (Ironic, this, given the fact that I appear, from my course rotation, to be the theory person in my department.) I think that using literature to prove theories or to understand theories is not the job of literary critics. Period. I know, this makes me a fusty old crank, probably, or at least it makes me a very different teacher of this course than my colleague who also teaches it is. And I do think that this ambivalence on my part may get in the way of my teaching of the course, because I do think that it's possible to use theory badly, and that's totally not cool with me, and so I fear that I may crush the spirits of students in being less than enthusiastic about all of their theoretical attempts.

But hey, I do tend to crush students' spirits anyway, so I'm sure that will be fine.

So those are my thoughts on this Tuesday morning. Otherwise, I'm totally excited about my upper-level fiction class and my intro to lit class. I've taught versions of them both and I love them both with a love that is pure and true. So at least in this trial semester teaching theory I'm teaching two other traditional classes that are really just classes where I teach things that I think are cool. Who doesn't love to teach classes like that?

Ok, I must get ready and get myself into the office or I won't find parking. Actually, I may not find parking anyway, which stinks. Sigh.


Bardiac said...

When we revised our curriculum a few years ago, we moved the theory course to the sophomore level, and made it required for senior courses; it took a few years for students work through the new system, but it's been a really great change. It's now a gateway; you can count on your upper level students having taking or being in the course; they can't put it off.

And some of them really learn a lot from it, so that's great.

Good luck with your course!

Susan said...

From what you say, I think in some ways you are a good person to teach the course. You are theoretically informed without being a true believer. Therefore you can present ideas to students and get them to see how and when this tool can be helpful, rather than saying "Behold, I give you the keys to the universe".
I think the biggest thing is to unpack "theory" as a concept, to demystify it...
Happy teaching!

Dr. Crazy said...

You know, we're in the process of revising the major now, and the first thing we're changing is to have an intro to the major course. However, I'm actually not a fan of *this* course being that, mainly because our major is pretty divided between lit majors, cw people, and professional writing. Because of the different emphases, I don't think this course really serves all equally. What I'm hoping we get is a gateway course for the core that students regardless of emphasis take that introduces them to the main theoretical approaches but that isn't about reading theory for a full semester or really delving into theory deeply. Then, I'd say that lit majors should take this advanced class as part of the emphasis requirement - people in the other emphases can decide whether their students should have a theory course, and if they should, whether it should be this theory course. We'll see.

Shaun Huston said...

We have a similar course in my department; same type of content, same timing within the major, same kind of audience. I taught it for four or five straight years before getting a break thanks to a course release. Honestly, I never quite figured out how to make the class work well for me and for the students. One problem I have that is different from yours is that the profile of our majors is not very diverse; most are interested in physical geography and technical aspects of the field, not human geography. Alas, most of the deep theoretical debates, about the nature of reality, about the role of the scientist/geographer in accounting for or making those realities, etc. have taken place, and continue to take place, among human geographers, which is also, broadly, where I fit (so maybe I'm just showing my own biases in this assessment).

What I have done recently is to split the difference. I let students, with my guidance, pick some topics that interest them within the field that has some relevance to the history of geographic thought and those presentations and discussions use essentially half of the term and a book or two of my choosing uses the other half. It sounds like my classes are generally smaller (anywhere from 5 to 20) than yours, so maybe this kind of thing is easier for me to pull off.

We recently revised our major to incorporate a capstone and this course is being partly redirected as prep for that experience. I hope that this new grounding will help in reaching my audience, but it will be a couple of years yet before I'll see if that is so. One other benefit is that I will now switch teaching the class with a colleague instead of being the sole instructor.

Bardiac said...

We have a gateway to the major course that tries to introduce majors to basic semiotics, basic metaphor analysis, some rhetorical analysis, and so forth. Then they also all take an intro to linguistics and a theory course during the next couple semesters, all of which are required for the senior level courses.

It's working pretty well; let me know if you want and I'll email you some info.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Along the lines of what Susan said: sometimes the best teacher is the person who struggled with a concept, because she knows the pitfalls. It's much harder to teach something that's easy for you, because it seems obvious.

Annalies said...

I took a couple theory courses as an undergrad because my mentor told me that this was what practically all literature graduate schools focused on these days. I was quickly turned off from theory and by extension lit grad school because, at the time, I thought it was some of the worst-written stuff I'd ever encountered: jargon-y, unnecessarily convoluted, pretentious, and so on. I was also taught by a "true believer" who I felt occasionally made the books fit the theory instead of finding a theory that fit the books. Since then I've wondered how much of my reaction was fair -- of course you couldn't know if my professor was actually misusing theory, but does that often happen? And is a lot of theory (like, say, Derrida and Foucault) as badly written as it seemed, or had I just not spent enough time learning the jargon?

James said...

The hostile audience and difficult subject material is problematic, but it can be made to work. I teach a class with similar issues in my field and I must admit that it took a couple of tries before I figured out how to teach it so that the students would appreciate the usefulness of the material and learn how to learn in different ways than they were accustomed to. The largest and most important change I made from how such a course was traditionally taught was to change the class from a lecture class to primarily active learning. I'm not sure how much of that applies to you.